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A History of Creole and Cajun Food in Louisiana


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Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.

I'm Doug Johnson. This week:

We learn about the history of Cajun and Creole food and culture …

Visit some of the famous restaurants of New Orleans, Louisiana …

And listen to some traditional zydeco music.

The state of Louisiana is widely known for its rich history, musical traditions, good food and fun spirit. Its largest city, New Orleans, is considered one of the best cities for food in the world. Many famous cooks began their careers in restaurants that offer the rich traditions of Cajun and Creole cooking. Before we tell about the food and music of Louisiana, Bob Doughty explains more about Creole and Cajun traditions.

We asked food writer and cook Marcelle Bienvenu to help us with the definitions of Creole and Cajun as part of our exploration of Louisiana cooking.

The word "Creole" refers to French colonists and their descendants who came to what is now Louisiana starting in the early eighteenth century. The roots of Creole cooking come from the traditional French foods these colonists would have made. They had to change their cooking to use the food sources that were available in the hot, wet climate of Louisiana.

Other settlers came from countries including Spain, Germany, Italy and England. The food traditions of those countries also influenced Creole cooking.

One group of settlers came to Louisiana during the eighteenth century from an area of Canada known at the time as Acadie. The Acadiens were from France and still spoke their native language. They were forced to leave Canada when the British took over.

Many Acadiens travelled south to Louisiana. The French and Spanish settlers there permitted them to speak their language and follow their religion. Some Acadiens settled in rural parts of the state. Over time, the term "Acadien" developed into the word "Cajun."

Marcelle Bienvenu says the cooking of the Creoles living in New Orleans often was and still is more formal and complex.

Cajuns living in rural areas made and continue to make hearty dishes like gumbo and jambalaya that usually contain seafood, vegetables, rice and spices. These are prepared in one cooking pot. Cajun cooking uses whatever foods are nearby and available, like crawfish, duck, alligator, okra, corn or tomatoes. Ms. Bienvenu says: "When a Cajun cook is planning a meal, he or she simply opens the kitchen door and whatever is flying, swimming, walking by or growing in their gardens may well end up in the pot."

Ms. Bienvenu adds that Creole and Cajun cooking have influenced one another. So it is hard to make set rules about their differences. One thing the two cultures have always had in common is a love of good food.                 

That was "Cedric Zydeco" performed by the twenty-five year old musician Cedric Watson. Born in the state of Texas, Watson now lives in Lafayette, Louisiana. He is helping to keep the sounds of Creole and Cajun alive and well. We thought this energetic music would help us get in the mood to talk about food in the city known as "The Big Easy."

New Orleans has many famous restaurants that celebrate the best of Cajun, Creole and French cooking. In fact, the travel Web site iExplore recently listed New Orleans as the best food city in the world. Many food lovers would agree.

Visitors can start their day at Cafe du Monde where they enjoy chicory coffee and pieces of sugary, fried bread called beignets. Its main shop in the French Market is open twenty-four hours a day. So visitors have all the time they need to enjoy their coffee outside while watching the people walk by.   

The family-owned Galatoire's restaurant has been serving fine Creole food in the French Quarter since nineteen oh five. Its specialties include Trout Marguery. This fish dish is named after a French cook who created a rich sauce containing white wine, fish stock, egg yolks and butter.

At Commander's Palace in the Garden District, food lovers can try American as well as Creole specialties including turtle soup and fish covered in pecan nuts. Two famous cooks once worked at Commander's Palace. Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse have helped make Creole and Cajun food popular around the world.

Antoine's is another favorite for French Creole cooking. This restaurant is known for dishes including Oysters Rockefeller and alligator soup.

Which brings us to our listener question from Vietnam. Khoa Pham wants to know the difference between alligators and crocodiles. Each creature belongs to a different group within the order of crocodilians.

The clearest difference between the two is the shape of their heads. The alligator has a shorter and wider head with a curved jaw or snout shaped like the letter "U." The crocodile has a pointier snout, shaped like the letter "V."

Also, alligators liketo live in freshwater, while crocodiles can survive in salt water. There are several kinds of crocodiles and alligators.

In the United States, crocodiles are only found around the southern tip of Florida. But alligators live in several southeastern states.

That was "Dance Everyday" by Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience Band. Simien has been performing Creole music professionally for twenty-five years. Simien, his wife and others worked for years to influence the Recording Academy to create a zydeco and Cajun music award to present at its Grammy Awards ceremony. This music became an official Grammy category last year.

About two hundred kilometers west of New Orleans is where another star of Cajun cooking spent her career making delicious food. Barbara Klein remembers Eula Mae Dore who died last year.

Eula Mae Dore spent most of her adult life on Avery Island in Louisiana. This area is known as the home of one of the world's most famous hot sauces, Tabasco. Ms. Dore worked for the McIlhenny Company which makes Tabasco for fifty-seven years. She worked in the general store of the company and also cooked for its workers. Her sandwiches became famous in the area. The food she made was so good that the McIlhenny family soon asked her to cook for them and the many important visitors to the island.

Eula Mae Dore grew up in a small town in Louisiana. Her mother died when she was ten years old, so she had to teach herself to cook for her family. She also learned by watching her grandmother prepare traditional Cajun food. Ms. Dore never trained professionally, but she had an extraordinary skill with food. Many famous cooks came to Avery Island to try her dishes and learn from her.

Paul McIlhenny and the food writer and cook Marcelle Bienvenu asked Eula Mae Doré if she would write a cookbook. Ms. Dore at first did not think anyone would be interested in her style of cooking and refused. But she later agreed to the project. Ms. Bienvenu and Ms. Dore worked for two years on the cookbook. "Eula Mae's Cajun Kitchen" was published in two thousand two. It captures the spirit of this special woman and her love for her native cooking.

We leave you with "Chanson D'Acadie" by the band BeauSoleil and Michael Doucet. The group combines the sounds of Cajun, zydeco, jazz and blues music.

I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today.

It was written and produced by Dana Demange. To read the text of this program and download audio, go to our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.

Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.


"American Mosaic" in VOA Special English
www.manythings.org/voa/america

Source: A History of Creole and Cajun Food in Louisiana
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