Feeling Like Choupique on the Blacktop?
Rx: Daily doses of folk culture in context

By C. Ray Brassieur


The choupique is a primitive, sharp-toothed predator living in sluggish water. Also called bowfin, dogfish, cypress trout, grindel or grinnel, the choupique (Amia calva) is the only remaining member of the Amiidae family, a group of fishes that originated in the Upper Jurassic approximately 180 million years ago. The species” common name comes from ‘shupik,’ the Choctaw word for mudfish.

Like other fish, the choupique has gills, but it also uses its modified swim bladder as a lung. When oxygen levels become low in stagnant weed beds, the choupique gulps surface air. Biologists agree that choupiques can live for extended periods out of water, and they have been observed living in the mud of drying ponds. Many Cajuns and Creoles know this and they fish them with shovels.

Most written sources say that choupiques are ‘trash fish’-- not sought after as food. But don”t tell this to anyone you see tramping through a muddy south Louisiana slough with a shovel—that person might be fishing for supper. Even so, too many fishermen fail to appreciate the choupique. Maybe they never learned to prepare fresh, crispy, fried choupique. Or perhaps they don”t know how to roll the shredded flesh into fish balls (des boidettes), drench them in flour, and smother them in a brown sauce. For whatever reasons, the choupique is often tossed aside, sometimes on the hot pavement, to die.

Like folk tradition, the choupique has deep historical roots. Although not highly prized by popular culture, it has a relatively small but loyal following. Like folk tradition, the choupique is also amazingly resilient; it survives in a world that tends to change too quickly. It can live outside of its natural element for amazing stretches of time. But once tossed onto the blacktop, the choupique is sorely ill at ease. It wiggles and dances, trying to reach the water”s edge, but chances are that it will never realize its potential as a muddy water fish. In pursuit of this metaphor, the question becomes: how long can folk tradition persist outside of its natural context?

Understandably, most people who enjoy traditional culture probably don”t spend much time pondering such topics. Folk festivals, dancehalls and local, restaurants have a way of drawing attention to the satisfactions of the here and now. Consumers seem to be happy participating in small bits and pieces of folk culture. They want to hear a little accordion music, dance to the zydeco and eat shucked oysters served on the half-shell. They live in towns (some far from Louisiana), work for a living and likely don”t have time to totally immerse in folk culture. They make do with fragments of culture, generally provided in suburban or urban places: business establishments, auditoriums, taverns, parks, city streets, etc. They experience only parts of folk culture. They learn to eat crawfish, though they never catch them; they eat boudin, but prefer not knowing what”s in the casing; they dance to French songs, never knowing (or maybe even wondering) what the lyrics mean.

Folk culture in its natural context is amazingly complex. It can take longer to concoct and mix your dipping sauce than it does to eat a half-dozen juicy oysters on the half shell. And then, the experience is over: it”s time to run on to the dancehall. But the circumstances and contingencies that bring those Louisiana oysters to your table are many and varied. Oysters naturally reproduce in a special, and increasingly rare, brackish water environment that is currently endangered by massive environmental changes along the Gulf Coast. Louisiana oyster fanning dates back more than 150 years, combining the experience, creativity and sweat of generations of people from widely diverse heritages. Modern oyster boats, for example, evolved over time from wooden sailing luggers to diesel-powered oyster schooners. That evolution required, at the very least, the cooperation of Native Americans, Acadians, Canary Islanders, Dalmatians, Italians, Filipinos and Anglo-Americans. Oyster farming techniques have been dynamically modified over the decades in response to huge technological and environmental changes. Oyster fanners, haulers, dealers, restaurateurs, shuck-ers, chefs, servers and eaters all belong to an elaborate social and natural system.

And we”ve not yet mentioned the Southern Oyster Drill (Sframonita haemostoma). Our precious oysters, reclining in their beds as they grow to salty perfection, are in constant and mortal danger of having their life fluids sucked out by a snail. This aggressive marine predator, a menace to the oyster industry, uses acid and a rasp-like tongue to drill neat, fatal holes in oyster shells. French-speaking Louisiana oystermen call these snails bigorneaux, and they know what to do with them. Palmetto fronds are fastened onto poles, and the poles are planted in oyster beds. The bigorneaux, seeing these palmetto fronds as desirable living quarters, fasten themselves to them. Pulling these poles into their boats, oystermen collect hundreds of snails at a time. But the bigorneaux are not only removed from the oyster beds. They are carried home, boiled in seasoned water for about an hour (they are tough), pulled out of their shells with a knife or ice pick, and devoured. At the home of coastal residents, especially in Terrebonne Parish, you might also eat them marinated in vinegar, or cooked in jambalaya. But you won”t find them on restaurant menus: these Louisiana marine ‘escargots’ are a local gastronomic secret. Moreover, they are part of the overall natural context that brings us fat, juicy, shucked oysters on the half-shell.

Folk traditions like those associated with Louisiana oysters developed in place, in response to specific environmental conditions. Such traditions are rooted in deep ecological knowledge that develops over time and is transmitted though many generations. Many other Louisiana traditions associated with farming, raising livestock, hog butchering, and older modes of food preparation may be as ancient in origin, but they were in many cases transported here from elsewhere. For example, we find varieties of sausage, boudin, gratons, crepes, beignets and croxignoles (French doughnuts) in various French settlements widely dispersed throughout North America. Traditions like these issued from France and were dispersed and nurtured by the descendants of colonists. All of these traditions owe their persistence to essential social and cultural contexts of which they are a part. They fit into larger folk cultural wholes that include landscape, lifestyle, subsistence, family and community structure, etc.

Many of us, no matter how fascinated we are with folk culture, will never have the time or opportunity to experience broad sweeps of folklife in full context. As our society continues to gather in ever-larger metropolitan heaps, we are increasingly removed from the environments that so often give rise to folk cultures. Yet, like choupiques on the blacktop, we yearn for a personal, face-to-face relationship with nature. We turn to folk artists to provide us with glimpses of the real thing.

Folk artists draw inspiration from experiences that emerge from this rich natural context that we seek. The great Cajun songsters were inspired by their relationships with nature. Nathan Abshire, who was born in 1913 and died in 1981, for example, didn”t sing about driving to Lafayette to eat seafood at Don”s Seafood Hut. Consider his lyrics to ‘Sur le Courtableau’ recorded by Floyd Soileau during the late 1960s:

S’en aller sur le Courtableau, ”tit monde,
Pour ramasser des écopeaux, ye yai,
Pour faire du feu, bébé,
Pour fair bouillir les écrevisses.

S’en alier sur le Courtableau, ”tit monde,
Pour ramasser des écopeaux, ye yai,
Pour faire du feu, bébé,
Pour fair bouillir les touloulous.

Let’s go to the Courtableau, my friend,
To collect kindling, ye yai,
To make a fire, babe,
To boil crawfish.


Let’s go to the Courtableau, my friend.
To collect kindling, ye yai,
To make a fire, babe.
To boil fiddler crabs.

Like most crawfish eaters 40 years ago, Nathan Abshire likely had the experience of catching his own crawfish. And surely he knew that the natural levee of Bayou Courtableau, located less than 20 miles from his Basile home, was covered with hardwood trees and prime kindling. His lyrics provide an image of seafood boiling over an open fire—he doesn”t sing of welded propane burners. Nathan, like most of his contemporary neighbors, knew the local French terms for common and curious beasts, edible or not, in his vicinity. Whether or not he, or anyone else, actually boiled and ate touloulous—the local French name for any one of several species of fiddler crabs (Genus Uca) that inhabit Louisiana beaches—well, that”s subject to a bit more speculation. But his generation was closer to nature. There is little doubt that folk performers of Abshire”s vintage had much deeper relationships with the natural world of prairie, field, forest and swamp than most Cajun musicians today. Their lives were filled with such things as pirogue paddles, cane knives and mule rumps, not cell phones and big-screen TVs.

Fewer of the old hands are around today. Our metropolitan lives seem remote and removed from the natural world, from past experiences. The language competencies and daily realities of this generation are not the same as they once were. Many of the traditional songs, stories and verbal artistry we hope to conserve emerged from an older world that no longer exists. I am reminded of the old Cajun metaphorical admonition, ‘La terre du colon c’est pas la terre du maïs (Cotton land is not corn land),’ which recognizes the great differences in soil requirements for these two crops. What could the current generation, lacking the experience of dirt fanning, possibly make of such an expression? Or take the once-common local boast, ‘Il est en farine!’ (He is in flour!),‘ which metaphorically describes the very fortunate condition of having wheat flour in the house. Cornbread (or corn couche-couche, corn meal mush) was the daily bread for most rural French-speaking households before World War II. Can a person who grew up on sliced Evangeline Maid bread fully understand the meaning of this figure of speech?

So the question remains: Can folk traditions get along without their traditional contexts? For the benefit of our talented young artists, for the sake of our appreciative audiences, and for grounding in our own cultural identities, we need to immerse in folk context, at least from time to time. Fortunately, Louisiana Folk Roots, through its creative folklife programming, helps us do that. We can attend workshops and seminars that include the likes of Cajun naturalist Bill Fontenot, African American herbalist and folk healer Rebecca Henry, and many other fine artisans who employ Louisiana”s natural resources in their work.

We remain proud of our vibrant folk music and cuisine—they attract audiences like willow bugs to a headlight. At the same time, we seek to conserve a broadening diversity of traditional knowledge and expression. Learning about the contexts of folk expression helps us understand our human place in a changing world. Who knows, perhaps participation in Louisiana Folk Roots” programs will give us choupiques on the blacktop a boot back to the muddy water?

C. Ray Brassieur, former guitarist with the Cajun bands Cush Cush and File, currently serves as Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. This article first appeared in Louisiana Folk Roots publication Routes to Roots Volume 1, 2005.