The most common misunderstanding of Creole and Cajun cuisine is that these two unique foodways are interchangeable. While there is crossover in ingredients and technique, the two cuisines are distinct. The best way to understand those differences is to know a little bit about the colonial history of Louisiana…
Louisiana started as a dream of the French to dominate the interior of North America. The territory was claimed in 1682 when the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle sailed down the Mississippi River with a band of Canadians and Indians and named the area at the mouth of the river Louisiane, in honor of King Louis XIV. In 1718 La Nouvelle-Orleans, La Salle’s dream city at the mouth of the river, was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the governor of French Louisiana.
Local indian tribes bartered with colonial French settlers for European trade goods and introduced the French to locally-grown foods and herbs, including corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and melons, as well as shellfish and wild game.
The story of how this trade started the evolution of Creole cuisine begins in 1704, when the bishop of Quebec sent 27 young ladies from Paris to Louisiana to be married off to colonists. After living in the Louisiana settlements, these women grew weary of the colony’s limited diet and lack of proper French food, particularly French bread. The women staged a “culinary coup d’etat“, marching on the French governor’s house clanging pots and pans, and demanding better food – a protest historians later called the Petticoat Rebellion.
Sieur de Bienville, the governor of French Louisiana at the time, instructed his cook, Madame Langlois, to teach the women how to cook with local ingredients. (These were the first recorded cooking classes in North American history.) Langlois taught the women how to make cornbread from cornmeal and how to prepare many of the meats and vegetables the Indians introduced to colonists.
Between 1717 and 1722, German farm families were given free land to settle in Louisiana along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This area became known as Cotes des Allemands, or the German Coast. These farmers provided most of the locally-grown produce for colonists to live on when French supply ships didn’t make it to port. Germans are also responsible for introducing sausages and dairy farming to the region.
In 1719, the first ships filled with African slaves arrived on the coast of Louisiana, purchased by the French from African tribes. (West Africans were captured during inter-tribal wars and sold by warring tribes to the French in exchange for European goods.) Often, these slaves ran the kitchens and households of French colonists, and naturally, they incorporated African cooking techniques, recipes and ingredients into the colonists’ diet. Their foodways had a profound influence on Creole cuisine, starting with the introduction of okra and gumbo, derived from West African “gombo” stew made with okra.
In 1764, Spain formally acquired Louisiana from France, and in 1768, Spanish Governor Antonio de Ulloa ordered the colony to trade exclusively with Spain – a policy French colonists resented and, ultimately, rejected in the Rebellion of 1768. However, during the Spanish rule (1764-1800), New Orleans prospered. Colonists traded with Spain, France and Caribbean countries, which flooded the colony with Spanish and Caribbean foods and influences. It was also during this time that French colonists and Haitians fled the revolution in Saint-Domingue and sought refuge in New Orleans, bringing yet another set of culinary traditions and regional ingredients to the table.
Under the Spanish rule, Louisiana’s Creole cuisine moved beyond the rich but bland French cuisine and embraced piquant spices and seasonings that are used to this day. One example of the Spanish influence can be seen in jambalaya, a spicy rice dish made with vegetables, meats, seafood, and sausages – a direct descendent of the Spanish national dish paella.
During Spanish rule, the local population and cooking of the colony came to be known as “Creole” – a French word derived from the Spanish “criollo“, the term used to describe a child born in the colonies. A “Creole” could be any nationality or background – French, Spanish, German, African or any mix of nationalities, as long as they were born in the colony.
The Acadians – Frenchmen who settled in “Acadie”, the wilds of Nova Scotia – were forcibly driven out of Canada in 1755 by the British and shipped off to regions as disparate as Massachusetts, the West Indies, and Uruguay. This exile was called Le Grande Derangement (“the great trouble”). After returning to France, one of the largest groups of exiles landed on the shores of South Louisiana. Over time, more waves of Acadians reunited with fellow refugees, and they became known as “Cajuns”.
Acadians were hunters, farmers, and fishermen well-versed in the art of living off the land. They were given land grants upriver from New Orleans and moved into the swamps, bayous, and prairies of Louisiana to start farms and ranches. Unlike the cosmopolitan Creole cuisine, which is largely thought of as more refined and seafood-centric, Cajun food leans toward the rustic and rural, featuring wild game, pork, beef, and cured and fresh sausages.
During the mid-nineteenth century, waves of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy and Sicily arrived in New Orleans – populations that grew exponentially and had a tremendous impact on the cuisine – but it is the Italian influence that marks the fundamental difference between Creole and Cajun food. Italians flocked to New Orleans in the late 1800s because of the growing business of importing Mediterranean citrus into the port city. Many of these immigrants worked on the docks in the fruit district, and eventually, these workers opened grocery stores and restaurants around the city. Italians made up about 90 percent of the immigrants in New Orleans at the time and dominated the grocery industry. (The building that once housed Ferrara and Sons Italian Grocery, one of many in the neighborhood, is now home to Langlois Culinary Crossroads.)
The Italian contributions to the cuisine include “red gravy”, a red sauce thickened with roux that is used in everything from Creole Daube to grillades, and stuffed artichokes and peppers. Today, the Italian influence in shaping Creole cuisine as we know it is unmistakable – Southern Italian and Sicilian ingredients fundamentally transformed the cuisine.
The boundaries of Louisiana are a collection of landscapes – marshes, wetlands, hills, forests, prairies, the great Atchafalaya Basin and the coastal waters of the Gulf. The history of the people who live within those boundaries is as diverse as the landscape, and all have contributed to the evolution of Creole and Cajun cuisine. The best – and perhaps the only – way to explain either of these unique culinary traditions is to cook it and, as we do at Langlois, share it at the table with family and friends.