Cajun Cuisine - Valdosta State University
December 6, 2000
The Evolution of Cajun Cuisine
For severalyears,the word "Cajun" has beenappliedto a variety of culinary dishesfrom
blackened catfish to McDonald's spicy chicken sandwiches. Millions of Americans have
enthusiasticallyconsumedthesedishes;however,few know whatmakes(or what doesnot make)
thesedishesCajun. To find the answerone must look at the regionwherethis uniqueculture has
developedoverthe lasttwo hundredand fifty years-southwest Louisiana.
Acadians in Nova Scotia
The Cajun people are direct descendantsof Frenchsettlers from the Acadia region of
Nova Scotia. The term Cajun is a corruption of "Acadian," the original word for this group.
Nearly all Acadiansin Louisianaare descendedfrom the nearly400 families relocatedto Acadia
fonD Nonnandy, LaRochelle, Brittany, Santonge, and Poitou. They were hardworking peasants
who worked as yeomanfarmersand fishermen. In the 1760s,Great Britain took possessionof
Acadia and renamedit Nova Scotia,bringing in settlersfrom Scotlandandthe Midlands.
The Acadians,in accordancewith their reputationfor stubbornindependence,refusedto
pledgeallegianceto Britain, becomeAnglican, or speakEnglish. The British responseto their
refusal has since been referred to as "Le Grand Derangement" by the Acadians and is listed
amonghistory's most tragic events. Suspiciousof the FrenchAcadians,the British decidedto
expel the entire population. They called a meeting in a chapel on September5, 1755,drawing
thousandsof Acadianmen, primarily from the village of GrandPre. To their surprise,they were
promptly arrestedand put on ships. Over 7,000peoplewere displaced,with no regardfor family
ties. The restof the settlers,primarily womenand children, were roundedup and senton ships
to scatteredports. Husbandsand wives, mothersand children were separated,most neverto be
reunited. The village of GrandPrewas thenburnedto the ground.
By the completion of the British campaign,25,000 people were dispersedto Maine,
Massachusetts,Pennsylvania,the Carolinas, Georgia, the French Indies, Santo Domingo,
Uruguay, Nicaragua,Honduras,and the Falkland Islands. Another 3,000 returned to France.
The Acadians were not always welcome in their new homes. In Georgia, for instance, they were
sold into slavery and worked along with African slaves in the fields.
In 1765, the first twenty Louisiana Acadiansarrived in New Orleanswhere they were
sent to the Attakapasarea to settle. Others quickly followed, finding a kind reception from
French and Spanishsettlers already in the area. Soon word spreadto the exiled families
desperatelysearchingfor relatives that reunificationwas possiblein Louisiana. Their numbers
steadilygrewuntil, 200 yearslater, theynumberedover 600,000,the highestAcadian population
in the world.
Acadians in Louisiana
The Acadianssettledan areaknown asthe "Acadian Coast" in Louisiana(seemap). The
land was swampyand riddled with bayous,with few roadsleading in or out. As a result, their
culture enjoyeda large degreeof isolation until the modem highway systemwas built. Thus,
their language (17th Century French) and customs were preserved.
This remote area also ensured that the culture was markedly different from the
aristocraticCreole societyin New Orleans. Wherethe Creoleswere rich plantationowners,the
Acadians were frugal farmers and fishennen, just as they had been in their homeland.
Displaying the samefierce independencethat led to their exile, they refusedto work on Creole
plantations,choosingto maintaintheir own small farmsinstead.
The Acadia people adaptedwell to their new homes and quickly learned how to use
available resources. They had large families, often with twenty children. They were a very
social people and spent hours visiting with relatives and friends who later included the Native
Americans, Spanish, and Gennan immigrants who lived in the surrounding area. Their French
ancestry, sociability, and new acquaintancescombined to produce one of the most unique
cuisinesin the world-Cajun cooking.
The Elements of Cajun Cooking
The averageperson, if asked to define Cajun cooking, would likely comment on its
spicinessand use of seafood,but that would hardly be a completedescription. Cajun cooking
has evolved from the simple peasantdishesof the early Acadiansto the much-acclaimed,onepot mealsfound in someof today's fanciestrestaurants.The key elementof the cuisine that has
led to its current statusis the confident experimentationof the Cajun cook. In fact, Howard
Mitcham writes, "Creative improvisationis the keynoteof Cajuncookery."(Mitcham, 1997)
If that same average person were asked to describethe differences between Creole
cooking and Cajun cooking, he would probably shrug and say he did not realize there was a
difference,as the two are often assumedto be one and the same. A close look revealsthat the
differencesare as obviousas the differencesbetweenthe two cultures. The Creolesof the New
Orleansaristocracybasetheir mealson the pursuitof hautecuisine. They prefer separatesauces
and delicate,albeit spicy, flavors. Their countrycousinsfrom Acadia prefera more robust,onepot meal, that is slow-cookedto perfectionin a cast-ironpot. Cajun food is spicier and more
daring. Creole dishesare characterizedby the Frenchcooking techniquesof city chefs,blended
with their Spanish,Italian, and Germanneighbors. Creole tomatoesare a common ingredient
and distinguisha Creole dish from a Cajunmeal at a glance. The Cajunsused Frenchpeasant
and specializedin wild game,blended with Indian, African, Spanish,and German
In orderto fully explorethe origins of Cajuncooking,perhapsit is bestto look at several
ingredients. Theseingredientscanbe found in numerouscombinationsin virtually all
Cajun dishes. Roux is the basis for nearly every Cajun meal outsideof dessert. It is combined
with rice, meat,peppersand herbs,culminatingin an epicureanexperienceequaledby no other.
Roux is the fundamentalbase for the majority of Cajun meals. In Louisiana, it is a
common joke that the first line in all recipes is, "First you make a roux.. " It comes from the
word "raux buerre" meaning, "reddish-brown butter." It was used in France for centuries by the
peasantclass,so it is not surprisingto find it cooking in the kitchensof today's Acadians.
Roux is made by slowly heating equal parts of flour and butter (or anotherfat) until a
dark brown chocolatecolor emerges. Creolesprefer a light cream colored roux, while Cajuns
insist on a roux brownedas deeplyas possiblewithout burning it. It is addedto water or stocks
thicken gravies and to add a robust flavor to soupsand stews. It also works as a natural
preservative by slowing the spoiling process, an important consideration before modem
is the secondmost commoningredientin Cajuncooking. It has beenestimatedthat
Cajuns eat nearlythe sameamountof rice per year as the Chinese. It is servedat leasttwice a
day, sevendaysa week.
Rice was not a grain grown in Franceor Acadia, and was not a major part of meals in the
first part of the Acadian history in the New World. In fact, when the Acadians first settled
Louisiana,com, borrowed from friendly ChoctawIndians,was the stapleof their diet. Rice was
grown only as an insurancecrop to protect againsta com crop failure. Later, in the 1920s,
Midwesternimmigrantsbroughtsteam-poweredirrigation to the area,and rice replacedcom on
Acadian tables. Today, more rice is grown in south Louisiana than in all other parts of the
It was not until the first settlersarrived in Acadia that meatwasintroducedto the Acadian
kitchen. In France,meatwas not a part of the typical peasantdiet as it was reservedfor the rich,
since a lack of salt made it difficult to preserve. In Canada,the Acadianswere faced with an
abundanceof wild game,fish, and shellfish,and they quickly took advantageof it. Pork was the
favorite, although aged chickenswere addedto the pot when they no longer produced eggs.
Despitethe largeherdsof sheepthe Acadiansmanaged,they rarely ate mutton.
Following Le Grand Derangement,the Acadianswere forced to rely on game and fish
found in the swamps around their new homes. It is then that the Cajuns developed their
reputation for "eating anything that doesn't eat them first." Commonmeats were fresh and
saltwaterfish, shrimp, crabs,crawfish, oysters,turtles, frogs, rabbits, deer,raccoons,opossums,
snipes,grouse,wild turkey, ducks and geese. Seafoodwas not originally a large factor in their
cooking, as busy Cajunfarmersdid not havethe time to stopworking in the fields and fish in the
Gulf of Mexico. Later, when refrigerationwas introduced,more seafoodwas available,and the
Cajuns,in their typical fashion,createdmarvelousdishesto accommodatethe new ingredients.
The Germanimmigrants in the area taughtthe Acadians how to make sausages.They
quickly added their own zesty spicesto it, creating wonderful sausagessuch as andouille and
boudin. No Cajunrecipe collectionis completewithout chickenand andouille sausagegumbo or
One of the hallmarksof Cajuncuisineis the extensiveuseof peppersin everythingfrom
breakfastto late-nightbarroomcompetitions. Many of the peppersusedoriginated with Spanish
settlers that neighboredthe Acadians. Today, Acadiana (the area around Lafayette and New
Iberia) has beendubbedthe "hot underbellyof America." (Mitcham, 1997) Most of the peppers
and hot sauceseatenin North America come from that area. The quality of the soil, hot sun,and
humidity combineto make an ideal environmentfor peppercultivation. Acadiansinclude a row
or two of peppersin nearlyeverysmall gardenand family farm.
Avery Island, near New Iberia, Louisiana,is the world-renownhome of TobascoPepper
Sauce. Thereare 2,500 acresof tobascopeppersgrown for the companyamongthe salt domes
McIllhenny invented the sauceafter a friend of his returning from the
Mexican War gave him the pepperseeds. During the Civil War, Mr. Mclllhenny soughtto
stretch the use of his peppersand he developedthe now-famoussauce. Tobascohas since
becomea commoningredientin Acadianhouseholds.
Cajunsmakeextensiveuseof herbsin all of their dishes. Somewere commonin Acadia,
but the primary herbs in use today camefrom the Native Americansindigenousto the Louisiana
swamps. File powderis the most commonof these,given to the Acadiansby ChoctawIndians.
It is made by grinding sassafrasleaves to a fine powder, and its primary use is to thicken stews
and gumbo. Cajun householdscommonlypassa bowl of file aroundthe table after gumbo is
served,so that eachpersoncantake a pinch.
Okra is a vegetablethat hasa limited popularity in the United States. In southLouisiana,
however,it is a commondish, servedpickled, fried, or in gumbo. Okra is rumoredto havemade
its way to America via slavesfrom Africa. They apparentlyhid the seedsin their ears during
their long voyagesto the New World and then planted it in their own small gardens. Because
someCajunswere slavesin certainareasof the southand were reducedto tenantfarming with
many freed slaves after the Civil War, it is easyto see how the vegetablemade its way into
All of these elementscombine into a delightful dish that has becomeone of the most
famous hallmarks of Cajun cooking-gumbo. It is derived from the Frenchpeasants'slowly
cookedpot-au-feuand fish bouillabaisse. It alsois linked to the Africans' communalpot of okra
stewand the Choctaws'boiled crabsand shrimp. It is difficult to describegumbo since no two
people cook it the same way, and many argue for hours about what is a "real" gumbo.
to Howard Mitcham, "It is an improvisational thing, like early jazz. You just take off
with whatevertune is handy,and then you travel. You throw in a lot of blue notes,flatted fifths,
discords,and glissandosto spice it up, andthe end resultis almostalwayssatisfying." (Mitcham,
The word "gumbo"
is derived from the African word for okra. Cajun gumbo is
distinguished from Creole versions by the use of both roux and okra (also, there are no tomatoes
in Cajun gumbo). Gumbo was a practical meal, flexible enough to assimilate whatever the men
brought home from hunting excursions. Large pots of it were madeto accommodatevisitors,
which were more commonthan not in the Acadian home. A skilled Cajun cook can throw
togethera tasty gumbo at a moment's notice if guestsshow up at the door. It is a Mardi Gras
tradition for Cajuns on horsebackto ride through a town, collecting ingredients for a large
communalpot of gumbo.
Cajun cooking has taken several centuries to develop into the unique flavorful. cuisine it
is today. In effect, it is a gumbo of time and people, from Frenchpeasantsto African slaves.
Food has long been a central part of the lives and customs of the people of southwest Louisiana.
A visiting Illinoisan once remarked to Harnett T. Kane, "You folks down here not only swallow
and digest your food with a wonderful enjoyment, but you pleasureyourselvestalking and
arguing about it, from the ideal combination of herbs to the finest way to mix meats and fish with
everything else imaginable." (Feibleman, 1971)
Of course, the isolation once afforded by the swamps and bayous of Louisiana has been
broken down by highways and the Internet. Cajun families now often rely on two incomes,
reducing the amount of time Cajun cooks have to experiment and develop their cuisine. Some
are concernedthat this unique aspectof Acadianlife will go the way of the Cajun language,lost
in a few years. However, the Cajun has shown through the centuries a tenacity and stubborn
refusal to let go of his culture. It is likely that this spirit will ensure Cajun cooking traditions are
passedon to the next generationso that manyyears from now, it will still be possibleto get a
steamingbowl of deliciousgumbo.
Brasseaux, Carl A. "The Evolution of Cajun Cuisine: Part I" Louisiana Cookin '3 (2000): 8-9,
Brasseaux,Carl A. "The Evolution of CajunCuisine:Part II" LouisianaCookin'4 (2000): 10-11,
Feibleman,PeterS. AmericanCooking: CreoleandAcadian (New York: Time-Life Books,
Folse,JohnD. TheEvolution o/Cajun and Creole Cuisine(Donaldsonville:Chef JohnFolseand
Mitcham, Howard. CreoleGumboand All that Jazz(Gretna:PelicanPublishingCompany,1997)
Saxon,Lyle. GumboYa-Ya:A Collection o/Louisiana Folk Tales(Gretna:PelicanPublishing
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