I’m walking side-by-side with Nolan D’eon, down the shady driveway towards his oyster farm on Eel Lake. He tells me the lake is named such for the small, snake-like eels that enjoy hiding out in the oyster pots. I make a mental note to stay far away from the pots when it comes time for him to hoist them into the boat. Spending time in an enclosed boat with an eel onboard sounds about as appealing as spending time in the TSA security line.
He points to a boulder sitting alongside the road, its blueish face painted with a grey and white oyster shell as large as the rock itself. “It was done by an exchange student who came to stay with us,” he says to me proudly. “He was an artist so we asked him to paint something for us before he went home.” The wine barrel-sized shell painting is a fitting addition to the property, where Nolan and his wife Kim cultivate, harvest, process, and ship roughly 750,000 oysters each year to provinces around Canada and the eastern United States.
I can tell after just a few seconds that French blood runs deep in him. Not by his name or by the French-Canadian region of Ste. Anne du Ruisseau in which he resides on the western tip of Nova Scotia, though those do offer some fairly solid clues, but because of the accent that flowers his English. A certain kind of flourishing at the end of his words, th’s turned into d’s. But it’s also got a familiar kind of je ne sais quoi to it. A “quoi” that I later realize is the same thing that people from the Gulf Coast, myself included, readily identify as a Louisiana Cajun accent.
Only, Nolan has never lived in Louisiana. He’s never even visited, though Kim later tells me he more or less feels it in his bones that he’s got to go. I know the feeling. And it’s in this moment that I put together – embarrassed I hadn’t realized before – that the voices I’ve dubbed as Cajun for my nearly-thirty years on this planet aren’t really that at all. They’re the shadowed voices of Acadie, the peppered mouth mediums of the too-many-greats-to-count grandchildren of the French-Acadians –thousands of French-Acadians – who were expelled from Nova Scotia nearly three-hundred years ago by the British, eventually becoming the Cajuns of Louisiana. Their voices tell a story, one that’s got all the exclusion, power, otherness that make my stomach coil around itself when I think about it.
Burned homes, burned churches. Kitchen gardens whose green disappeared into the earth. Ships overflowing with children and adults, families shipped in different directions. The violent threat of this thing we call “arms.”
The infinite loop of history. We’re either burning down walls or threatening to build them up, all in the name of other.
I decide I’m going to learn as much as I can about this strange piece of Canadian history that is part of Nolan and part of me and part of Louisiana. I decide my entire fourteen-hour air travel, TSA-line-stricken journey home will be dedicated to reading a single textbook-like paperback on Acadian history that I picked up in Grand-Pré the morning after I hugged Nolan and Kim goodbye on their oyster farm. These pieces of history, the ones that hardly anyone knows or talks about, deserve to be known.
But instead I pull out another book. A little Acadian cookbook with cartoon-like illustrations and not a single photo. I turn page and page and page as my plane glides out of Halifax Stanfield International Airport and find a kind of peace in it all. I learn that the tradition of godfathers and godmothers gifting small baby-shaped sugar cookies – naulets – to their godchildren at Christmas still happens today. I laugh when I see a recipe for pot-en-pot à l’anguille, a kind of eel pot pie, remembering how Nolan and Kim’s dog Cooper waited so eagerly for the same oyster bag eels that I was actively avoiding. I smile at the sight of an entire chapter devoted to fricot.
Oh, fricot. Much like gumbo, each version of this chowder-like soup is unique to the maker, though one standard is that the soup is thickened with potato, not flour. I had a single small cup of it from a roadside farmer’s market stand on my way to Grand-Pré. Rich with potatoes and carrots and celery and served by a woman whose voice swam with the same kind of proud French of Acadie as Nolan’s. She piled the cup into a brown paper bag that she passed over the folding table to me, smiling, like she was handing down a piece of her own identity, catharsis. She made hers with chicken and dumplings, but like most soups and stews, fricot can be made many ways and with a variety of meats, fish, seafood, even eel.
I decide to pass on the eel for the time being. But clams and oysters I can do.
About the Recipe
In some ways, this is a traditional fricot. It’s made with carrots and celery and stock thickened with mashed potato. It’s got seafood for days and onions for aromatics. It’s hearty and rich, made to feed a crowd. But, in the spirit of the summer season, and because I never can help myself, I’ve also played with it some to make it my own. It’s topped with seabeans and delicate green fennel fronds for a little extra salt and freshness and a much-needed pop of color. It also includes a handful of sautéed mushrooms that I think helps round the stew out a bit, keep it from being overly surf-oriented. I doubt the Acadians would have added those last few things in. But I also kind of think that’s the very essence of food. It comes from the past, it exists in the present, it evolves in the future.
A Few More Links on the Acadian Deportation
- Read more about the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia by the British (and just in time for Canada Day!)
- Read about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Evangeline.
- Explore your Acadian/Cajun genealogy through Ensemble Encore by the Acadian Memorial in Louisiana.
- Check out this book for more, very traditional, Acadian recipes, including Eel Pot Pie.
- 4 tablespoons of butter, divided in two
- 1 cup of fresh mushrooms such as morels, chanterelles, or crimini, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- ½ white onion, chopped roughly
- 4 stalks of celery, chopped roughly
- ½ bulb of fennel, chopped roughly, top fronds reserved for garnish
- 2 carrots, chopped roughly
- 1 tablespoon of Pernod
- 3 medium Russet potatoes, chopped into large ½-inch pieces
- 2-3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon of Louisiana hot sauce, I used Tabasco original red
- 6 cups of seafood (or vegetable) stock, depending on desired thickness levels
- 10-12 ounces of small raw oysters, with juices
- 16 ounces of fresh clams, chopped and juices reserved
- fresh sea beans, if available, for garnish (optional)
- Chives, chive blossoms, or green onions, for garnish
- In a large sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 2-3 minutes. Set aside.
- In a large pot, melt the remaining butter over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, and fennel and cook until just tender, about 5-7 minutes. Add Pernod to deglaze pan. Add potatoes, thyme, bay leaves, hot sauce and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are cooked through, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out 1 cup of potatoes and puree in a food processor or mash until creamy and return to pot, stirring to incorporate.
- Add mushrooms, oysters, and clams along with any juices from the oysters and clams and cook over medium-low until seafood is cooked through. Spoon into bowls, garnish with fresh sea beans, green onions, and fennel fronds.