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creole history - bits & bobs

1. The word “Creole” is believed to come from the Spanish/Portuguese terms ciollo/criollo/crioulo used to distinguish people born in the New World (including Latin America) from those born in Europe.

2. Many of the early Creole settlers were descendants of wealthy European landowners.

3. In addition to its European ancestry, today’s Creole community has ties to free men of color, African slaves, Caribbean immigrants, Gulf Coast Native American tribes, and other groups of immigrants.




Mardi Gras 2019 is Tuesday, March 5th

Creole in Louisiana

A Brief History of the Creole People & Creole Culture Along the United States Gulf Coast

Creole Queen Steam Boat Creole Queen Steam Boat - courtesy of FLICKr & Praytino

In contrast to the Cajuns who were largely an immigrant population that relocated from the Canadian Maritime provinces and have lived a fairly labor intensive existence in the bayous of southwestern Louisiana and other enclaves, the Gulf Coast Creole population, while also a blend of cultures, owes much of its roots to the salons and estates of the European aristocracy.

When the race to claim and tame land in America began, many of the second-born sons of the European upper class realized that they weren’t going to prosper as well as they might like living in Europe. Because their elder brothers stood to inherit (and administer) the family holdings, many of these second sons took it into their heads to pack up what bits of fortune they could call their own and run off to the New World. As a result, many of these pampered European aristocrats (generally from France, and Spain) made their way to Louisiana and became a kind of "Louisiana landed gentry".

Generally unwilling to break ground and tame the land, these new landowners set to work recreating the lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed back at home. Eventually their descendents would come to be known as Creoles, a term that comes from the Spanish/Portuguese terms ciollo/criollo/crioul, and is used to distinguish people born in the New World (including Latin America) from those born in Europe. There are also some who say the term Creole applies mainly to mixed race children born throughout the Americas and the New World.

Rather than living off the captured game and local crops they'd harvested themselves, these early "Creole settlers" sent their cooks and servants (who came with them from Europe) to the local markets. It was here that they found many of the same ingredients encountered by Cajun settlers. But the early Creole immigrants’ desire to gentrify Louisiana saw them turn those ingredients into a localized version of their French, Spanish, and Portuguese “home food”. As a result, and to this day, the Cajun vs. Creole cocktail shorthand is to say that Cajuns are less well off people who live off the land, and Creoles come from the aristocracy. While this is an over simplification, the basic tenants of this statement have some basis in fact. Yet, as with the "truth" of Cajun history and culture, the "truth" of Creole history is not quite as clean and clear as all that.

While the early Creoles tended to be men of wealth and privilege from Europe (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and others), over time these families intermarried with other settlers, natives, free men of color, etc. and created a blended society that embodies the notion of what we now refer to as creolization. Today, when we hear the word Creole, we tend to think of a melting pot. And that is true to a very large extent. “Creole” is not one thing. Many consider the roots of Creole culture to come from places in the Caribbean (Carib Indians). And, in fact, bits and pieces of Creole culture exhibit signs of Caribbean influence (food, music and dance). But the French (language, and food), Spanish (paella turned jambalaya), German (charcuterie), and African (music, food, textiles, and design) influences are present as well.

Creole Food

On the whole, Creole food, while sharing much of the same ancestry (French, Spanish, German) and ingredients as Cajun cuisine, tends to be a bit less meat and filler based. It’s a lighter, more "Continental" fare, and, while Creole recipe books contain their share of jambalayas, gumbo, crawfish dishes, and other Louisiana standards, the heart of Creole cooking still looks fondly back on its aristocratic European beginnings.

You may also be interested in this All About Mardi Gras article on Cajun and Creole Cooking.

Creole Music

Today, the rich blend of cultures that shaped and continue to have an effect on Creole cuisine (and life) can likewise be heard in its music, from French-speaking African American musicians to West African rhythms, and the occasional use of Caribbean steel drums. Today, Zydeco is considered the most popular form of “Creole Music”. It has its roots in Blues and Soul music, and is generally believed to have come from a coterie of musicians with little or no formal training. These self-taught players drew without regard for “rules”, and assembled a form of music that reflects their upbringing and personal experience. It is a creolization of their lives. Like Cajun music, Zydeco relies on accordions, and that old standard found object instrument, the washboard and spoon.

You may also be interested in this All About Mardi Gras article on Cajun and Creole Music.

Creole Mardi Gras

According to the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans, there are actually two Mardi Gras celebrations, one American and one Creole. The American Mardi Gras is the more familiar, citywide celebration with parades, throws, and organized krewe activities. The “Creole Mardi Gras” is “an irreverent day of individual self-expression and excess”. To my mind, it's possible for these two traditions to coexist on the same day, one contributing to the other.

Additionally, it’s believed that the Creole patois (way of speaking) made its way into the music of Mardi Gras by way of the Mardi Gras Indians, and Africans who formed into “gangs” after having been freed/released from the Congo Square slave market. To this day the Skull and Bones Gang and others gather before dawn on Mardi Gras day to take part in their masking and marching celebrations.

You may also be interested in this All About Mardi Gras article on the Mardi Gras Indians.

Today, the modern Creole tradition and culture lives on in countless little ways along the Gulf Coast, but particularly in New Orleans. It is there (in NOLA) that so many details of everyday life reflect the marriage of European privilege, and Afro-Caribbean foodways, language, craft, and design.

Sources (and External Links)

The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research which led us to the following sources of information:

1. Louisiana’s Living Traditions - The Creole State: An Introduction to Louisiana Traditional Culture; Nicholas R. Spitzer; Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife program book, 1985

2. Young-Sanders Center - The Development of Creoles in Louisiana to the Civil War; Captain Edward E. Friloux, N. O. F. D; June 24, 2009

3. Voodoo Museum

4. WWLTV (dot com) - Mardi Gras Indians & skeletons revel at Carnival; BIll Capo; March 8, 2011

5. The Times-Picayune ( Nola dot com) - Skull and Bones Gang channels spirit of Mardi Gras; Sharon Litwin; February 16, 2012

6. About (dot com) - Understanding Cajun and Creole Traditions in New Orleans; Julia Houston

7. About (dot com) - What is the difference between Cajun Music and Zydeco? ; Megan Romer

8. Landrystuff