The words Cajun and Creole are not interchangeable, even where food is involved. Many Cajun and Creole dishes are based on a roux and use some of the same ingredients such as cayenne pepper, okra, sweet potatoes, squashes, beans, corn and sassafras (bottled as filé, a topping for gumbo).
But differences exist between the two types of cuisines. The word Creole has many meanings, but here it implies a cultural mix of West-European, African, Caribbean and native Indian. To most south Louisiana blacks, Creoles are of a multiracial heritage with African and Caribbean roots. These Creoles have produced zydeco music and a distinctive cuisine with ties to Acadiana, New Orleans and the American Southeast.
Many regional African-Creole traditions were preserved by black Louisianians with a variety of "iron-pot" delicacies - greens cooked with fatback, Caribbean-style cowpeas and rice, gumbos with pork sausage, chicken giblets and seafood, and a host of stews - forming a style of cooking using the humblest ingredients and resulting in the richest flavors.
Creole cuisine got its start in the early 1700s in New Orleans and eventually found its way along the bayous of South Louisiana. In the 1790s, thousands of French colonists fled Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti) for New Orleans to escape the terrors of the slave rebellion led by L'Ouverture. The refugees strongly influenced local cuisine by bringing their distinctive Caribbean spice combinations and cooking techniques.
Around the same time as the Caribbean refugees were arriving, the French Acadians who were expelled from Acadie (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada) arrived in South Louisiana. Settling in remote areas away from New Orleans, this geographic and cultural isolation led to the development of a distinctive cuisine.
The Acadians were farmers, so their early cuisine was based on corn, rice, root vegetables, chicken and pigs. The bayous and wetlands along which they lived provided an abundance of rabbits, turtles, finfish, shellfish, ducks and geese.
The Acadians learned to use corn from the local Indians, stewing it with sweet peppers, onions and eventually tomatoes to create maque-chou. They also dried the corn, ground it and cooked it in a skillet to make coush-coush, a traditional breakfast food. The area's African-descended inhabitants contributed okra for use as a vegetable or to add to gumbo.
Some of this Acadian style of cooking found its way into Creole cuisine. The Picayune Creole Cook Book, published in 1901 and the most authoritative reference on traditional Creole cuisine, includes recipes for a few Acadian dishes - pork sausages, red and white boudins, andouille and several recipes for crawfish. Crawfish étouffée does not appear in the cookbook because it wasn't created until the 1920s in Breaux Bridge, now known as the Crawfish Capital of the World.
In Breaux Bridge's Hebert Hotel, Mrs. Charles Hebert and her two daughters, Yolie and Marie, made the first crawfish étouffée by cooking the tails in a lidded pot with crawfish fat and smothered down with onions and pepper. The Heberts passed on the recipe to their friend Aline Guidry Champagne, who opened the Rendez-Vous Cafe in Breaux Bridge in 1947 and introduced the dish to her customers.
Several other cultural groups contributed to the culinary melting pot of South Louisiana. The cooks for English, Scottish and Irish plantation owners used what was grown and raised on the plantation as well as delicacies that arrived at the port of New Orleans from the Caribbean and Europe. St. Martinville and other towns near Lafayette had French settlers who were not Acadian arriving from France or the French West Indies.
Creole and Cajun cuisines continue to evolve and even merge into what might be called "South Louisiana cuisine."
In recent years, crawfish dishes may have become the food most associated with the Acadian culture. But for day-in, day-out eating, there is nothing more popular than rice and gravy. In fact, a true Cajun can look at a field of growing rice and tell how much gravy it will take to cover it when all the rice is cooked. Whole generations of people have lived and died in south Louisiana and never known that some people in other places serve a meal that does not include rice and gravy. Here, the concept never enters the mind.
Rice, or course, has become one of the major agricultural crops of the southwest Louisiana prairies since German farmers came here in the late 1800s. It remains one of our leading exports, but a lot of it finds its way into our kitchens. A little bit of it gets stuffed into boudin. Sometimes we'll put seafood on it or in our gumbo, but mostly we boil it or steam it and serve it with gravy on top of it. Lots of us down here think that rice and gravy is the perfect dish.
But the key to it is the gravy, and there are certain things that you need to know about gravy prepared as we do it in south Louisiana.
First of all, it is brown. With all due deference to Texans, Cajuns use that white stuff they put on top of chicken fried steaks to hang wallpaper. Gravy is brown, not white. That's it.
Second, good gravy doesn't come in the form of a powder that you pour out of an envelope and mix uip with hot water. Good gravy is made from the drippings of meat cooked slowly over a low fire. It is liquid meat - filled with the taste and aromas of the garlic and other seasonings that are used when meat is properly prepared.
Third, it is thick. With Cajun coffee, you shouldn't be able to see the bottom of a full cup. With Cajun gravy, you shouldn't see the bottom of the ladle used to serve it. The technical term for this is "properly soppable." That is, when you sop up the last of it with your French bread, most of it should soak into the bread - but there should still be a part of it that you have to pinch with the bread and pick it up. Anything thinner should be served as a soup, not put on our good rice.