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Cajun Cooking

Cajun Cooking

Cajun cooking is a regional cuisine native to South Louisiana. Traditional Cajun cooking developed in a diverse and abundant natural environment and a multiethnic though predominantly French Catholic social environment. In the narrowest sense the word "Cajun" refers to descendants of eighteenth-century Acadian settlers expelled from Canada who eventually settled in South Louisiana among a multiethnic French-speaking population, including people of French, African, Spanish, German, Native American, and other descent. Eventually the Cajuns (short for Acadians) dominated twenty-two parishes of South Louisiana, now called Acadiana. They lived in relative isolation until the twentieth century, when the outside world came to Cajuns in the form of compulsory English education, the oil industry, World War II, mass media, and an influx of outsiders bearing a standard American mass culture. Like immigrants from foreign shores, Cajuns found themselves in a new world of change. Cajun culture was a source of scorn by outsiders and an embarrassment for many insiders, and French speaking declined.

However, a revival of Cajun culture gained steam in the 1970s with the creation of French programs in the schools, a general attention to cultural expressions (music, food, and so forth), and a rise in pride in being Cajun. Part of this pride of identity is as a people who are highly sociable, who know how to enjoy life (joie de vivre), including the enjoyment of food, and who know how to prepare food that is exceptionally good. It is fitting that Cajun cooking has become a major cultural export and Cajun chefs have become high-profile media personalities.

Ingredients

In the past, small farms produced pork and poultry, while beef was more common in the southwestern part of the region. People raised corn, greens, okra, peppers, mirliton (chayote), seasoning vegetables (onions, peppers, garlic), and more. Rice, the preferred grain, was raised in some areas and imported in others. Native Americans taught the use of filé powder, made from sassafras trees, for gumbo. Hunting, fishing and gathering in the bayous, swamps, and Gulf waters provided ingredients such as crawfish, crab, shrimp, finfish, turtle, alligator, venison, squirrel, and other game.

In the past it was necessary for Cajuns to be competent in the various environments to acquire food, and it was necessary to know how to process it for cooking. Today, most food is purchased at grocery stores, yet the traditional subsistence skills are symbolically valued and often practiced as recreation (hunting, fishing, gardening) or shown off at festivals (skinning furs, opening oysters, butchering a hog).

Cooking Aesthetics

The aesthetics of traditional Cajun cooking demand that foods have strong, intense flavors. Strong flavoring comes from the use of seasoning vegetables (onion, bell pepper, garlic, celery) and from the careful browning of ingredients. Gumbo and other sauce-based dishes begin with a flour-based roux that is slowly browned to a dark color. Seasoning vegetables are browned. Coffee is dark-roasted. The use of cayenne and other hot peppers intensifies flavor. The proportion of hot pepper varies throughout the region and among cooks.

Cajuns say good food takes time, and many dishes require long simmering that follows slow browning. For example, gumbo, a soup, or stew that will be served over rice, is simmered for hours until the ingredients soften and break down.

Major dishes reflect the practice of combining a flavorful multi-ingredient item with a bland staple, usually rice. Gumbo (of many varieties), étouffée, sauce piquant, and fricassee are served over rice. Jambalaya and rice dressing contain rice. The pattern occurs in less obvious forms, such as rice-containing boudin sausage (the "Cajun fast food"), corn bread dressing, boulettes (rice and meat or seafood balls), vegetables stuffed with seasoned meat and corn bread, and crawfish bisque, which contains cleaned crawfish heads stuffed with a dressing mixture.

Community Food Events

Community food events include boucheries, cochon de laits, rural Mardi Gras, and festivals dedicated to certain foods. At old-fashioned boucheries families took turns butchering a hog, then cooking or distributing the perishable meat for quick use. A modern family boucherie is a party at which a hog is butchered, cleaned, and converted to various dishes, including boudin sausage, cracklings, hogshead cheese, backbone stew, chaudin (stuffed stomach), rice dressing, and cuts for the freezer. A party called a cochon de lait is a pig roast, a scaled-down version of a boucherie. Rural Mardi Gras involves gathering the ingredients for gumbo, including live chickens, by riding horses or trucks from house to house, begging for ingredients, and performing antics. Women cook the gumbo for the night's dance at a community kitchen. Throughout Acadiana festivals are dedicated to food as prepared dishes or major ingredients, such as crawfish, gumbo, sauce picquant, boudin, shrimp, rice, and so forth. Festivals usually include eating contests and food preparation demonstrations.

In both traditional and modern Cajun culture, food is a center of attention, something to brag about, something to enjoy, and something to center social events around. Both men and women cook, and men are often the star cooks at larger social events. A man's outdoor kitchen is as elaborate and well equipped as the owner can afford.

Crawfish Boils

The quintessential Cajun food event is the backyard crawfish boil. In spring people catch or buy live crawfish and boil them outdoors with cayenne pepper and vegetables (corn on the cob, potatoes, carrots). The hot craw-fish and vegetables are poured onto newspaper-covered tables. People peel the crawfish by hand to extract the tail meat and often suck the heads for additional flavored juices. Crawfish boils are extended family events but also events that outsiders to the region are likely to be invited to. At a crawfish boil food is a boundary marker that positively shows that Cajuns are competent and sociable. Outsiders often have difficulty peeling the crawfish or tolerating the hot pepper, and many are squeamish about boiling live animals or about eating what looks like an insect. The outsider (in the past often the more powerful or wealthier immigrant from the dominant American culture) is the novice, and the Cajun is the skilled one, a friendly yet superior host teaching how to peel and eat crawfish. Once a poor people's food, scorned by outsiders, the crawfish has become a symbol of Cajuns as well as a relatively high-priced ingredient sometimes used in nontraditional dishes such as crawfish Newburg or crawfish pizza.

Cajun Cooking Gains Fame

In the 1980s trained chefs raised on Cajun cooking, such as Paul Prudhomme and Alex Patout, brought their food to the nation though restaurants, cookbooks, television, and public appearances. Cajun cooking became famous, even faddish. Cajun dishes appeared on menus far from Louisiana with varying quality. Fast food chains featured "Cajun" items. The number of food manufacturers in Louisiana multiplied, as did the number of restaurants catering to tourists. Internet sites sell Cajun ingredients and prepared dishes for overnight shipment. The non-Cajun Emeril Lagasse promotes Cajun dishes on television and in cookbooks, and tourism advertising focuses on Cajun cooking as a major reason to visit Louisiana.

See also Crustaceans and Shellfish; Fish; Game.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre. Cajun Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Gutierrez, C. Paige. Cajun Foodways. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Prudhomme, Paul. The Prudhomme Family Cookbook: Old-Time Louisiana Recipes. New York: Morrow, 1987.

Ten Eyck, Toby A. "Managing Food: Cajun Cuisine in Economic and Cultural Terms." Rural Sociology 66, no. 2 (2001): 227243.

C. Paige Gutierrez

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