By Julian Brunt
It’s curious that if you make gumbo and add tomatoes in southern Louisiana and New Orleans, it becomes a Creole gumbo. The Creole tomato is a specialty of the region, and I don’t think it is found anywhere else. When in season, a pickup truck with the tailgate down and a friendly farmer sitting there on the side of the road is happy to sell you his prized tomatoes for gumbo or anything else you might like to make.
However, I find it odd that just the addition of tomato would change the nature of a dish enough to give it another name. When I think of Creole, I do not think of tomatoes, but of New Orleans, in a very sort of uptown way, if you know what I mean. Interestingly, some people associate Cajun with New Orleans, but they are mistaken. They are two cultures that are completely different, my friend, much more different than gumbo with or without tomato. The Cajuns were the French Catholics expelled from Canada after the Great Expulsion during the French and British hostilities in the mid-1700s. Historically speaking, Cajuns had nothing at all to do with the big city Creoles of New Orleans. The Cajuns were proud fishermen and farmers that lived in that neither world of coastal marsh, bayou and low fields perfect for sugar cane. The Creoles walked St. Charles Avenue, Esplanade and Canal Street with no fear of a muddy shoe.
Originally, the Creoles were people born in Louisiana, typically wealthy, whose parents were born in Spain or France, but that definition has changed over the years. But there were other peoples that called themselves Creoles, too. Haitians, Brazilians and people from other Caribbean islands and South America, who were of mixed heritage: Africans, Spanish, French and others, all called themselves Creole. Today, being a Creole more often than not means belonging to an ethnic group that originated during the colonial period and involved West African and other peoples born in the colonies. Isn’t it curious how definitions change?
One of the byproducts of this ethnic mixing is one of the most glorious food cultures in the world. Who would have thought to combine French and other European traditions with African, West Indies, Native American and traditional Deep South food? It is a glorious gumbo of culinary ideas like no other and, like the Creole tomato, can be found nowhere else.
I would describe a restaurant like Herbsaint on St. Charles in New Orleans as Creole, although they describe themselves as seasonal French and Southern cuisine. To me, classic Creole is French food using local ingredients and French techniques. Gumbo is another example, probably derived from French bouillabaisse. Shrimp Creole made with tomatoes and etouffee are good Creole dishes, although both are now popular with both Cajuns and Creoles. But in truth, just like the definition of Creole, today Cajun and Creole foods do not have any clear lines of distinction and share much in common. A good Creole chef would tell you his food is a bit more sophisticated, but a Cajun cook would insist that his food may not be fancy but is just better. So, it goes. The food of the Deep South, which contributed to both Cajun and Creole food, came from people from northern Europe, England and Scotland, and who were primarily Protestant and Baptist.
The food is not as spicy and depends largely on veggies from the garden, animals from the farm, fishing and hunting. The food of the South included greens, cornbread, peas, beans, lots of pork and, of course, fried chicken. The classic Southern restaurant is a small-town diner and has nothing fancy about it at all. Cajun food has been incorrectly thought of today as spicy, but it was not originally so. Thank Chef Paul Prudhomme for that misconception. Cajun had fewer French influences and was focused on local ingredients harvested by poor farmers and fishermen on the Louisiana coast. Cayenne was not a big part of their pantry. Today, the most important seasoning is Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning and Tabasco.
The differences in Cajun and Creole have mellowed over the years, as has the definition of what being a Creole is. Not so with our Cajun friends, it is a very distinct culture, and until just a few years ago, if you did not speak their dialect of French, you just might have a hard time talking to the older folks. But, putting those differences aside, these two closely related cultures produce some of the most wonderful food in the country. How dull would life be without gumbo, a crab or shrimp boil, a fully dressed oyster po’boy or red beans and rice with lots of spicy sausages?