Two Centuries Of Creole Cooking
The word “Creole” is found throughout the parts of the New World where French or Spanish immigrants settled. Properly, you’re a Creole if you were born in the Americas of European parents. Such people developed a unique culture, part of which was a distinctive cuisine. Creoles and their food are found particularly in the Caribbean and South America. And in New Orleans, whose cuisine was more like what you’d find on a Caribbean island than in the rest of the United States.
The observation that there was a distinctive Creole cuisine was first made in 1880 by the writer George Washington Cable. His book Old Creole Days created a sensation for the culture and its cuisine. A few years later, around the time of the Cotton Centennial Exposition (New Orleans’ first World’s Fair), Cable and Lafcadio Hearn collaborated to write the first guidebook to New Orleans, including highly recognizable descriptions of the food. Orleanians have been bragging about Creole cooking ever since.
Chicken Creole style.
Yet nobody has ever succeeded in defining it–at least not in a few words. Its roots are pretty clear: Creole cuisine evolved from French and Spanish styles of cooking through the interpretations of African cooks. Many black families in the New Orleans area can trace their lineage to a migration from Haiti in the late 1700s. The Caribbean influence is obvious. Certain Creole dishes–red beans and rice, for example–have identical counterparts in the Caribbean.
Creole food has always imparted a big flavor. It’s made with more salt, more peppers, and more fat, among more other things. It appeals to the heart more than it does to the mind. You don’t have to think about it–you just have to eat it.
Beyond that, it’s hard to say anything definite. Creole recipes are famous for beginning with a roux–a mixture of flour and oil or butter, browned (to different shades, depending on the dish). But many Creole dishes don’t have a roux, or red pepper, or the trinity (onions, celery and bell peppers). Brown sauces on seafood are common, but not universal either.
Really, the problem is that after 200 years, so many Creole dishes have been developed for the entire range of ingredients that it’s as comprehensive as French or Italian cooking are.
Shrimp and grits.
You need no help finding Creole cuisine in New Orleans. It’s hard to avoid. It infiltrates even ethnic cuisines here–most notably Italian, with which it has hybridized to form a distinctive Creole-Italian style. There are few French restaurants here that have avoided Creolization. Even some Asian restaurants show the local influence.
Nor is Creole cuisine static. Every ten years or so, a new wave sweeps through and revitalizes things. Jean Galatoire in the early 1900s, Count Arnaud in the 1920s, a bunch of Croatian restaurateurs in the 1930s, Owen Brennan in the 1940s, Pascal Radosta at Manale’s in the 1950s, Warren LeRuth in the 1960s, the Brennans at Commander’s in the 1970s, Chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s, Emeril Lagasse in the 1990s, John Besh in the 2000s–all those and others added new dimensions to Creole cooking with their restaurants.
The Creole culture that gave birth to this is fading from New Orleans, as is the use of the word Creole. Fortunately, the Creole flavor is, if anything, more pervasive in the restaurants and homes of New Orleans than ever before. The current version of Creole cooking (it’s always changing) has more Cajun elements than it once did, making it more robust and rustic.