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A True And Delectable History Of Creole Cooking
New Orleans cuisine—with its French roux, African okra, Indian filé, and Spanish peppers—is literally a gastronomic melting pot. Here’s how it all came together.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Across most of America nowadays the term Creole when applied to food variably conjures up images of charred, blackened fish and meat, overbearing, fiery seasonings, and a ubiquitous red sauce not unlike the kind you buy in a can. As a seventh-generation native of south Louisiana, and as a food writer, I join other locals in feeling a twinge of horror at what has befallen my native cuisine since it became the food fad of the eighties. The dishes for which people happily wait in line outside the local Cajun/Creole guru Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen—and for which they gladly pay high prices in restaurants from New York to San Francisco—would shame the men and women who toiled to create America’s preeminent native cuisine. Remaining virtually unnoticed by the majority of the new wave of Creole food fanciers are the Creole delights we’ve enjoyed for generations: succulent oyster patties, hogshead cheese, trout meunière, mirliton stuffed with crab meat, and daube glacé .
It is a popular misconception that the terms Creole and Cajun are interchangeable. While there are similarities, Creole is the sophisticated, worldly urbanite and Cajun is the provincial country cousin. The inhabitants of New Orleans created Creole cuisine, a subtle group of dishes utilizing spices and rich sauces. The Cajuns, having settled at a later date in more remote areas of the Louisiana countryside, had to improvise with ingredients readily available in the bayous.
Creole and Cajun cuisine did not develop in a linear way from French gastronomy to the same extent that American cooking derived from the English and European cooking styles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Louisiana cuisine, whatever it might be called, is the literal melting pot of America. In a pot of gumbo served today in a traditional New Orleans house, there is a French roux, African okra, Indian filé , Spanish peppers, Cajun sausage, and oysters supplied by a Yugoslav fisherman, all served over Chinese rice with an accompaniment of hot French bread made by one of the city’s finest German bakers.
This harmonious cuisine, born out of the mixture of cultures, evolved because of Louisiana’s geographical isolation, plus its settlers’ hardships, pride, instinct, and the Latin cultural desire to eat well. For two centuries Creole cuisine kept changing to satisfy the needs and tastes of each new group who came to settle in Louisiana. Nowadays, starting with breakfast, with its calas (rice cakes) served with cane syrup, all the way through to the after-dinner treats of café brûlot and pecan pralines, the inhabitants of south Louisiana happily eat a unique diet.
From the rash of articles and cookbooks extolling the merits of Creole and Cajun food, it appears that the early seventeenth-century French settlers possessed such extraordinary culinary acumen that all they needed was an introduction to a few Indian herbs, a Spanish spice or two, and voilà , within a few years Louisiana had a legendary cuisine. Although almost any person in Louisiana of French ancestry will probably serve up this theory, it isn’t exactly the way things happened.
Except for the kindness of the Indians, who were adept at living off the land, the French would have starved.
La Nouvelle Orléans was founded in 1718 by the French Canadian Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, on a Muskhogean tribal portage at a strategic crescent on the Mississippi River, thirty leagues upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. The actual site was a small, verminous swamp, an area that is marked on maps of the period as being inhabited by “Savage Man Eaters.”
For a time the Compagnie des Indes, which controlled Louisiana, decided to colonize the area from the jails, brothels, and debtors’ prisons of France. The colony was in such chaos that the regent, Philippe of Orléans, finally put a stop to the practice in 1720. Early on, the unfortunate settlers discovered that the staple of their diet, wheat, would not grow in swampy, humid Louisiana. In spite of the fact that they named Lake Pontchartrain after the French minister in charge of providing them with staples, the settlers went for as much as two years without a shipment of flour.
If it had not been for the kindness of the Indians, the French would have starved. These Indians were adept at living off the land. They cultivated corn, from which they made a variety of breads; many kinds of squash, including the chayote (mirliton) and cushaw that are still popular in Louisiana today; and dried beans. They made sweet syrups from persimmons and chokecherries as a flavoring for smoked meats. Their stews were thickened with powdered sassafras, today called filé powder.