"Cajuns like to eat and they like to cook. It’s that simple. And like all good French people, they like to talk about food, too."
Andrew Evans - National Geographic
I'm still on my mini books in my ' First recipe' solving writer's block series, and this one is from Family Circle - a magazine I remember from my youth. Indeed it may well have been the magazine where I found that first spaghetti bolognaise recipe. And I see it's still going. At the time of publication of this particular little volume (1992) my little book was published by Murdoch Books - I assume Rupert. I probably saw it in the supermarket and bought it because I had always been intrigued by Cajun cooking.
But like the rest of the world I didn't really know what Cajun meant - and this book does not enlighten you on that. I just associated it with Mississippi swamps, New Orleans and the South in general, and spiciness. So let me give you a brief potted history of the Cajuns because it's really interesting. For the full story of course, go to Wikipedia.
According to Wikipedia in 1980 the Cajuns were recognised officially in America as a specific ethnic group, which is pretty amazing considering all the intermarriage that must have gone on since the 16th and 17th century when their story begins. The map at left shows their current distribution. The map is of the state of Louisiana - the dark red is the Cajun Heartland, and the paler red is Acadania - the French speaking part of Louisiana. Maybe, like various ethnic groups around the world that national identity is really, really important. Indeed it is interesting to see how some groups cling to that and others don't. Take my family. I still consider myself of English heritage but almost Australian now. David is pretty ambivalent about it and if asked would, I think, prefer to consider himself Australian. My children, I'm sure, whilst recognising that their ancestry is English, in no way consider themselves to be English. They are Australian. With groups like the Italians and the Greeks I think that takes at least one more generation, maybe even more. Others - like the Jews I suppose - rather longer.
But back to the Cajuns. The Cajuns were initially called Acadians. They were French settlers in the 16th and 17th century, from Occitania - the southwestern part of France. They settled on the Eastern seaboard of Canada - New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. They were called Acadians, through some sort of linguistic change from Arcadia which is what the entire eastern coast of America northwards from Virginia was called by the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano on his 16th century map. In the eighteenth century, during the seven years of the French and Indian War the Acadians were forcibly deported by the British who considered them French sympathisers between 1755 and 1764. Historically that has now been recognised as an ethnic cleansing on a large scale. Some settled in Louisiana. Some were deported and forced to endure virtual slave labour in England, and the Caribbean. Some were returned to France. These were recruited by the Spanish to migrate to southern Louisiana, where they settled. If you read the Wikipedia article you will see that it's slightly more complicated, but basically this group of French speaking people settled in the swamplands of southern Louisiana. They maintained their French dialect, and developed their own culture.
But what about the Creoles? Aren't they the same. Well no. Initially Creole was a word that was used to mean simply 'born in the New World'. Later (again - refer to Wikipedia for detail) it referred to anyone of any race, born in Louisiana who spoke a Latin based language and was a Catholic. By the 20th century Creole had come to mean mixed race, and Cajun someone of French descent and low economic standing. Today a Cajun is a white French Louisianan and Creole is mixed race from colonial times - often with Spanish or Latin in the mix. I guess Cajuns are a subset of Creoles, although it seems that they are more racially pure - or like to consider themselves so anyway. And they still speak a French dialect, which somebody referred to as 17th century French.
So what about this first recipe and Cajun food in general. Cajun food in general it seems is a poor man's cuisine and based on what is locally available - fish and shellfish, wild game, vegetables such as okra and mirlitons (what are they?), and grains - rice and corn being the main ones I think. It seems that a chef called Paul Prudhomme, now deceased is, if you like, the king of Cajun cuisine and largely responsible for reviving its popularity.
"When the taste changes with every bite and the last bite tastes as good as the first, that's Cajun." Paul Prudhomme
Food does seem to be important to the Cajuns though. If you feed in Cajun to Google Images almost all of the images will be of food, even though there is a lot more to Cajuns than food.
"Somewhere lives a bad Cajun cook, just as somewhere must live one last ivory-billed woodpecker. For me, I don't expect ever to encounter either one." William Least Heat-Moon
The dishes that everyone knows are jambalaya and gumbo, blackened fish and steak. There are Creole versions of all of these, and this little booklet does include some Creole dishes, but they are not technically Cajun.
A Cajun spice mix seems to be a basic though. Now you can buy Cajun spice mixes in your local supermarket, but you can also make your own. This is one Cajun seasoning - from Sarah Hobbs, who I think writes for the Coles Magazine and my little book also has a recipe - 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 2 teaspoons white pepper, 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper, 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, 2 teaspoons dried thyme and 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano. Very quickly put together. Mind you there are heaps of recipes for Cajun spice mixes out there - all slightly different. Indeed the Coles one only had the garlic and onion powders, the cayenne pepper and oregano in common. So just try a few and decide on the best for you.
The other basic is a vegetable mix which you start a lot of dishes with - just like the onions, garlic and ginger of curries. In this case though it is onions, celery and green capsicum.
So what about my first recipe - Cajun 'popcorn'? You can indeed find recipes for Cajun popcorn which are basically popcorn flavoured with that spice mix. But Cajun 'popcorn' is also the name of deep fried, battered crawfish (crayfish I assume) tails. Paul Prudhomme - the father of Cajun cuisine has a recipe that he calls Batter-fried crawfish (no picture alas); and a more modern chef called Spencer Watts has one called Tart crawfish popcorn. And to compare - from a more homely blog called Raised on a roux there is Popcorn crawfish. The last picture is from my little book. My little book uses green prawns - as do several others I might say - and their batter consists of 1 egg, 1 cup of milk, 1/4 cup very fine cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons Cajun spice mix, 1/4 teaspoon dried basil and 1/2 teaspoon of celery salt.
The Cajuns apparently love to fry food - so just an occasional treat perhaps. Jambalaya and Gumbo and Blackened fish probably deserve posts of their own sometime. In the meantime you could just mix up a batch of the spices and experiment.
“A Cajun will always share a recipe with you, but they’ll always leave out one ingredient.” Tourist couple from Baton Rouge
Yesterday via Zoom my grandchildren and I made this Zanzi apple strudel from the last Coles Magazine. We had a lot of fun, and it tasted delicious. I think it was actually the best apple strudel recipe that I have ever made. I did lash out on the Kanzi apples, but I don't think it was that that made it so good - I think it was the mix of ground almonds and breadcrumbs that were sprinkled between each sheet of the pastry. Anyway everyone agreed that it was completely yummy - below are the results:
Do try - it was really easy.