A popular song by the rock group Little Feat proclaims that, “The Cajuns speak Creole, and lay on the spice.” The first half of this statement is patently false, the second true to an extent. As a tour bus guide in New Orleans once told my group (after stressing that, yes, he did accept gratuities), “The Cajuns and the Creoles are not the same.” Beyond having something French about them and inhabiting the state of Louisiana, the two groups actually have little in common. The Cajuns speak Cajun, not Creole (or French), and as far as “laying on the spice” is concerned, the Cajun approach to flavorings is a lot more subtle than that.
Cajun culture is as complicated a mélange as you’ll find anywhere. Today’s Cajuns are the descendants of French-speaking inhabitants of the area we now call Nova Scotia in Canada, called Acadia during its first few centuries. Persecuted by the British, these hardy and resourceful people scattered into parts of French Canada, New England, and even back to France, before groups began to trickle into Louisiana between 1764 and 1784. More organized immigration occurred between 1785 and 1788, establishing the Acadians in the bayous west of New Orleans, where they became the dominant culture, absorbing Native and African-American peoples, folkways, food and musical traditions into what we now call “Cajun” culture. The Cajun language is a descendent of the French spoken by the original settlers of Acadia in the 17th century, who themselves came largely from the mid-Atlantic coast of France and spoke a dialect far removed from today’s standard modern French. Until oil was discovered in Cajun country in the 1920s, Cajun country existed as a world apart: isolated, forgotten, a quaint dot on an ethnologist’s map. During much of the 20th century, English-speaking Louisianans tried to stamp out the Cajun language and culture. They never quite succeeded. If anything, over the last few decades, the Cajuns, with their infectious music and no-nonsense cuisine, have taken American culture by storm.
Today’s Cajun cooking reflects long tradition to be sure, yet it also blazes new ground. A Cajun great-grandmother may look askance at the current tendency to “blacken” fish, but the practice does reflect Cajun spicing traditions. It takes courage to blacken. You will use a very hot pan. You will finally change the filters in your exhaust fan, so you don’t blacken the entire house. You will NOT TOUCH the fish or move the pan while the fish is searing. Blackening works best with a firm fish, like a red snapper, cut into uniform half inch filets (plain arithmetic tells us that odd sized filets will require differing cooking times). Celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme sell their own blackening spice mixtures, but it’s simple to make your own.
CAJUN BLACKENING SPICE MIXTURE
(enough for four 6-8 ounce fish fillets)
One teaspoon dried (or one tablespoon fresh) chopped thyme leaves
One teaspoon dried (or one tablespoon fresh) chopped marjoram or oregano leaves
One half to one teaspoon ground cayenne
One teaspoon garlic powder
Two teaspoons paprika
One teaspoon salt
One half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
One quarter teaspoon ground cumin
Mix it all together, crushing the herbs with your fingers to release their essential oils.
To cook the blackened filets, heat your heavy pan-cast iron preferably-until it is white hot, at least 5 minutes. Dip the filets first into either melted butter or olive oil, sprinkle one side of each filet with the spice mixture, then carefully place spiced-side down into the pan. It is your option whether to spice the face-up side of the filets as they are blackening. Two to two and a half minutes a side finishes it, but don’t forget that exhaust fan. Serve immediately.
Gumbo shares an important aspect with a wide range of foods of the American south: long, slow cooking. It is a cross between a soup and a stew, thickened either with okra, a gooey vegetable that is becoming ever more mainstream, or filé powder, a form of powdered sassafras leaf that, outside Louisiana, requires a visit to a specialty store or web-site. A gumbo purist would never use both thickeners. Gumbo is truly cross-cultural. The word “gumbo” itself is derived from the Angolan word for okra: “ki ngombo.” Slaves, or slave traders, brought this versatile vegetable from Africa to the Americas. The French influence in gumbo is found in its initial base: frequently a slow cooked mixture of flour with butter or oil called a “roux.” As a variant of the French “mirepoix,” chopped onions, celery and carrots, gumbo more likely uses the Louisianan “holy trinity,” onions, celery and green bell peppers. The proteins in gumbo, added in later stages, will usually depend on what is on hand: chicken, smoky andouille sausage, crawfish, shrimp, crab, or all-of-the-above. A near invariable is the necessity to serve the gumbo mixed with or over long-grain Louisiana rice.
A mainstream gumbo-by no means the only gumbo one finds in Louisiana or elsewhere in the south-is put together in five distinct stages:
- Cook the roux to a toasty brown without burning it (or your fingers)
- Cook the holy trinity in the roux until the vegetables are soft
- Add liquid (white wine, chicken broth, water) and simmer
- Add okra and simmer
- Add proteins and simmer
You will season during stages 3 through 5. Certainly gumbo is a labor of love, but other than the trying roux section (which requires constant stirring for at least half an hour over a hot stove), you can do other things during the slow cooking process. You can also make a lot of gumbo at one time and feast on it for days. Some would call all this therapy. I call it a great American dish the French can’t touch.
Cajun “dirty rice” is a meal in itself; the name of the dish itself sounds so deliciously American. To make dirty rice, you’ll start by sautéing the above-mentioned holy trinity, with garlic and perhaps Serrano chiles, in oil until soft. At the same time, you’ll simmer various meats-chicken livers, gizzards, sausage meat-in water until tender. At this point, some recipes have you put uncooked rice with the sautéed holy trinity, adding water or stock to boil down and combine flavors, just like Italian risotto or Spanish paella. Other recipes have you combine fluffed cooked rice with the vegetables and chopped meats. Parsely, thyme, bay leaf, salt, black pepper and cayenne are the usual seasonings.
For a truly authentic Cajun meal, you must have Cajun music. The fiddle is the king of Cajun instruments, the accordion its queen, and Jolie Blonde the obligatory waltz:
Jolie blonde, gardez-donc quoi t’as fait
Tu m’as quitté pour t’en aller
Pour t’en aller avec un autre, oui que moi
Quel espoir et quell avenir mais moi je va avoir!
Which means, roughly: “Pretty blonde, look what you’ve done. You’ve left me for another. What kind of future do I have now?” Alan Lomax, the musicologist, interviewed Cajuns about this betrayal theme and discovered a poignant irony; most Cajuns agreed it was the man in Cajun culture who usually strayed, while his wife was-where else?-in the kitchen, burning her fingers making roux. Never mind the seeming injustice; rules are always different in the realm of song. It is to be assumed that the poor “betrayed” Cajun will have to console himself with a backwater shrimp boil, a heap of crawfish étouffée over dirty rice, or a superbly complex gumbo, before he picks up his fiddle and plays melodies that span the oceans and the centuries.