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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
By 1743, when the Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, known as the Grand Marquis, arrived as the governor, New Orleans had developed its own elegant Creole society. By all accounts, the governor and his entourage of officials led a life as close to that of the Court of Versailles as could be mustered. They brought their own chefs from France and kept the prominent locals awestruck with their elaborate feasts.
Perhaps Creole cuisine would have become just a slightly distressed reproduction of eighteenth-century French cuisine had not the Spanish come. In November 1762 Louis XV of France secretly gave Louisiana to his Spanish cousin Charles III in an effort to keep it safely out of the hands of the British after the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War. The Spanish introduced to the Louisiana diet the culinary tricks that they had learned from the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Even the term Créole comes from the Spanish word criollo , originally denoting a person of European or African descent born outside those countries.
It was during the Spanish period in Louisiana that the first Acadians came to settle in the area. They descended from families that had left France in the early 150Os and settled in Nova Scotia. In 1755 the British demanded they pledge allegiance to England or be expelled from Canada. When they refused, they were deported, some being sent to the American colonies and many to France. When those in France who were destitute were offered a home in French-speaking Louisiana by the Spanish, many accepted, and by 1763 they had begun to found settlements deep in the swamps and bayous around New Orleans. They quickly adapted to the rough life and happily lived off the bountiful fresh foods that the wetlands provided. Today the Acadians in Louisiana, now called Cajuns, number perhaps three-quarters of a million and many still speak a French somewhat akin to that of the seventeenth century.
The Spanish were familiar with many of the New World’s foods long before they arrived in Louisiana. In the fifteenth century Columbus had brought yams, tobacco, kidney beans, maize, and red pepper back to Southern Europe and North Africa. Later the Spanish explorers brought back the tomato (known as “wolf peach,” “apple of the moors,” and “love apple”) from Mexico. The Italians and Spanish adored it: the French and English thought it was poisonous. As a matter of fact, the French did not begin to use it until 1850, when the Empress Eugénie introduced it at Napoleon’s table.
The Spaniards brought their love for peppers and the tomato back with them to Louisiana, and they began the practice of adding green pepper to sauces and meat dishes, which would arrest the growth of bacteria, reducing the spoilage that was a constant problem in those days before refrigeration. When coupled with the roux, the tomato became the integral ingredient in shrimp Creole sauce; in the rich gravy for grillades; and in the base for courtbouillon, a thick seafood stew similar to bouillabaisse. The Spanish paella, a rice and shellfish dish, became the forerunner of Creole jambalaya.
After the Civil War, the impoverished Creoles were said to be “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.”
The early Creole proverb Misé fe macaque mangé piment (“Misery makes the monkey eat red pepper”) perhaps suggests why hot peppers were such an important ingredient in this region of the country. The Cajuns were economically, culturally, and geographically cut off from the more cosmopolitan areas. As Joel Cavaness, an accomplished Cajun cook and a direct descendant of the original Acadians, explains: “We grew up in the bayou eating only what we could grow, catch or shoot and cook in one big pot. We ate what was in season, which could mean that we ate crawfish daily for weeks. The great variety and spice in our diet came from combining various peppers from the garden with some onions, garlic and bell pepper to create bisque, étouffé, courtbouillon, sauce piquante , jambalaya, gumbo, or just simple, well-seasoned, boiled crawfish, shrimp, and crabs.”
From the Spanish period onward, no matter how poor, each household could easily grow one or two varieties of hot peppers. The flavors of foods, from old raccoon meat to “mud bugs” (crawfish), were greatly enhanced by the addition of a little salt and a dose of red pepper. Eating pickled and raw pepper is still a popular south Louisiana barroom sport, a proof of manhood. If the Spanish influence was ever in danger of fading, the Mexican War reversed the trend. Hundreds of Louisianians went off to Mexico in the 184Os and returned home with a renewed passion for the pepper. One of these men brought the Mcllhenny family of Avery Island some special Mexican pepper seeds. The result was Tabasco sauce, which now sells more than seventy million bottles annually.