The Cajun and Creole Cuisines of South Louisiana
There is perhaps no region of the United States that holds its cuisine more dear than south Louisiana. A
great love of food, flavor, culture and tradition has been combined with an astounding array of natural
resources to create these multi-faceted cuisines that are unlike any others.
Cajun and Creole cuisines are closely linked, though each has its own specific identity. Both began
developing in the 18th century, and a little history is helpful in fully appreciating the tastes that today are
enjoying increasing popularity all over the world. The Cajun and Creole cuisines were the products of the
Acadian and New Orleans kitchens of the 1700’s. Though they essentially developed separately, the similar
cultural and environmental ingredients of the two produced two styles of cooking that have merged through
the years, while retaining a certain amount of individuality.
The term Creole refers to the original European settlers of Louisiana who continued to maintain some of the
customs and the language of their mother country. The first colonists came from France as early as 1699
and were followed by settlers from Spain, Africa, Germany, Italy and Great Britain.
These Creoles, who settled mainly in the area of the future New Orleans, came from the affluent, aristocratic
families of Paris, Madrid and other European cultural centers. The ladies and their imported cooks tried to
adapt their native cuisines to the bounty available in the south Louisiana swampland, but, much to their
dismay, many of the necessary ingredients to concoct the smooth sauces and delicately flavored dishes from
the old country were not locally available.
Disgruntled Creole ladies impressed on Governor Bienville to improve the food supply to accommodate the
cooking skills they already knew or they would leave. Bienville put his own housekeeper in charge of the
problem, and she taught the Creole housewives cooking secrets she had learned from the Indians in the
area. She helped them discover the native dishes and spices, and soon they learned to apply their cooking
skills to the preparation of pompano, crabs, shrimp, mirlitons, cushaw, red snapper, oysters and the many
other meats, seafood and vegetables native to the fertile lands and waters of south Louisiana.
While the Creoles were establishing New Orleans, the Acadians began settling the wild, mysterious swamps
and bayous west and south of the city. The Acadians, or Cajuns as they came to be known, originally left
France for Nova Scotia, but when the British flag was raised over Canada the French speaking Catholics
were exiled from the country. In search of a new home compatible with their customs and religion, the
Acadians found south Louisiana.
When the Acadians first began settling the area, there was no social contact with the New Orleans Creoles.
The Cajuns were tied to the land and unlike the aristocratic Creoles, were rugged and adaptable. For the
Cajuns, life was a day-to-day, season-to-season battle to sustain their families and their culture, and in this
lies the main difference between Creole and Cajun cooking.
The Creoles led a life of luxury as rich planters and the dishes which emerged from their kitchens emulated
the grand cuisine of their homeland. It was not unusual for a Creole dinner to consist of nine courses, each
dish prepared by a cook brought from the Old World or bought from slave traders in New Orleans. The
Creoles dined on such wondrous dishes as oysters Bienville, oysters Rockefeller, chicken Rochambeau,
pompano en papillote, and petit fours with spirited drinks such as Sazareac and absinth frappe.
The Cajuns, on the other hand, were a hearty people accustomed to roughing it. Their meals more than
likely came out of one pot, one dish which combined all of the natural ingredients of south Louisiana; fish,
rice, pungent spices, shellfish and abundant vegetables. Jambalaya, gumbo, sauce piquante, and crawfish
etouffee’ are all delicacies of Cajun one-pot meals.
It is interesting to note that, although both the Creole and Cajun settlers developed their own styles of
cooking, the two styles are very similar today. This can be attributed to two basic commonalities: first, the
heritage of the people-French-with the mingling with other cultures-German, Italian, African, and Spanish;
and second, the raw materials produced from the area’s land and waters. The second factor probably
serves as the cement that holds these two cuisines together because the crops of the area are unlike any
Water is the flourishing ground for most of the region’s foodstuffs. The plentiful harvest from this land criss-
crossed by bayous and waterways includes rice, crawfish, mirlitons, cushaws, okra, green onions, green
peppers, garlic, eggplant, sassafras (which is ground into file’ powder used as a thickening agent in gumbo)
turtles, frogs, ducks, grouse, quail, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, bass, sweet potatoes and sugar cane.
From the Gulf of Mexico come oysters, shrimp, red snapper, pompano, crabs, redfish, scallops, lemon fish
and flounder. With such a wide variety of food available, that is not found together elsewhere, the region’s
cooks, out of necessity, had to be creative. And it was the cultural mix that spurred the creative juices that
produced the Creole and Cajun cuisines.
From the French influence, the Cajun and Creole cuisines adapted the smooth, rich sauces and soups. The
basis forming most all dishes in New Orleans and Cajun country is a roux. “First you make a roux,” is a
standard opening for a south Louisiana recipe. French roux was a combination of butter and flour, however,
the settlers had to adapt to a scarcity of dairy products and began making their roux with oil or lard.
Although the French cuisine is the major influence in south Louisiana cookery, the Spanish played an
important role in developing the spicy nature of most Cajun and Creole dishes by introducing red pepper.
African cooks brought the vegetable okra to the region when Negro slaves were traded to the Americans.
The Africans called the vegetable gumbo and the name was eventually adapted to the rich stew made with
okra, vegetables, and any combination of seafood or meats.
From the Choctaw Indians of the Gulf Coast, South Louisiana settlers discovered file’ powder made from the
dried leaves of sassafras trees that grow wild along the coast. File’ powder was used in gumbo when okra
was out of season, but now that okra is available all year, file’ powder is used as an alternative to okra. The
seasoning has a delicate flavor somewhat like thyme, and when added to gumbo, it gives the stock the
thickness that the stew must have.
These cultural and environmental ingredients, plus West Indian peppers and allspice, Italian and German
mustard, among other influences, have evolved into today’s famous south Louisiana cuisine.
Sources: Louisiana Fish Fry Products & The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine-Chef John D. Folse,
Voila!-Lafayette Centennial Cookbook-Jean K. Durkee, A Visitor’s Guide to New Orleans-Beth A. Silverman,
The Southern Living Creole Cookbook
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