The turtle soup at Brennan's of Houston takes you on a magic carpet ride. From the moment the bowl of black stew hits the white linen, it commands your attention. Musky alligator snapper meat, dark roux and intricately spiced veal stock shimmer behind a veil of steam. And just as you lift your spoon, the waiter steps in. Your silverware hovers in the air as he uncorks the sherry bottle and lets the Creole genie out. A sudden whiff of sherry, bay, garlic and spices rises up, lifting you gently from your chair. Then you take a bite and go flying -- through a version of history as exotic and opulent as anything in 1001 Arabian Nights.
Consider this ancient urban legend: It's 1762. King Louis XV of France is playing cards with his cousin King Charles III of Spain. Louis is losing but thinks his hand is a sure thing, so he goes all out and bets the French territory of Louisiana. Charlie smiles. His cards are even better. In a fit of giggles and a flash of powdered wigs, Louisiana goes from French to Spanish rule.
Cut to a darkly lit interior on the other side of the globe: In the slave quarters of a Louisiana mansion, an elegantly dressed French aristocrat slips quietly into the bedroom of his lover and the mother of his children. The beautiful black slave girl is named Marie Therese. Whispering in French, her lover Claude Pierre promises her an impossible future. He will set her free and buy her a cotton plantation
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning: Brennan's dining room is dark and cozy, with a rose-colored granite floor and dark wood columns wrapped with Christmas garlands. It looks inviting, but I'm not allowed in.
"I'm sorry, sir, gentlemen are required to wear jackets at Brennan's," says the manager. "But we will gladly lend you one." I sheepishly select a large from the rack of identical blue blazers. I have never understood this strange custom of eating dinner in somebody else's jacket. But it's too late to retreat, so I sit down with my date and look over the menu.
Brennan's is the most famous Creole restaurant in Houston, and I am here to see what this style of cooking is all about. But what I read on the oversize menu makes me dizzy. Truffled maque choux! Foie gras on braised friséewith praline liqueur and pecans! Sweetbreads and foie gras on rutabaga cakes!
At Brennan's, you have to decide if you want classic Creole, nouvelle Creole or Texas-Creole. We shuffle the deck. For appetizers, we order the nouvelle truffled shrimpmaque choux and the classic turtle soup. For our entrées, we select old-time seafood stew Pontchartrain and Texas pecan-crusted trout. The maque choux is a disappointment; I can barely smell any truffles in the corn-and-pepper stew, and the shrimp on top have no connection to the dish. You know about the turtle soup. The pecan-crusted trout is pleasant enough, but very delicate. Seafood stew Pontchartrain is a crustacean orgy, an obscene amount of lump crabmeat covered with shrimp on a bed of roasted trout with oysters swimming in butter and cream sauce. It is "as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin," as Mark Twain once described Louisiana seafood.
Near the reservations desk, I find a copy of a new Creole cookbook, Commander's Kitchen, by Ti Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon, the owner and chef of Commander's Palace in New Orleans. (The Brennan family has owned ten restaurants during the last 50 years, including Brennan's in Houston and the flagship, Commander's Palace in New Orleans.) In the book, the authors explain the lineage of the historic Creole cooking style, which has been lovingly preserved and handed down by famous old New Orleans restaurants.
In 1780 the Spanish government gave special rights to persons of European heritage, whom they called criollos or "Creoles." These refined souls embodied the affluent spirit of old New Orleans, and they loved to mimic the French and Spanish courts with elaborate banquets. The food was created by their African servants from classical French recipes and New World ingredients. To the existing French/African/ Native American cooking style of Louisiana, the Spanish introduced the ingredients that completed the New Orleans pantry -- tomatoes, chiles and exotic spices from their far-flung empire. (The French still thought tomatoes were poisonous.) And thus the foundations of Creole cuisine were created.
As the truffled maque choux and foie gras creations on the menu will attest, Creole cooking is neither static nor immune to innovation. Former head chefs at Commander's Palace include Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, each of whom has launched stylistic variations of his own. But the menus of the Brennan family restaurants also preserve such classics as turtle soup and shrimp rémoulade that trace their heritage all the way back to the bons vivants of the late 1700s.
George Thomas is blowing a soulful rendition of the line "chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." on the flügelhorn. His four-piece jazz band is set up in front of the fireplace at the Creole Shack. The crowd is mostly black, and everybody is in a good mood. Several families have brought their kids, who bounce their feet in time to the music and stare at the huge flocked Christmas tree covered with blinking colored lights. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Creole Shack is a "fat cafe." "A fat cafe is what they call a restaurant that has music back in western Louisiana," the bartender tells me.
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.
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.
On my second visit to the Creole Shack, I taste the difference. Roland Curry's style of Creole is part African, part Choctaw Indian, part French and part Spanish, he tells me. "It's a little different from Cajun food, with more tomato sauces and different spices," Curry says.
The Creole Shack's shrimp étouffée drowns juicy shrimp in a spicy sauce, which is made with a little roux and a lot of tomatoes, green peppers and onions. It's different from Cajun shrimp étouffées, which are brown sauces thickened with dark roux. It's closer to a New Orleans shrimp Creole, only spicier.
My buddy gets okra Creole, which is perhaps the most unique illustration of black country Creole on the menu. It's a spicy hash of okra (African); corn and peppers (NativeAmerican); onion, celery and andouille sausage (French); and shrimp in a thick tomato sauce (Spanish), served on a plate with French bread. It's like nothing I've ever seen in a Cajun restaurant. Or in a New Orleans Creole restaurant, either.
The Creole Shack and Brennan's occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Brennan's is one of Houston's most elegant restaurants, a place to experience historic New Orleans cuisine and some innovations unique to the Bayou City. The Creole Shack is a fun and inexpensive joint whose spicy stews and well-dressed poor boys offer an interesting, if subtle, alternative to Cajun food. Go to Brennan's for a stellar fine-dining experience. Go to the Creole Shack for a poor boy, a cup of gumbo and a jazz show on Friday or Saturday night. Either way, you will be experiencing authentic Creole culture.
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