Compared to Louisiana, other states have it easy. Sure, Louisiana is home to the “Big Easy” and the locals are known for our “joie de vivre,” but we are also parents to some of the most precious cuisines in the world. While we may, on occasion, have one too many Bloody Marys at Sunday brunch or add some “punch” to our milk, we don’t take our responsibility lightly. Like real parenting, this job has no vacations. Even when away from the motherland, Louisianians still find ourselves bragging about and, on occasion, having to defend our pride and joy. Perhaps the most difficult task is explaining Louisiana food in a few short sentences. Of course, a Louisianian would prefer to sit down, put on a pot of coffee or pour a cold beer, and talk about it. However, we’ve come to learn that most people don’t have the time to do that.
So if you’re versed in Louisiana history and culture, then all you really need to know is that Creole cuisine uses tomatoes and proper Cajun food does not. You can stop reading now. That’s how you tell a Cajun vs. Creole gumbo or jambalaya. You’re welcome (to be fair, some Cajun food, such as a sauce piquant, does include tomatoes as a key ingredient). However, if you’d like to know more, please continue reading so you can learn why the terms “Cajun” and “Creole” that have become used so loosely and interchangeably when describing Louisiana food, are not at all the same.
A vastly simplified way to describe the two cuisines is to deem Creole cuisine as “city food” while Cajun cuisine is often referred to as “country food.” While many of the ingredients in Cajun and Creole dishes are similar, the real difference between the two styles is the people behind these famous cuisines. They say in order to really know someone, meet their family. The same goes for food. In Louisiana, the best place to find authentic Cajun and Creole cooking is in homes across the state, which is what makes the food so special. Many of Louisiana’s most talented chefs learned their trade from their parents or grandparents. Cajun and Creole are two distinct cultures, and while over the years they continue to blend, there is still a vast distinction in Louisiana, and both have their own unique stories.
The word “Cajun” originates from the term “les Acadians,” which was used to describe French colonists who settled in the Acadia region of Canada which consisted of present-day New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. With the British Conquest of Acadia in the early 1700s, the Acadians were forcibly removed from their home in what become known as Le Grand Derangement, or the Great Upheaval. Many Acadians eventually settled in the swampy region of Louisiana that is today known as Acadiana. Actually, four regions of south Louisiana were settled by the Cajuns, each with different resources and influences. Those distinct areas are the levees and bayous (Lafourche and Teche), prairies (Attakapas Indian land), swamplands (Atchafalaya Basin) and coastal marshes (New Orleans area and Houma).
The Acadians were extremely resourceful people who combined the flatlands, bayous and wild game of South Louisiana with its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico to create a truly unique local cuisine. While many Acadiana residents today have Native American, German, French or Italian roots, among others (which have all influence Louisiana Cuisine in their own ways), their way of life is strongly influenced by the Cajun culture. Along with its food, this rural area of Louisiana is famous for its Cajun French music and language. With no access to modern-day luxuries like refrigerators, early Cajuns learned to make use of every part of a slaughtered animal. When a pig is butchered the event is called a “boucherie.” Boudin, a type of Cajun sausage that consists of pork, rice and seasoning stuffed into a casing, also commonly contains pig liver for a little extra flavor. Tasso and Andouille are two other Cajun pork products that use salts and smoke as preservatives. Cajun food is famous for being very well seasoned and that's sometimes misunderstood as spicy. Seasoning is one of the most important parts of Cajun cooking, and that comes from much more than a heavy helping of cayenne pepper. Most dishes begin with a medley of vegetables based on the French mirepoix. “The holy trinity of Cajun cuisine” utilizes onion, celery and bell pepper (rather than carrots) to provide a flavor base for many dishes. Garlic is never far away from any stove, either. Paprika, thyme, file (ground sassafras leaves), parsley, green onions and much more are also staples in Cajun kitchens.
The term “Creole” describes the population of people who were born to settlers in French colonial Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. In the 18th century, Creoles consisted of the descendants of the French and Spanish upper class that ruled the city. Over the years the term Creole grew to include native-born slaves of African descent as well as free people of color. Typically, the term “French Creole” described someone of European ancestry born in the colony and the term “Louisiana Creole” described someone of mixed racial ancestry.
Like the people, Creole food is a blend of the various cultures of New Orleans including Italian, Spanish, African, German, Caribbean, Native American and Portuguese, to name a few. Creole cuisine is thought of as a little higher brow or aristocratic compared to Cajun. Traditionally, slaves in the kitchens of well-to-do members of society prepared the food. Due to the abundance of time and resources, the dishes consisted of an array of spices from various regions and creamy soups and sauces. A remoulade sauce, for example, which consists of nearly a dozen ingredients, would not typically be found in Cajun kitchens. Creole cuisine has a bit more variety, because of the easier access Creoles had to exotic ingredients and the wide mix of cultures that contributed to the cuisine. That’s why you find tomatoes in Creole jambalaya and not in Cajun jambalaya or why a lot of times you find a Creole roux made with butter and flour while a Cajun roux is made with oil and flour.
The only place to get true Creole and Cajun food is in Louisiana, or at least in someone from Louisiana’s kitchen. However, if traveling down South isn’t in the cards, now you know a few tips that can help you determine if a dish is close to being authentically Cajun or Creole. Luckily, Louisiana is the one place where true Cajun and Creole food will never stray far away from its roots. With each new generation of Louisianans, there is a vested interest in history and culture and a proud new set of parents. There is no one better suited to ensure that Louisiana food adheres to its traditions and reputations. It’s a good thing there are over 4.4 million people fit for the job.
Jay D. Ducote is the author of the food and beverage blog Bite and Booze, host of the Bite and Booze Radio Show, and co-host of Raise a Glass, both on the air in Baton Rouge. You can find him online at biteandbooze.com.