By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
I get a catfish poor boy, a cup of gumbo and a cold beer. The gumbo comes first; it's loaded to the brim with chicken, crab, oysters and a sausage. A woman at the next table leans over and says, "That's fine gumbo, ain't it?" I agree. "We're Cajun, and we come here every night," her companion says.
"What's the difference between Cajun and Creole gumbo?" I ask them. "No difference," he says.
The sandwich arrives with a piping hot fried catfish fillet on top of a large roll sliced in half and slathered with rémoulade, then dressed with cold lettuce and sliced tomato. It's too hot to eat, so I suck on my beer while it cools and get rewarded with the ultimate poor boy combination: hot-as-your-mouth-can-stand-it seafood on a bed of cold lettuce and tomato. A couple of shakes of Cajun Chef hot sauce adds a little edge to the spices. So what's the difference between Creole and Cajun? I wonder.
Houston, TX 77006
Turtle soup: $7
Pecan-crusted fish: $25
Truffled shrimp maque choux:$11
Seafood stew Pontchartrain: $30
Creole Shack, 5519 Caplin, (713)633-3829. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Gumbo, cup: $3; bowl: $5.75
Catfish poor boy: $5.75
Okra Creole: $7.95
Shrimp étouffée: $9.95
I know the Cajuns, or Acadians, were French-Canadians exiled from present-day Nova Scotia and environs by the British. Their diaspora spread them around the world -- a great many ending up in French-speaking Louisiana, particularly in the swamps and bayous of western Louisiana. The Cajun cooking style they developed was heartier and spicier than the Creole cooking in New Orleans, but seems similar to what they call Creole in western Louisiana. Confused? So was I. So I e-mailed Pableaux Johnson, the author of World Food: New Orleans, a foodies' guide to Louisiana from Lonely Planet Publications.
I tell him that I've just eaten at two Creole restaurants in Houston -- Brennan's, where I had transcendental turtle soup and seafood stew Pontchartrain, and the Creole Shack, an inexpensive black hangout where I had a catfish poor boy, gumbo and cold beer.
"Are they both the same kind of Creole?" I ask him.
"No. The two restaurants you are talking about are using two different definitions of Creole," he says. "Brennan's, being an outpost of the Crescent City restaurant dynasty, is using "Creole' to define a style of cooking invented by the old European settlers of New Orleans. It's sophisticated, old-fashioned city food -- essentially classical French cooking adapted to New World and Spanish ingredients by African cooks. Heavy on the seafood, lots of butter and cream sauces, gumbos with tomato, rich, elegant quasi-European stuff.
"The Creole Shack, on the other hand, is a classic "South Louisiana Creole' joint," he continues. "Here "Creole' is being used as an ethnic distinction. In the 18th century, French-speaking Afro-Caribbean free people of color (les gens de couleur libres), including Haitians and freed slaves of French owners, settled in French Louisiana. Pockets of these French-speaking black folks flourished in both New Orleans and out in the bayous. The foods of the South Louisiana Creoles are simpler and more rustic (similar to Cajun food), with a different set of influences than the "European Creole' of old New Orleans."
No wonder I was confused.
"Creole is a dangerous word to throw around, but everybody does it," Johnson says. "The seemingly simple term means a lot of different things. Linguists have a technical definition, "a mixed-language dialect used as a group's mother tongue.' Louisiana historians have another one, "direct descendants of New Orleans's early colonial French and Spanish settlers.' Creole means something altogether different in the French West Indies and in other parts of the Caribbean. And then there are several culinary definitions. Just remember, anytime somebody tries to tell you exactly what Creole means, take it with a grain of salt."
Does that include you?
Thanks to Pableaux Johnson's explanation, I now understand that when Roland Curry, the owner of the Creole Shack, says "Creole," he's referring to Louisiana's French-speaking blacks. In fact, Curry is related to one of the most famous French-speaking free people of color in Louisiana history, Marie Therese Coin Coin, a Creole woman who owned an antebellum plantation outside of Natchitoches. Curry goes on to tell her story:
"It was the time of the Spanish rule," he says. "Marie Therese Coin Coin was a slave from Western Africa. A white French aristocrat named Claude Pierre Metoyer fell in love with Marie and fathered 14 children with her." The man's family was scandalized, Curry continues, so they tried to keep him from seeing her anymore. As a compromise, he made a deal with them that if they would grant her freedom, he would stop seeing her. They agreed, just to get rid of her, but they insisted on keeping the children as slaves. Well, Metoyer was in good with the Spanish king, and he got Marie a land grant on which she built a plantation called Melrose. And every year, with the money she made, she bought back one of her children. They say that just a few months before she died, she finally raised enough money to buy back her baby. A lot of the Creoles in Natchitoches are descended from Marie's 14 children -- including me, Roland Curry says.
Cajun, New Orleans Creole and African-French Creole are three distinct cuisines -- from three of the world's most fabled cultures.