On a recent visit to the western end of Prince Edward Island, the old stomping grounds of my maternal grandfather, I was curious to see what my far distant cousins were up to. I picked a good weekend—the region was holding its annual Acadian Festival and Agricultural Exposition in the town of Abram Village.
The area, known as the Région Évangéline, is the where the island’s Acadian heritage is strongest. The Acadians are descendants of French settlers in Eastern Canada, a people who withstood a turbulent history. After the British gained control of Acadia in the 1700s, the Acadians refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Britain. The Brits, fearing the Acadians would support France in future conflicts, rounded up over 3,000 Acadians on the island, burned down their houses, and deported them to France in 1758. Over half of the expelled population died from shipwrecks or disease. The event is known as the Grand Dérangement, or the Great Expulsion.
A few Acadians, however, basically said to the British, “Screw you, we ain’t leaving,” and hid out in the woods with the Mi’kmaq nation, their allies against British aggression. The expelled population that survived was soon allowed by treaty to return to the island and joined the few Acadians that had remained. But they faced difficulties in keeping their language. As late as the 1960s, there were no schools giving classes in French in the city of Summerside. According to historian Georges Arsenault, the Acadians of Summerside wrote a letter to their bishop asking for a French-language mass, since many of the parishioners were French-speaking Acadians. The bishop contacted the local priest, who then exploded at the pulpit and accused the Acadians of being Communists.
Presently, the Acadians of Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, can freely speak their language, and the announcer of the festival’s lobster eating contest nimbly switched between French and English when stating the rules of the competition to the crowd of amused onlookers.
The contestants start with a whole, steamed lobster. The person who eats all of the tail, knuckle, and claw meat first is the winner. Utensils? As if to nod to the resourcefulness of past generations of Acadian settlers, none are provided. A lobster doesn’t contain that much meat, so the eating part is the easy part. Accessing that meat as fast as you can, using only your hands and teeth, is where skill comes into play.
Two heats of contestants demonstrated the Acadian appetite for lobster. Some clamped down molars, others punched the claws in a staccato viciousness. In the end, the fastest eater, who was also last year’s winner, was penalized for leaving a little piece of knuckle meat in the shell. The judge was boldly meticulous while examining the shell debris of the contestants, dipping her bare hands into the mess of shards on a mission to find the true winner. Serious business, this Acadian lobster eating contest. The trophy, emblazoned with a silhouette of a lobster, was awarded to the second fastest finisher, Joël Arsenault, who managed to eat the shells clean. He also received another prize: ten fresh lobsters (that he could eat at his own pace).
Just as the contestants went at the crustaceans with no utensils, the band La Famille des Joe Narcisse provided percussion to accompany their guitar, fiddle, and keyboard outfit without any percussion instruments. They stomped on the stage while still seated to keep the beat. “It’s the Acadian weight-loss challenge,” the guitarist called it. Halfway through the set, a group of dancers hopped on stage and picked up where the foot-stomping left off.
The word Cajun derives from the word Acadian (the bayou of Louisiana was where many expelled Acadians ended up), and this year, the Festival invited Kevin Naquin and the Ossun Playboys, a group of the Acadians’ long-lost relatives from the Bayou, to play up north. “It’s like dancing at home,” the keyboardist announced. As expected, lobster-versus-crawfish jokes abounded.
Historically, Acadians have been both farmers and fishermen, working the land and the sea. The coastal terrain the Acadians populate reflects such a connection to the environment. The Festival gave awards to the best livestock, although I’m afraid I’m unsure of what criteria one uses to judge the best chicken. The timbre of its clucks? the fluffiness of its feathers? And another question: does a first place ribbon exempt the bird from ending up in a simmering pan of chicken fricot?
The boot throwing competition was one of the Festival’s largest draws. The longest throw wins, bouncing included. One of the groundskeepers, who won a few years ago, gave me seasoned boot-throwing advice: since the boot has an opening that can catch the air and slow it down, you have to throw it in such a way that the opening is toward the back as much as possible.
Speaking of lobster, my wife and I had our turn at the Resto-Bar la Trappe. Last I checked, lobster is not an endangered species. But based on the amount of times we took advantage of the inexpensiveness of the local catch while we were on Prince Edward Island, I think the scientists should check again.