From their beginnings as colonists in the New World, the Creoles of Louisiana have enriched American life for hundreds of years. Their contributions to architecture, cuisine and elegant living have earned the Louisiana Creoles an honored place in American culture.
Creole culture is alive and thriving in the United States. A beautiful blend of West Africans, Islanders, French, Spanish, German, West Indian, Irish, Italian and Native American, the Louisiana Creoles represent a true melting pot of cultures.
Origin of Louisiana Creoles
The Creoles emerged in Louisiana as children of transplants from other countries. The first Creoles born in the colonies were of French parentage (the term “Creole” stems from both French and Spanish words meaning “colonist”). As time passed, French aristocracy mixed with farmers, merchants and others, including immigrants and colonists, both free and enslaved, resulting in a fusion of variegated combinations. As a result, no two unrelated Creoles will likely have the exact same ancestral makeup. Yet, they are all unified by the common banner of Creole culture.
As these people settled throughout the state of Louisiana, they brought along treasured traditions plucked from their multi-heritage roots. Bathed in Spanish and French influences and served up in a uniquely Creole fashion (gumbo style!), the Creoles’ joi de vivre was evident in all aspects of their daily lives. That enthusiasm for life continues to be a distinction of Louisiana Creole culture today.
Gathering friends and family together for socialising has long been important to the Creoles of Louisiana. The appreciation of an elegant lifestyle and a penchant for entertaining is evident in Creole architecture, even in the simplest of homes.
Stately plantation homes based on European design are splashed with island f lavor in both form and function. Shaded breezeways coax a fresh breath of air through structures, and decorative architectural details such as filigree ironwork add artistic interest. Deep, covered porches and enchanting courtyards are hallmarks of this architectural style, as are signs of the refined Creole culture. Charming pigeonniers – small outbuildings designed to house pigeons – were a stamp of wealth all the way up through the 1800s.
The so-called “shotgun” houses of the region were designed to encourage an efficient flowthrough of air. Typical shotgun homes are one room wide and several rooms deep, such that, theoretically, one could fire a shotgun straight through from front door to back door without hitting any obstacles. Most Creole-style buildings were constructed without hallways in an effort to foment easy ventilation of a building. This type of construction often led to asymmetrical layouts of properties, as rooms were added on to other rooms in a manner that would best capture this natural ventilation.
Many of these historic shotgun homes of yesteryear still stand; some as private residences and others as hotels or museums. The proven success and durability of these structures over countless decades in the face of persistent heat and humidity has led modern architects to incorporate Creole design in modern developments. As most Creole dwellings were built on raised foundations some as much as an entire storey high–many of these old structures even withstood the wrath of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, while many other, more recently constructed buildings did not.
Louisiana Creole Cuisine
The creativity of the Creole people is wonderfully expressed through their cuisine. Creole cooking blends together the culinary influences of French, Spanish and African cultures with butter, cream and tomatoes taking center stage, and the “holy trinity” of chopped green peppers, onion and celery anointing most dishes.
Probably the most famous Creole dish is gumbo, a thick stew-like soup of mixed vegetables and meats. The word “gumbo” originates from the African word for “okra,” a key ingredient in gumbo and other Creole dishes. “Gumbo” also refers to the local patois of the Creole language, ref lecting the infusion of mixed heritages blended together into a culturally unique regional language.
There’s no one “right” way to make gumbo, leaving a great deal of room for each cook to imbue his or her own imagination into the creation of this local dish. All gumbos start with a roux (a mixture of flour and fats) combined with a collection of meats and leafy vegetables. Okra, collard greens, mustard greens and spinach may mingle with oysters, crab, shrimp, sausage, chicken and ham. Filé powder–a seasoning made of dried and ground sassafras leaves–is sprinkled in at the last moment for added flavor and thickening before serving the meal atop rice.
Creoles love celebrations, and the festival of Mardi Gras is one of the world’s biggest. Creole creativity enlivens the town of New Orleans with spectacles of colorful dance, music and parades in the weeks leading up to Lent. Since its first celebration in 1703, this festival has lured people from all over Louisiana and the world to come to join in the fun.
Like the famous gumbo, the cornucopia culture of the Louisiana Creoles combines the best from its myriad heritages, blending refined elegance, delicious cuisine and a zest for life that is the signature of the American Creole people.