A culinary journey through Louisiana
Crossing the bayous of southern Louisiana, breathing in the aromas of the French market in New Orleans, or travelling up the Mississippi, you'll discover Cajun and Creole cooking in this country that became home to many of the Acadians who left Nova Scotia during "le grand dérangement" and deportations of 1755.
Cajun or Creole? On the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana, the cooking has accents that are found nowhere else in the United States. This cultural heritage - going back to the time America was discovered - is a melting pot in which the traditions of the people who have come here are combined with local products. Traditional aspects such as butchering, suckling pig, crawfish boils… all show to what extent this is a unique cuisine. A look into the evolution of praline, the growing of the Cajun coffee tree, the making of beignets and hush puppies, the preparation of gumbo… There are only some of the myriad facets to be discovered.
In crossing the bayous of southern Louisiana, breathing in the aromas of the French market in New Orleans, or travelling up the Mississippi, you'll discover three hundred years of history.
A land of many influences
The Spanish - The Spanish were the first Europeans to establish themselves in southern Louisiana. Spanish paella, a rice dish with vegetables, meat and sausage, became the basis for jambalaya. On the coast, the meat was replaced with mussels, clams, shrimp, crayfish, etc.
Germans arrived in Louisiana in 1690 and brought with them their skill in butchery, charcuterie and sausage-making. They introduced pigs, chickens and cattle to the region, bringing about a more dependable supply of milk, butter and eggs.
The Italians, renowned for their culinary prowess, brought with them to the New World the art of pastry and the making of ice creams and sorbets.
From the West Indies and the steaming pots of Haiti came some exotic vegetables including the tomato, as well as cooking methods like braising, which contributed to the development of gumbo.
The Native Indians - Choctaws, Chetimaches and Houmas - taught the settlers to grow and use local products, as well as to hunt. Native contributions to Louisiana cuisine include corn, sassafras leaves ground to make filé powder, and bay leaves.
Africans brought from their continent "gumbo" or okra which would lend its name to numerous traditional dishes.
The Holy Trinity of Cuisine:
Refers specifically to the use of chopped celery, bell peppers, and onions as the flavour-base in Cajun and Creole cuisine. The holy trinity is used when creating sauces, soups, stews, and stir-fries.
Cajun and Creole cultures are distinct, as are their styles of cooking.
The word "Cajun" is a corruption of the French word "Acadien."
Cajun cuisine is unique, reflecting a people's ingenuity, creativity, adaptability and will to survive.
The Acadians were the French of Nova Scotia (Acadia). In 1755, 10,000 Acadians were deported for refusing to swear allegiance to the British crown. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized "le grand dérangement" in his epic poem Evangeline, which heartrendingly describes the fire that destroyed the village of Grand Pré, and tells of families, split up and forced onto the 24 ships anchored in the Bay of Fundy. Some disembarked in various American states, hundreds of men were sold into slavery in Georgia, but those who made it to southern Louisiana found a land of welcome where they happily settled down and began a new life. Originally from Brittany, Normandy, Picardy and Poitou, these farmers and fishermen, having learned to survive in Nova Scotia, adapted once again. Armed with their cast iron kettles, these Cajuns, as they were nicknamed, embraced local ingredients and adapted them to their French culinary background. It is said that the Cajuns' cooking is a reflection of their joy in finding such a rich and friendly land.
This cuisine is notable for its use of wild meats and shellfish. The Cajuns became familiar with products from the wild and with aromatic herbs. They befriended the Indians and learned about everything the bayous, lakes, rivers and forests had to offer. These are generally unique dishes: jambalayas, grilled meats, stews, fricassees, soups, gumbos, hot sauces, stuffed vegetables.
Since most Cajuns were farmers and not especially wealthy, they were known for not wasting any part of a butchered animal. Cracklins are a popular snack made by frying pork skins and boudin is created from the ground-up leftover parts of a hog after the best meat is taken, which is mixed with cooked rice. It is usually formed into a sausage but can also be rolled in a ball and deep fried. From the Germans they learned the rudiments of charcuterie and brought to their menu all kinds of sausage: andouille, smoked sausage, chaudin, chaurice. Cajun cooking is a table set outdoors, a creative adaptation of nature's bounty, filled with wonderful flavours.
The word "Creole" actually has several meanings. During colonial times, the term referred to French or Spanish colonists and their descendants, especially those who retained the traditions and customs of their motherland. With time, French-speaking blacks in southwestern Louisiana, like French-speaking blacks in New Orleans, defined themselves as Creoles, referring to their mixed background. But whites of French ancestry were also called Creoles. To confuse things even further, the Creole dialect is based on French with some words and grammar drawn from various African dialects, and is commonly heard in Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Louisiana. On the other hand, Creole cooking refers to the style of French cuisine developed in New Orleans. With influences from Africa and Europe and the opening of trade with the West Indies and Mexico, a new cuisine was born.
Creoles like to refine dishes by adding sauces. This is a sophisticated cuisine with aristocratic roots, brought over by the French and Spanish who settled here. From 1690 on, European aristocrats, the younger sons of the nobility, came to live along the banks of the Mississippi, bringing with them their chefs and their traditions, replanting the great cuisines of Europe in American soil. The flavours are delicate and the combinations subtle: oysters Rockefeller, crawfish gumbo, sauce remoulade, for example. This is a cuisine of the market, not of the wild, and the dishes are served individually in strict order.
There are over 400 feasts, festivals and other events that take place each year in Louisiana, from the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales and the Boudin Festival in Broussard to the sugar cane festival in New Iberia, the Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula and the Corn Festival in Bunkie. All of them celebrate local specialties and the abundance of the harvest.
During the Christmas season, oyster and artichoke soup has become a tradition, one even older than the Festival of Lights that illumines Natchitoches, though both will leave you with wonderful memories.
With the collaboration of Charlotte Stead, cooking teacher at Cookin'Cajun Cooking School, Louisiana
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