Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Brief History of Creole and Cajun Cuisine

The most common misconception of Creole and Cajun cuisine is that these two unique styles 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 Native Americans 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 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.

In 1704 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 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 that Native Americans 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. Often, these slaves ran the kitchens and households of French colonists, and they incorporated African cooking techniques, recipes and ingredients into the colonists’ diet. Their style of cooking had a profound influence on Creole cuisine, starting with the introduction of okra and gumbo, derived from West African “gombo,” a stew made with okra.


In 1764, Spain formally acquired Louisiana from France.  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 descendant 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 were Frenchmen who settled in “Acadie,” in Nova Scotia – were forcibly driven out of Canada in 1755 by the British.  This exile was called Le Grande Derangement (“the great trouble”). 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.”  The story of the Acadians expulsion from Nova Scotia was depicted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, Evangeline.

Cajuns 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 and had a tremendous impact on the cuisine. The Italian influence marks the fundamental difference between Creole and Cajun food. Many Italians who migrated to New Orleans in the late 1800s 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 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. 

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