Tomatoes and Filé

By David Preda

Tomatoes are the difference – it’s The Tomato Rule. If you’re gumbo has tomatoes, it’s Creole; if it doesn’t, it’s Cajun.

“Unless there’s okra, because the acid from the tomato helps cut the sort of slime — I’m sorry that’s so unappetizing — that okra produces,” Chef Amy Sins said. “When it comes to gumbo and when it comes to jambalaya, Creoles add tomatoes and Cajun don’t.”

Sins is the owner of Langlois Culinary Crossroads, an establishment that’s as hard to define as it is to pronounce. By design, Langlois isn’t a restaurant, at least not by any conventional standards. Other than a bar lined with empty seats in front of the stovetops, the dining room and the kitchen have no demarcation of where one begins and the other ends. A casual air hangs around the room: Brushed metal stools encircle high top tables scattered around the cramped space, with no sign of pattern or intention. Sins claims the room accommodates up to 20 guests at a time (if they have a reservation), but even empty the dining room feels too small for that.

“At essence, we’re a demonstration kitchen,” Sins said, glancing over the bar at the ovens. “Sometimes … we’ll offer private sessions and teach people how to cook, but that’s not our day-to-day operation. We’re more interactive than a lot of other demo kitchens, when we’re cooking we don’t just want to lecture our guests over our process, we want to get them invested [and] learn something new about Cajun or Creole cuisine, primarily. We’ll do traditional French, Spanish, and Irish dishes too, but only because those three culinary schools had so much influence on the evolution and formation of a Creole cuisine in [New Orleans]. We want to emphasize that Cajun and Creole foods are similar, but do have separate histories which the rise of the tourist-magnet Cajun/Creole restaurant hides.”

A Louisiana native, Sins grew up in “Cajun country,” the birthplace and namesake of Cajun food. Refugees from Acadia, a colony in New France — the region of North America colonized by the French before the formation of the United States — near present-day Nova Scotia, fled south during the Great Expulsion of 1755-1764, when England deported Acadians out of fear that they were conspiring with French military officers during the French and Indian War.

French and Spanish colonists in Louisiana welcomed the Acadians, due in part, some say, to the fact that Acadian colonists still spoke French; this similarity would later contribute to the consolidation of both groups’ cuisines in New Orleans. Before this convergence, however, most of the Acadians settled in southern Louisiana, where they lived in near-isolation from the rest of the colony, forming their own culture. With the formation of this new culture, especially in a radically different geographic setting than the Acadians had ever before experienced, came a loosening of their connection with French identity, including the evolution of their language which transformed the pronunciation of Acadian into “Cajun.”

“The Acadians didn’t move to Louisiana because they wanted to,” Ernest Monceaux said. “The Louisiana Territory was in French hands at the time, and the Acadians were refugees, forced out of their homes by military intervention. Nobody ever really wanted to live in the swamps and bayous, but it was one of the politically safest decisions the Acadians could make, going to another French territory. The land was cheap, too, most of it hard to cultivate for agriculture and prone to flooding.”

Monceaux is a chemical engineer in Lake Charles, though he has a background in history. Originally from Pennsylvania, he moved with his family to Louisiana the summer before his sophomore year of high school. The name “Monceaux” alone should be enough to indicate his Cajun roots despite his Northern birthplace.

“This migration [from the Great Expulsion] meant two things: First, that the Acadians — or Cajuns, rather — had an implicit ally in the descendants of French settlers, who became Creoles, based on their shared national allegiances,” Monceax said. “Second, that the impoverished Acadians would become impoverished Cajuns due to their general separation from society.”

With incredibly limited ways to participate in economic trade, the Cajuns were forced to live off the land, farming what fruits and vegetables would grow and hunting and trapping their meats. Scarce ingredients created a Cajun cuisine focused on bold flavors and simple cooking styles.

“They cooked with what they could find, really,” Sins said. “A lot of Cajun dishes don’t require any more than maybe two pots, and food was scarce in that area during the period of Acadian settlement. They had to survive on what was there.”

Elements of French culinary tradition still remained in the Cajuns’ foods, but these too diverged from their French originators — exemplified in catfish courtbouillon, a layered stew that utilizes a dark roux foundation (a staple of Cajun food), compared to traditional French cuisine’s use of olive oil and vegetables. As well, catfish courtbouillon is one of the few exceptions to The Tomato Rule, an undeniably Cajun dish that relies heavily on tomato for flavor, texture and color in much the same way that Creole food tends to use tomato.

“Cajun and Creole food came from the same culture, but Cajun and Creole are not the same cultures,” Inez Buller, a Creole and former restaurant-owner, said. “At heart, they came from the French, but Cajuns were in the country and we Creoles were in the city. New Orleans itself shaped Creole food, forcing interactions between various immigrant groups in the area, which in many ways affected key elements of the food.”

The genealogy of Creole cuisine, however, is hard to trace exactly, due to the linguistic ambiguity of the term ‘Creole.’ The word was borrowed from the Spanish ‘criollo’ (which may have been borrowed from Portuguese) and often referred to children born in the colony of black or racially-mixed parents, and children of French or Spanish background with no racial mixing. Unfortunately, though, a definition this broad doesn’t reveal the actual usages and deployment of the label Creole in New Orleans.

Following the Louisiana Purchase, the Creole label distinguished descendants of French and Spanish settlers from Anglo-Americans in the city, and though the historical record shows many free people of color’s race as Creole, they did not experience the same advantages as white Creoles. In fact, a Creole identity experienced two-fold racism in system that positioned them as lesser than white people and greater than black people, which gave rise to the discrimination of black Creoles and Creoles of color by white Creoles. Similarly, notions still persist that “true” Louisiana Creoles have no African ancestry.

But if white “true” Creoles so vehemently separated themselves from black people, it doesn’t logically follow that some of the most iconic Creole foods (which are themselves symbolic of the American South) have origins in black Creole culture, and a rising number of black people are also identifying as Creole without encountering much resistance to or questioning of their heritage.

“To say that Creoles can’t have African heritage really doesn’t make any sense,” Monceaux says. “Not only do legal documents often identify descendants of free slaves as Creole, many historical records consider Creole to be interracially Native American and African. As well, New Orleans is now a majority black city whose history, in a sense, promoted the mixing of ethnicities and races. To say that this had no effect on Creole culture just doesn’t make any sense.”

Regardless of its current iteration, however, Creole food’s origins remain rather enigmatic. Lore has it that the creator of Creole cuisine was one Mme. Langlois, who worked as the cook for the French mayor in Louisiana Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville between 1701 and 1745. Some people, like Sins (whose restaurant shares a name), claim that Mme. Langlois held America’s first cooking class after The Petticoat Rebellion in which French women — brought to Louisiana to marry — held a protest on the mayor’s front lawn in outrage at the colony’s low-quality food. Langlois introduced these women to the native ingredients of the land (in some iterations of the tale, Langlois had close ties with the area’s Native American population), including sassafras, whose leaves could be dried and ground into filé powder.

“Personally, I don’t like a lot of filé in my gumbo,” Buller people. “My daddy loved it, and I grew up eating and cooking filé gumbo. But when I personally use it, I use less than most people. It’s mostly a Creole spice. I’m sure some Cajuns put it in their gumbo too, but I’ve never met one.”

Other than highlighting key differences in Creole and Cajun culinary traditions, gumbo further solidifies the idea of Creoles having African heritage. Etymologically, the word ‘gumbo’ comes from the Angolan word ‘kingombo’ which translated to ‘okra’ in English. While not all gumbo contains okra, the vegetable flourished in Louisiana and is often included in gumbo, usually with chicken. The use of okra doesn’t distinguish Cajun and Creole gumbos, and can actually cause the two to more closely resemble each other through use of tomato to cut the okra slime, as Sins pointed out. While some debates continue over differences in the two styles of gumbo, notably the thickness of the broth, three elements serve to distinguish them: the color of the roux, use of tomatoes, and the addition of filé.

“When I first had filé gumbo I was sort of confused,” Moncueax says. “I’d been eating gumbo my whole life, even before we moved to Louisiana. I thought that maybe we just couldn’t get filé in Pennsylvania, but I also wondered why anyone would want it: Filé’s so bitter and really doesn’t go with the Cajun dark roux base, which is bitterer than the lighter roux used by Creoles anyway. I honestly don’t think I was in New Orleans when I first had filé gumbo, but before I learned more about Creole history, I just called it ‘New Orleans gumbo’ like my mom did.”

And really, New Orleans as a city and its evolving demographics played an incredibly large role in first separating Cajun and Creole styles, then later again in enabling their convergence. The Creole population, despite having experienced a level of economic freedom and success in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, became a marginalized group in New Orleans, especially as more Anglo-Americans arrived. Black Creoles and Creoles of color (a term typically reserved for Creoles of Spanish and Latin descent) were treated like any other American racial minority and faced economic marginalization as well as political and social segregation well into contemporaneity (legally-enacted desegregation of Mardi Gras krewes didn’t occur until 1992).

White Creoles, on the other hand, economically benefitted from American control of New Orleans, but intentionally isolated themselves and stigmatized romantic and reproductive relationships outside of their own community. This self-chosen isolation backfired and separated white Creoles from white Americans and unified Creoles as a marginalized group comparatively. As the city evolved, it welcomed new immigrant populations, who often interacted with Creoles due to their low economic standings. These interactions changed the trajectory of Creole culinary evolution, incorporating elements from Irish and Italian cuisines to name just a few, the latter of which solidified the (controversial) use of tomato.

“On some levels, Creole and Cajun foods were destined to combine,” Monceaux says. “The two groups had a shared heritage and, both living in Louisiana, there was no way they wouldn’t interact. I don’t believe that the two should necessarily be separate, but I have some issues with the assumption that they’re the same cuisines because it does erase the varied and tumultuous histories of the groups. And I think the low-class existence of both groups, especially once the Cajun population in New Orleans grew, allowed for the cooptation and exploitation of their cultures, which means we have Cajun/Creole restaurants that aren’t owned by Cajuns or Creoles.”

Moreover, the combining of the two styles erases other differences between the two group’s foods, especially in specific dishes. Any Louisianan will claim that the meat pie was invented in Natchitoches, and the unofficial ‘Boudin Trail’ runs through Cajun country. Creole dishes like oysters Rockefeller and chicken Clemenceau remain distinct from Cajun foods to this day.

“Some people want to say that Creole food is city food and Cajun food is country food,” Buller says, “but the thing is, they’re both city food now. Are they different? Of course, and I don’t think a lot of people, especially outside of Louisiana, know that. But New Orleans is home to both of them now, so we can’t stop them from coexisting.”

David Preda is a senior at Tulane University majoring in English and Gender and Sexuality Studies.