Movers and Shakers Dustin Cravins

Dustin Cravins

Dustin Cravins

You know you’re somewhere near the heart of Creole country when the description of what’s for dinner is simply “meat and rice.” Revealing the exact details of what goes on in the pot, however, is borderline heresy. Needless to say, Creole folk around Opelousas, Louisiana know exactly what time it is when “meat and rice” is on the menu. The chef du jour here is Dustin Cravins, a proud young country Creole and important business savvy voice in the Creole community. On this occasion, the “meat and rice” referred to is slowly smothered beef accompanied by black-eyed peas, fresh sausage, tomatoes from Daddy’s garden, and some of Mama’s pickled peppers.

No authentic conversation about Creoles in southern Louisiana can exist without mentioning the Cravins family. These are some proud country folk down in Mallet (half-way between Opelousas and Eunice) who respects authentic quality while understanding that it takes time to achieve that quality. And they have a crystal clear understanding of what it means to be Creole.

With respect to the Creole culture, Dustin is perhaps most widely associated with carrying on the family tradition of the “Zydeco Extravaganza,” an annual one-day Creole music festival/trail ride/bon temps held on the grounds of Evangeline Downs racetrack and casino (Racino) in Opelousas. Started by Dustin’s father and uncle, the Zydeco Extravaganza originated as a local television show of the same name.

Dustin Cravins (left) with Keith Frank (Zydeco Musician from Louisiana).

Dustin Cravins (left) with Keith Frank (Zydeco Musician from Louisiana).

“My daddy and uncle started this event over 25 years ago as a platform to highlight our culture to the community and the world. It was, and still is, a powerful way to showcase our gifts and value to society.”

Over the years the Extravaganza has grown to become one of if not the largest Zydeco event in the world with a total economic impact in the millions of dollars.

Some Creole cowboys can whoop it up, but the Cravins have always found a way to keep the rougher element away from their events thereby creating environments that are fun for everyone.

“Everybody knows when you go to a Cravins event it is going to be … safe, authentic and you’re gonna have a good time. I have no choice but to maintain that tradition.”

Though the Extravaganza is the crown jewel, 32-year-old Dustin has already cut his teeth on T.V., radio and has at one point owned one of the premier venues on the Zydeco circuit, Richard’s Club (pronounced REE-shards). Currently, he’s the marketing and operations manager at the Racino, which makes him responsible for booking the best paying gigs for area Zydeco musicians.

“It is not unusual for a young and upcoming band to earn $20k in a year just on the casino gig. A larger band can earn upwards of $50k.”

This is a responsibility that Dustin does not take lightly, largely because the local musicians that are not booked will not allow him to.

“I can’t only book Creole bands as there are other demographics and corporate interests to appeal to; the local folks let me hear it when I book a band they’ve never heard of.”

The aroma of gravy caramelizing in the ubiquitous oblong silverir on pot set the context for delving into the question of what it means to him to be Creole on the prairies of Louisiana. Dustin’s short answer: “French-speaking people of colour.” Fully aware that this particular definition might not resonate with other Creole hot spots like Cane River or Grand Marais (who tend to identify as being non-black), he meticulously enumer ated five characteristics which had obviously congealed over years of thoughtful debate influenced by the need to differentiate the Creole identity from the widely-known Cajun brand and identity.

  1. Deep ties to agriculture

  2. A distinctive cuisine

Le Vieux Village de Poste Des Opelousas

Le Vieux Village, in the city of Opelousas, offers visitors a glimpse into rural life around the time St.Landry Parish was formed. The village includes one of the oldest Creole homes west of the Mississippi River, and a country store and doctor’s office from the early 19th Century.

Le Vieux Village de Poste Des Opelousas

The centerpiece of the village is the Venus House, which was originally located in rural northwest St.Landry Parish in the Grand Prairie community. It is built of bousillage, a mud, Spanish moss, straw and animal hair mixture, and constructed using mortise and tenon beams.

An intense agricultur altradition is to be expected in the subtropical prairie region where almost anything can be grown. Rice, corn, sweet potatoes, okra, beans, peppers, tomatoes and all kinds of greens are just a glimpse of the things one sees in the endless rows of farmland around Mallet. Not to be understated are the traditions of animal husbandry and the trail-riding horse culture that stems naturally from that.

“Even I raise a few ‘lil cattle. You can’t keep all of your eggs in the same basket.”

The discussion on agriculture leads naturally to that of the cuisine. Much to the chagrin of the Creole community at large is the branding of local cuisine as “Cajun.” “Go up to Acadie,” Dustin points out, “and see what they eat and come back here and see if it looks and tastes anything like what they claim here as their traditional food. Up there, they eat cold, unseasoned lobsters. Most of what we eat that they call Cajun either came from here already or was brought over from Africa and the Caribbean.”

As with the first definitive characteristics, the second two are intimately woven.

3.  A history of French language

4.  A predominately Catholic faith

Though increasingly Protestant, the roots of Creole culture are planted firmly in the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church introduced here by the French during colonial times; as a result, Creoles still talk to one another in French from time to time. This is another one of those points of contention with Cajun culture. To call the French that is spoken here ‘Cajun French’ which most non-Creoles do, is very much a slap in the face to the wide array of peoples that played a role in building this culture.

Dustin Cravins (right) with Curley Taylor (Zydeco Musician).
Dustin Cravins (right) with Curley Taylor (Zydeco Musician).

5.  An affinity for Zydeco music

Zydeco is the cultural equivalent of Jazz in this part of Louisiana, but in Cravins’ view, to confuse it with the “holl’n ‘n fiddl’n” of Cajun music is an almo st unf orgiveable sin.

“I take nothing away from Cajun music; it has its role, but it is a common belief among non-Creoles that Zydeco music descends from Cajun music and that simply ain’t true.”

Though tied to the conversation of Cajun identity due to geographic and linguistic proximity, Dustin posits that the role of the Creole in South Louisiana’s culture has not yet achieved its proper place for two deeply-related reasons:

“First, Creole communities have been more consumed with self-preservation and haven’t until recently had a stable enough foundation to get out and toot our own horns; and second, we can’t deny that a history of racism allowed the white

“I take nothing away from Cajun music; it has its role, but it is a common belief among non-Creoles that Zydeco music descends from Cajun music and that simply ain’t true.”

Cajuns to identify with the dominant culture and thus facilitate their access to those interested in the market of French Louisiana. I can’t blame them for doing what they did to come up, but call a spade a spade.”

Louisiana’s Creole culture is under going a significant metamorphosis and renaissance. Dustin Cravins has his finger on the pulse of what’s coming next. Like the meat and rice on his stove, Dustin’s unique view of Creole culture has had time to get just right and the world is salivating for a taste. Rest assured though, the culture is in good hands and the only place that it’s going from here is around the world and back. Talk about good!

Crowds at “Zydeco Extravaganza” festival.

Crowds at “Zydeco Extravaganza” festival.

 

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