FORT KENT, Maine — Borrowing from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this may no longer be the “forest primeval,” but starting this weekend what is being collectively termed “Acadia of the Lands and Forests” will host about 50,000 visitors for the 2014 World Acadian Congress.
For the first time in its 25-year history, the Acadian Congress is spanning two countries, with Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec all taking part.
Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” tells the story of love found and lost against the backdrop of the great deportation of Acadians in 1755.
Today, their descendants are ready to show and tell the rest of the world just who they are and what it means to be Acadian.
“This is something the host region really had to ask itself and answer,” Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives in Fort Kent, said. “Well, guess what? There is a huge population of Acadians and people with French heritage throughout the region.”
The Acadian Congress, she said, is an opportunity to honor those French roots.
Historically speaking, Acadians came from France to settle in Nova Scotia and along the coast of what is now New England starting in the early 1500s, Pelletier said.
From the beginning, it was a risky proposition, as the established British settlers were not always happy to welcome their new French neighbors, whose language and Catholic religion they did not understand and who they felt were taking up valuable resources.
Between 1755 and 1762, the British government decided it was time to “relocate” the Acadians away from crown lands in Nova Scotia. Close to 14,000 were rounded up for the deportation, which dispersed them around the world.
Over the next several decades and several North American wars, the Acadians made their way into what is now northern Maine, New Brunswick and parts of Quebec, where that culture survives to this day.
“That is the amazing part of the Acadian culture,” Pelletier said. “There is that resilience going back to a people who settled in areas that were largely Anglo and hostile toward them.”
That hostile reception in large part accounts for the Acadians’ strong community connections, which have allowed them to maintain their French language, religion and other parts of their culture, according to Pelletier.
Today, it is not uncommon to enter any business in the St. John Valley and hear the local French dialect. Sunday Mass is still an important part of the week and events — large or small, happy or sad — are met with massive offerings of food.
“With the Acadian Congress, we get to celebrate all of this and show the rest of the world who we are,” Pelletier said. “We want everyone to feel welcome and to share in our celebrations.”
Lise Picard Roy, 50, of Grand Isle grew up in a French-speaking Acadian family and is proud of that heritage.
“We are all descendents of France,” she said. “Being French and Acadian is just who we are and now we get to show off that culture and heritage to the rest of the world.”
A big part of who they are, Roy said, continues to involve that sense of community.
“We all help each other out when there is a need,” she said.
“Historically the Acadians had to depend on each other,” she said. “There was the tradition of the ‘corvee’ or ‘barn raising,’ for example.”
But perhaps nothing — other than the shared language — says “Acadian” like the food of the culture.
Dr. John Labrie, dean of the College of Professional Studies and vice president for professional education at Northeastern University in Boston, grew up in Fort Kent in a large French family and has fond memories of the food of his childhood and of his heritage.
“Being Acadian is just who you are,” he said. “It’s like the air you breathe.”
Labrie said in large part Acadians are defined by their ability to make do with whatever resources are at hand, and that extends to what they eat.
“Food for the early settlers was hard,” said Labrie, who years ago taught an Elderhostel course at the University of Maine at Fort Kent on Acadian culture through food. “They had the ability to make a dish using whatever proteins they had available at the time.”
That gave rise to traditional Acadian dishes such as the tourtiere meat pies, the pork-spread creton and the buckwheat flatbread ploye.
“They used what they had not only as a way to provide sustenance but as a way to celebrate,” Labrie said. “Food became the thing that was the most meaningful part of any celebration or difficult time and the thing you brought to show affection.”
Growing up, Labrie said, food was an ongoing event.
“You planted it in the spring, you protected it from frost and then you would go out and pick fiddleheads, berries or hazelnuts,” he said.
Last week, Labrie said, he was visiting the St. John Valley and took his own children foraging.
“I took my kids on to my brother’s property to pick hazelnuts,” he said. “They went, but they were like, ‘Why do you put yourself through this?’”
Labrie holds true to those culinary traditions, making sure his children get several meals of fiddleheads each season.
“To this day, it’s hard for me to eat stew without eating ployes,” he said. “Those foods are as much a part of the culture as the French language or going to Mass.”
There are parts of that culture and way of life Labrie says he does miss.
“It’s about community and coming together [and] you still see those elements up in the Valley,” he said. “The only time you notice people don’t live that way elsewhere is when you leave.”
Sharing that sense of community is what the World Acadian Congress is all about, Pelletier said.
“It does not matter if you are Acadian or not,” she said. “We want you at this party and you can always be an ‘Acadianphile.’”