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First, You Take a Cajun Swamp Tour. Next, You Make a Creole Roux.

arcadiana-table-book-coverIn The World on a Plate (2014), Mina Holland describes 40 world cuisines and the “stories behind them.” Reading her book, you travel across Europe and down through the Middle East, east to Asia and south to Africa. She ends the book with the “melting pots” of the Americas: the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese influences in South America and the French, Polish, Germany, African and Asian inspirations to the north.

Of these 40 world’s cuisines, only the regions of California and Louisiana are included a mention in Holland’s book. A California Salad is dressed with Asian ingredients. BBQ corn is smothered with Cajun seasoning, accompanied by crawfish, and grits. Holland’s explanation is that most of Europe left its mark on the Northeast and the Midwest. Spain, through Mexico, impacted the South-Northwest. Yet, Louisiana cuisine is a unique rich blend of French, Spanish, Caribbean and Native American cultures and food.

We’ve heard of Cajun Shrimp. Creole Gumbo. Yet, Cajun and Creole cooking can be confused. They are very separate – and somewhat the same. A Louisiana travel site simplifies the differences by explaining that Creole is “city food” and Cajun is “country.” Another clarification is that Creole uses tomatoes and Cajun never does. Think gumbo and jambalaya and this explanation can fit.

The Cajuns were immigrants from French Canada – the Acadians. Acadia was a colony of New France that included parts of Quebec, the Maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), and what we know now as the state of Maine. As early as the mid-1700s, Acadians traveled south to Louisiana on the Mississippi River or by ship along the Atlantic. In Louisiana, “Acadian” was shortened, very simply, to Cajun. The Acadians brought their spices and foods with them to the Gulf Coast.

Creole in French means “a person not indigenous to the country or land.” The word in Spanish is criollo. In Louisiana the meaning is more distinct with the Creole culture sometimes described as a blend of the French, Spanish, African and Native American.

I was lucky enough to visit Louisiana, specifically New Orleans, during one of the hottest weeks of this past June – the last full week before the Fourth of July holiday. As I grew to understand (from Lyft drivers and bartenders), the tourists vacate New Orleans after July 4. The tourist season officially ends then and tired New Orleans hotel and restaurant and bar staff finally get a break from the hectic, nearly year-round party in the Big Easy.

The American Library Association knows its members well – librarians who are on lean personal and professional budgets. For that reason, ALA’s conferences are held in some of the hottest locales in the country in the summer (Anaheim, Washington DC, and Las Vegas) and the coldest cities in the winter (Chicago, Boston, and Indianapolis).

This year was no exception, of course, when the NOLA (New Orleans, LA) humidity made 95 degree weather practically unbearable during the conference held June 21 through the 26 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center along the Mississippi River.

My conference week (spent mainly indoors in the kilometer-long air-conditioned convention center) ended midweek and two of my hardy, best friends since 7th grade arrived for a girls-only Louisiana adventure. The three of us moved into a lovely hotel, complete with center garden, just steps from Bourbon Street. Together, we braved the New Orleans heat, learned of its illustrious history, and ate our way through its impossibly-delicious cuisine for five wonderful days.

I had already discovered the best fresh, hot beignets, bowls of gumbo, chargrilled oysters, and sippable drinks before my girlfriends arrived. So, we gobbled oysters at Dragos and sipped Sazeracs at the Public Belt. We hopped on and off the tour bus and visited the Garden District, Tremé, the French Market, and Canal and Tchoupitoulis Streets. At the original Café du Monde we guzzled coffee accompanied by beignets that were smothered in mounds of confectionary sugar (somewhat like puffed fried dough).

We braved a buggy ride behind a hairy mule (the mules fare much better than horses in the heat) and learned oodles about the architecture of New Orleans, including the restrictions for homes in the Historic District. We walked with some trepidation along Bourbon Street with its rowdy crowds, crisscrossing the French Quarter to our chosen nightly restaurants and cocktail bars. We tasted a Pimm’s Cup, a French 75, and a Viuex Carre in a Nick and Nora finely-etched glass.

There were many highlights of our girls’ vacation, but two are of the type none of us will ever forget.

The first was a swamp tour along the West Pearl River, reached by a 45-minute drive north of New Orleans and over the eight-mile bridge spanning Lake Pontchartrain. The bridge is new and it sits directly next to the ruins of the previous one destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Once on the bayou, our tour guide commanded his pontoon boat for a little over 2 hours along the swamps lined with Bald Cypress trees and filled with very visible alligators. He sidled up to a luscious shrub and offered us a pungent bay leaf, different than we had ever smelled before. He pulled up close to where a red fern grew from a lone river log. We three women from California and Massachusetts, and our local tour guide from the bayou, spent much of the time talking recipes and cuisine, serenaded by afternoon cicadas and shaded by overhanging swamp growth.

The second experience was a hands-on cooking class at the New Orleans Cooking School. While it is a business that caters to the tourist, it was also an adventure like no other. For 2-1/2 hours we three each had our own kitchen island complete with induction stove and all the equipment and ingredients we needed to make Cajun Gumbo, Beef Grillades with Grits, and Bananas Foster (complete with flame and magic dust.) We drank spicy Bloody Marys, local craft beer, and ate our own creation of three courses of deliciousness accompanied by our teacher/chef’s stories of Cajun and Creole lore.

There are many books throughout the libraries of the Minuteman Library Network. We have four of the best that will help you to navigate the Cajun and Creole cuisines.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, Cooking Up a Storm (2005) was re-published in 2015. The book was originally compiled as recipes “lost and found” by the Times-Picayune and stories and recipes of New Orleans’ culinary heritage. George Graham’s Acadiana Table (2016) includes traditional Louisiana recipes and some brand-new options. We have John Besh’s Besh Big Easy (2016). The author of the bestselling cookbook My New  Orleans (2009), owner of twelve restaurants and host of two public television shows has written a fourth book about his native Creole cuisine. Another television cooking celebrity, Kevin Belton, has written New Orleans Kitchen, published this year. If you can’t make a trip to New Orleans, you can let the good times roll, Cajun or Creole-style in your own home.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the July 19, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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