It’s been a long time since I last visited New Orleans. I got off on that occasion to a slightly rocky start by asking the taxi driver to take me to the Royal Orleans Hotel. He looked confused for a moment and then there was a chocolatey chuckle. “Yes, ma’am” he confirmed “the Raw Leens”. “No”, I was about to say patiently…”the Royal O….” but understanding dawned in time thankfully and another ‘duh’ moment was narrowly averted. From then on though it was more than plain sailing, it was a luxury cruise. A mix of rich and luscious food and rich and luscious jazz…against a backdrop of French colonial architecture… I was in seventh heaven.
This was long before the damage-wreaking Hurricane Katrina which powered through the city at the end of August ten years ago. There have been a number of events, commemorations and exhibitions held this month, looking back to that disaster and assessing the recovery. In one, an exhibition called ‘The Rising’, at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, there is a photograph which seems to me to sum it all up. It’s by L Kasimu Harris, entitled ‘The Road Ahead’ and it’s of an elegant young couple in a beautifully restored vintage car, looking steadfastly into the distance… the future. It’s this post’s featured image.
I had no idea what I was eating or listening to when I visited New Orleans as a tourist, but now, as a result of researching the background to my recent post on Jambalaya I decided I’d better get a better grounding on Creole and Cajun cooking, and the differences between them. Most sources, including Wikipedia, seem a little hazy or are downright contradictory on the subject.
It’s understandable- Sheila Ferguson (she of The Three Degrees) in her book, Soul Food – Classic Cuisine from the Deep South, describes the cuisine of the whole area of Louisiana as ‘soulfully cooked food or richly flavoured food good for your ever-loving soul’ – and indeed both cuisines certainly match up to that description. Both of them make use of local ingredients, in particular, corn and wheat, The Holy Trinity comprising celery, onion and pepper (capsicum) with the latter replacing the carrot of the European ‘three musketeers’ and The Pope (garlic). Geographically Cajun Country is only about two hours drive from New Orleans. ‘Soulfood’ – food prepared by enslaved Africans – appears throughout the region.
Cajun and creole cooking have a lot in common, so what is the difference?
The short answer is that Creole cooking, being urban (based in and immediately around New Orleans); with access to a wider variety of ingredients (eg tomatoes) and cultural influences; and with a bit more dosh sloshing around, is a little more sophisticated. Cajun food is (or at least was) rural; restricted to largely locally grown produce and to the influence of the French-Canadian settlers; and with a particular emphasis on the considered use of spices (especially cayenne pepper and tabasco). Simple cooking which it would be a mistake to underestimate. Cajun Country includes a variety of growing lands (levees and bayous*; prairies – Indian lands populated by the Attakapas; swamps; and coastal marshes) so the variety of food is wider than you might think. The ingredients available have had more influence on Cajun cooking than the indirect French ancestry of the population, although the French influence emerges in the vocabulary of the food.
Creole cooking developed before Cajun. They go easy on the Tabasco in New Orleans but as Tom Parker Bowles describes it in E is for Eating, An Alphabet of Greed,
“it’s an artery-bursting, dairy-drenched beast of a cuisine….sometimes, though, the unabashed opulence of Creole food is a little overwhelming, even to career gluttons like myself.”
The creole population was originally a melting pot of French, Spanish, Portuguese influences, later augmented with Italian, German and Irish as well as African and native American. The French originators of the cuisine were a classy lot – aristocratic second-son settlers, predominantly Catholic, and they had servants and chefs to cook for them. Classic creole dishes include oysters Rockefeller, shrimp remoulade, bananas Foster (dark brown sugar, rum, cinnamon…), chicken and shrimp étouffée, red beans and rice (the red beans came from Haiti) and crayfish bisque.
But gumbo is the most famous creole dish– a sort of thick, usually seafood (but it could be chicken), soup. It also includes the Holy Trinity and it’s thickened with a roux further stiffened with okra. In fact, the name ‘gumbo’ comes from the word ‘kingumbo’ in Bantu meaning okra. One story tells of a Senegalese or Gambian slave smuggled okra seeds across the Atlantic hidden in her hair. And certainly there is much evidence of influence from this part of Africa, as well as present-day Nigeria in creole cooking.
The Spanish added tomatoes (which aren’t much used in strict Cajun cooking) and red peppers. Spanish chorizo was the inspiration behind chaurice (made with the Holy Trinity and the Pope, pork meat, and various types of pepper, cayenne, paprika etc).
The American Indians (in particular the Choctaws) added hominy grits and filé (ground sassafras leaves) which added both flavour and acted as an alternative thickening agent to okra (they are never used together). Filé is added at the end of the cooking process and gives a stringy texture.
Hot peppers came from the West Indies. The Italians added garlic, and more tomatoes, the Irish donated potatoes, and the Germans donated mustard and cracked black pepper and used them to add to the Irish potatoes to make potato salad, either served as an accompaniment to the gumbo or dropped slap bang in the middle of this truly melting pot of a dish. Gumbo is usually served with rice.
Jambalaya also has creole roots, the creole version being red jambalaya (red because of the distinguishing Italian tomatoes and the prawn stock). The name is derived from an amalgamation of ‘jamón’ (Spanish for ham) and paella and the ingredients are similar although the method is more like the jollof rice and thiebudjen of Senegal and The Gambia.
Creole food had become fully established as a cuisine in its own right before the sale of Louisiana to the USA in 1803, although it has continued to evolve ever since – most of the Italian settlers who made an important contribution arrived after this date for example.
And to confuse matters further there is a sort of hybrid creole cuisine occurring in areas bordering greater New Orleans and Cajun Country.
It may be confusing, but it’s not surprising. Creole is an adjective describing the phoenix of a new cuisine arising out of the ashes of the cuisine of antecedents (one or more cultures) and local influences. The creole cuisine of New Orleans isn’t the only one. The Spanish and local cuisines have produced impressive cuisines in Mexico, Cuba and The Philippines. Portuguese and local have melded spectacularly in Brazil and Goa. And the fusion of French and local in Vietnam is also wonderful. Now the Cajun and Louisiana creole are also fusing together.
The Cajun people are the descendants of the Acadians, French settlers driven out of Nova Scotia by the British in Le Grand Dérangement in 1755, just a decade before Louisiana was handed over to the Spanish. The Acadians were given the uninhabited land around the Atchafalya. At the centre of their cooking is the roux which is used to thicken the stew whose other ingredients were derived from the surrounding swamps – alligator and turtle as well as shrimp, crayfish (lots of those) etc. The roux is made by mixing flour, fat, and filé (ground sassafras leaves). The use of the Holy Trinity (celery, onion and bell pepper) and The Pope (garlic) is also ubiquitous. Cajun food is spicy and makes good use of the locally produced Tabasco. If anything is described as ‘piquant’ it will be in a hot, red gravy liberally laced with Tabasco.
As in Transylvania (see black pudding) all parts of the pig are used: ribs, hams, cheek, skin (to make crackling which could almost fly away) almost all of it cooked slowly. In particular boudin is made, a kind of sausage incorporating pork, pork liver, green onions, rice, garlic and spices. And indeed, there is also red boudin which includes blood. As in Transylvania there is also a celebration, a ‘boucherie’, surrounding the slaughter, butchery and preservation of the pig.
The roux is a distinguishing feature, and an essential part of the Cajun version of jambalaya, the brown jambalaya. Both creole and Cajun roux are based on the original French roux. Cajun roux is made from oil or bacon fat rather than butter. The flour and fat is cooked together for much longer to produce a result of varying depth of colour. Darker roux are used for sausage or alligator, while lighter roux are used for seafood dishes. Cajun roux tends to be darker than creole (creole roux is sometimes made with butter and flour which has first been toasted).
There is also a Cajun version of gumbo an almost-stew, thickened with roux and often using meat (chicken and sausage). If you add a little chorizo it gives a smoky depth, achieved in authentic cooking with the use of andouille. Cajun cuisine uses andouille and tasso** (heavily peppered and smoked pork or beef) instead of pickled pork and chaurice (the creole equivalent of andouille). Gumbo is now the state dish of Louisiana.
Other Cajun dishes include fried catfish and dirty rice (a sort of pilaf with chicken livers, and the Holy Trinity). Almost synonymous with Cajun food is the crayfish which even has a dedicated festival.
The famous New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, author of Authentic Cajun Cooking for the manufacturers of Tabasco, overlaid the simple cooking methods and recipes of Cajun cooking with uncharacteristic sophistications, and, it seems, further contributed to the confusion by even renaming some creole dishes as being Cajun. He worked at a well-known New Orleans restaurant, The Commander’s Palace – a restaurant which now proudly states on its website, that it’s ‘respectful of the past – but never reined in by it.’ – the cooking embodiment, if you like, of the concept so perfectly expressed in L Kasimu Harris’s photograph, The Road Ahead.
Paul Prudhomme died a few days ago and William Grimes’ obituary in the International New York Times describes him as:
“A bear of a man…with an outsize smile, a wraparound beard, and a hearty manner… His natural exhuberance and Falstaffian presenc made him a walking advertisement for the joys of Cajun cuisine. ‘Cajun makes you happy’ he told People in 1985, ‘It’s emotional. You can’t eat a plate of Cajun food and not have good thoughts'”
Required reading on Cajun and creole food:
Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux?, by Marcelle Bienvenu…. just the title would make this worth reading, but in fact it’s an interesting scrapbook history of the cooking of the area.
Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is a rigorous piece of research into the different African cultures and the effect on the developing society.
New Orleans: A Food Biography by Elizabeth M. Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans
Just out is Deep South: New Southern Cooking by Brad McDonald
What to try and what to buy in New Orleans
Try a beignet (a kind of pastry) and a café au lait at the Café du Monde; or go to the French market and try a muffuletta (an enormous sandwich comprising provalone, mortadella, and olive and pickle salad originally brought to the city by Italian immigrants).
Buy some of Tony Chachere’s creole seasoning to take home.
*ever wondered what a ‘bayou’ is? It’s slow-moving water or a marshy lake.
**For an excellent article on Tasso published in the Chicago Tribune follow this link.
Below listen to the Jimmy Giuffre Trio’s The Swamp People