Stand long enough in one spot in New Orleans and someone will ask where they can find Cajun food.
But they’re looking in the wrong place.
And what they probably mean is, “Where can I get some fried alligator?”
At restaurants advertising shellacked entrees on the sidewalk with laminated menus featuring pictures of the food, “Cajun” encompasses the New Orleans dining experience: lots of cayenne pepper, fried seafood and heavy on the sauces.
One more time: wrong.
The interchangeability of “Creole” and “Cajun” (news media, we’re guilty too) not only obscures those unique cultures, it contorts the history of the city into a stereotyped cartoon with its residents riding alligators to work and guzzling Tabasco by the bottle.
New Orleans is a Creole city.
In its 300 years on earth, the city has transformed from French and Spanish to Caribbean and African and all those things all at once.
The food reflects those cultures, whether in remoulade and etouffee or a humble pot of red beans and rice.
Creole food is distinct from its Cajun neighbors, who immigrated from French Canada to Louisiana’s coasts, bayous and prairies in the 1700s.
Les Acadians (“The Cajuns”) made use of whole hogs, the state’s abundance of seafood and the wild game throughout Sportsman’s Paradise.
So how did “Cajun chicken” get on your fast casual menu in Scottsdale, Arizona?
Before you order, here’s how to distinguish Cajun and Creole.
The food: Cajun vs. Creole
Creole ancestry includes Spanish and French colonists and African slaves and free people of color.
From those kitchens came the cuisine that defines the city.
The “grand dames” of New Orleans’ fine dining, like Antoine’s (713 Saint Louis St.; +1 504 581 4422) and Galatoire’s (209 Bourbon St.; +1 504 525 2021), continue decades-old traditions of Creole classics.
Countless neighborhood restaurants, like Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe in Treme (1500 Esplanade Ave.; +1 504 569 8997), hold closely guarded recipes for fried chicken, gumbo and other staples.
Cajun cuisine begins to appear around the city’s edges.
Don’t underestimate the gas stations outside Lafayette for boudin (pork and rice sausage) and cracklin, fried and gently seasoned hog skin.
“Seasoned” is the operating word for Cajun cooking – not “spicy” – though many dishes can pack some heat.
In New Orleans, Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St.; +1 504 588 2123) has brought Cajun country cooking to fine dining, and there are pop-up brunches with zydeco music on weekends at places like The Tigermen Den in Faubourg Marigny (3113 Royal St.).
Despite their differences, these cuisines share the importance and reliance of food as something to share.
The best gumbo and the best jambalaya – staples of the tourist diet – are found in family kitchens, and, like a worthwhile table of boiled crawfish, are best eaten when you’re invited to them.
Eating often is communal, whether over a long table elbow-to-elbow while peeling crawfish or tending to a weekend-long boucherie in Cajun country, or sharing and discussing recipes and arguing over the color of the roux.
The rules: Tomato
Naturally, Louisiana’s diverse food culture allows for a lot of overlap.
But the tomato is the line not crossed.
Adding tomato to gumbo has long been the subject of debate around the stove.
Its origin is unfamiliar – possibly over its availability in parts of the state, or its almost necessary inclusion in similar dishes in other cuisines.
Some say it belongs in Creole gumbo, others say it doesn’t belong anywhere.
Gumbo, however, is one of those cross-culture dishes.
So what does go into a gumbo?
Gumbo has some kind of meat – chicken and sausage, preferably, but also duck – and a thickening agent, like a roux or okra.
From there, “the trinity” of onions, bell peppers and celery, then seasonings and patience and, maybe, seafood.
That’s pretty much it – no tomato necessary.
The music: Zydeco and Cajun music
Apart from food, Cajun and Creole also define the state’s music.
Louisiana’s French-speaking Creoles developed their idiosyncratic, uptempo musical style in zydeco, using accordions, fiddles and washboards with lyrics in Creole French.
Clifton Chenier populated the genre in the 1950s, and his son C.J. Chenier carries the “king of zydeco” torch. Dozens of zydeco artists perform throughout at the state at any given time and are an anchor of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Its closely linked musical cousin is in the music of Acadiana, with Cajun players using fiddles and accordions and singing in Cajun French.
In New Orleans, Bruce Daigrepont holds down a Sunday afternoon residence (dance lessons included) at Tipitina’s in Uptown (501 Napoleon Ave.; +1 504 895 8477), while the latest generation of Cajun players include award-winning artists like Feufollet, Pine Leaf Boys and Lost Bayou Ramblers, who all make pit stops in the city from their Acadian homes.
In Lafayette, about 135 miles west of New Orleans, the Blue Moon Saloon (215 E. Convent St., Lafayette, Louisiana; +1 337 234 2422) is a roadhouse-styled, slightly outdoor venue and bar that’s home base for the region’s zydeco, Cajun folk and Louisiana rock ‘n’ roll outfits.
The words: Creole, Cajun and Louisiana writers
Louisiana’s literary culture is as thick and deep as the state is old, from the New Orleans of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” and the Jim Crow South of Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” to Anne Rice’s pulpy vampire tales and James Lee Burke’s crime novels, starring edgy Cajun ex-cop Dave Robicheaux.
Creole poets and newspapers – including “La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orleans,” the first black daily newspaper – emerged in the pre-Civil War and antebellum South, and writers from Kate Chopin to William Faulkner have found inspiration in complexities of south Louisiana.
Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn famously wrote that “it is better to live here in sackloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio” (which 200 years later can be found on a hometown pride T-shirt).
Lafcadio Hearn’s “Creole Cookbook,” first published in 1885, is among the earliest ever written.
Today, the cookbooks of Leah Chase – who at 92 years old still helms the Creole institution Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in Treme (2301 Orleans Ave.; +1 504 821 0600) – glimpse the food and stories that made the restaurant, as does Carol Allen’s biography of the queen of Creole cuisine, “Listen, I Say Like This.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Shirley Ann Grau illustrates the hardships of Louisiana’s coastal culture in “The Hard Blue Sky,” and Cajun scholar Barry Jean Ancelet’s anthology “Cajun and Creole Folktales: The French Oral Tradition of South Louisiana” collects invaluable oral histories from both cultures.
Alex Woodward is a writer in New Orleans where he covers music, arts and culture for New Orleans alt-weekly Gambit.