Many of my friends and acquaintances who did not grow up in Southeast Louisiana believe that the terms “creole” and “cajun” are interchangeable. One specific example I can recall happened sometime soon after Katrina. Someone I had just met found out I grew up in New Orleans. They mentioned how much they liked Cajun food and looked forward to visiting there when things cleared up in New Orleans. In my mind, I took issue with this statement, not because I have anything against Cajuns, per se. Rather, I find that most people outside the Gulf Coast of Louisiana have no concept of the historical and social roots of the two distinct, but related, cultures.
When I was young in the 70s and early 80s, I do not even remember hearing the word “cajun” used in reference to anything. In my experience, there were city people and country people. The country people could be further divided into those who lived in marshy areas and those who lived in places like Mississippi. Granted, the country side of my family is from the Pearl River area of Louisiana and Mississippi—Bogalusa, Picayune, etc. My “New Orleans” family described their heritage and style of cooking as Creole. If I remember correctly, it was PBS that introduced me to Cajuns. Justin Wilson and his “How y’all are?” was the first exposure I had to Cajun cooking and culture. I am sure others living in New Orleans were aware of Cajuns. My point is not to dismiss their awareness of this rich culture, rather I am simply pointing out that my own awareness of it came around the same time as the rest of the nation’s.
The word “creole” is rooted in the Portuguese word criollo, which today means someone who was born in a colony run by the French, Spanish, or Portuguese. The usage of this word carried no distinction between someone who was black or white. And to this day, this is how the term is used in Louisiana. Again, people outside of (and inside) Louisiana often believe that a Creole person is someone who is either black or multiracial. While this is true in part, historically it carries no racial overtones and this is not how the word has been used in New Orleans. It does however carry ethnic overtones and simply implies that one’s family is French or Spanish—or, as in my case, a combination of both—in origin. According to the book, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization by Arnold J. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, the racial implications came from two periods. The first was when the United States purchased Louisiana and American migrants began pouring into New Orleans bringing the Anglo concept of the color line with them. The second was after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era when the color line was further reinforced when white Creoles began to accept white Anglo culture as their own. The book further explains that this was acceptance neither definite nor was it complete. What occurred instead was an eroding of the Creole culture among whites through the enforcement of English-only in public schools, intermarriage with Anglo families, and an increasing identification with “whiteness.” It was not complete simply because not every white Creole bought into the changing identity and to this day there are white Creole families that speak French at home, albeit in small numbers.
Please note that I chose not to address the myth of Americans vs. Creoles. It makes for a good story, but it is not complete and ignores many of the people who lived in New Orleans at the time. I also do not want to paint a picture of complete racial harmony in New Orleans. Relatively speaking though, until the last century Creoles on the whole saw themselves as a culture distinct from the rest of the United States and, for the most part, got along regardless of race and started many families together. There again are many myths regarding black cooks and housekeepers carrying the creole culture to black households. Keep in mind, there was a large population of free people of color who gained their freedom as a result of the French manumission laws regarding slavery. This is an important difference between the Anglos and the French and the creole culture existed across the color line.
It is also interesting to note, that much of America’s familiarity with Creoles came from the black migrations during the 1920s. During this time, fewer white Creole families left the New Orleans area than did black Creole families due to economic changes occurring in the nation. Oakland, California was one major focus for this migration along with Los Angeles and Chicago. It certainly explains why Oakland always felt like “home” to me.
Cajuns also have French roots, but trace their roots not from the Gulf Coast region. Instead, they trace them from the Acadian region of French Canada today known as the Maritime region of Canada. The word “cajun” is a corruption of the word “acadian.” By now, most people know the history of the Cajun people and how they migrated to Louisiana. Interestingly, there was little interchange of creole and cajun culture despite their proximity to one another. This is not to say that there was none, just very little. The proof that there was some plays out in the foods of both culture—gumbo and jambalaya being two such examples. This cultural interchange probably came in the form of trade and the sale of produce from the agricultural regions of Acadiana. Yet, the two cultures remained distinct and evolved separately.
Keep in mind, it is important not to view the region as bi-polar. There were many other ethnic groups that settled up and down the Mississippi River—Germans along the “German Coast” and Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands in several areas of the delta. It is perhaps easier for most people to view the region as bi-cultural, however. But I want to point out just how complex and diverse the historical roots of the Gulf Coast region truly are. Most long-time families in the area can trace their roots back to several points of origin and very few, if any, older families have one distinct line. Because the area has been historically an important center for trade and commerce, many people from across the globe were attracted to the region and settled there. It helps to explain the unique—almost schizophrenic—cultural traditions of the region.
As far as how this distinction relates to cooking: simply put creole cooking is highly influenced by French culinary traditions of sauces, tends to use butter, and is generally viewed as more refined (there are exceptions!). Cajun cooking, on the other hand, tends to be a cuisine of necessity. By that, I mean that as farmers and fisherman there was a need to live off the land and essentially eat what the harvest “brung ya’.” Many people view it as sophisticated vs. peasant food and while there is not anything wrong with that, it feeds into an oversimplification of what really happened. There are also exceptions where creole food is countrified and cajun food is citified. As a final note, blackened stuff of any kind is not cajun. That was an invention of Paul Prud’homme who happens to be of Cajun descent. Prud’homme’s was actually trained as a creole chef at Commander’s Palace.
I’m sure by now, y’all are saying “well, that was a mouthful.” I am a social sciences student working toward getting my credentials to teach US history in at the High School level and have a great fascination with all things Southeast Louisiana.