The Distinction Between Cajun and Creole
The Cajuns trace their heritage directly to the Acadian French, who upon being expelled from Nova Scotia by the English, eventually relocated to south Louisiana. The Creoles trace their heritage to the French, Spanish, the Africans, the Italians and any other people who chose New Orleans as their home.
The Creole ‘culture’ finds its roots around the early 1700’s. At that time, the French began settling la Nouvelle Orleans with Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (founder of New Orleans) governing the territory. During the French colonial period, the food was characterized by traditional French sauces. This means that the food was mild in flavor yet complex in preparation.
Meals were prepared by African cooks, who brought their distinct knowledge of food with them from Africa. Gumbo comes from the African word Gumba, which means okra – hence, okra gumbo. Slow cooking over a low flame for more intense flavors also attributed to the African slaves.
The Choctaw Indians, who were here, revealed the secrets of the indigenous food products, such as bay leaves and file¢ powder, to the French settlers. Most corn dishes characteristic of south Louisiana, such as sagamite and macque choux, can be traced to the Indians.
The Louisiana territory was traded to Spain in 1763. Basically, the Spanish made three contributions to Creole cooking. First, they began mixing meat and fish in one dish. Until this time, a sausage and shrimp jambalaya was not common. Second, they began serving food over rice, such as beans or gumbo over rice. Finally, the Spanish cooked with hot peppers and prepared highly seasoned dishes to suit their tastes. The three Spanish contributions combined with the complex French sauces, using indigenous products, comprise the base of Creole food.
After the Civil War, Creole food took a turn to the right, with the influx of Italians to New Orleans. They brought with them red tomato sauces and delicious pasta. Soon after, the Irish and German immigrants arrived and contributed the best of their food to the Creole foundation.
The term ‘Cajun’ comes from the corruption of the word Acadian. The Cajuns came originally from France, specifically Normandy and Brittony, and settled around Nova Scotia in 1604. In 1755 English acquired Nova Scotia and the Acadians were forced to leave.
The Acadians wandered for the next thirty years. Some returned to France where they were not accepted due to high unemployment and the French/English war. The Acadians were not French loyalists. Others headed for the thirteen American colonies but these did not provide the home the Cajuns sought. Over the years, groups of the Acadians found their way to southern Louisiana. Finally, in 1785, the Spanish Crown recruited the remainder of the displaced Acadians to settle the Louisiana territory. The Spanish desperately needed people to settle this territory and the Acadians desperately needed a place to live. The Cajuns were allowed to choose the area of the territory they wanted to settle – New Orleans or the swamps. Being country people by nature, the Acadians chose the country instead of the city. The rich swamp areas of southwest Louisiana provided the Cajuns with a bounty of fresh and wild game. The rich soil produced delicious fruits and vegetables.
Like all other people coming to south Louisiana, the Cajuns quickly learned to cook with available ingredients. To add excitement to their food, the Cajuns experimented with herbs and spices to find the best and hottest flavors. They cooked with the knowledge they had brought over from France in the early 1600s but adapted this to the indigenous products.
The distinctions between Creole and Cajun are subtle yet important. Creole dishes incorporate much Italian influence. A red jambalaya (using a tomato sauce) is characteristic of the Creoles while a brown jambalaya is typical of the Cajuns. Pasta dishes are rarely found in a purely Cajun cookbooks. Today we are seeing both cuisines evolve and change along with the cultures. A gentle merging of Creole and Cajun food can be detected as communication and travel between the two increase.
Mardi Gras is February 21th so get ready to celebrate and come indulge in some good old fashioned New Orleans style food!