Cajun or Creole?

When strolling through the French Quarter, you’ll notice several obvious connections to its namesake motherland. Many of the street names are French — Rue Bourbon, par exemple — and corner bistros send aromas of pralines, beignets, and bread pudding wafting across the neighborhood.

Yes, New Orleans is a French place. Some locals may call it Creole, but you won’t hear them call it Cajun.

Acadians were expelled from Canada, including Prince Edward Island (pictured here), in the 1700s. (Photograph by Nicolette WainLowe, My Shot)

While there are some Cajun influences in New Orleans, the bulk of Louisiana’s Cajun culture is found in the southwest corner of the state.

Yet Cajuns are French, too.

But, they are French by way of Acadia, the area colonized by France in North America (what is now the Canadian Maritimes) in the 16th-18th centuries.

When the Acadians were expelled from Canada during the French and Indian War, many made their way south to Louisiana, eventually settling in an area that became known as Acadiana.

Cajun people pride themselves in their unique food, dialect, celebrations, and culture — all of which are separate from what many French New Orleanians identify as Creole.

Here’s a primer on the difference between the two terms from a New Orleans native:

Creole can mean French mixed with Spanish and/or African and/or American Indian. But as many purely French New Orleanians call themselves Creole, defining the term can be complicated.

Amanda LaFleur, an instructor in Cajun Studies at Louisiana State University, explained that Creole is derived from a Portuguese term meaning “born on the continent.”

According to LaFleur, the term Creole originally applied to the children of the first colonists to indicate that they had been born in the New World. Marriages between French and Spanish colonists (and extra-marital contact with black residents — both slave and free) did occur, which caused the word to become almost synonymous with mixed descent. 

This is no surprise to Richard Campanella, geographer and professor at the Tulane University School of Architecture, who emphasized that the word’s definition has evolved over a period of 500 years.

“The Creole identity is very fluid…there is no one right answer. The multitude of answers is the answer,” he said.

The Creole tradition of throwing beads symbolizes sharing wealth. (Photograph by Tulane Public Relations, Flickr)

But one thing’s for sure: the accent you hear in movies and TV shows that are based in New Orleans — a syrupy Southern accent with a slightly French inflection – is pure fiction. But something similar can be heard in Acadiana.

During the first and second World Wars, French was stigmatized as un-American and banned from Louisiana schools. The prohibition against French had a profound and long-lasting effect, but it didn’t stop Cajuns and Creoles alike from continuing their French customs. There has even been a Cajun French revival movement in recent years.

It’s my party

The difference between the two cultures can be observed in their respective Mardi Gras celebrations. Parades with large, colorful floats and flashy, avant-garde presentation are typical of New Orleans Carnival, while in Acadiana, the festivities are more pastoral.

An old sugar plantation on the Bayou Teche in the heart of Cajun country. (Photograph by Jonathan Nutt, My Shot)

The famous Fat Tuesday custom in Cajun Country is the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras run. Groups travel from house to house, begging for food that will be used to make a communal gumbo at the end of the route. Ingredients collected may include anything from flour to a live chicken. 

LaFleur said Cajun Carnival is steeped in old European tradition. Society, she said, is turned upside down. Historically, the wealthy are mocked and the poor become royalty for a day.  

Costumes reflect this hierarchal satire, as three traditional guises mark society’s most powerful groups: cone-shaped hats mock nobility, bishop’s miters represent the clergy, and four-corner hats represent academics. 

Mardi Gras in New Orleans engages in similar role-play with costumes and faux royalty. But unlike Cajuns, who come together to share a meal, New Orleanians represent sharing wealth by throwing beads and coins.

The proof is in the gumbo

A traditional Creole gumbo — notice the okra and clear broth. (Photograph by Robert Giglio)

Gumbo variations also demonstrate the difference between Creole and Cajun culture. LaFleur said Creole gumbo is prepared with okra, tomato, and a mix of meats and seafood.

In Cajun gumbo, game and seafood are never mixed, the okra is usually left out, and the roux — a mix of flour and butter (or vegetable oil) – is the real focus. The farther north one ventures in Louisiana, the darker the base becomes. 

But while there is pride in individual traditions, there are not always stark contrasts. The groups have been living together and learning from one another for centuries, while blending with other influences — Spanish, African, Caribbean, German, Irish, and Italian, to name a few — in Louisiana’s melting pot.

“None of this is static. [Foreign elements] threaten a culture, but they are also what makes it relevant,” LaFleur said. She added that the various French settlers have all brought one common sentiment: “The joie de vivre, the sense of humor, that notion that having fun is part of what you deserve in life.”

Caroline Gerdes is a National Geographic Young Explorer who worked on an oral history project on the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Follow Caroline’s story on Twitter @CarolineCeleste.

Comments

  1. Symone
    Pensacola, Fl
    April 30, 2:06 am

    I am mixed Louisiana french creole and My grandmother and her family are pure creoles. The gumbo is dark so I think when you go more into the south is when the broth darkens. I am trying to brush up on my Creole again but if you think about something, Cajuns get offended when you call them Creole, and Creole’s get defended if called cajun has their ever been a mix between the two?

  2. Amanda Lafleur
    Lafayette, LA
    November 13, 2013, 10:09 am

    Not exactly. I imagine that roux in Monroe might be light-colored, but as one moves north from, say, Vermilion Parish (where roux color tends to be light brown) toward the northernmost tip of the French triangle (Evangeline and Avoyelles Parishes) roux color gets progressively darker. Most people say that this has to do with the intensity of flavor in the more northern parishes, where smoked sausage or tasso is used in just about every local recipe. Dark roux complements the smoky flavor, but tends to drown out some milder flavors.

  3. lucretia thomas
    May 28, 2013, 5:38 pm

    The statement about the roux is completely wrong. Acutally, the opposite is quite true. The farther north you go, the lighter the roux.

  4. Cavel Capalbo
    Ocho Rios, Jamaica
    October 28, 2012, 4:03 pm

    I enjoyed reading this well-researched article very much. It reminded me of our multi-blended cultures here in Jamaica, and I wish NG would write more about us. http://jamaicaoceanviewvilla.com/2012/10/6-ways-act-jamaican

  5. Trishann Couvillion
    United States
    October 8, 2012, 8:58 pm

    As a photographer who is moving to New Orleans soon, and as someone who is Cajun French, I appreciate Caroline’s explanations on Creole and Cajun. They are quite hard to explain! :) http://www.bluesbyfire.com

  6. Renuka
    New Delhi, India
    October 4, 2012, 2:04 pm

    Nice, informative article!