New Orleans Gumbo: Part I

Tatiana A. Galli

Foodles by Megan Pendergrass;

New Orleans Gumbo – A Five Part Series

This hearty and flavorful bowl of soup is one dish that hits near to the hearts of those who reside in New Orleans. Not only is this food item an important staple in many homes of Louisiana, it is one that epitomizes the state’s cuisine as a whole. This enduring dish serves as a time machine to transport an individual back to the beginning of the cuisine’s existence. Exhibiting many diverse cultural influences, this dish provides an excellent example of the cultural melting pot of New Orleans. Evident in almost all of the city’s cuisine, the cooking traditions of those that immigrated fused together with the creation of what is known as one of the unique cuisines in America – the Creole Cuisine. This five-part series will focus on the histories and influences of the French, African, Spanish and German cultures, as well as particular ingredients, on the celebrated evolution of the Creole cuisine. Firstly, what is the difference between Creole and Cajun?

A Creole gumbo. Photo by Stephanie Jane Carter.

Creole vs. Cajun

French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the land of Louisiana and named the territory after Louis XIV, the king of France, in 1682. Although the French relinquished Louisiana to Spain in 1763, who ruled until 1800, many French immigrants continued to settle the land. France regained control of the territory at the end of the Spanish rule, only to see its reign end quickly when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. During this time many Canadians, along with continental French, immigrated to the land. Upon their arrival, both groups settled among the Native inhabitants, as well as the Spanish colonists. In the early years of the 18th century, African slaves were brought to the Louisiana Territory via the slave trade. However, some slaves, amid the many brought to the colony, were able to buy a family member’s or their own right manumission. This cluster of Africans became identified as the “free people of color,” or “gens de couleur libres,” and soon established a middle social class within the colony. As the number of foreigners immigrating increased, Louisiana’s population slowly began to encompass a diverse group of individuals: French, Spanish, Native Americans, Canadians, Africans, and even Germans.  As the cultures and traditions amalgamated, so did the people. Men and women from the different cultures began to marry and start families of their own. This integration of cultures gave birth to a race –  the Creoles. Properly defined, the term Creole means a white, black, or mixed-race individual born in Louisiana and who shares some French and/or Spanish ancestry.[1]

In the year 1755, the French Canadians, or Acadians, who first settled in Canada in the 17th century, were exiled from Canada under the British rule. Many of the Acadians returned to their homeland of France, while others searched elsewhere for a place to settle. In 1765, the first Acadians were said to have settled in the rural land of Louisiana.[2] Akin to the Creoles, the Acadians fused together with other cultures within the area and established a new ethnic group known as the Cajuns. The term Cajun refers to any individual born in Louisiana who is a descendent of the Acadians.

Cajun woman hulls rice with a mortar and pestle near Crowley, Louisiana; October 1938; Russell Lee, Wikimedia Commons

As generations pass, it has become a common misconception that these two cultures are one in the same. However, they are indeed unique from one another. Though both groups share many similarities in traditions and customs, much like their ethnicities, there is a general fallacy about both the Creole and Cajun cuisines. Because many individuals are unaware of the subtle nuances between the two, they often treat them as being interchangeable – thus causing great confusion over their global recognition.

The Creole and Cajun cookeries both share the significant influence of French cookery. Although many dishes of each cuisine may bear the same name or make use of the same ingredients, their tastes and visual components are, in fact, different. In its early years, the city of New Orleans was developed under European – French and Spanish – control. With this, the Creole cuisine evolved into an aristocratic, urban cookery using ingredients bought from local open-air markets.[3] Its cooking is often distinct from Cajun through the use of oysters, shrimp, and crabmeat. These meats are typically viewed as more upscale. Creole cookery uses more tomato-based sauces, French technique, Afro-Caribbean ingredients, and a wide variety of herbs and spices.[4] Upholding its uniqueness, Creole dishes are always prepared to grant an individual with a rich and flavorful food experience.

Cajun developed as the rustic cuisine of the country with people making use of what they hunted, trapped, and harvested. In essence, they were pushed to “live off the land.”[5] The Acadians were known to harvest many diverse crops, such as corn, rice, squash, peaches, and beans, as well as gather various types of fish and shellfish, such as oysters, shrimp, and crabs. With the required adaptability in the use of ever-changing land resources, this cooking has evolved to be less formal and more relaxed than that of Creole.[6] In fact, most of the dishes are referred to as “one-pot” meals, dishes that cook in a single pot. “One-pot” meals were made in an effort to conserve resources and energy. Meals of this nature include stews, fricassees, and grillades. Cajun foods are classically known for their use of pork and crawfish. Hot peppers and cayenne peppers are generously used, along with other spices, to give the foods a more pungent flavor– another distinguishing factor of its cookery.

Though it is important to understand that the Creole and Cajun cuisines are indeed different, there has been some influence of one another throughout their evolutionary history.  This becomes evident when comparing the many iconic dishes of each culture.

[1] Corder, Cathy. KnowLa: Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010.

[2]Smith, Andrew F., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. (p. 150-156)

[3]McNulty, Ian. “Cajun, Creole or Somewhere In Between,” Last modified 2012.

[4] Abel, Daniel, Charles Leary, and Vaughn Perret. The Trout Point Lodge Cookbook: Creole Cuisine from New Orleans to Nova Scotia. New York: Random House, 2004.

[5] Carey, Joseph. Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery. Lanham: Taylor Trade, 2004.

[6] Abel, Leary, and Perret, 2004.


One thought on “New Orleans Gumbo: Part I

  1. Pingback: the cook(book)ing school: learning how to cook more than gumbo | the cook(book)ing school

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