By Caroline Gerdes
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.
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.
“The Creole identity is very fluid…there is no one right answer. The multitude of answers is the answer,” he said.
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.
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
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 has been working on an oral history project on the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Learn more about her work and follow her story on Twitter @CarolineCeleste.