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Creole Cuisine

The word “Creole” is a complex one for an ethnographer; even if restricted to New Orleans (as opposed to the entire Caribbean rim and parts of South America), opinions differ as to whether the term relates to descendants of French-speaking settlers, descendents of Spanish speaking settlers, white people, black people, both, or a mixture of the two. It is easier, however, to make three broad statements: “Creole” cuisine is associated with New Orleans; it combines classic European cooking techniques with ingredients and cultural influences from all over the world (European, African, Native American, and Latin American); it represents some of the finest cooking in the United States.
A fourth statement is in order.

The Creoles of Louisiana and the Cajuns of Louisiana are not one and the same. The confusion is understandable since the French language is associated with both, and the Cajun country can be interpreted as beginning in the western suburbs of New Orleans, but the roots are different, the histories different.

Cajun cuisine stands on its own, and if anything, the recent influence of Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans has tended to “cajunize” the city’s food, adding dishes of Cajun origin such as jambalaya and crawfish etoufee.

Nevertheless, for purists, some major differences include:

  • Creole cooking uses butter and cream while Cajun cooks prefer pork fat.
  • Creole chefs are said to use more tomatoes than do Cajuns.
  • Cajun cooking, across the board, is more spicy than Creole.
  • Creole food tends to be associated with elegant restaurants and hotels, while Cajun food is simple, and “down home.”
  • As a result, Cajun-influenced food (sometimes a very poor reproduction) is available all over the United States while Creole food remains primarily a New Orleans specialty (except for “shrimp Creole,” found on many menus across the country).

Some major similarities:

  • Both cuisines prefer the “holy trinity” of chopped onions, green peppers, and celery to the classic French “mirepoix” of onions, carrots and celery.
  • Both cuisines glorify the thick soupy stew gumbo, thickened either with filé powder (a product of ground dried sassafras leaves, a distinct Native American contribution to the cuisines) or okra (a mucilaginous vegetable of African origin popular throughout the south), but rarely both.
  • Both cuisines base dishes and sauces on a roux: a fat slowly thickened by addition of flour.
  • Because of the geographic proximity, the cuisines often employ similar ingredients: rice, shrimp and crab, oysters, crawfish, pork, beans, turkeys.

Oysters Rockefeller, created at Antoine’s restaurant in 1899 and still be served there, is an elegant dish named after tycoon John D. Rockefeller. The dish combines oysters, capers, parsley, and Parmesan cheese in a rich milk, flour and butter-based sauce. Antoine’s and equally famous Arnaud’s both claim to have invented Oysters Bienville, a casserole of oysters baked in a complex béchamel-based sauce containing shrimp. Turtle soup, using turtle meat, is a slow-cooked labor of love, thickened with flour, finished with a dash of Madeira wine.
Trout Meuniere (or Trour Meuniere Amandine, which adds almonds) is a New Orleans specialty, with deep French influence. At its simplest, the dish is a fresh trout filet dredged in flour and either sautéed in a little butter or deep-fried in an oil and butter mixture. Many other types of fish as well as soft-shell crabs are prepared in a similar manner. These seafood dishes are frequently served covered in a brown butter-based Meuniere sauce.

Pompano en Papillote is another mainstream New Orleans dish; the “papillote” refers to the technique of cooking the pompano (a mackerel-like fish) in a parchment wrapping (which is not eaten), presumably to seal in the flavors. The fish is seasoned with salt and pepper, sautéed in olive oil, covered in a white wine sauce to which shrimp and crab have been added, baked in the parchment, ultimately to be served in a theatrical, tableside manner. This is another dish associated with Antoine’s. Incidentally, the Florida pompano used is the most expensive fish on a per-pound basis found in American waters.

Red beans and rice is a “pure” Creole dish, traditionally made on Mondays. It is so representative of New Orleans and its broad cultural mix that the city’s most famous native son, entertainer Louis Armstrong, would commonly sign his letters “Red beans and ricely yours.” The beans are usually given an overnight soak, then cooked with onions, garlic, filé powder and spices, or sometimes with a ham bone, and served over a bed of white rice for a contrast of crunchy and smooth textures. Spicy hot and mild versions are both popular. Red beans and rice is one of the few Creole foods found both in restaurants and home cooking.

Shrimp Creole has many versions. In a simple version, found widely even outside of Louisiana, a base of chopped onions, garlic, and green bell peppers are first sautéed with spices. Tomatoes and tomato paste are then added, the mixture is simmered, shrimp is added for a few minutes, then the dish is served over rice.

New Orleans desserts and sweets are distinct. The local may enjoy a morning sit-down at a café to drink coffee laced with chicory and munch on beignets, a deep-fried pastry covered with confectioner’s sugar. Bananas Foster, created at Brennan’s Restaurant in honor of a local politician, is a sumptuous dessert in which bananas are caramelized by being fried in butter and brown sugar, then flambéed in rum (preferably in a theatrical manner right at the diner’s table) and served with ice cream. Pralines (pronounced many ways, and not to be confused with praline paste used in pastry making) are confections made by adding butter, vanilla and chopped pecan nuts to a cooked mixture of milk and sugar.