Rich and Flavorful Culinary Heritage: South Louisiana Cuisine

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!  It’s a sentiment echoed along the coast and a true representation of the casual and fun-loving atmosphere that is Cajun culture.  Steeped in heritage, tradition, and fun, South Louisiana is also hailed as a Mecca of flavorful food and rich culinary influence.  

Few things in the south garner the amount of attention and focus as food preparation and meal time.  Whether discussing the menu which will surely be the centerpiece of the next gathering or arguing over the right way to make a gumbo, food is always a hot topic in Louisiana! Dinner time is not just a requirement, it is a relished event.  Meals are shared as a means of bonding and celebration. Recipes are passed down and traditional dishes are held in high regard.  Through food, families maintain a sense of generational continuation.

In South Louisiana, men and women take pride in cooking and enjoy an opportunity to show off their skills.  Average home cooks from this area commonly possess highly skilled culinary standards, which produce a level of competition much higher than other parts of the country.  Known to be heavy, rich, and highly seasoned, South Louisiana cuisine is unlike anything else in the world.  

To truly grasp the background of South Louisiana foods, it must be remembered that Cajun and Creole cooking originated among 300 plus years of sharing and influence brought to the region through a melting pot of various cultural groups.  

During the eighteenth century when the British took over Canada, the people from the “Acadie” area fled to the southern end of the continent and settled along the coast of what became South Louisiana.  The “Acadiens” were originally from France, and still spoke their native French language and practiced their traditional culinary heritage.  As time progressed, the name “Acadien” became “Cajun.”  Cajuns living in rural areas of Southern Louisiana did -- and still do -- cook hearty dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and other “one pot meals.”  As the Cajuns are humble and resourceful people, meals typically contain an abundance of the current local harvest such as seafood, vegetables, rice, and spices.  It is a joke in Cajun culture that a true Cajun cook adds “everything but the kitchen sink” to make a good meal.  In many areas of Louisiana, anything that flies, swims, walks, or grows nearby is typically fair game to be thrown in the pot!

“Creole” is a term used to describe French colonists who settled in the area which became Louisiana.  Traditional French foods introduced by these colonists -- particularly breads, sweets and sauces -- were altered to include food sources readily available in the hot, wet Louisiana climate.  Pralines, for example, were a traditional French confection which included walnuts, but were modified to take advantage of Louisiana’s abundant pecan harvest.  Traditional French sauces infused with local seafood formed what are now common Creole dishes: sauce piquant, etoufee, and bisque.  French baguettes were the original basis for the now infamous beignets, traditionally served with powdered sugar and/or cane syrup.

Several other cultures melded together with the strong French influence to form what is now known as South Louisiana Cajun and Creole cooking.  Contributions such as Spanish paella morphed into Cajun jambalaya, and German sausages and mustard made way for the creation of andouille, boudin, and “Creole” brown mustard, which all became Cajun staples.  

Cajun and Creole food share many similar roots and traditions (and the two have intermingled for so long), it is difficult to clearly decipher the specifics of one cuisine from the other.  Many believe the presence of tomatoes, okra, and other African-contributed ingredients classify the food more Creole than Cajun, which would have dark, heavy, roux-based gravies.  Others believe the differences to be marginal and based on region and location, with the Creole portion believed to be those areas surrounding Baton Rouge and New Orleans -- east of the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp -- and with the Cajun side that of the Lafayette/Acadiana area -- west of the Basin.  Regardless if the influence is more heavily Creole or Cajun, one thing for sure is it won’t be lacking in flavor!  

If you wish to experience the delight that is South Louisiana cuisine, there is typically no shortage of fantastic local restaurant options in any given city.  Don’t let the appearance fool you; a small “hole in the wall” local grub joint could very well serve one of the best meals you’ve ever eaten.  But perhaps the most authentic way to learn the true ins and outs of the cuisine is to snuggle up close to the arm of an elderly Cajun woman…become her shadow, adopt her techniques, and it also wouldn’t hurt to borrow her cast iron pots. Bon Appetit!

By Kandice Dequeant, a teacher of culinary arts and freelance journalist living in Lafayette.

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21 Mar 2017

By Kandice Dequeant