- Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Detractors of America's culinary scene argue that we have no national cuisine, no culinary tradition of our own. Even our greatest chefs, they say, merely offer spins on the cuisine of others. Is Thomas Keller's French Laundry not based on French cuisine. Does Grant Achatz's Alinea not echo the modernist cuisine of Feran Adria's El Bulli. Even Southwest cuisine is basically European technique applied to Mexican flavors.
Then there's New Orleans' Cajun-Creole cuisine. Ironically, it started as two distinct styles of cooking but merged through history and geography. Cajun cuisine traces its roots to French-speaking immigrants to Nova Scotia, driven out after the French and Indian War, subsequently settling in French-speaking Louisiana.
Where Cajun food was rustic, rough-around-the edges cooking based on Southern French roots, Creole cuisine was grounded in classical European styles of the various flags that flew over New Orleans, particularly French and Spanish. As one set of rulers left town, their cooks—who mostly traced their roots to the Caribbean or Africa—went to work for the next. What emerged was a fascinating mélange based on the same ingredients, and some of the same traditions, as that of the Cajuns. Cajun food tends toward the spicy, Creole to the rich, and time has wrought a convergence.
One good place to experience this is the New Orleans Cuisine & Catering food truck. One excellent starter is the chicken-and-Andouille-sausage gumbo, a heavily seasoned stew that's perhaps Cajun-Creole's most widely recognized dish. Gumbo consists of onion, bell pepper and celery (the Cajun Holy Trinity), stock, meat and/or shellfish and a thickener (okra, roux, filé powder—dried and ground sassafras leaves—or some combination thereof. The truck's version had gumbo's characteristic rich and piquant flavor profile, but seemed ever-so-slightly light on the distinctive earthy notes of the filé.
Shrimp and corn bisque—a Creole classic—is another good starter. The flavors of the shrimp and corn come through, set off nicely by a hit of white pepper. Both roux and cream brought a rich and luxurious feel to the dish, perhaps a bit too rich; a touch of acid might have been nice. Less successful was another Cajun-Creole staple—jambalaya—the riotous Caribbean cousin of Spanish paella, featuring meat and vegetables finished with stock and rice. The truck's version was characterless, tepid even. It seemed like nothing more than tomato-stained rice garnished with chopped parsley. That's not jambalaya.
The best bite from the truck was the fried-oyster po' boy. A po' boy is New Orleans' version of a submarine sandwich: a baguette filled with meat or fried seafood. The truck's oyster version (shrimp is also available) was superb, fried to a crispy exterior with a creamy and moist interior. The Zatarain's spice mayonnaise was a perfect accompaniment. A hit of Tabasco completed the picture.
Cajun-Creole cuisine might not be all of America's cuisine but is certainly all-American cuisine. It reflects the history and culture of its place and its people in a genuine, organic culinary tradition. Try it at the New Orleans Cuisine & Catering truck.