To begin with there is the long-standing, though now diminished, custom of women coming together on Holy Thursday to make tartes à la bouillie—sweet dough custard pies that were usually filled with tomato, coconut, or blackberries – to be eaten on meatless Good Friday. Gathering to make the pies became a social occasion itself, but what sometimes really chafed under the Roman collars was that sometimes on Good Friday, folks neglected church to go from house to house to visit relatives and taste their pies.
Good Friday was a day of leisure in most Cajun communities because farmers believed that breaking the soil on Good Friday brings bad luck – unless they were planting parsley. I never knew what exempted it, but there is an old tradition that it is best to plant parsley on Good Friday if you don’t want it to go to seed.
The general prohibition on farm work meant that families had time for a big meal together, and folks who worked as hard as they did to scrape out a living seldom neglected such an opportunity. In earlier times the meal consisted of a big fish fry, but in more recent years so many of us have turned that into a traditional crawfish boil that the days leading up to Good Friday are the busiest and most profitable in the south Louisiana crawfish business.
By the time the corn on the cob and sausage and other good stuff is mixed in with the crawfish the meal probably becomes something a little bit different than what Church Fathers contemplated when they made Good Friday a day of abstinence from meat. It’s also a pretty good bet that you won’t find anything in the catechism about the ice cold beer that invariably accompanies the steaming hot crawfish.
In old days, Holy Saturday was the day to begin preparing the big Easter Sunday dinner, and to boil and dye Easter eggs. Dyes were made from coffee, moss, and an assortment of plants, but beauty was only shell deep. What a good Cajun wanted to find on Easter Sunday was a strong egg fit for paqueing (pronounced “pocking”).
In most places, paqueing was child’s play in which I tapped the end of my boiled egg against the end of yours until one of them broke. The person with the unbroken egg wins the other guy’s broken egg.
But in Acadiana paqueing isn’t just for kids. The late author and authority on all things Cajun, Mary Alice Fontenot, once told me about grown men “who used to meet after High Mass with their eggs in their pockets, ready to fight for the championship of the paqued egg.”
There were even organized contests in some places, with prize money to be won.
Sometimes the men cheated – for example by sneaking in a guinea egg, which is usually tougher than a chicken egg. Some wily veterans sought out eggs from older hens that laid fewer eggs each day. That means that each of their eggs has more calcium in the shell, making it stronger than a younger, more productive hen’s.
Real cheats have been known to go so far as to paint a rock to look like an egg; on the other end of the spectrum are the practical jokers who sneak uncooked dyed eggs into your basket before issuing their challenge.
If you’re tempted to try paqueing, be warned. It doesn’t work with chocolate eggs wrapped in fancy foil, or even with the brightly colored plastic ones that nestle around modern chocolate bunnies.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.