I’m over at Paranormal Unbound today, doing the “What We’re Reading” feature, and what I’m reading is a new book by Michael Murphy called Eat Dat, New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City. It’s fun to go through and read some of the legends and stories associated with what I think is the greatest food city in the country. Yeah, I’m prejudiced, but a lot of chefs agree with me (most recently, Mario Batali).
Anyway, it seemed a good jumping-off place for a new blog feature I’m calling “Southern Fried Gothic.” It won’t be about food, don’t worry. It’s about Louisiana and the South, two areas I know well. Note I say those are two areas. Why Louisiana is not the South is a topic for another day.
Today, I thought I’d talk about something I see a lot of authors get wrong when they’re writing about New Orleans or Louisiana: Creole food and Cajun food. These terms are not interchangeable. Gumbo? It’s Creole. Boudin? It’s Cajun. It gets even more confusing when restaurants mix the cuisines and call them one or the other.
The different lies in the origins of the cuisines, and in the base ingredients. Think of them as the city mouse and the country mouse.
Creole cuisine is the city mouse. It came about when a lot of expatriate French chefs left the homeland for La Louisiane and brought their cuisine with them to the French colony. Once in Nouvelle Orleans, their food adapted to local ingredients and got mixed in with the recipes brought in by the large numbers of free people of color from the West Indies that populated the city. The result was a French-African-Caribbean cuisine that became Creole.
Popular modern dishes with Creole origins include gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish or shrimp etouffee, maque choux, remoulade, and turtle soup. These dishes are very savory, generally not too spicy, and often feature tomatoes or okra.
The word “Cajun” is a shorthand mispronunciation of “Acadian.” This was the cuisine of the country mouse—the French Acadians driven out of the Canadian maritime provinces in the “Grand Derangement” when they refused to pledge loyalty to the British. They settled in the swampy areas of south-central Louisiana, and were very much people who lived off the land. Being poorer than your average city mouse, they also figured out ways to stretch the food they had.
Less expensive cuts of meat and organ meats were ground up and mixed with rice to make boudin. Less tasty foods were highly seasoned—it’s in the Cajun dishes where you’ll find the legendary hot, spicy foods. You’ll find the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking—onions, celery, and bell pepper—but you won’t see tomatoes or okra. Cayenne pepper? Yeah, baby.
From Cajun food came modern favorites like boudin, tasso, Andouille, all kinds of smoked fish and seafood like crawfish, boiled in a spicy mixture with potatoes and vegetables.
What about red beans and rice? Originally, it was a Creole dish. It was usually served on Mondays, when New Orleans households usually did laundry. Leftover ham from Sunday dinner was thrown in a pot of beans to cook all day. Even now, a lot of restaurants have red beans as their Monday special. Modern iterations take a nice Cajun Andouille (smoked sausage) and cook it with the Creole red beans for a blended version. Louis Armstrong was a big fan of red beans and rice and often signed letters, “red beans and ricely yours, Louis Armstrong.”
So I have to leave you with a recipe, right? Here’s my combined-cuisine version of red beans. C’est si bon! Leave a comment to win a copy of Eat Dat (it makes a good read even if you don’t like Creole or Cajun food).
RED BEANS and RICE
Rinse 1 pound of kidney beans and soak overnight. Then rinse and drain.
In a skillet, heat oil (I like peanut but you can use any kind) and sautee 1 large chopped onion, 1 chopped bell pepper, 2 stalks of celery, chopped, and a crushed clove of garlic. Add 6 cups of water, the beans, and add 1 Tbsp Crystal Hot Sauce or other pepper sauce, 1/2 teaspoon sage, 1 Tbsp of Cajun seasoning (I use Louisiana brand, but Tony Chachere’s or even McCormick will work). Cook on low simmer for 2-3 hours. Stir in 1 pound chopped andouille (can substitute kielbasa or any smoked sausage) and simmer another half hour. Serve over white rice.
If you eat mostly low carb or slow carb, you can ditch the rice; I usually do. I like spicy, so if you aren’t sure, half the hot sauce and Cajun seasoning until it’s done and then add more if you want to increase the heat. This also works well in a slow cooker. Just throw everything in but the rice and forget it for six or seven hours.
Enjoy! Leave a comment to win a copy of Eat Dat. Have you tried any of the dishes mentioned in this blog post? Would you like to?