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So, what makes it 'Cajun'?


Smithy
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Wow. Go out of town for a weekend, and look what pops up on eGullet. Here's my .02

You have to remember that New Orleans and Cajun are pretty exclusive of each other, although there has been a blurring of the lines recently. A few of things to keep in mind...

- New Orleans is not Cajun. You may be able to get Cajun in New Orleans, but the overwhelming majority of the food there is Creole.

- Cajun food grew out of neccesity. The earliest Cajuns were farmers and trappers for the most part. Whatever got onto the table did so because it was available.

- What a lot of people thing of as Cajun is actually Creole. Anything with pasta, cream or the mother sauces, red beans, bread pudding, most of the pastries, and so on.

- To be considered strictly Cajun, you have to look at the flavor base. Normally, it is either roux or the trinity as mentioned above. Lots of smoked or cured pork, and seafood found in the rivers or the Gulf of Mexico.

- The basis of Cajun food goes back to the 1700's when the Acadians landed in south Louisiana. The gravies, soups, jambalayas, etoufees, and everything else revolves around trying to stretch whatever protien they could get in order to feed the family. That's why rice was so important. You could add a fairly simple sauce or gravy to the rice and feed 10 people on 1 chicken.

- You rarely see fresh hot peppers in a dish. Tabasco, yes. Ground cayenne, yes. But you generally won't see a hot pepper cut up into the dish, traditionally.

- Cajun food is not blisteringly hot. It may have a kick, but should not send you into a round of hiccups.

It took me a long time to be proud of where I come from. (Abbeville, LA in Vermilion Parish - if anyone has a map, Marcelle Beinvenue's home town.) I grew up in the heart of the Cajun culture. I was spoiled by the astounding seafood we had growing up. I had to move away to really appreciate what was there. I never lerned French, but I should have. I'm trying to teach myself now. I'd hate to see it go away. The older I get, the more Cajun I become.

Screw it. It's a Butterball.
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Anyone heard of the "River Road Recipes" cook books from  The Junior League of Baton Rouge?  My mother has been making various stuff from  their second book since the mid 70's.

I almost bought one of those some years back, and didn't, for reasons that escape me now. I must not have been collecting cookbooks with gay abandon at the time. Shame, eh?

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

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"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)
"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Bavila and Fist Fulla Roux, thank you for the extra information and the resources! I'm so pleased at all the information that's coming my way, both from the practical aspect and the historical perspective!

Tonight I made a chickpea stew with "Cajun" (from Northern Minnesota, but I like the seasonings) sausage and the trinity (red peppers instead or green) and lard for the fat, just as an excuse to see what it's like, and smoked paprika. Came out darned good, but a bit on the thin side, and I thought "that's why they start with, 'make a roux'! :laugh: "

Fist, I'm glad you've outgrown your cultural embarrassment. I think the diversity of this country is one of its strengths - at least, it should be (recent electoral events make me wonder) - and without it, this country really will degenerate into a tiresome unending series of suburban strip malls.

Thanks, everyone, for terrific and thoughtful answers! I'd love to read more! For instance: Why not fresh hot peppers? Why only pepper sauce?

...and by the way, I'm glad to hear it doesn't have to be blisteringly hot. The pepper heat in most of the "authentic" recipes I've tried has overwhelmed most of the other flavors. Maybe that's just the author's preference.

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

Follow us on social media! Facebook; instagram.com/egulletx; twitter.com/egullet

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)
"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Some time ago I put a gumbo recipe in RecipeGullet that was used to get into the details of how to make a roux. I will quote it here. This technique is to get to that very dark roux that is used in some gumbos. It is really close to burning when it is at that Hershey Bar stage. Of course, you can use the same technique to make a lighter roux.

Note that the quantities of fat and flour are equivalent, e.g. 1 cup flour to 1 cup fat, or whatever will yield a combination liquid enough to keep moving. You also need a heavy pot. I use my Le Creuset.

Combine the oil and flour in your pot and stir together until there are no lumps. It should be liquid enough that it flows well as you stir. Add more oil if necessary. Turn the heat to medium high on a wimpy range or maybe medium on a better burner and start stirring. I recommend using a wooden spatula rather than a spoon as that tool does a better job of sweeping the bottom and corners of the pot. Oh, by the way, you can’t stop stirring so you best go pee before you start this. I call this a “2 beer roux” That means that you can drink 2 beers before it is ready. I find that it takes me about 30 to 40 minutes to get there, but then I have done this a lot. Better to go slow until you gain some experience.

When the roux gets to the color of a Hershey Bar, you are ready to go. WARNING: The reddish Hershey Bar color is very close to burning. If black flecks appear, you have burned it and blown it. Start over.

I also see that no one has mentioned the typical (though it varies) ratio for the trinity: 2 parts onion:1 part celery:1 part bell pepper. Yes, sometimes I use red bell pepper.

On the issue of layering flavors with the same common ingredients: One lady in La Place that I learned a lot from had this killer jambalaya technique. She would do some of the trinity in the fat with the cayene added in at the get-go so that it got toasted. That part of the trinity was sauteed until it was starting to caramelize. Then some more trinity was added and barely wilted. Then the sausage, shrimp, rice, stock and so forth was added. This is a classic example of simple ingredients handled skillfully that made a world of difference. She made me a believer that common ingredients can make for spectacular results when in good hands. That, to me, is one of the priciples of good Cajun cooking.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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The reason hot peppers weren't usually used in a dish is another Cajun eccentricity. Most times, you do final seasoning at the table. Now, way back when, before the bottles and jars, they may have used some of the fresh peppers. But since the bottled stuff has become better and more widely available, most dishes are seasoned to the lowest common denominator, and you can add salt and Tabasco to your heart's content at the table.

It's a matter of everyone being able to enjoy the meal. Even those with more timid palates. My wife (from Alabama) eats her rice plain with a little butter. My mom raises an eyebrow, but says that it's OK, as long as it makes her happy.

Screw it. It's a Butterball.
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I loves my peppers in vinegar to sprinkle on greens, as well. Especially the curved bottle with the snip-off top that you keep closed-up with a toothpick. Trappey's I think.

We really can't forget to mention the fishing camps with good fish frys. Although that's not exclusively cajun, luzianne, or whatever, you all do put it up right. Make a dog drop a pork chop :smile: make me wish I could get down there!!

Edited by Mabelline (log)
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Being from S.W. LA. we have a differnt infulence, Texas. While most around here (or used to be, before the infulx of the floating gambling) are of cajun, or creole desent, more and more I see the pepper (cut up) coming into play. Myself, me, I like a good Creole sauce, or Picante sauce, for whatever. I always say I can cook anything with a good picante sauce. Yahee....Let the good times roll!!! Cajun and creole are worlds within worlds. I learned to cook from a creole and then some cajun friends, who'd do everything from squirrles to alligaters (or vise/versa), this was 20 odd years ago and I still learn.

I will be amiss if I don't mention file. This is ground sassafrass leaves and is the 1 Major reason that the recipe that you try to cook like the resturant you enjoyed did not turn out. In a creole sauce, it is the final touch.

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Being from S.W. LA. we have a differnt infulence, Texas. While most around here (or used to be, before the infulx of  the floating gambling) are of cajun, or creole desent, more and more I see the pepper (cut up) coming into play. Myself, me, I like a good Creole sauce, or Picante sauce, for whatever. I always say I can cook anything with a good picante sauce. Yahee....Let the good times roll!!! Cajun and creole are worlds within worlds. I learned to cook from a creole and then some cajun friends, who'd do everything from squirrles to alligaters (or vise/versa), this was 20 odd years ago and I still learn.

I will be amiss if I don't mention file. This is ground sassafrass leaves and is the 1 Major reason that the recipe that you try to cook like the resturant you enjoyed did not turn out. In a creole sauce, it is the final touch.

Absolutely. My spice cabinet is never without the skinny little jar of file. :wink:

Also, as my mr, born in Monroe of Lafayette folks, says (not original with him of course, but he does say it) -- as long as there's ditches no one's going hungry. :raz:

He grew up squirrel hunting with his dad in LA and MS. Although I'm the one more likely to eat the 'gator! :laugh:

Judith Love

North of the 30th parallel

One woman very courteously approached me in a grocery store, saying, "Excuse me, but I must ask why you've brought your dog into the store." I told her that Grace is a service dog.... "Excuse me, but you told me that your dog is allowed in the store because she's a service dog. Is she Army or Navy?" Terry Thistlewaite

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The comparison of Cajun with Acadian cuisine is rather instructive.

In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, the staple starch was potatoes, rather than rice. Soups and stews were a mainstay, often made thick and sticky with grated potatoes; an obvious forerunner to many of the filling rice dishes of Louisiana. "Rappie Pie," for example, is a dish still made by Acadians; chicken or beef or pork slow-cooked in a big ol' casserole dish filled with grated potatoes. You start by frying some salt pork in it, and a bit of onion (and in the old days, perhaps, some salted herbs if you had 'em).

Pork, and especially salt pork, was a big favourite. Went into everything, including desserts (take a pastry square, put a piece of crisp-fried salt pork in the bottom, cover with apples, fold up the corners to make a smaller square...when almost done, pour hot maple syrup into the middle...return to oven until it's all bubbled over and sticky...mmmmmmm).

Chickens and beef were seldom eaten when young and tender, they were slaughtered after they'd been used up as chicken/milk producers; hence long/slow cooking was a given. Pork was salted down or turned into sausage. Fish was plentiful, and was used heavily in a variety of dishes. Lobster was so common, in some times and places, that it was used as fertilizer for the garden. Seasoning was simple and straightforward; usually just locally-grown herbs salted down for preservation. It was all about filling a stomach frugally but unequivocally.

Now take that background, and transfer it to Louisiana where anything and everything can be grown; and where there were a world of new influences to be assimilated...

“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.” - William Cowper, The Task, Book Three

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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I just finished rereading this entire thread, and I'm amazed and delighted by the breadth and depth of information. Thank you, all!

One thing that strikes me is the assertion, made by many of you, that the Cajun cuisine took common food - whatever was available and affordable - and made it uncommonly good. I think that's an excellent attitude, well worth promoting in any cuisine. Unfortunately, judging by other threads on people eating junk rather than taking the time to make things good, it still seems to be an uncommon attitude.

I am also taken by the fact that my paternal kinfolk came from a similar subsistance (farming and hunting) background, in Oklahoma and Tennessee, yet their food as I recall was pretty plain. Mind you, it was tasty, but it was your basic meat, potatoes (or rice, if there was gravy to be had), vegetable, fruit salad, and some damn fine pie. I'm curious as to whether the more basic approach to cooking was a regional thing - as y'all seem to be asserting - or just the approach my particular kinfolk took. This may be one of those imponderables, but I'm enjoying pondering it.

You know, if I'd gotten this sort of perspective in school, I'd have gotten a lot more out of history and literature than fuzzy memories of Evangeline.

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

Follow us on social media! Facebook; instagram.com/egulletx; twitter.com/egullet

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)
"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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I just finished rereading this entire thread, and I'm amazed and delighted by the breadth and depth of information.  Thank you, all!

One thing that strikes me is the assertion, made by many of you, that the Cajun cuisine took common food - whatever was available and affordable - and made it uncommonly good.  I think that's an excellent attitude, well worth promoting in any cuisine.  Unfortunately, judging by other threads on people eating junk rather than taking the time to make things good, it still seems to be an uncommon attitude. 

I am also taken by the fact that my paternal kinfolk came from a similar subsistance (farming and hunting) background, in Oklahoma and Tennessee, yet their food as I recall was pretty plain.  Mind you, it was tasty, but it was your basic meat, potatoes (or rice, if there was gravy to be had), vegetable, fruit salad, and some damn fine pie.  I'm curious as to whether the more basic approach to cooking was a regional thing - as y'all seem to be asserting - or just the approach my particular kinfolk took.  This may be one of those imponderables, but I'm enjoying pondering it.

You know, if I'd gotten this sort of perspective in school, I'd have gotten a lot more out of history and literature than fuzzy memories of Evangeline.

You have to look at the ancestry of the people involved. In the 1700's, the French had a pretty good culinary background. Those first families were French via Canada, and they worked with the Native Americans that were there. The Native Americans taught them what they could eat, and the French history took over.

As far as Oklahoma and Tennessee, as I know it, it's more of an English and Germanic influence. In the past, not known so much for their culinary adventures. Which pretty much is the basis for old West type cooking, with the addition of the influences of Native Americans and Mexico.

Screw it. It's a Butterball.
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You have to look at the ancestry of the people involved. In the 1700's, the French had a pretty good culinary background. Those first families were French via Canada, and they worked with the Native Americans that were there. The Native Americans taught them what they could eat, and the French history took over.

As far as Oklahoma and Tennessee, as I know it, it's more of an English and Germanic influence. In the past, not known so much for their culinary adventures.  Which pretty much is the basis for old West type cooking, with the addition of the influences of Native Americans and Mexico.

That finally came to me as I was cooking dinner tonight. I'd forgotten the Germanic influence, but the Scots-Irish (and, as you note, English) who make up most of my stock were no great shakes either. Mind you, I love visiting those countries, but I don't think they spent much time - at least not a couple of centuries ago - trying to make fancy meals.

(The other thing that came to me, between posting that last post and dinner, was, "Why didn't I change the darned light switch before I logged on last time?" I remembered the job as the sun was going down. I finally ended the job 'hot' so the adjacent room's lights, on the same circuit, were available. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Got away unscathed, but still dumb. Y'all are a wonderful resource and terrible distraction! :raz:)

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

Follow us on social media! Facebook; instagram.com/egulletx; twitter.com/egullet

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)
"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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You have to look at the ancestry of the people involved. In the 1700's, the French had a pretty good culinary background. Those first families were French via Canada, and they worked with the Native Americans that were there. The Native Americans taught them what they could eat, and the French history took over.

As far as Oklahoma and Tennessee, as I know it, it's more of an English and Germanic influence. In the past, not known so much for their culinary adventures.  Which pretty much is the basis for old West type cooking, with the addition of the influences of Native Americans and Mexico.

That finally came to me as I was cooking dinner tonight. I'd forgotten the Germanic influence, but the Scots-Irish (and, as you note, English) who make up most of my stock were no great shakes either. Mind you, I love visiting those countries, but I don't think they spent much time - at least not a couple of centuries ago - trying to make fancy meals.

(The other thing that came to me, between posting that last post and dinner, was, "Why didn't I change the darned light switch before I logged on last time?" I remembered the job as the sun was going down. I finally ended the job 'hot' so the adjacent room's lights, on the same circuit, were available. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Got away unscathed, but still dumb. Y'all are a wonderful resource and terrible distraction! :raz:)

Well, I meant British as that sort of general area - More the British Isles is what I meant... But you get what I mean. The Germanic influence was actually felt more out west. I had an epiphany on this as soon as I realized the connection between weinerschnitzel and chicken fried steak....

Screw it. It's a Butterball.
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In all fairness to the MidWest, I think the availability of ingredients, and the influence of multiple cultures, was not quite the same there. The point I was striving for in my sleep-deprived state was that Acadian food was utterly transformed by the move to Louisiana.

Acadian cooking, in l'Acadie, was also very plain meat & potatoes food; unless you couldn't afford meat and therefore ate fish, which were free for the taking. There are many Acadians "of a certain age" back home who won't eat fish, because when they were growing up that was poor people's food. It was the impact of multicultural, geographically favoured Louisiana that awoke their dormant "eating well" genes, I think.

IIRC, most of the Acadians were of Norman, Picard, and Breton ancestry. I know little of these influences, except the obvious transference of the Norman apple culture to Nova Scotia. Can anyone of greater knowledge point out survivals of these influences on modern Cajun cooking?

Oh, and Smithy...forget Evangeline. For a great read, I recommend "Pelagie," by Antonine Maillet. Maillet is an Acadian writer from New Brunswick, and was the first Canadian to win the Prix Goncourt for the best novel in the French language. "Pelagie" tells the story of a determined matriarch bringing her clan back home from Louisiana in the years following the Expulsion. It is available in English, and is a damned fine yarn.

Amazon seems to have only the French version, unfortunately...Alibris has several copies here.

“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.” - William Cowper, The Task, Book Three

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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There is much wisdom above, to which I'll add only one comment. Fifi's advice to go pee before you start the roux is absolutely crucial :biggrin:. Believe it and never forget it.

THW

"My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne." John Maynard Keynes

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