The PARADE SEASON has just ended.
With MARDI GRAS now in my rearview mirror, I got to thinking about Joanne’s and my culinary adventures to New Orleans and the surrounding areas on up through Baton Rouge.
The Mardi Gras season officially begins on the 12th day of Christmas– the Epiphany – and ramps up with parties and parades before reaching its climax with the main carnival parade on FAT TUESDAY, the day before Ash Wednesday. That’s their last opportunity to indulge in rich food and drink before the fasting and religious obligations of Lent begin.
One of my memorable indulgences during the season is the “sweetness on steroids” intersection between the secular and religious dessert known as the KING CAKE. Iced with green, purple and gold frosting and sprinkles, the official colors of Mardi Gras (for “justice, faith and power”), it has a small plastic baby figurine mixed into the batter. The person whose slice contains it is obligated to provide the next king cake or host the following year’s Mardi Gras party.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Louisiana’s culinary culture is its rich heritage of CAJUN and CREOLE cooking. Yet I have to admit as often as I’ve enjoyed it, I still get fuzzy on the difference between the two. I’m not alone in this regard. Witness local food writers and reporters who regularly refer to them as “two distinct but similar cuisines.” In fact, most people – including quite a few chefs – use the terms “Cajun” and “Creole” interchangeably.
The distinction continues to blur today, but certain differences are apparent historically.
In the late 1700s, the Acadians (French people who’d settled in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia) were kicked out of Canada by the British. They ended up relocating in western Louisiana’s mosquito-infested swamps and bayous.
Called CAJUNS by the local population, the Acadians lived off the land, hunting, fishing and trapping the bounty of the swamps, marshes and the Mississippi River. Gators, squirrels, rabbits, racoons, feral pigs, deer and freshwater crawfish became everyday staples of their diet. Mixtures of ingredients were cooked in large cast iron vessels (“one-pot dinners”). This was rib-sticking food – hearty and rustic. Think turtle soup, rabbit and squirrel gumbo, gator and andouille sausage, fried catfish and crawfish boil.
Those one-pot dinners most always began with a ROUX, a combination of equal parts lard and flour continually stirred through stages from blonde to dark chocolate color. To this they ALWAYS added the “holy trinity” of green bell peppers, celery and onions. Cajuns generally prefer the dark roux as it stands up well to the gaminess of the critters.
But what about CREOLE?
At the time, what we now know as Louisiana was ruled by Spain. Visitors to population centers like New Orleans encountered a diverse cultural mix of Spanish, West African, Italian, French, Native American, Portuguese, and Caribbean influences.
Creoles were urbanites who flocked to New Orleans because of its access to Europe and the rest of the world. West African spices, Italian tomatoes and peppers, Spanish citrus fruits, and bananas and limes from the Caribbean all passed through the port city.
One of our many favorite restaurants in New Orleans is the 106-year-old PASCAL’S MANALE, a Creole-leaning spot that, in addition to Sicilian red sauce pastas and oysters, specializes in BARBECUED SHRIMP – messy beyond belief, delicious beyond your imagination.
The Italian influence on Creole continues with the MUFFULETTA SANDWICH from the Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. It’s redolent with provolone cheese, salami and mortadella and, of course, the iconic olive giardiniera.
Remember the chocolate roux?
Well, the Creoles tend to prefer a lighter, blonde roux as a base for their cuisine, and they use butter instead of lard to create it. This results in a roux the color of a paper bag or peanut butter. Like the Cajuns, they incorporate the “holy trinity” as a base.
Creole JAMBALAYAS (a Spanish-inspired sorta PAELLA), along with GUMBOS and ETOUFFES, are lighter than the Cajuns’ iterations of similar dishes and most always include tomatoes. The Cajun renditions tend to be thicker while the Creole versions are more sophisticated and soup-like.
Check out the side-by-side images of the étouffés below – one Creole, and the darker one Cajun.
Another more recent creation with a Creole pedigree is blackened fish, boldly seasoned with spices and cayenne pepper. The late, great Paul Prudhomme first introduced blackened redfish to the world when he was the chef at COMMANDER’S PALACE. Later, at his own place, K-PAULS KITCHEN, he expanded his repertoire to include blackened catfish and drum.
So…are Cajun and Creole the same thing?
Well, in today’s Louisiana, they kind of are….and aren’t. When Joanne and I visited New Iberia, Louisiana deep in the bayous, to tour the Tabasco factory, a purer version of Cajun cuisine seemed to emerge.
But perhaps it’s a distinction without a meaningful difference. After all, both Cajun and Creole cuisines are equally delicious. The blended recipes are as well. And all utilize local ingredients. I’m reminded of Burgundy and Bordeaux red wines. Like wool and silk, one is not better than the other; they’re simply different.
Take Gumbo, a fixture of both Creole and Cajun cooking. Cajun versions are often based on a dark roux; Creole versions are lighter. Can one be considered objectively superior to the other?
My New Orleans guru, Michael Ewing, says yes. There is indeed a version that towers above all others: his mother’s.
Now, Michael is a New Orleans transplant (a Creole) who moved up to Minnesota after Hurricane Katrina demolished his 9th Ward neighborhood. He helped open SALUT with us – is still here at SALUT. He grew up eating Gumbo, which his mom would prepare on holidays and for other special gatherings, always in a quantity sufficient for his many aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors to eat their fill AND take leftovers home with them.
According to Michael, his mom’s recipe is the GUMBO GOLD STANDARD in all of Louisiana – be it Cajun or Creole country.
So what’s her secret? I’m sure there are many, but this much he has disclosed to me: She starts with a blonde roux, adds the “holy trinity”, and includes tomatoes (a main Creole ingredient). Instead of one kind of sausage, she uses three: andouille, spicy Italian and ALWAYS D&D Smoked Pork Sausage from Bogalusa, Louisiana. Chopped-up crabs add another level of flavor. She adds okra, too, along with filé powder, made from dried, ground sassafras leaves.
Hopefully, I can persuade Michael or his Mom to share their recipe with me (in exchange, I’ll tell them all my mother’s Jello secrets).