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Tourists flock to New Orleans for Cajun crawfish, boudin, cracklins and tasso, but the menu availability of these specialties in Louisiana’s largest city is relatively new. Until the 1980s, New Orleans food was strictly Creole (meaning born in the New World). Cajun (of the Acadians) was still relegated to the state’s western swamps and prairies, and really didn’t become popular in New Orleans until Chef Paul Prudhomme introduced it to the world. But together the two cuisines have made Louisiana one of the most heralded food regions in the world. And here’s a primer on how the basic ingredients and techniques for our famous dishes got here in the first place.
We’ll start with the first Louisiana inhabitants, Native Americans. Long before the French arrived, tribes like the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Natchez, Houmas, and Chitimachas had been drying fruit, herbs, and meats, and simmering game and turtle in stews. They also gathered pecans, cultivated sweet potatoes, caught fish and shellfish, pounded sassafras leaves to make the thickener file, and ground corn into grits.
The Catholic French sailed here in the late 17th century, and by 1718 had built the Port of New Orleans. This is important because the port and Catholicism were magnets for future immigrants whose plants, livestock, and cooking techniques combined to create our food.
The French themselves brought memories of classic Parisian cuisine. They had a knowledge of making roux, sauces, and stocks, and of seasoning with herbs and starting many a dish with a mirepoix, a mixture of diced carrots, celery, and onion. The colonial French were also fond of the seafood soup known as bouillabaisse, along with pralines (the French original made with almonds), and imported liqueurs and wine.
Slaves were imported to the region in 1719, and with Africans came black-eyed peas, watermelon, okra, a love of simmered greens, and the knowledge of growing rice. Slaves also knew how to season with spices, and in the kitchens of their masters they continued doing what they had done in their own countries: skillfully stew and fry.
Because slaves were considered too valuable to spend time growing food to sell to locals in New Orleans, in the 1720s Scottish speculator John Law lured in Germans. An industrious group of them settled in what is today St. James and St. Charles parishes, where this industrious group set up the state’s first dairies. They also grew turnips, spinach, cauliflower, artichokes, onions, garlic, cabbage, white potatoes and sweet potatoes, and were prolific bakers and knew how to cure meats, such as the smoked pork sausage we call andouille.
When the Spanish took over the Louisiana colony in 1762, they brought along jamon (ham), chaurice (spicy smoked sausage), tomatoes, and cayenne pepper, along with a love of onions, garlic, and parsley. They also had an affinity for eating beans with rice and for cooking paella, the one-pot ham and rice dish.
The Acadians arrived in New Orleans in 1785 and ended up isolated west of the City in the uncultivated prairies and marshes, where they foraged for just about anything that flew, crawled, climbed, or swam. Although they’d been living in Nova Scotia, Louisiana’s first Acadians were still partial to the one-pot meals of peasant France. This displaced population was also totally unfamiliar with Louisiana ingredients and consequently adopted cooking techniques from established residents. Over time they morphed what they learned into their own hearty “Cajun” cuisine, including robust roux-based versions of gumbo and jambalalya (as compared to the delicately-seasoned tomato-based recipes from New Orleans). In time, the Acadians became experts at cattle ranching and smoking meats, and are now the state’s leading rice growers.
Although Jesuit priests had brought the first sugar to Louisiana in 1751, Etienne de Bore didn’t grow the first successful crop until 1795. Commercial salt production in the state started in 1790, and the arrival of Saint-Domingue refugees in 1809 brought a variety of hot peppers and Creolized dishes such as bouilli, courtbouillon, étouffée, and meunière.
By the 1840s, New Orleans, had become the second largest importer of coffee in the U.S. Also during the 1840s, commercial sales of oysters, fish, and shrimp got a big boost with the arrival of seasoned Croatian fishermen. These former sailors from the Adriatic Sea lived on Louisiana’s coast south of New Orleans, and started the state’s oyster cultivation.
Chicory is common in France, and during the Civil War the blockaded French in New Orleans began using this ground up root as a coffee extender. The mirliton arrived around 1870, likely from Mexico or the Caribbean, and bananas didn’t arrive in New Orleans until the 1880s, the same time as waves of Sicilians, who brought with them a passion for bread, wine, pasta and tomatoes. Louisiana’s Italians took to truck farming almost immediately, growing vegetables like zucchini, spinach, garlic, lemons, eggplant, fennel, figs, leeks and cucumbers. In many cases, traditional Italian dishes melded with Creole dishes, and the resulting recipes are known locally as Creole-Italian.
The word “Creole” became an icon in the late nineteenth century and was fashionably attached to all sorts of foods, including vegetables, eggs, and coffee. And although the line of distinction between “fancy” Creole cooking and rustic Cajun cooking has over the years been blurred, Chef John Folse makes the distinction eloquently: “Creole…is that melange of artistry and talent, developed and made possible by the nations and cultures who settled in and around New Orleans.” And Cajun is “the mirror image of [the Cajun] unique history…a cooking style that reflects their ingenuity, creativity, adaptability, and survival.”
So there you have it, a quick history lesson on the beginnings of Creole and Cajun food. And next time you pick up a menu in New Orleans and you can’t remember who created what, don’t worry – it’s all delicious, and it’s all reflective of a state historically culturally diverse as its food.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is the author of The Delta Queen Cookbook: The History and Recipes of the Legendary Steamboat. She lives in Baton Rouge.
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