A 60-second intro to Cajun food

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In most restaurants, when you see something prepared “Cajun-style,” you can fairly expect that means it is either blackened to oblivion, crusted in a face-burning rind of cayenne, or both. That irks the hell out of many Cajuns, because neither blackening nor fiery spice have anything to do with Cajun foods. Equally irksome: the fact that few people seem to know that Cajun refers to a culture and identity beyond food.

This association is more a tragic accident of a wave of infatuation with Louisiana cooking that washed over the rest of the U.S. in the ’80s and led to many half-assed interpretations of Cajun, Creole, and other regional dishes—accompanied by lazy marketing. And that is a damned shame, because Cajun and other closely related Louisiana Creole foods are far more inventive and rich than these ham-fisted simulacra. Of course, the dynamism that defines these traditions also makes it difficult to precisely pin them down.

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Common wisdom holds that Cajun food originates with colonists from northwestern France who settled in Acadia, now part of the Canadian Maritimes, in the 17th and early 18th centuries. From 1755 to 1765, during the French and Indian War, British officials moving into the region uprooted between 14,000 and 18,000 French settlers and forced them into exile, leading some to resettle in what is now Louisiana, some 70 miles southwest of New Orleans—an area the state has since 1971 recognized as Acadiana. In supposed rural isolation, the myth goes that these impoverished exiles found ways of blending their northern French culinary traditions with locally available ingredients, creating an entirely new cuisine that their million or so modern descendants take pride in and guard to this day.

This narrative connects to the fact that Cajun food is often defined as hearty and practical—dishes cooked in one big pot like gumbo, jambalaya, or a number of other braised meat dishes served over rice. Cajun food goes heavy on salted and smoked pork products like andouille sausage or tasso ham, which were traditionally made during communal hog slaughters called boucheries to preserve and utilize every bit of a hog in a time before refrigerators. This head-to-hoof mentality carries through in dishes like dirty rice, cooked with bits of offal in it, or debris, sautéed offal and onions over rice. On special occasions, one might just roast a whole hog over hickory wood until it’s juicy on the inside and bacon-level crispy on the outside for cochon de lait.

Pork is incredibly popular not just in many Cajun recipes, but as a stand-alone snack; Southern Louisiana gas stations sell rice-and-pork boudin sausages and grattons (pork cracklings) as road fare. Beyond pork, though, Cajun food also relies on what chef John Folse calls the “swamp floor pantry,” any wild game or foraged goods people could find in the bayous where they lived. Any means any, from ducks and deer to gators and frogs to beavers and raccoons. While this may include crawfish, catfish, and other seafoods, those are not as common as game meats. (Granted, crawfish boils are a beloved Southern Louisiana food ritual in their own right.) Peppers, which grow well in Louisiana, do feature prominently in Cajun cuisine, although usually in powdered or sauce form. But as the Cajun cultural historian Shane Bernard tells The Takeout, the goal in Cajun cuisine is to use peppers “to complement a dish’s other flavors, not to obscure or dominate them.”

Many pop historians like to define Cajun food in opposition to New Orleans Creole food. The story goes that New Orleans, founded in 1718 by the French, was historically a far wealthier and more cosmopolitan setting than Acadiana, drawing in not just French but African, Caribbean, Native American, Spanish, and even German, Italian, and Southern Slavic influences in waves over the course of 150 years, eventually developing its own unique culinary tradition. This Creole food was supposedly more intricate than Cajun fare, eager to impress with diverse ingredients from around the world, and with more perishable goods like butter and cream. French bread sandwiches with fancy rémoulades and tartar sauces, by this theory, are thoroughly New Orleans food, as are muffuletta sandwiches, olive salad and deli meat blends served by Sicilian immigrants in the city.

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The great Cajun-Creole divide has created all manner of rules among Cajun food purists. Chief among them: Cajuns don’t use tomatoes, introduced by 19th century Sicilian immigrants, in their gumbo—or, according to some purists, in anything. But Creoles do. Cajuns use dark roux made of flour and butter or vegetable oil, or perhaps filé, powdered sassafras leaves, as a thickener in many of their stews, while Creoles supposedly use okra, an African import to America, or lighter roux made of flour and butter. Cajuns take their coffee dark roasted and black; creams of all sorts are New Orleans Creole ideas.

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And the purists can be quite insistent on their hard-and-fast rules about the lines between Cajun and other Louisiana cooking traditions. “I have friends who have recoiled in horror when they saw me putting bell peppers and celery and bay leaves in addition to onions in my gumbo,” Cajun folklorist Barry Ancelet tells The Takeout, “insisting that true Cajuns didn’t do such a thing.”

In truth, the story of Cajun food, and of the line between it and other forms of Louisiana cooking, is far more complex. For all their theoretical isolation until the mid-20th century, the roughly 3,000 Acadians who settled in southwest Louisiana actually interacted heavily with others from early on, and drew on many of the same inspirations as their kin in New Orleans and beyond. Part of my own family is a healthy stew of Acadian-descended Cajun but also other Francophone and non-Francophone immigrant lineages, all steeped in and practicing not just Cajun but wider Louisiana Creole culture. Unsurprisingly then, there is a lot more variation in Cajun food, and a softer line between it and other Louisiana Creole foods, than the popular histories and purists let on.

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No one can say with certainty where any Cajun dishes originally came from. But arguments that Cajuns learned to make gumbo from the enslaved people of West African descent riffing on their own cuisine have as much, if not more, merit than those that Cajuns invented gumbo while trying to recreate French bouillabaisse in the swamps. And it seems almost certain that jambalaya was heavily influenced by West African traditions at least, if not copied by Cajun communities from Spaniards trying to recreate paella. There are plenty other versions of the origins of these dishes as well.

Moreover, plenty of Cajuns use, and have long used, okra as a thickener despite their supposed aversion to this “Creole” ingredient. Many dishes that Cajuns love, like the spicy corn stew maque choux and the peppery sauce piquante, can make bountiful use of tomatoes. (Academic Christophe Landry argues that, despite Cajun food purist assertions, no Creoles actually put tomatoes in gumbo, even if some smother okra under diced tomatoes and then add it in. But I know at least one Creole family that has put tomato chunks in their gumbo for at least three generations.) Many Cajuns also cook and lay claim to foods that purists would call thoroughly Creole, like creamy seafood bisques, praline candies, or even muffuletta sandwiches.

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“Cajun cuisine is not monolithic,” stresses Ancelet. “There are regional styles and preferences.”

Not only do Creole and Cajun cuisines constantly overlap, but Cajun cooks often consider more general Southern foods, like fried catfish, shrimp and grits, and pecan pie, part of the Cajun culinary oeuvre as well.

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Bernard thinks these points of overlap reflect the fact that Cajun food didn’t develop out of a distinct ethnic identity, but out of a distinct geography. It is the food of rural southwest Louisiana. Cajuns, who used to live almost exclusively there, cooked it. But so did Creoles in the area. When Cajuns came into contact with or lived in regions with access to different ingredients they used them, or adopted local versions of common recipes using them. As more Cajuns moved out of rural bayous, and the bayous grew more connected to the wider world, and refrigeration spread in the mid-20th century, geographic differences collapsed into irrelevance.

Notably, crawfish almost never featured on New Orleans menus until the 1980s, when new mass farming and storage practices made these swampy goods available to thoroughly urban chefs. Paul Prudhomme, the self-identified Cajun chef who helped to popularize Cajun food in the ’80s and ’90s, played a huge role in bringing crawfish to the city. (Prudhomme’s signature dish, blackened redfish, which used a novel technique to try to replicate cooking over an open fire, also led to the false belief that blackening is a centuries-old Cajun practice. Poor imitations of it helped create the belief that Cajun food is just cayenne-crusted nonsense. And enthusiasm for it led to the over-harvesting of redfish to the point that the fish needed legal protections.) He also stressed that he mixed rural/Cajun and urban/Creole recipes, and suggested that with the distance between the two cuisines collapsing by the day, we should just start talking about “Louisiana food” instead.

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Cajun cooks have continued to experiment with new techniques and foods beyond those found in urban spaces over the past few decades as well. Étouffée—chicken, shellfish, or some other meat smothered in a sauce and then served over rice—is now a keystone Cajun and Creole dish, but it reportedly only emerged out of a kitchen in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, in the 1930s. The idea of the holy trinity, the three ingredients now used in most Cajun and Creole dishes—onions, celery, and bell peppers—may only have emerged after the spread of refrigeration made it easier to keep the latter two ingredients fresh for longer, suggests Ancelet. Some date its deification even more recently, to the advent of Prudhomme. Over the past century Cajuns have also started doing more stuffing (of things like crabs, but also turkeys; Cajuns brought you the turducken), frying (e.g. whole turkeys), and grilling (e.g. char grilling oysters), although these techniques have not displaced the tried-and-true boiling, braising, and sautéing.

Cajuns and Creoles have not traditionally done much in the way of fusion food, like the bogus Cajun tacos and pizzas you see in restaurants. But over the past two decades especially, Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants in southern Louisiana and western Texas have adopted Cajun style crawfish boils, adding an additional steps like cooling the critters after cooking them in spice then tossing them in butter-based sauces containing everything from onions and garlic to orange wedges and lemongrass. Vietnamese-Cajun eateries serving up these unique boils are increasingly popular across the nation, but especially in Cajun country. Evolution is constant.

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Within the last 30 years or so, Landry argues, food safety concerns have also made it harder to find fresh-slaughtered pig products, like blood and intestines, leading to a decline in the availability of boudin rouge (boudin mixed with pork blood), and even of boudin blanc (classified as white because it is just pork-and-rice sausage, sans blood) with natural pork casings to add a real snap. Meanwhile, rising concern about diabetes and cardiovascular disease have led chefs across southern Louisiana to use more chicken, turkey, or even tofu than pork; more vinegar smothering and less oil frying for okra; and less condensed milk and sugar in their sweets.

Given all of this dynamism and malleability, Ancelet argues that perhaps the only solid definition of Cajun “is, quite simply, food prepared and eaten by Cajuns.” But Bernard suggests it may be possible to say a bit more—to argue Cajun food is one inflection within Louisiana Creole cooking.

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Cajun food is ultimately what popular myth and modern practice combine to create: simple, stick-to-your-ribs, head-to-hoof, swamp-scrounging, pragmatic, highly spiced but not fiery cuisine. But it is also mostly a riff, once restricted to certain areas and economic strata, upon a wider Creole theme. It is hardly the only food Cajuns cook. It belongs to more than just Cajuns. And it bleeds into other Creole inflections so often that it is near pointless to try to pin it down even this far, much less to police some barrier between authentic and inauthentic Cajun, or between Cajun and other Louisiana Creole, foods. But if any thread runs through definitions of Cajun food, that historical and regional sensibility would most likely be it.

This looseness can be frustrating for anyone enamored of the idea of fixed culinary traditions. But for chefs, professional and amateur, it can be liberating. It means that they are free to experiment with new ideas drawing off of old recipes, or make accommodations based on dietary or sourcing restrictions, and still call the results Cajun. Or Creole. Or both. That is, so long as your experimentation isn’t just finding some unholy new way to dump half a bottle of cayenne onto something, scorch it black, and call it a Cajun revelation. Please, just don’t.

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So have fun with Cajun food; laissez les bon temps rouler.

Thanks to professor Kevin V. Mulcahy for sharing his thoughts for this piece.

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