Before leaving home, I read up on Creole and Cajun cuisines, which coexist so gracefully in Louisiana. I learn that Paul Prudhomme, patron saint of gastronomy in these parts, is widely credited with explaining the distinction: He defines Cajun cooking as Acadiana’s translation of French cooking in the country fashion, which typically uses oil or rendered pork fat as the cooking base, while Creole cuisine is a more citified or refined expression of French cooking, using butter in the foundation. Adding layers to Creole fare, of course, is the incorporation of Spanish and Italian influences, as those cultures joined the French in settling Louisiana. On top of that, it was the black cook who worked for that prosperous landowner and infused Creole food with traditions and techniques brought along from the West Indies and Africa.
Here’s where my gastronomic journey took me.
When I arrive on a Tuesday morning, the cooking school building—a reproduction that fits in with the historic structures throughout this magnificent little Acadian village on Bayou Vermilion–is filled with a large group of fifth-graders. They’re rapt with attention as Brenda LaLonde and Kevin Alsdorf, dressed in period costume (as is all the staff here) demonstrate the time-tested methods for making sweet dough pies, which are baked turnovers filled with fruit preserves, and croquesignoles, simple little sweet fried pastries. We watch Brenda swiftly measuring, mixing and frying; it’s easy to see what she’s doing with the help of an overhead mirror positioned at an angle to see her movements on the countertop and stove. What’s hard to understand is how she can work at such speed without making an unholy mess. Soon the sweets are passed out for us to sample, still hot from the pan. They are delicious, but only people who work hard in the fields or gardens can eat many of these and not be as big as a house.
Strolling through the village, I find Broussard House and Mouton House, two of the 1700s homes in the village, where Brenda frequently demonstrates open-hearth cooking, all according to authentic Acadian recipes. Then I sit down at Vermilionville's La Cuisine de Maman, the village restaurant, to talk food with local native and food director Debbie Angelle. She says the tables stay full with customers hungry for the extraordinary gumbo (that chef Connie Landry makes by the gallon), and then she lets me taste for myself, and—oh, my. The sweet, smiling Connie seems on the shy side, so Debbie details for me “Connie’s impeccable cooking and the nuances that distinguish the Creole gumbo from Cajun. Creol is a little lighter in color, thanks to the inclusion of okra, from the chicken-sausage Cajun gumbo that is heavier in spices, such as cayenne. The Cajun, Debbie explains, has more of the roux in its base, whereas the Creole uses less roux and more tomato. We taste-test a few other dishes, such as smothered okra, cooked with olive oil and a little vinegar and smoked sausage; shrimp Creole, which is a deep, rich red, created by cooking the tomato a long time; and chicken etouffee, which gets its bronze color by incorporating caramelized sugar.
“Cooking technique is precious and there are lots of ways to mess it up,” Debbie says. “You have to pay attention. It’s pride in what you do, and timing is key.”
Passionate Platter, Slidell
Heading east on Wednesday morning, I arrive in Slidell for an intimate class with six other students. About two and half hours from Lafayette, Slidell is located in the parish of St.Tammany, on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. The Passionate Platter Cooking School & Herb Gardens students are gathered in a charming Victorian cottage, specifically in the breakfast nook with our host, Linda Franzo, who runs a thriving retail herb garden and the cooking school. I’m seated next to Cindy Prevost of Slidell, who confesses, “I’m a Passionate Platter groupie. I get so many ideas and techniques from these classes, and Linda even has me growing olive trees!”
Linda’s a one-woman band, found working in the garden surrounding the cottage or teaching a class like this or one of the many the summer cooking camps she does with kids. Today, our grown-up group sips hibiscus tea with lemongrass or sparkling wine blended with fresh pomegranate juice and blueberry basil, while Linda outlines the curriculum for the next three hours.
The first thing Linda does is urge everyone to grow herbs – in beds or pots – because “it’s senseless to buy three basil leaves for $3 in the grocery store.” She passes around photocopied recipes on purple paper and explains that we’ll learn to make a dozen or more herbed edibles and body products before our time is up.
Soon we’re touring her garden, which grows year-round in this sultry climate, taking a quick trip through plants grouped appropriately for Asian, Indian, Mediterranean, Italian, French and Latin American cooking. She shows us some of the plants saved in her post-Katrina cleanup and points to plants while giving descriptions of their health benefits: ginkgo biloba leaves are thought to help with clear thinking; rosemary helps with an energy boost; bay leaves are good for the stomach and calendula can ease eczema symptoms.
Back inside, we nibble on plates of goat cheese mousse with tarragon and chives; lemon-parsley bean spread; grilled veggie tart with basil and oregano; and panna cotta with fruit and fresh lavender. Then we gather in a workshop setting on the patio to make our own signature body scrubs, combining kosher salt, olive oil, honey, fresh herbs and extracts. Mine is a grapefruit-peppermint creation, and I can’t wait to get home to my hotel to try it in the shower.
New Orleans Cooking Experience, New Orleans
It’s a quick trip across the Pontchartrain causeway on Thursday, but I take it slowly because my class isn’t until early evening. When I arrive at the The House on Bayou Road Inn, a genteel old plantation home midway between the French Quarter and City Park, I’m instantly swept up into the spirit of gracious living that helps characterize Creole cuisine.
A dozen of us gather around a U-shaped demonstration stove in the kitchen, where we’re poured glasses of wine and introduced to our instructor, Frank Brigtsen, co-owner and James Beard award-winning chef at the acclaimed New Orleans dining establishment, Brigtsen's Restaurant. Over a period of three hours, we watch as Frank pulls together a lovely dinner as though creating a piece of art, handling the ingredients with care, manipulating pans and tools with an easy dexterity and sharing stories in the low-key cadence of a comfortable, happy host. Frank regales us with stories fashioned from his Creole cooking heritage, no small amount of which came at the knee of Prudhomme himself, for whom Frank worked at the hallowed, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, in the French Quarter.
Many in this evening’s class are enthusiastic cooks, and even some of our group know that the “holy trinity” common to both Cajun and Creole cooking consists of celery, onion and bell pepper, which Frank calls “the building blocks of our cuisine.” Frank teaches us that Creole cooking also utilizes tomato-- seen less often in Cajun preparations--and he talks about the essential presence of cornmeal, grits, okra and crawfish in Creole cuisine. Perhaps most important is the technique used in making his dark brown roux, a mix of vegetable oil (i.e., peanut or canola) and flour, which he fires over high heat and whisks non-stop for what seems like forever, until it thickens and darkens. It magically transforms from a gritty-looking substance to a rich chocolate-colored slurry when Frank reduces the heat.
The roux combines with a crawfish stock to make what becomes the most astounding crawfish bisque I can imagine. When Frank’s impressive cooking is finished, we sit in the formal dining room to eat a feast of shrimp calas, which are somewhat like fritters, with remoulade sauce; the bisque; a Brigsten family favorite, catfish and stone-ground jalapeno corn grits; and white chocolate bread pudding. In our pretty souvenir packet await all the recipes, which each of us vow to master back at home.