What Color is your Roux: Cajun ≠ Creole

Before moving here I wasn’t quite sure how to correctly pronounce the name of this infamous city. In the northeast and the northwest I had heard many iterations, but not from anyone with authority on the matter. Did the locals call it Naw’lins? New Or-lee-ns? New Or-luh-ns? I did’t know, and I kind of mumbled a few a different versions all at once. Nothing marks you like an outsider faster than an incorrect pronunciation. In Portland if you uttered “couch” instead of “coo-ch” or if in New York you said “hugh-ston” instead of “how-ston” you were done for it. But, within 10 minutes of being on the ground I quickly learned it was “New Or-luh-ns.” Naw’lins is seen as an offensive tourist mumbo-jumbo and New Or-LEENS was most definitely wrong, unless it’s in a song.

Confusing pronunciations only begin with how to say the name of the Crescent City, the real tricky ones come up on street signs. For example, I work on a Tchoupitoulas Street. The first time I hesitantly said “two-pooch-it-two-lass” — to much laughter. I wasn’t surprised, I had no hope at getting it right. The street is affectionately known as “Chop,” a nickname for it’s real pronunciation, which sounds like, “chop-it-two-las.” Even streets you think you know such as “Burgundy” and “Calliope” are pronounced differently, “brr-gun-dy” and “cali-ope” respectively. Don’t even get me started on ones like Vieux Carre (“view-curr”). Needless to say I have revealed my newbie status many times, and provided entertainment for my coworkers along the way (even with correct pronunciations I don’t think I am fooling anyone about my northern roots).

Tchoupitoulas

The confusing pronunciations stem from the cultural history of the city. New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the US, and is damn proud of it! The city is steeped in history and tradition.  The names of the streets come from the colonizers of the city and is a mixture of French, Spanish, American Indian, African, Caribbean, Irish, and Italian influence. Add in the Southern drawl and its no surprise things are little bit crazy.

Another thing I was uncertain about prior to moving here was the difference between Cajun and Creole. Mostly I heard the terms in reference to cuisine and was confused, because both heritages are known for similar spices, and dishes, and festivities. The easiest way to remember is..

  • Cajun = French Canadian + Countryside
  • Creole = Afro-Caribean + European + Urban

cajun creole genealogy

Of course is it not quite this simple, but it is a good place to start. The word Cajun is derived from Arcadiana, the area the French Canadians settled in Louisiana during the 16-18th centuries after being expelled from the Arcadia (the French colony in what is now Canada). Today the vast majority of Cajun people live outside of New Orleans in the surrounding parishes. (Oh, another thing — Louisiana does not have counties, it has parishes!) The label Creole was first applied to the children of the first colonists to indicate that they had been born in the New World. The word to become almost synonymous with mixed descent as Europeans, Africans (slaves and freemen), and Indians procreated. The definition of Creole has shifted over the last 500 years and now is adopted by inhabitants of the city, whether or not they have a mixed-race background.

Today the distinction between Cajun and Creole is best illustrated through gumbo styles. Creole gumbo is prepared with okra, tomato, and a mix of meats and seafood. While in Cajun gumbo, game and seafood are never mixed, the okra is usually left out, and the roux — a mix of flour and butter (or vegetable oil) – is the real focus. The roux (pronounced: ROO) tends to be darker.

Well, this has been a little bit of NOLA 101. Thanks for reading!

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