Jambalalya, crawfish bisque, red beans and rice, gumbo, shrimp Creole, maque choux, the list could go on and on. It’s the stuff natives of south Louisiana grew up on and just a few of the many dishes the earliest residents created.
A ll of these homegrown specialties are either Creole (meaning born in the New World) or Cajun (of the Acadians), or a combination of both. Here’s a refresher course on how the basic ingredients and techniques got to south Louisiana in the first place.
Long before the French arrived, tribes such as the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Natchez, Houmas and Chitimachas were drying fruit, herbs and meats and simmering game and turtle in stews.
They also gathered pecans, cultivated sweet potatoes, caught fish and shellfish, pounded sassafras leaves to make the thickener filé and ground corn into grits.
The Catholic French sailed here in the late 17th century, and by 1718 had built the Port of New Orleans. The French brought memories of classic Parisian cuisine.
They made roux, sauces and stocks, seasoned with herbs and started many a dish with a mirepoix, a mixture of diced carrots, celery and onion.
The colonial French were also fond of the seafood soup bouillabaisse, along with pralines (the French original made with almonds) and imported liqueurs and wine.
The French began importing slaves in 1719, and with Africans came black-eyed peas, watermelon, okra, a love of simmered greens and rice.
Slaves also knew how to season with spices, and in the kitchens of their masters they continued doing what they had done in their own countries: skillfully stew and fry.
Because slaves were considered too valuable to spend time growing food to sell to locals in New Orleans, in the 1720s Scottish speculator John Law lured Germans.
An industrious group of them settled in what is today St. James and St. Charles parishes, where they set up the state’s first dairies. They also grew turnips, spinach, cauliflower, artichokes, onions, garlic, cabbage, white potatoes and sweet potatoes, were prolific bakers and knew how to cure meats, such as the smoked pork sausage we call andouille.
When the Spanish took over the Louisiana colony in 1762, they brought along jamó n (ham), chaurice (spicy smoked sausage), tomatoes and cayenne pepper, along with a love of onions, garlic and parsley.
They also had an affinity for eating beans with rice and for cooking paella, the one-pot ham and rice dish.
The Acadian French arrived in New Orleans in 1785 and ended up west of the city in the prairies and marshes, where they foraged for just about anything that flew, crawled, climbed or swam.
Although they’d been living in Nova Scotia, the Acadians were still partial to the one-pot meals of peasant France. They were also unfamiliar with Louisiana ingredients and, consequently, adopted cooking techniques from established residents.
Over time they developed into their own hearty Cajun cuisine, including robust roux-based versions of gumbo and jambalalya . The Acadians also became experts at cattle ranching and smoking meats, and are now the state’s leading rice growers.
During the 1840s, commercial sales of oysters, fish and shrimp got a big boost with the arrival of seasoned Croatian fishermen.
These former sailors from the Adriatic Sea lived on Louisiana’s coast south of New Orleans, and started the state’s oyster cultivation.
In the 1880s, waves of Sicilians arrived, bringing with them a passion for bread, wine, pasta and tomatoes. Louisiana’s Italians took to truck farming almost immediately, growing vegetables like zucchini, spinach, garlic, lemons, eggplant, fennel, figs, leeks and cucumbers.
In many cases, traditional Italian dishes melded with Creole dishes .
Although the line of distinction between fancy Creole cooking and rustic Cajun cooking has over the years been blurred, chef John Folse makes the distinction eloquently: “Creole … is that melange of artistry and talent, developed and made possible by the nations and cultures who settled in and around New Orleans.” And Cajun is “the mirror image of [the Cajun] unique history … a cooking style that reflects their ingenuity, creativity, adaptability and survival.”