The Difference Between Creole and Cajun

Many of my friends and acquaintances who did not grow up in Southeast Louisiana believe the terms “creole” and “cajun” are interchangeable. Upon discovering I grew up in New Orleans, they are quick to mention how much they like Cajun food. Most people outside the Gulf Coast of Louisiana have no concept of the historical and social roots of the two distinct cultures.

The word “creole” is rooted in the Spanish word criollo, which means someone who was born in a colony run by the French or Spanish. The usage of this word carried no distinction between someone who was black or white. To date, this is how the term is used in Louisiana. People outside of Louisiana often believe that a Creole person is someone who is either black or multi-racial. Historically, it carries no racial overtones and this is not how the word has been used in New Orleans. It does; however, carry ethnic overtones and simply implies that one’s family is French or Spanish.

According to the book, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, by Arnold J. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, the racial implications came from two periods. The first was when the United States purchased Louisiana and American migrants began pouring into New Orleans bringing the Anglo concept of the color line with them. The second was after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era when the color line was further reinforced when white Creoles began to accept white Anglo culture as their own. The book further explains that this acceptance was neither definite nor was it complete. What occurred was an eroding of the Creole culture among whites through the enforcement of English-only in public schools, intermarriage with Anglo families and an increasing identification with “whiteness.” Be that as it may, not every white Creole bought into the changing identity, and to this day, there are white Creole families that speak French at home.

There are allegories regarding black cooks and housekeepers carrying the creole culture to black households. There was a large population of free people of color who gained their freedom as a result of the French manumission laws regarding slavery. It is also interesting to note, that much of America’s familiarity with Creoles came from the black migrations during the 1920s. During this time, fewer white Creole families left the New Orleans area than did black Creole families due to economic changes occurring in the nation. Oakland, California was one major focus for this migration along with Los Angeles and Chicago.

Cajuns also have French roots, but trace their roots not from the Gulf Coast region. Instead, they trace them from the Acadian region of French Canada today known as the Maritime region of Canada. The word “cajun” is a corruption of the word “acadian.” By now, most people know the history of the Cajun people and how they migrated to Louisiana. Interestingly, there was little interchange of creole and cajun culture despite their proximity to one another. The evidence is in the food of both cultures—gumbo and jambalaya are two such examples. This cultural interchange came in the form of trade and the sale of produce from the agricultural regions of Acadiana. Yet, the two cultures remained distinct and evolved separately.

The historical roots of the Gulf Coast region are complex and diverse. The area was an important center for trade and commerce; therefore, people from across the globe were attracted to the region and settled there - Germans, Spaniards, Canary Islanders and the Irish are a few examples, explaining the unique cultural traditions of the region. Most families in the area can trace their roots back to several points of origin and very few, if any, have one distinct line.

As far as how this distinction relates to cooking: simply put, creole cooking is highly influenced by French culinary traditions of sauces, tends to use butter, and is generally viewed as more refined. Cajun cooking, on the other hand, tends to be a cuisine of necessity. As farmers and fisherman, there was a need to live off the land and essentially eat what the harvest “brung ya’.” Many people view it as sophisticated vs. peasant food.

As a final note, blackened stuff of any kind is NOT cajun. That was an invention of Paul Prud’homme who happens to be of Cajun descent. Prud’homme was actually trained as a creole chef at Commander’s Palace.

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Bonnie Morét is an award-winning photographer recognized by The Georgia Council of the Arts as "an exceptional representation of contemporary Georgia art work." Her photography is featured on Georgia Public Broadcast's Georgia Traveler. Her exhibitions include Fifth Annual Exposure Awards at Musee du Louvre in Paris, France, Art Takes Miami at Scope Art during Art Basel Miami, Metro Montage XIII at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, World of Water at the Georgia Aquarium, Open Walls at Black Box Gallery in Portland, Oregon, Wholly Georgia: A Look at the Effects of Southern Religious Culture, sponsored by the Art History League and Georgia State University, at Mint Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, 6x6 at the Rochester Contemporary Arts Center in Rochester, New York, @Phonography: Dialogue in the Wireless Age, at 3 Ring Circus in New Orleans, Louisiana, and About Lands and Lives of the Civil War at the 6th Cavalry Museum in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. Her photography appears in Modern Luxury/The Atlantan, Jezebel Magazine, and hangs in the executive offices at the Georgia State Capitol as part of the Art of Georgia exhibit. Corporate clients include Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta History Center, Chanel Cosmetics, Christian Dior Cosmetics, Sharp Mountain Vineyards, PM Realty Group, Granite Properties, Road Atlanta, Patrón Tequila, Georgia's Own Credit Union, StubHub, CBM Records and The Washington Auto Show.