New Orleans, a tapestry of history, spirituality, tradition, culinary arts, culture, soul, architecture, music and art all in one; and a perfect place to take a trip if you want a bit of everything. At the time of my visit in late December, Mardi Gras was still about 6 weeks away but the city was already gearing up for the celebration. Now, here we are just 12 days away from Fat Tuesday when partygoers from all over the world will flood the streets of the French Quarter, a place where eating and drinking run the show.
The people of New Orleans are deeply rooted in tradition which has a strong influence on their food. Since I was a NoLa newcomer, I really wanted to get acquainted with the famous food culture. I knew that this culinary playground spanned way past just booze, gumbo and jambalaya. I started with the French Quarter Food & History Tour, a two hour walking tour about a mile long, and perfect for hungry food geeks like myself who are on a mission to learn, see, hear, touch, smell and taste the town all at once. It definitely provided a good time and a basic education of the local gastronomy.
Further along on my trip, I got more food knowledge by venturing out to a couple of high-prize restaurants and a few gritty, local food joints. I learned what was in a Sazerac cocktail and how tabasco peppers were harvested. Above all, the most enlightening topic for me was to learn the real differences between Creole and Cajun…
Little did I know the best way to learn about these two remarkable cuisines would come from spending a day in Biloxi, Mississippi, where I’d be invited by a friend to a family gathering. Biloxi is just one hour outside of the Crescent City (AKA New Orleans). This place sits right along the Gulf Coast and is a mecca for both Cajun and Creole cooking.
The lady of the house, a Creole dame and grandmother, is notorious for “throwing down” in the kitchen. She told me that even the New Orleans’ most talented chefs learn their trade from their parents or grandparents and that the best place to find authentic Cajun and Creole cooking is in the homes of the local people themselves. And that was clear! The enormous delectation that spread before my eyes consisted of black-eyed peas, smothered chicken, a slow-cooked brisket, Southern skillet buttermilk cornbread, dressing, Creole cabbage, Cajun rice and beans, and even a freshly made pineapple upside down cake. As I ate myself into a food coma, she continued to drop some worthy knowledge. This made for an excellent lesson on Creole vs. Cajun.
Quick Fun Facts: Creoles used butter in their roux because it made richer and fancier sauces. Cajuns used oil because that is all they had access to. Both Cajuns and Creoles created a lovesome gumbo but Creoles added tomato (still do), while Cajuns didn’t (and still don’t) because they couldn’t afford them. The obvious variations were due to money and resources but it is truly the people and the ingredients behind the food that give life to the real differences.
Creole Cooking… originally known as “city food”. This style developed in the kitchens of wealthy and aristocratic city dwellers. The term Creole translates to mean “people of the colony”, who settled there way before the Louisiana Purchase took place in 1803. Creole ancestry originated from the French and Spanish but the term soon became to include African slaves and free people of color. While slaves did most of the cooking, many of these families who migrated from France and Spain brought their chefs from high brow cities like Paris and Madrid. Creoles had money to prepare more sophisticated meals, with access to higher quality ingredients, a wider range of spices and herbs, dairy products, tomatoes, fresh fish (including shellfish) and poultry. Classic examples of Creole dishes are oysters Rockefeller, bread pudding soufflé, barbecue shrimp, trout meunière, crabmeat ravigote and lobster with remoulade. As years passed, Creole food has become a blend of the various cultures of New Orleans that include Italian, African, German, Caribbean, Native American, and even Portuguese.
Cajun Cooking… originally known as “country food”. This cooking style was adapted by the people who lived in the outskirts of the city in more rustic territories along the bayous. The word “Cajun” actually originates from the term “Les Acadians”, who during the Great Upheaval were forcefully removed from their homes in Canadian provinces, like Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They were deported to Britain and France in the 1700’s and eventually migrated to Louisiana, making a home in the swamps that became known as Acadiana. Because Cajuns had less money, they became quite resourceful. They hunted and cooked whatever roamed the land: alligator, ducks, frogs, crawfish by the bundle, and nutria, which is a cross between a beaver and a river rat. They preserved their food and meats like tasso ham and andouille sausage, by using smoke and salt. They were also known for Boucherie – slaughtering of a pig, then using every bit from tail to head cheese. Cajuns were always heavy handed with spices like Cayenne pepper, but a more appropriate description of their food is “well-seasoned”; not so much spicy. Classic examples of down-home Cajun dishes include crawfish etouffee, fried pig ears, alligator sausage, smothered chicken and blackened catfish. Today Cajun food is what is considered the down-and-dirty of Southern cooking (AKA soul food).
A Beautiful Blend of Two Cultures… New Orleans’ rich blends of diversity have come to define the city’s food identity. We often hear Cajun and Creole terminology used interchangeably, but the locals know that each have their own unique story and profound role in shaping what’s described today as Louisiana-style cooking. So, whether you will be celebrating Carnival in New Orleans or at home this year, get inspired and pay some homage to these two world-renowned cuisines who both equally hold the reins when it comes to good eating in The Big Easy.