Here's an article about the joys of our local Louisiana cuisine, written by Malcolm Hébert, a cookbook author, the former food and wine editor of the San Jose Mercury News, and the son of Louisianians. (By the way, it's a venerable Louisiana name that's pronounced <A-bear>, rhymes with "clay bear", not <HEE-bert> ...)
THE CREOLE AND CAJUN COOKING OF LOUISIANA
by Malcolm HébertThe best way to know the cooking of New Orleans is to be raised there. My mother and father, who were born nearby, were proud of their heritage. Every year my parents drove "south" to visit my relatives, to feast on crabs, crawfish, gumbos, bisques, grits, preserved figs, salt pork, black-eyed peas, smothered chicken, oysters, shrimp, redfish, speckled trout, pain perdu, etc. From three years old until today, my greatest food memories were of the cooking of Louisiana.
I consider myself fortunate to have Creole parents raised in Cajun country so that I have been privileged to sample both cuisines. Obviously, both the Creole and Cajuns take food as seriously as they take anything on earth, more so than the Chinese. The latter greet people with "Have you eaten well today?" Creoles and Cajuns not only want to know what you have eaten, but what are you planning to eat for the remainder of the day as well as for tomorrow? Then they will tell you what they have eaten, will eat today and what's on the menu for tomorrow.
Creoles and Cajuns live to eat. Their very existence is food, more food and still more food. They are not greedy and certainly not selfish. They will gladly share a meal with you, offering the choicest morsels for your pleasure. They have adopted the Spanish "my house is your house" philosophy and are happy to make sure your stomach is full.
What is the difference between Creole and Cajun cooking? Most Louisiana chroniclers claim the answer is simple. Many Creoles were rich planters and their kitchens aspired to grande cuisine. Their recipes came from France or Spain as did their chefs. By using classic French techniques with local foodstuffs, they created a whole new cuisine, Creole cooking.
On the other hand, the Acadians, pronounced <uh-CADE-ee-uns>, later contracted to Cajun, were a tough people used to living under strenuous conditions. They tended to serve strong country food prepared from locally available ingredients. It was pungent, peppery and practical since it was all cooked in a single pot. Thus Cajun cuisine was born.
While both cuisines are distinct, there are cross references. Rice is a staple of both and Creole and Cajun chefs usually start dish by making a roux of oil and flour. In addition, there are many common ingredients such as crab, river shrimp, lake shrimp, oysters, crawfish, freshwater and saltwater fish, plus squirrels, wild turkeys, ducks, frogs, turtles, pork, homemade sausages, beans of all kinds, tomatoes, okra, yams, pecans, oranges and wines, liqueurs and brandy.
There is one rule that both the Creoles and Cajuns agree upon and that is that there is no one rule and no one recipe when it comes to matters of food. There are hundreds of different recipes for gumbo, jambalaya, turtle soup and they are all right because no one is wrong. Privately, they know that everything they cook is original, because their kitchens are kitchens of "ad lib". They are experimenting, creating, changing, always trying to make it taste better.
Because of the changes, it is difficult to get recipes. In restaurants, few chefs write recipes down learning from each other in the kitchen. In households, Mammas would verbally give the recipe to their daughters, who as they cooked the dishes added their own flavors and subtle changes.
I was 8 years old when I got my first cooking lesson from my grandmother's "a pinch of this or a pinch of that" cooking school. She was making gumbo using on an old wood burning stove. I asked her how much onion she used. Cupping her hands she said, "About this much!"
Trout Marguery, one of the most popular fish dishes in New Orleans, is a good example of the "no written recipe". The original dish was thought to have been created here, but is believed to have been brought from France by Jean Galatoire, the founder of Galatoire's restaurant. It is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, but the original recipe has never been published. There are a dozen versions of Trout Marguery plus two schools of thought concerning the sauce. One school claims the sauce is based on bechamel sauce with fish stock and shrimp added; the second claims the sauce is based on hollandaise with seafood stock and shrimp added. No matter which version one likes, it is a safe bet that Mr. Galatoire "Creolized" the French version to suit available foodstuffs.
During my stay here, I did manage to get some recipes of exceptional dishes, many of which you will find in this archive. Eat, and enjoy!
[Edited by Chuck Taggart. Many thanks to Christopher Hébert for providing us with his Dad's writing.]
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)