Cajun Cooking……just thinking about it makes me hungry. In my opinion, it is one of the more superior cuisines on the planet. It doesn’t call for a lot of fancy ingredients…whatever is handy works just fine. And substitutions are always OK. It is freestyle cooking at it’s best.
Of course, there are a few defining characteristics that separate cajun food from other cuisines. It may help to know a little background, in order to understand just how cajun cooking came to be, and where it may be going.
To start with, we need to know exactly what a Cajun is. Cajun is a contraction of the word Acadian. Acadia was the predominantly French settlements along the Canadian East Maritime coast along the Atlantic Seaboard, which included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The British occupied the region in 1710, but the Acadians refused to sign a British-Loyalty Agreement, and engaged in guerilla warfare to maintain communication and supply line to the French forts at Louisborg, and Fort Beausejour. When the French and Indian War, was inevitable, it was vital that the British neutralize the Acadian military threat, and so before the war was actually declared, they forcibly deported all the Acadians to the 13 colonies, in the south, and later sent them to France, and some to be imprisoned in England. This was pursuant to an illegal court order by Judge Jonathon Belcher, Chief Justice for Nova Scotia. The ruling was against every English Law on the books, but the British occupation army enforced it just the same. The Acadians had their property confiscated, and they were loaded up and shipped out under the most inhumane conditions imaginable. Thousands died, many of whom were women and children, either by disease, when their ships were sunk, or being shot by British troops. The surviving Acadians were later allowed to settle in the Spanish province of Louisiana, where they remain to this day, still fiercely independent, and self-sufficient. The term Acadian was eventually shortened to Cajun.
Never, never confuse a Cajun with a Creole. You’ll get hurt by both sides. Creoles are decedents of Spanish, French and Haitian settlers to the New Orleans area of Louisiana. The name Creole is derived from the African-Haitian word criollo, which was used to distinguish Negroes from Africa and Haiti from those that were born in the New World. In Louisiana, it was used to describe people of mixed race, descended from Spanish, Haitian, and French settlers to the area. They have their own culture and cuisine, and are also fiercely proud of their heritage.
The Cajuns soon developed a unique culture and cuisine, making use of the abundant water, humid climate and local resources. One of the defining features of Cajun Cuisine is that it almost always includes rice, which was plentiful, easily grown and stored. One of the running jokes is that you can tell if a person is a real Cajun if you can drive them by a rice-field, and they can tell you how much gravy it would take to cover it…
Another feature of Cajun cooking is the use of different colors of a sauce known as roux, a sort of gravy. It can range in color from white to brown, to red, and finally brown and black, depending on how long it is cooked. Each color has it’s own distinctive taste. In most other cuisines, the Rule-Of-Thumb is that light gravies go with poultry and pork, while dark gravies go with beef. Cajun cuisine is just the opposite, with dark roux being used with poultry and seafood, while the lighter colors go with beef, and other red meats. Roux is one of the main ingredients in gumbo.
One thing most Cajun recipes will have in common is the use of the Holy Trinity, which is diced green pepper, onion and celery. This is similar to the French mire-poix , which is onions, celery and carrots. They are used in equal proportions. Another ‘quirk’ is the use of black, white and red pepper in the same dish. The reason for this is that each pepper reacts with a different part of the tongue, giving the food a full, ’round’ flavor.
Aside from these features, pretty much anything goes. Cajuns are not opposed to cooking and eating anything not immediately toxic, such as nutria (an extremely ugly, and large water-rat), crawfish, bullfrogs (not just the legs, but the whole frog), carp, bowfin and other rough-fish, alligators, snakes, and anything else that can be captured with reasonable (sort of..) safety. You will never starve a Cajun out. It is not possible under any circumstances. If there is a drainage ditch around, they will eat.
No discussion of Cajun Cooking would be complete without talking about one of their greatest contributions to the world…the Tabasco Pepper. Isle Petit Anse was owned by John C. Marsh from 1818, until he sold it to the Avery family in 1849. They changed the name to Avery Island. The Avery’s had a very successful farming operation, and when Mary Eliza Avery married Edmund McIlhenny, history was about to be made. Edmund had acquired some pepper seeds from a returning veteran of the Mexican-American War. The seeds came from the Tabasco region of Mexico. The seeds mutated in the salty soil of Avery Island into a wonderful fruity, piquant pepper. Unfortunately, the peppers did not dry well, so preserving them was difficult. But McIlhenny discovered that by boiling them, and covering them in vinegar, they preserved well, and could even be made into an outstanding pepper sauce. The new sauce was even said to be able to treat cholera. Thus, one of the greatest Hot Sauces in the world was born….McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce…the only ‘true’ tabasco sauce. To this day, McIlhenny’s is still made from peppers that can trace their lineage back to the original peppers brought from Mexico. All other copycats must call their sauces ‘Lousiana Sauce’ and cannot use the Tabasco name. Actual tabasco peppers only come from Avery Island, in Lousiana. So when a Cajun recipe calls for Tabasco sauce, don’t take a chance by using cheap imitations. Use the real thing. It makes a huge difference.
I’ll leave you with one last bit of wisdom….You may be a Cajun-At-Heart , if watching episodes of Wild Kingdom make you want to write a cookbook.