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I thought we had a topic about this, but I can't find it.

As heretical as this may sound, many people who aren't familiar with Louisiana (which even has a separate Wikipedia entry for "New France") use the terms "Cajun" and "Creole" interchangeably, usually just saying "cajun" for any cuisine that seems like it might have some New Orleans influence.

Do we have any experts here that can compare and contrast these terms (using "Acadiana," maybe even "Baton Rouge," somewhere in the explanation) for those of us who don't have a clue? I'd say our average reader (which, in this case, would include me) is familiar with both terms, but doesn't really have a notion about or historical basis for their true meaning.

I began having this conversation as a PM (private message) with one of our members, and quickly realized that it might be of great benefit to others. I've put in the Wikipedia links as a starting point, but don't know where to go from there.

Incidentally, this thread would not exist had MC Horoscope not started this thread on "The Back Door." Take note, Herschel: This is how things happen here - what seems like a dead thread will slowly expand over time, creating others, and perhaps even exploding into a torrent of activity. There are no wasted posts here.

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Hopefully this doesn't over-simplify the exquisite complexities of these two fine cuisines, and I didn't consult any online encyclopedia or anything, but I take Creole to be the refined city food of New Orleans where many cultures came together -- African, French, Spanish, Native American, Portuguese -- and created the nuanced foods that the upper class consumed. I take Cajun to be the country food that the Acadians developed when they ended up in the swamps around New Orleans and up river. And then as time marched on and a middle class emerged, the two cuisines nicely co-mingled.

Anything more complicated than that, and I defer to Don and his companions to amplify this simplicity....

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I've always likened the two to Provincial French and Classic French.  Not a perfect analogy by any means, but it helps focus the mind a little at least.

The two cuisines stem from very different peoples and very different histories.

Cajun cuisine was developed in the rural Louisiana bayou by the Acadians (Cajuns), a group of French descendants who were kicked out of the maritimes of Canada (Evangeline and all that) and sought a new homeland, eventually settling in (the rural bayous of Southern) Louisiana which due to its own French history and culture was accepting of them.  They, like immigrants everywhere, proceeded to use local ingredients, combining them with their own cuisine and methods, to create the style known as "cajun" cooking.  It is a home-based, rural, and "rough" sort of cuisine. The Cajuns were never really part of the New Orleans scene and still aren't I would say.

Creole cuisine is the much more highly developed and refined cuisine of New Orleans, developed over a century or two both at home and in restaurants in New Orleans. and to a lesser extent on upriver plantations, to appeal to the palates of wealthy people.  It has mainly French and Spanish roots, but other cultures as well in a city that was influenced by many cultures (the term Creole refers of course to a mixed origin).  There is remarkably little "Cajun" influence however, as far as I'm aware.  Many of those who were preparing the food were African-American slaves and later servants, and later paid kitchen employees, so the African influence is there as well.  It features often-expensive ingredients, elaborate sauces, sometimes elaborate presentations, and so on, and was based on both local and imported ingredients (NO being a major port city).  Creole has branches including Soul-Creole and Italian-Creole, reflecting the various ethnic groups that settled in New Orleans.

I think it's safe, though not necessarily nice, to say that Cajun culture and cuisine were traditionally looked down upon by folks in NO who considered them hicks and swamp rats, and certainly wanted nothing to do with them.  It's like the city/country divide everywhere, but perhaps a bit moreso.  Of course the Cajuns considered folks from NO to be snooty city slickers, or something of that nature, if they thought about them at all.  For Cajuns to go to NO and sit down in a fine restaurant would be like Ma and Pa Kettle going to Beverly Hills.  They would definitely not have recognized most of the food put before them.

The key point is that the two cuisines are very distinct, and share very few dishes, at least traditionally.  The only one that comes immediately to mind is gumbo, which in Cajun country is usually spicy and thickened with filé (sassafras) but in NO is milder and more sophisticated, relying more on its roux.

Until the last few decades or so Cajun cuisine was very rarely found in New Orleans.  The Bon Ton was about the only place in town known to serve Cajun food.  That has changed of course, Donald Link's places being a prominent example, but his food has been refined some from its swamp roots.

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 I think it's safe, though not necessarily nice, to say that Cajun culture and cuisine were traditionally looked down upon by folks in NO who considered them hicks and swamp rats, and certainly wanted nothing to do with them.  It's like the city/country divide everywhere, but perhaps a bit moreso.  Of course the Cajuns considered folks from NO to be snooty city slickers, or something of that nature, if they thought about them at all.  For Cajuns to go to NO and sit down in a fine restaurant would be like Ma and Pa Kettle going to Beverly Hills.  They would definitely not have recognized most of the food put before them.

Yep. I remember people saying things like this when I was a kid. Think of how much of the Cajun culture was lost because by the time the world embraced it, a lot of it was already slipping away. Too bad that instead of looking down on them, the rest of the world wasn't appreciating not just their food, but their art and their music and their celebratory traditions.

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I grew up in Orange, TX, less than 2 hours west of Lafayette on I-10.  Both DCandOhio and MC Horoscope's explanations sound right to me.  Being further removed from the New Orleans influence, the food in that area was straight-up cajun...very rustic.  Actually, it was a very interesting intersection culinarily.  People were just as likely to have a crawfish boil as a barbecue.  (Later on, Tex-Mex took a major hold as well.)

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Mc Horoscope, did you go to school in Louisiana? I went to LSU. Had lots of friends from Lafayette. We'd drive to Lafayette on weekends to listen to music and to buy boudin. Mardi Gras in Mamou (way back in the 70's) was one of the best weekends I've ever had in my life. I miss it so much!

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Yes, I went to USL then LSU for grad school from 76-79. Moved to this area in 85. Love it here!

I went to Mamou Mardi Gras a few times in the 70s too. We might have run into each other. Fred's Lounge was something else!

Mamou in Evangeline Parish is one of those places where the French people were originally Napoleonic soldiers left behind, hence really Creole, though it's considered the epicenter of Cajun music and they call themselves Cajun! My area, Vermilion parish, was full of those families that came from Acadia. That's part of the story too. Better lands went to the Acadians with Spanish land grants in the south like Abbeville, Lafayette, New Iberia, St. Martinsville, and worse lands went to left behind Creoles in the more northern areas like Mamou and Ville Platte. Their cuisine featured more game like squirrel and smoked meats, while ours featured more seafood. It's pretty well described in Marcelle Bienvenu's book. She describes 8 different sub-regions, which would only make any sense to a native!

It all blends together today, but back then we thought of people from 40 miles away as strangers who were not like us at all! Bienvenu distinguishes between Cajuns east of the Atchafalaya and those to the west. A wheat/corn line -- wheat to the east, hence French bread, and corn to the west, hence cornbread and cush cush! Macque choux, that's Cajun! I think she's on target about that.

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I attended LSU from 76-82, for grad and undergrad. I did pass a good time there.

In New Orleans, when you ask a native where to find the best food, she'd say, "by my mama's." As in, "ya'll should pass by my mama's for dinner."

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What a great thread. LOVED reading through all of this and it's a fantastic example of what makes this website so different and enriching.

I have no familial connections to this area and always wondered about the creole/Cajun distinction but not enough to research it. I did live in the region (but not in LA) for a short time after college and have traveled to New Orleans several times over the years. I've always loved the food there but just never had the historical, social and contextual background for it...until now. In full disclosure, I didn't even realize some of the dishes mentioned here are from creole/Cajun cuisine (like Bananas Foster). Very cool.

And all this great personal history and perspective tied to LSU without a mention of college football.

Big thanks to all of you.

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You may recall Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode in which he went to New Orleans then to Cajun country. In one segment he went to a boucherie (a pig slaughtering) and the cooks made a roux in a big kettle over a fire. He remarked that he had never seen such a dark roux before.

The use of a roux is very common in Cajun country. I can probably count on one hand the number of times in my life that I have ever had gumbo with filé as the thickener. And I believe it was when I was following a Paul Prudhomme recipe! The thickeners I know are either roux (dark for seafood, medium brown for darker meat) or okra cooked down almost to a paste.

In that NR episode Tony also visited Glenda's Creole Kitchen in Breaux Bridge. I went there and found their food to be the same as Cajun. I couldn't see any difference between Glenda's and what you would get at many Cajun plate lunch places. I guess the word Creole in that instance was referring to "Creole of color".

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Since other have rambled, I will too.

My name is Nola Caine and I am from Slidell, Louisiana.  My family is from the Quarter then mid-city (two new orleans neighborhoods indicating declining fortunes), moving to Slidell (suburb) in the early 70s.  I am a very proud graduate of the University of New Orleans.  Did you know it even existed? It does, as does Southern University of New Orleans, and Delgado. I will not mention the privates because they are always mentioned.

To add to the thread, my family is more or less "Creole" of the French-Spanish version. However, I quickly learned, when I moved to Connecticut, that when I said that, people assumed that we had black-white mixed race people in our family. We do, but he is not the Creole to which I refer (he married in). 

Our food tradition got mixed up along the way. I'd argue that most of my momma's food was Creole but, she cooked everything; Creole and Cajun traditional/local food.

This is important: Etouffee DOES NOT Have tomatoes in it.  If it does, something is wrong. 

I was taught the roux version of gumbo, I started the gumbo I made just a few weeks ago with file b/c I always F!@k up the roux unless I have help and there were no foremothers around that weekend. It was wonderful and tasted a good bit like my grandmother's (referred to as Memere; very common name for grandmother).  I think the secret was slow-cooking. I took it off the fire a few times to tend to thing 1 and thing 2. 

At this point, I'd argue, that only food historians truly know the difference but you just got a great tutorial by DCandOhio.

One final point. I have never once been to Baton Rouge and I left NO when I was 23. I drove through it a few times, as one needs to in order to go north, but never got out of the car.  I mention b/c, IMHO, BR does not need to be mentioned in this thread. J

Finally, I agree with MC Horoscope:  where do I get homecooking? 

"Chère, I go in my kitchen, me!"

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I was taught the roux version of gumbo, I started the gumbo I made just a few weeks ago with file b/c I always F!@k up the roux unless I have help and there were no foremothers around that weekend. It was wonderful and tasted a good bit like my grandmother's (referred to as Memere; very common name for grandmother).  I think the secret was slow-cooking. I took it off the fire a few times to tend to thing 1 and thing 2. 

Growing up, most of the gumbo I had was thickened with file, but when I make it I like to use a roux.  I'm a staunch advocate of baking the roux in a dutch oven (Alton Brown's method)...that technique has really changed my gumbo game.

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This is important: Etouffee DOES NOT Have tomatoes in it. If it does, something is wrong.

Nola Caine, I snorted wine when I read this!!!! When I am in a restaurant and I see etouffee described as containing tomatoes I just go beserk. NO TOMATOES. None in gumbo, either. No way.

I always make gumbo with a roux, and my mama uses both a roux and file powder. She says, "That's what my Memere did." Memere raised her. Holy crap, I am not arguing with an ornery French lady (long since deceased) who cursed at my Dad when he and my Mom got married because they took her bedroom set from the house for their new apartment. Apparently, Mamere stood on the porch and yelled, in English, "Why don't you just take the whole damn house?" My mother does not deny this.

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(I saved and updated this pictorial I did for eGullet in 2005)

 

No intention to brew controversy here. Not claiming this is the only authentic or good way to cook okra and shrimp gumbo. Just posting stuff from my experience. Your mileage may vary (and probably will!)

 

Here's a shrimp and okra gumbo done the old-timey way in Vermilion parish, Louisiana. Key concept, "a." Not the only one. Call it Cajun, Creole, whatever you want. It's pretty common where I am from.

 

It's basically a smothered okra dish converted to a gumbo, sort of the way a chicken fricasee is converted to a gumbo.

 

We started with two pounds of okra, a large onion, and a large bell pepper. Two-thirds cup of vegetable oil.

 

We also had two pounds of Gulf shrimp, which we peeled and seasoned in advance with salt, black pepper and red pepper and kept in the ice box. With the shells we added a large onion cut in two and several stalks of celery, water, and made a shrimp stock. The final product took 8 cups of shrimp stock.

 

Here's how the okra and vegetable mixture looked at the beginning of the process:

 

1.jpg

 

Put a lid on it and cook it over medium heat. Our electric stove has settings for Lo-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-HI and we put it on 6 but lowered it to 5 or 4 whenever it started scorching. We stirred fairly often, about every 10 or 15 minutes, and occasionally added a little water to help out.

 

After a half hour it looked something like this:

 

2.jpg

 

It's pretty slimy at this stage. The idea is to cook it down until that slime is gone and the okra has considerably disintegrated. Then we will add tomato sauce and shrimp stock, and shrimp. I wasn't able to capture the texture too well with my camera, but you will get the idea.

 

After an hour the texture and the color are changing:

 

3.jpg

 

This needs to go some more!

 

The smell is terrific. This is going to be very concentrated okra, very thick! We won't be using any roux at all with this gumbo. It will be plenty thick because of the okra.

 

It looks something like this after an hour and a half. The volume seems reduced about half. Even the color is changing to something like brown. When it doesn't stick anymore and you can scrape your spoon on the bottom of the pot and it's clear, that's when you know it's where you want it to be.

 

4.jpg

Ready to add a cup of tomato sauce. You can add less if you like. Or none at all. But I like it with tomato. Why not? And it's pretty common, as I said, where I am from.

 

5.jpg

 

You could stop right now and freeze this stuff! It can serve as the beginning of your next gumbo, or you could serve it as a smothered okra dish.

 

But we added 8 cups of shrimp stock:

 

6.jpg

 

You can cook it without the lid now. Season it as you like with salt and pepper. We also added about 5 Tabasco peppers from our garden. They weren't very hot. These were in our freezer from last year's garden, and they lose some of their potency.

 

Let it go about 10 more minutes before adding your seasoned shrimp:

 

7.jpg

 

We cooked this about 20 more minutes because we like the shrimp pretty tender.

 

Done at last! The smell of a happy home and a good bowl of shrimp and okra gumbo country style as done in Vermilion parish, Louisiana!

 

8.jpg

 

Lest you say that gumbo never has tomato in it, well, yes, it's pretty common in SW Louisiana but ONLY in this okra gumbo. They served us okra and shrimp (dried shrimp) gumbo in the school cafeteria in Abbeville, LA when I was growing up! Today you can get okra and shrimp gumbo pretty much like this at the following places I have had it:

Soop's Restaurant, Maurice, LA

Their store, Hebert's Specialty Meats also sells it

Pat's Waterfront Restaurant, Henderson, LA

Don's Seafood Hut, Lafayette, LA

Riverside Inn, Lafayette, LA

 

Edit to Add: There's a brand of frozen okra called Today's Harvest that works really well. It's tender and doesn't take as long as the brand I used in this pictorial.

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They served us okra and shrimp (dried shrimp) gumbo in the school cafeteria in Abbeville, LA when I was growing up!

Ah yes.  The tiny Catholic elementary school I went to relied on parent volunteers to staff the kitchen for lunch.  The whole program was overseen by a cranky old cajun man, so we had a lot of gumbo, jambalaya, and fish fried in his own (superior) version of Tony Chachere's seasoning.  He added that stuff to everything...but the best were the cajun fries.

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Not to get into an argument with Cajuns, but my copy of Janice Boo Macomber's self published cookbook, Tastes, Tails, & Tales with the High Priestess of the Bayou, born and raised in Abbeville, summer resident of Boston Canal, and the Aunt of DC's own David Guas, quite clearly calls for tomatoes in her etouffee:

1 10oz can Rotel tomatoes.

It appears her family was Sicilian, so maybe that's where the tomatoes come from.

Her gumbo recipe is tomato free.

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As a Texan, I have a deep and abiding love for Rotel tomatoes, but really they belong mixed in a bowl with melted American cheese, and not in étouffée.

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As an NYC native who loves cooking from Donald Link's Real Cajun cookbook, this has been a most informative and enjoyable thread.

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(I saved and updated this pictorial I did for eGullet in 2005)

 ...

You can cook it without the lid now. Season it as you like with salt and pepper. We also added about 5 Tabasco peppers from our garden. They weren't very hot. These were in our freezer from last year's garden, and they lose some of their potency.

 ...

.

What a great post, MC! Two questions if okay.

1. As I don't currently have a Louisiana trip on my calendar, do you feel there is any restaurant in the DC ares that crafts respectable versions of Creole and/or Cajun food? Be honest! Maybe just have to wait for a trip or make something at home memere style?

2. Tabasco peppers! As a northener, that line popped out at me realizing you weren't that far from Avery Island. I'd love to understand more about why yours were mild but they are famous for the hot sauce and whether your families would ever make hot sauce.

Oh, and a third, am I right to think hot sauce isn't ever added to traditional dishes while cooking; that it's a condiment...maybe mostly used by outsiders who don't know any better? :-)

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Hi darkstar

I like the oyster poboy at Johnny's Half Shell. Lunch only, I believe. In fact I like their gumbo too, though I have to say it's on the thick side with filé which I am not used to. I haven't been to Bayou Bakery but I hear it's really good. If I left anybody out let me know. I might not have been there.

I miss the old Louisiana Express on Bethesda Avenue!  I even miss the Copeland's Restaurant that was on Rockville Pike. It's a Hooters now!

As for peppers, I believe they all lose intensity with age in the freezer. My mother used to pickle peppers, which my father liked to put uncooked in his bowl of gumbo at the table. We called them cornichons, but I don't know if it's the same pepper by that name that you can get in the grocery stores today. Anyway he was the only one in the family who liked that.

You're right, Avery Island is not far away from Vermilion parish, but no, I didn't know of anybody making their own hot sauces. Pickled peppers were common.

I grew these tabasco peppers for my gumbo here in Maryland.

I don't use hot sauce very much, to tell you the truth, so I can't answer question 3. I know I use a recipe for a Maryland crab dip that adds the hot sauce while cooking, so that bit about not using it while cooking sounds like a myth. I try to go for a hot sauce that's not too vinegary. Louisiana Gold is a brand like that.

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MC Horoscope: I"m going to try your way next time I have a craving. It looks good and doable. WHen last I made gumbo here (arlington), I had to improvise quite a lot. Frozen ocra is ok. Safeway by harris teeter has local oysters in the brine. I used frozen summer bay crabs that were very well seasoned. I steamed them enough to clean them b/c I was too lazy to clean them before freezing them... I"m sure I could give you more improvizations if I thought about it but I will conclude with this:

Even if it's in a book, NO Tomatoes in etouffee! and rotel is not legit. It's texan and only been around since the '40s. (no disrespect to Tweaked or Texans)

As a Texan, I have a deep and abiding love for Rotel tomatoes, but really they belong mixed in a bowl with melted American cheese, and not in étouffée.

See.

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