by Chuck Taggart

"What real Cajuns -- the descendents of French Acadians who settled in southern Louisiana in the 18th Century -- eat is frequently spicy but rarely incendiary. The spice thing has been blown out of proportion."
-- Chef Patrick Mould, C.E.C., St. Martinville, Louisiana
What is real Cajun food? As renowned Cajun musician Michael Doucet dit Beausoleil once said, before about 1980 or thereabouts there was no such thing as "Cajun food" in most people's minds, and no such thing as a Cajun restaurant. "There was food Cajuns ate, and restuarants where they ate it," says Mike, but "Cajun" as descriptive of a style of cooking was unheard-of even in New Orleans -- bastion of Creole cuisine -- 20 years ago.

"Then," as Mike described with a mischievous grin, "Paul Prudhomme burnt a fish and it all went through the roof!"

Well ... almost, but not quite.

Chef Paul Prudhomme, of K-Paul's Restaurant in New Orleans and a native of Opelousas, Louisiana, can be given a lot of the credit for popularizing Cajun-style cooking in America. For nearly 20 years he has been one of Louisiana's most innovative and influential chefs, and has launched the careers of many other prominent Louisiana chefs from his world-famous French Quarter restaurant.

The dish that became his signature was Blackened Redfish, for which he created a new, simple but brilliant technique for cooking fish (or steak, chicken, etc.) which involves cooking fish dipped in clarified butter and sprinkled with Creole seasoning in an iron skillet over incredibly high heat, creating a blackened crust and preserving the natural juiciness of the fish.

However, there have been drawbacks to this innovation. Throughout America, blackened redfish became synonymous with Cajun food, even though its creator does not describe it as such. You'll hear ill-informed people talking about how blackening is a "200-year-old Cajun technique", when in fact Chef Prudhomme developed it in the late '70s while executive chef at Commander's Palace, and popularized it at K-Paul's.

Myriad so-called "Cajun" restaurants opened all over America to capitalize on the craze, many of which were operated by people who had no idea what Cajun cuisine was really like, and who served execrable food. Many of them couldn't even do blackening properly, and turned everything that wasn't nailed down into burnt, dry pieces of roofing shingle. (I've even seen places that offered "blackened hot dogs"! Run away!) The dish's enormous popularity also ended up causing redfish to be fished almost to extinction; it is still illegal in Louisiana to serve redfish in that has been caught in local Gulf waters. And somewhere along the line, "Cajun" became synonymous with "hot".

Cajuns do like their food well-seasoned, and this seasoning almost always includes black pepper and cayenne pepper, but the idea that Cajun food is like regular food with a pound of pepper on it is a misconception. Good, well-seasoned food in southwest Louisiana will definitely have a zing; the cayenne tends to sneak up on you, catching you in the back of your throat, and you notice you start to perspire after about six or eight bites. But if Cajun food burns your mouth, it means you've got too much pepper in it.

Marc Savoy, a musician and accordion-builder in Eunice, Louisiana, and his wife Ann are very involved in the preservation of Cajun culture. In Les Blank's marvelous documentary film about Cajun and Creole cuisine, "Yum! Yum! Yum!", he tells an amusing story about how he took his family to Disneyland.

They stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, which had a nice restaurant. They decided to dine there, and they saw a listing on the specials board for "Cajun Fish". Marc mischeviously said, "Let's see what they mean by this," so when the waitress came to take their orders he played dumb and asked her (in his thick Cajun accent), "What is this word 'Cajun', what does that word mean?" She was honest and said she didn't know, but she thought it meant a style of cooking from New Orleans.

"She didn't even know that there was a whole culture attached to it," Marc said, "she just thought it was a style of cooking." And what's more, the New Orleans cooking style is Creole, not Cajun. So he went ahead and ordered it, and when it arrived he said it was a nice piece of fish, but he found it inedible because it was "absolutely encased in pepper", with a crust of cayenne. "I wrapped it in my napkin and took it back to our room, went into the bathroom and washed all the pepper off. After that, it was a pretty good piece of fish ..."

Also, you'll see very few Cajun dishes cooked with fresh chiles such as jalapeños, habaneros, etc. In the vast majority of all dishes you'll see that are prepared by actual Cajuns, the main seasonings you'll see are salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper, as well as some herbs. Sometimes the wide variety of hot sauces made in Louisiana are used in cooking as well, but most of the heat comes from judicious use of cayenne.

The so-called "Cajun food craze" that Chef Paul inadvertently launched in the early-to-mid '80s when his nouvelle technique of blackening redfish caught on ended up creating a lot of misconceptions about Cajun food. What we ended up with, all over the country, was a glut of so-called "Cajun restaurants" run by non-Cajuns who had no idea what they were doing, and who served food that actual Cajuns wouldn't eat if their lives depended on it. I once stormed out of a so-called "Cajun restaurant" that had opened in West Hollywood, without paying for my uneaten and decidedly inedible meal, which included a "gumbo" that compared poorly to Chef Boyardee's ABC soup.

As I mentioned earlier, blackening is NOT a traditional Cajun technique, as its inventor Chef Paul freely states. It is a nouvelle American technique developed by a chef who is Cajun, and it was popularized at his restaurant, but almost nobody does that kind of thing at home -- the technique produces so much smoke that you need a professional kitchen with an exhaust hood, or you need to do it outdoors.

What characterizes true, down-home country Cajun food are fresh ingredients, locally obtained -- lots of local seafood and vegetables -- and almost always cooked in one pot. For most Cajun meals, even if it's for 50 people, you'll generally see one big pot with the main dish and one pot of rice.

But this is not to say that Cajun food isn't changing. Brilliant, innovative Acadiana chefs like John Folse, Patrick Mould, James Graham and others are bringing in other ingredients, techniques, and sophisticated sauces into contemporary Cajun cuisine. Chef Paul himself continues to bring his own flair into other styles of regional American cooking. They're all creating marvelous flavors, and they're not encasing their food in hot pepper either! Of course, that's not to say it doesn't have a little zing ...

So before you enter a Cajun restaurant somewhere out of Louisiana, check and see if there's someone from Louisiana in the kitchen. If there is, you're probably OK! If not, caveat emptor.


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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)

Copyright © 1995 Charles E. Taggart