Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Seven Nations & Defining "Creole"

I sit here in my kitchen today deep in thought, sipping a cup of coffee. The task before me is to define the work that Rick and I are doing in New Orleans to create Restaurant R’evolution.  To be honest, our work was defined more than 300 years ago by the seven nations who arrived on Louisiana’s shores. So, our task should be simple: Respect the past while presenting a new and revolutionary style of Louisiana food to contemporary diners. Well, come to think of it, it’s not an easy task. But, as chefs with a love of cooking and a respect for raw and regional ingredients, I have faith that we will rise to the occasion.

The seven nations – the Native Americans, French, Spanish, Germans, English, Africans and Italians – were the most significant contributors in this impossible-to-replicate experiment that we call Cajun and Creole cuisine. Of course, Cajun and Creole cuisine was not created or invented; it was a process of evolution and adaptation, much like the process that Rick and I are engaged in now.

Indeed, numerous other cultures have arrived in this land fleeing famine, war and homeland hostilities while seeking opportunity, religious freedom, adventure and prosperity. They came from all nations, in great numbers and small. Some arrived from Ireland in 1803. Other Irishmen came between 1830 and 1860, fleeing the “Potato Famine.” Hungarians came and settled around Springfield and Albany in the 1890s, and brought with them a great culture including a version of their language that is still spoken today. Several thousand Croatians from the Dalmatian Coast arrived in the 18th century and began settling the Gulf Coast. Their fishing communities soon grew around Empire, Buras and Port Sulphur. The Vietnamese arrived after the Vietnam War. They were fishermen and farmers in the old country and took up those roles here, including boat building and net mending. Some of them opened fabulous Vietnamese grocery stores. Immigrants from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, China, Lebanon, Greece and even the Philippines migrated to this great Bayou State. All of these cultures and more joined the Native Americans who were here in the beginning. Needless to say, it was not long before these cultures intermarried.

A term was created to describe the children of the these intermarriages who were born on Louisiana soil: Creole. Few words in American English are as misunderstood or as frequently misused.

The term "Creole" is believed to have derived from the Latin word “creare” meaning “to create.”  Originating in the Western Hemisphere, the term “Creole” was used about 1590 by Father de Acosta, a Spanish priest, to distinguish newborn West Indies children from everyone else. Eventually, it was used to describe everything in Louisiana, from vegetables to furniture; even the state itself became known as the “Creole State.”

Numerous writers and historians over the years tried diligently to define "Creole." Today, with 300 years of their vision and expertise, we now know and can clearly debate that Creole is defined as anyone born on Louisiana soil from the intermarriage of the Europeans, Africans and Native Americans, who contributed significantly to the culture and cuisine of Louisiana. The key word here is “significantly.” Even though many important cultures still seek refuge on our rich shores today, it was the original seven nations that significantly impacted our way of life, language, food, customs, music and even the stories we tell, which by definition are considered Creole. 

And who were those significant cultures? They were the Native Americans, who shared their knowledge of this land with us; the French, who first claimed this land for colonization under “The Sun King,” Louis XIV; the Spanish, who first explored Louisiana and eventually received it as a gift from France; the Africans, who arrived on these shores against their will in slavery, but who contributed greatly to our culture and especially our cuisine; the Germans, who saved the city of New Orleans from starvation with their great knowledge of farming; the English, who arrived here from New England to settle the rolling hills of the Felicianas; and the Italians, the last of our Creoles, who came to work on the sugar plantations after the Civil War and became dock workers and strawberry farmers and ultimately, helped build Louisiana’s food empire. 

These are the mixtures; these are the Creoles.

- John

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