New Orleans was, of course, and will be again, a great city to eat in. One hundred years before the Cajun-food craze hit its apogee in the 1980s, outsiders were already curious about the distinctive food of New Orleans, the unusual city that wasn't quite French, nor Spanish, nor American. By 1900, several Creole cookbooks had been published in English, and the city's grandest restaurants were already catering to rich tourists. Some of these establishments remained in operation until New Orleans was flooded last week. Until the city reopens for business, we could do worse than conjure the region by cooking its signature dishes. To that end, Slate offers a basic (and necessarily incomplete) primer on the greatest foods of Southern Louisiana—and how to cook them.
First, a clarification. Many people conflate Creole and Cajun cooking, which is understandable, because today they are served in the same restaurants. But the two cuisines are distinct. As its name suggests, the city of New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 and then passed into Spanish hands for a few decades until Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. Being a port as well as a swamp prone to population-depleting disease, the area was generally welcoming to European immigrants of many stripes; it also became home to many black Africans and Caribbeans who didn't have much say in the matter. Along the way, Louisiana cuisine retained its French backbone but adopted other ingredients and techniques: the deep frying, okra, hot peppers, and sweet potatoes of African and Afro-Caribbean cooking; the rice, sherry, and garlic of the Spanish; and the smoky sausages made by German newcomers.
Creole cooking was an urban cuisine, produced for New Orleanians of French and Spanish descent, who had been dubbed criollos by the Spaniards. Their French-speaking black cooks learned to prepare refined dishes based on the earthy ingredients that were plentiful in the nearby lakes, swamps, and the Gulf of Mexico. Crawfish bisque, for example, is made with lowly mudbugs, but the soup is puréed and strained, then served over a bed of rice and garnished with crayfish bodies, themselves filled with a tail-meat-and-rice stuffing. Cajun food, on the other hand, is country fare, cooked by the descendents of the Acadians, French Catholics who were squeezed out of Canada and eventually settled in the bayous near New Orleans in the second half of the 18th century. The Cajuns, so renamed by the Native Americans they encountered along the way, specialized in one-pot feasts that included everything they could find in the water, the air, and the forest. Because the Cajuns are stellar woodsmen and -women, that list was long: Raccoon, possum, squirrel, crab, turtle, catfish, alligator, and doves have all been set forth on Cajun tables. Despite their differences, Cajun and Creole cooking share a French foundation, and both bear the indelible mark of Louisiana's immigrant culture.
In the rest of the country, Cajun food began to attract interest in 1971, when a tippling, patois-speaking cook named Justin Wilson started making it on television. But the Cajun craze really took hold in the late '70s and early '80s, when a Cajun chef named Paul Prudhomme caused a national sensation with his huge, jolly stature and his blackened redfish—the product of a not particularly traditional high-heat cooking technique he developed. Since Prudhomme had been the chef at Commander's Palace, one of New Orleans' grandest old Creole restaurants, the difference between Cajun and Creole cooking, already muddied, became almost totally obscured. But elements of both cuisines caught on, as chefs became infatuated with the lusty flavors and the homegrown but exotic ingredients (redfish! crawfish! andouille!) and developed an exaggerated perception of how much hot pepper Louisianans use in their cooking. After too many scorched gumbos cooked by carpetbagging chefs, the fad has subsided. But the real food of Southern Louisiana remains a revelation in its layering of flavors, and its constant reinvention of a few key flavoring agents.
Gumbo is one of the great Cajun catchall dishes, as the all-inclusive recipe I've linked to suggests. It's a hearty soup, almost always seasoned with the Cajun-Creole trinity of aromatics—onions, bell pepper, and celery—plus some, but not necessarily a lot of, hot red pepper. Gumbo can contain nearly any meat, because it is the seasoning and the thickeners that make gumbo gumbo. Two common thickeners are slithery okra, which makes broth viscous when it is cooked, and gumbo filé, the powdered sassafras leaves that Cajuns picked up from the Choctaw Indians. But it is a fundamentally French soup thickener—the roux—that defines Cajun gumbo. While there are Cajun and Creole uses for pale and medium brown roux, to make a true gumbo the roux must be stirred and watched and cooked until it is molasses brown—nigh black, but not burnt. For no matter how rustic the cuisine it is, it is not careless: A burned roux, every Cajun cookbook admonishes, must be thrown away.
Gumbo z'herbes, on the other hand, is a classic Creole dish, one thickened with neither roux nor okra nor gumbo filé. Traditionally served on Good Friday, gumbo z'herbes is a ragout of mixed bitter greens—turnip tops, mustard greens, kale—together with herbs and some country ham and hot red pepper for flavor. After weeks of winter and Lenten fasting, the greens were at once a celebration of spring and a restorative tonic. Best of all, for every kind of green that goes into green gumbo, eaters are supposed to make a new friend in the coming year.
Étouffée, classically made with the buggy-looking crawfish, is basically a low-liquid gumbo, flavored with celery, onion, scallions, red pepper, and hot pepper and served over rice. Whether to use a roux and/or tomato in étouffée is a subject of much debate. What is not debated is the essential enrichening presence of crawfish fat, which is scraped from the thorax of cooked crawfish, or better yet gathered from live crawfish torn in half before cooking. If you overlook it, your étouffée will never be more than second rate. (Those of us without crawfish on hand might consider making a crabmeat version of the dish.)
Red beans and rice is one of many rice-and-beans dishes that can be found across the Caribbean and the American South, but the Creole staple sets itself apart not just by the color of its beans, but by the use of French aromatic pot seasonings like carrots, onions, parsley, and celery. Add in smokey Creole sausages with their hint of the Alsace, and a subtle but essential hit of red pepper, and the dish is as distinctly New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, who signed his letters "Red beans and ricely yours."
Jambalaya is the ultimate Louisiana rice dish, likely a variant of paella and a relic of the city's Spanish rule. Since jambalayas often include heavily smoked tasso ham, the name may come from the Spanish jamon or the French jambon, but it has also been linked to the Provençal rice dish jambalaia. Like gumbo, jambalaya welcomes all creatures. "The secret of a good jambalaya," wrote the late Justin Wilson, "is that every grain of rice is supposed to taste like the meat that's cooked with it." Like roux, jambalaya gets its flavor from patient browning—in this case, of meat and aromatics at the beginning of cooking.
Turtle soup—although you can't get much swampier than turtles—as it is famously served at Commander's Palace, is less Cajun than Creole, with its blond roux, and the complex fragrances of sherry and Worcestershire. It is also a reminder that New Orleans serves as a kind of museum of fine dining: Turtle soup used to be de rigueur in grand 19th-century restaurants, and now Commander's and Galatoire's are among the few places where it survives.