Cajun vs. Creole: A confounding conundrum

What's the difference between the cooking styles?

In recent years, the difference between Cajun and Creole food has become somewhat muddled. However, the two cultures remain very distinct.

In the 18th century, the Cajuns came to Louisiana from Acadia (Nova Scotia) after they refused to swear allegiance to the British who captured their French Canadian colony. They settled in the swamps of the southern part of the state. The anthropology of the Creoles is more complex. In Louisiana, originally a Creole was a person whose ancestry predated the territory being acquired by the United States; primarily people of French, Spanish or African descent. In New Orleans during the past century, Creole came to refer exclusively to people of mixed race.

The Cajuns lived in a remote area and survived by hunting, fishing and raising their own crops. The Creoles, on the other hand, lived in New Orleans and were accustomed to creature comforts, servants and fine food. Both groups came to embrace some of the same foodstuffs, both new and old – crawfish, oysters, mirliton (chayote, or pear squash) and wild game. However, Cajun fare was homespun and rustic while Creole dining was sophisticated and stylish. The difference is often defined as country versus city.

While the Cajuns remained isolated, life in the Crescent City became increasingly more diverse and the diet was greatly influenced by the enslaved African Americans who were the city’s cooks. They popularized staples familiar to them in Africa, like rice, black-eyed peas, okra and watermelon. They also advanced the technique of frying in deep fat. They influenced the creation of gumbo, a dish today embraced by Cajun and Creole alike. Later, the Irish, Germans, Italians and now, Vietnamese, have made their contributions to NOLA’s contemporary eating and drinking scene.Cajun vs. Creole: A confounding conundrum

Regardless, well into the 20th century the city’s better restaurants continued to emulate the French with a dependence on rich sauces like hollandaise, remoulade and Marchand de Vin. Dishes such as escargots, foie gras and pommes soufflees remain omnipresent. Menus written in French endure.

True Cajun restaurants were hard to find in the Big Easy until Paul Prudhomme came to town. His first restaurant in his hometown Opelousas had gone bust, but in New Orleans he found phenomenal success, first as the executive chef – a Cajun – at the legendary Commander’s Palace and then at his own place, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. His bold and brash cooking wasn’t what the city was used to, but it made everything Cajun cool. Emeril Lagasse followed and became the master of merging the two styles of cookery into what we recognize today as a uniquely American genre, modern Louisiana cuisine.

Whether labeled Cajun or Creole, our country now devours their specialties. Most cities of any size, anywhere, including Madison, have their share of eateries devoted to its practitioners. Louisianne’s, Liliana’s Restaurant and New Orleans Take-Out have all deservedly found loyal fans. The andouille at Underground Butcher is a local lagniappe.

Personally, I think the secret to our love of Cajun/Creole is that while it’s indigenous, it’s at the same time exotic. Its rise in popularity parallels the evolution of our ever more adventurous taste.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.