The Cajuns and The Creoles

One thing must be understood.
Creoles are not Cajuns, and Cajuns are not Creoles.
Cajuns always are French in descent, and Creoles usually are,
but there the similarity ends.

The 18th century were French. They dominated New Orleans cultural and social life for more than one hundred years, long before the “Americans” arrived in any number. Most Creoles called themselves “French,” spoke French and considered themselves the only true “natives.” The late-coming Anglo-Saxons, arriving after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), were considered “foreigners” and called Les Americaines. In Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole Sketches, he mentions that some French Creoles residing in the old French Quarter wondered why “anyone would care to cross Canal Street.” (Uptown was contemptuously known as “The American Side,” alien territory.)

Until the Civil War, the proud Creoles educated their children in France, spoke the French language and centered their lives on their closely-knit families and their cultural nexus, the grand French Opera House. They called themselves la crème de la crème. They were out-numbered and isolated, trapped in part by their stubborn insistence on the French language, culture and traditions. Creole men shunned manual labor as uncivilized. Many refused to speak English or socialize with those who did. As a result, the ingrown, aristocratic French Creole was submerged economically by Anglo-Saxon industry and drive.

But one should not despair. The Creole temperament lives on. Creole, as a meaningful term, survives in many ways, an unmistakable part of New Orleans— in its food, its music, its architecture, its French Quarter. Creole no longer is a specific race or breed. Essentially, it defines that rather special New Orleans attitude toward life— joie de vivre, laissez-faire, bon appetit! In this sense, spiritually, all New Orleanians are Creoles, mes amis. One thing must be understood. Creoles are not Cajuns, and Cajuns are not Creoles.

Cajuns always are French in descent, and Creoles usually are. But there the similarity ends.

From the beginning, when New Orleans was founded in 1718, Creoles were strictly cosmopolitan city dwellers; Cajuns, on the other hand, were rustic, self-sufficient country folk. They lived along the bayous and amid the swamps of South Louisiana for two centuries, isolated, clannish, devoutly Catholic, French speaking and happily removed from city society.

They were hunters and trappers and fishermen, farmers, boat builders, breeders of quarter horses who worked hard weekdays and weekends celebrating life with their fais do-do’s. Laissez les bons temps rouler, let the good times roll, has always been a part of their basic philosophy. Lacking formal education, they lived close to the land, intermarried and proudly retained their customs, their religion and their own provincial form of the French language. This patois is a form of provincial French passed down orally for three centuries. It dates back to their ancestral home in Brittany and Normandy. Quite different from both the written Parisian and Creole French, Cajun French has virtually disappeared. But their distinctively accented English and Cajun idioms prevail as do their music and food, their fetes and their strong sense of family bonding.

The Cajuns’ ancestors were cruelly exiled from l’Acadie (Nova Scotia) by the British in 1765. In one of the nation’s largest mass migrations, more than 10,000 Acadians found a permanent home in Louisiana. The word “Cajun” is a corruption of “Acadian.” Today, nearly one million people of Cajun or mixed Cajun blood live in Louisiana. Cajun and Creole food both rely heavily on a variety of herbs and spices. The Cajuns, in particular, like their food hot and spicy. Famed New Orleans chef, Paul Prudhomme says that in restaurants today, little distinction remains between Cajun and Creole cooking. He now refers to the two together as one— “Louisiana cooking.” Once isolated and ridiculed as a kind of marshland bumpkin, speaking his “fractured French,” the Cajun now has become an object of affection in America. Cajun restaurants and Cajun music have acquired a national prestige the Cajuns never aspired to. Americans seem quite fascinated with their homespun culture. Even the Grammy Awards recognize their unique music— Cajun classique and zydeco. All over South Louisiana, the fiddles and the accordions have been dusted off. Cajun musicians, chefs, painters, quiltmakers and folklorists are emerging, it seems, from the country’s cultural closet.

This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories to New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Fall 2004.