Louisiana’s Creole culture is a rich mélange of food, music and religious tradition going back to early colonial times when French and Spanish settlers first arrived on American shores from Europe. The term “Creole,” coined in the 18th century, originally referred to those settlers of European descent born in the American colonies and was used to distinguish the American-born settlers from those newly arrived from Europe. Later, however, the term was expanded to include mixed-race individuals born of African and European heritage, primarily French and Spanish heritage. The inclusion of mixed-race individuals upset certain Anglo settlers, particularly Alcee Fortier and Charles Gavarre, who fought to maintain the term for “pure” Europeans. Despite these efforts, the term was never fully re-anglicized. People of mixed-raced heritage instead began to be referred to as “Creoles of Color” or “Creole Slaves.”
Although Creoles lived in various areas of Louisiana such as Cane River in the North and Pointe Coupee next to Baton Rouge, no where was their influence more dominant than in New Orleans. Creoles who lived in the city of Orleans mostly gravitated to the French Quarter while newly-arrived colonists settled uptown of the Quarter. As the Creole culture expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries, it diverged into something separate from the main culture, particularly in New Orleans. Combining the original French and Spanish influences with those derived from the African traditions, Creole culture took on a flavor all its own.
While Creoles mostly spoke Parisian French, over time, Creoles of mixed-race heritage created a hybrid language of French and West African patois which was used by both mixed-race and Anglo Creoles. Gradually Creole French became the language of other ethnic folk living in Louisiana including Native Americans, Irish, as well as the more recently arrived Vietnamese, Cambodians, Syrians and a host of other ethnicities. Today, Creole French is basically spoken in certain rural areas as it has been supplanted by American English as the primary language throughout the state.
Creole cuisine is a unique hybrid of its defining cultures with other influences thrown into the mix. Creole cooking represents the influence of not only France, Spain and Africa, but over time has merged with culinary additions from Irish, Native American, Italian, German and Caribbean traditional foods. The particular New Orleans Creole style of cooking is heavily seasoned with what is referred to as the Holy Trinity – onions, bell peppers and celery. Counterpoint to the trinity is the meirpoix, a base made up of classic French ingredients. The traditional meirpoix includes onions, celery and carrots, usually in a ratio of two parts onions, one part celery and one part carrots. Meirpoix often serves as the starting point for a variety of stocks, soups, stews and sauces.
One of the more popular dishes associated with Creole cuisine is the gumbo. The word “gumbo” derives from the French term, “gombo”, a translation of the African-originated term for okra, a vegetable used as the thickening base of the dish. In addition to okra, gumbo traditionally includes chicken and spicy sausages as well as a variety of seafood that include crab, shrimp and oysters.
Another dish associated with Louisiana Creole cuisine is the famed jambalaya. Originating in the European section of the city, jambalaya, like the aforementioned gumbo, is a stew of assorted spicy ingredients that include ham, sausage and rice mixed with tomatoes. The dish is often prepared in one of two ways – red or brown. The red variety includes the original European ingredients listed above. Brown jambalaya, however, is more influenced by the Cajun style, and leaves out the tomato, substituting it with Tasso, a salt-cured pork shoulder which provides the “brown” coloring. Jambalaya is also heavily influenced by the Spanish paella, a savory combination of rice, tomatoes, beans and meat, usually chicken, rabbit or duck.
The music of the Creole communities in Louisiana has its own distinctive sound, culminating in a genre called Zydeco, developed during the 20s in Southwest Louisiana. A combination of bygone genres, mainly La-la and Jure, Zydeco is sung in the language of the Creole French as well the French tongue spoken throughout Louisiana. Played to the strains of make-do instruments such as aluminum washboards called frottoirs that are strummed with bottle caps, Zydeco is lively rhythmic and syncopated. Merged into the history of Creole music are slave melodies passed down through the generations. Again, the merging of the cultures provides a unique sound, indicative of the history of the Louisiana Creoles.
Of course, Louisiana wouldn’t be Louisiana without its muddy blues. The blues arose from the dirge of African-American generations putting the pain of their lives to spirituals, chants and work songs played out through the strains of guitars, horns and keyboards. Swamp pop is also a regional mainstay, arising during the 50s and 60s from both Creole and Cajun teens looking to find their own sounds. A combination of rhythm and blues as well as country and western, swamp pop still maintains a small following in southern Louisiana and some parts of Texas and has gathered an international cult following as far away as the UK and Japan.
Cajun music, derived from the Arcadian communities in Louisiana, influences Creole music as well. Cajun sounds tend toward harsher strains but is as syncopated as the Creole Zydeco. Cajun music relies heavily on the metal sounds of triangles as well as the harmonies of the accordion and fiddle. Again, time has caused a merge of these various sounds that are intrinsic to the overall sounds of Louisiana.
The religious practices of the historical Louisiana Creoles leaned toward Catholic and Protestant rituals. Some slaves merged these practices with their African-based religions and the result is what is known as “voodoo.” Voodoo, apart from that practiced in other countries, relies on observances involving gris-gris, deities, and certain paraphernalia and hierarchies. Just as with Catholic practices, voodoo provided spiritual guidance for such life areas that included family and love. Spirits derived from Africa lore were often rechristened, their new appellations paralleling those of Catholic saints. Additionally, Catholic prayers and baptisms were instituted into voodoo rituals. Historical voodoo often included amulets, holy water, crucifixes and other religious paraphernalia used to protect loved ones and ward off evil.
Today’s Louisiana Creoles
Today, the Creole community in Louisiana is just as vibrant as ever and maintains its unique essence. Those claiming Creole heritage speak with pride about their history and their traditions and these traditions are still being passed down from generation to generation. Luminaries who claim Creole lineage include entertainers Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Roseanne Arquette, Steve Martin, Garcelle Beauvais and Beyonce (the last two considered Creole of Color).
Those visiting Louisiana, especially New Orleans, should make it a point to taste some good Creole cuisine and do a few steps to some lively Zydeco rhythms. They won’t be disappointed.