TRANSCRIPT Bam! How Did Cajun Flavor Take Over The World?

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Bam! How Did Cajun Flavor Take Over The World?, first released on March 19, 2024. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

BARRY TOUPS: Twist the tail off. Suck the head.


TOUPS: Hold it. Twist that first layer off like this. Pull it. Pinch the bottom of tail. Pull it out. Dip it in here, eat it.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Twist, pull, pinch, suck—sounds like your average weekend evening in the club.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Zero comment. But we had met up not in the club but actually in New Orleans and the region around it for food experiences just like this one. We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And New Orleans was our destination because New Orleans has quite the reputation when it comes to food.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: When you think about New Orleans. You’re just transported somewhere else. It doesn’t feel like anywhere else in America, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s why we love it.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: There is no other place on earth even remotely like New Orleans. Don’t even try to compare it to anywhere else! No last call at bars, lots and lots of great food—we know that.

GRABER: If Marcus Samuelsson and Tony Bourdain both say that Louisiana is the place to go for great food, well, it’s definitely something to investigate.

TWILLEY: This episode, we wanted to know, what is this food that everyone raves about, and how did it get to be such a thing?

GRABER: Who invented these dishes—where did they come from, and what did they bring to the table? And what’s the difference between the two classic New Orleans cuisines—Cajun and Creole food?

TWILLEY: This is a story that’s about much more than gumbo and beignets—it’s about a landscape that’s unique in the world as well as a place that Europeans couldn’t get rid of fast enough but also a people who were kicked out of Canada, of all places.

GRABER: And much more besides. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


TWILLEY: We have to start this story with the river, the Mississippi—the name literally means big river in Ojibwe, and it is quite impressive. It stretches all the way from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

GRABER: In nearly half of the US, when the rain falls, whatever isn’t used up locally by plants and people and so on, that water drains into the Mississippi River and makes its way down south and forms the delta.

BOYCE UPHOLT: And so it splits apart in northern Louisiana for the first time, and then it starts to fork and take all these different paths to the ocean. And so that’s one way to think about the Delta, is the place where rather than sort of bringing in tributaries, it starts splitting apart.

GRABER: Boyce Upholt is the author of a new book coming out in June called The Great River, The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi.

TWILLEY: Lots of rivers have deltas, but the Mississippi River delta is unique.

GRABER: A delta in general is a region where a river meets the sea, and so you have muddy water moving out in one direction and waves crashing against it from the other, and that creates this unique ecosystem.

TWILLEY: But a big part of what makes this delta different is that, as oceans go, the Gulf of Mexico is very chill, and so the waves aren’t quite as powerful. And then as rivers go, the Mississippi is pretty dominant.

UPHOLT: And sort of practically what that means is you get this like really complex landscape of bays and inlets and like sort of snaking fingers of mud along all the different bayous, bayou. So it’s a, it’s a very complex place. There’s not very many places in the world that look quite like this.

TWILLEY: And what all this fresh mud and water and their complex snaking interweaving ultimately means is … lots of food.

GRABER: Scientists say that the delta is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the US.

UPHOLT: And so there are these spaces where you can access, you know, you can hunt deer and eat venison, or you can go down in the swamps and catch catfish or buffalo fish.

TWILLEY: If you been, you know, the Mississippi delta is altogether an extraordinary landscape. But the first Europeans to see it weren’t convinced. One of those early explorers was a French fur trader named La Salle, in the 1600s.

UPHOLT: The French first came down in the 17th century and, LaSalle made it all the way down to the mouth of the river and sort of, planted his cross and said, this is France now. This is a colony of France. And then a couple of years later, tried to come back sailing in from the Gulf of Mexico and, never made it. He wound up washing ashore, over in Texas, and had a bunch of colonists with them, and they had a really rough time and mostly died and eventually mutinied and killed LaSalle.

GRABER: This is all a pretty rough story, and it’s made even worse by the fact that the king at the time was not remotely impressed with LaSalle’s achievement. The delta was considered a muddy backwater, which Louis XIV called, quote, quite useless.

TWILLEY: Part of the problem, which ended being a fatal problem for poor La Salle, is that Europeans sailing across the Gulf of Mexico had a really hard time navigating this sprawling delta to find the actual river.

UPHOLT: It seems like in his logs he had the right coordinates that like, LaSalle knew where he was going and the presumption is he showed up and looked at it and it’s just such an array of islands and little muddy bits and strips of land that like he’s like, where is the mouth of this river, you can’t quite tell. I’ve camped out down there and you kind of look back and you don’t see a river. You just see sand and mud and water. And so yeah. And so it wasn’t until 1699 that the first French explorers, navigators successfully made it here so that they could, you know, more permanently set up camp in the Delta.

GRABER: We described the delta as muddy, and it’s true, but there are areas where the river builds up enough mud as it splits into smaller and smaller streams of water and it creates kind of fingers of relatively drier land, that’s where they set up camp.

UPHOLT: And that’s really the only land that, ever gets dry at all. And so New Orleans sits on sort of one of those fingers of mud. And then between those is kind of like a webbing between the fingers, which is marshland. And so it’s super organic soil. It’s super mushy. Sometimes it’s literally floating on top of water. And so. Besides these ridges, they were like, Oh, this isn’t very useful to us. They didn’t quite know what to do with it. So there are some early French maps and even, American maps, so after it became a U S territory, that kind of either just like left it all blank and were like, you know, this is, this is the trembling land or. Later, yeah, US army surveyor, like explicitly said, like, I’m not going to bother listing all of the islands and marshes here because who cares?

TWILLEY: Because who cares basically sums up the attitude of the colonists for more than a century. It was French, then they gave it to the Spanish because who cares, then five years later the Spanish were like no, you have it, and gave it back to the French.

GRABER: The Spanish guy who was leaving his post as lieutenant governor—his final words about the region he was happy to give up were, “The devil take it all.”

TWILLEY: But for the native people who lived in the region—their attitude toward this marshy landscape couldn’t have been more different.

UPHOLT: In researching this book, I come to, came to believe that the Delta in particular is sort of a… one of the most important sites in the continent in terms of, at least across the watershed in indigenous cultures. And that it’s seen as this place that like so much of life, came out of.

GRABER: Archaeologists have determined that this region was one of the most important and really wealthiest in what’s now the US. Historically, indigenous communities from farther away came and went and traded with the communities that lived there. Those local communities built a series of complex and super impressive mounds.

TWILLEY: For years, experts believed that there was no way the local indigenous people could have built these enormous structures without having also begun farming, because it would take so much food to feed the number of people that you would need to build earthworks this big.

UPHOLT: But the archaeology shows that this was pre farming. These people didn’t care about farming in part because there was so much food.

GRABER: And something else really distinctive about the communities that lived in this region was that even though they had to be organized enough to manage really complex projects, apparently they weren’t particularly hierarchical, they didn’t have slaves or laboring classes and masters at the top of the food chain.

UPHOLT: People who lived in the Delta seemed to say, ehh, we don’t, we’re not really into that. We’re going to keep, we’re going to keep doing things the way we did. We’re going to, be more egalitarian. We’re not going to bother much with farming. So yeah, it’s, that’s a really powerful thing about this space to me is it’s sort of this model of a different way of living. In part because you didn’t need to bother, you know, clearing cornfields and planting corn. You could just live here pretty easily.

TWILLEY: But it took Europeans a surprisingly long time to catch on to the fact that the delta was this paradise of incredible fertility and biodiversity.

GRABER: Well, the fertility impressed them—fertility that would let them grow monocultures.

UPHOLT: Eventually, people realized, you know, sugar grows really well here in Louisiana, cotton grows really well a little bit further north into Mississippi. And that was what drew the attention of the United States.

GRABER: And in part led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. That’s when the US bought a huge amount of land west of the Mississippi River from France for only pennies on the acre. At the time it basically doubled the size of this young country.

UPHOLT: And Thomas Jefferson was saying, like, okay, we can, we can send people down this river and they can set up farms and get a lot of wealth by taking these wetlands and converting them into farms where we can build, grow these crops that we can make some money off of.

TWILLEY: Jefferson wanted to import Americans to the region to set up plantations, but there were plenty of people already there. In the city of New Orleans there were lots of French people — including a whole wave of aristocrats who came after the French Revolution in 1789.

GRABER: A lot of those French aristocrats were, yes, quite wealthy, and they kept their lifestyle and they expanded their wealth through the labor of enslaved Africans.

TWILLEY: Even before the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans was a major hub for the slave trade. At first, those enslaved Africans mostly came from the coast of Western Africa, from what’s now Senegal and The Gambia.

GRABER: And then a few decades later, many enslaved Africans were brought to the region from the Congo in central Africa.

ZELLA PALMER: And then of course you had, also enslaved Africans from all over during the transatlantic slave trade, from Nigeria, Benin, different parts of Central Africa. And Cuba as well, because this, New Orleans was a central point and a port city.

TWILLEY: Zella Palmer is director and chair of the Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture at Dillard University in New Orleans.

GRABER: In the early 1800s, the US government outlawed bringing in enslaved people from overseas. But they didn’t outlaw slavery. So then enslaved people were just moved around from state to state within the US.

PALMER: After the end of the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved African Americans were brought to Louisiana to work in the sugar canes, but to also work in urban enslavement as well.

TWILLEY: New Orleans was the largest slave market in the US, and one in three people living in the city were enslaved.

PALMER: That St. Louis Hotel and other hotels were auction blocks and there were slave pens all throughout the French Quarter and the Frenchman Street as well. So this was a bustling economy, but unfortunately it was a bustling economy for enslaved persons.

GRABER: The reason why all this was going on in New Orleans in particular was that sugar farming as a business had exploded, and so had cotton. Remember, the land around there is super fertile. That’s because of the Mississippi—which was also a major way to ship those goods out of New Orleans.

TWILLEY: The rise of sugar in the delta is a story we’re coming back to in a future episode, but the point is that much of everything in this region was built by Black people—from infrastructure to culture to, yes, of course, cuisine.

GRABER: And in an unusual twist for the US at the time, there was also a significant group of Black people in the region who were free. That was because Louisiana had different rules about slavery left over from the French.

PALMER: Well, it was because of the black codes, the Louisiana codes that were instituted here. And they had particular, ways for, you know, to buy yourself out of slavery. And it wasn’t a whole lot of free people of color, but there was enough to make a vital impact. There were opera composers who were free people of color. We had our own newspaper that was one of the first bilingual newspapers in French and English. You had, free women of color who were owning property and who were going back and forth to Paris.

TWILLEY: The result of all this was that, like much of the United States, New Orleans was a melting pot, but in kind of a different way to other American cities. Meanwhile, outside of the city, in the bayou and fingers of drylands in between, things were equally multicultural.

GRABER: This mixing went back to before European colonization. There were around a dozen different native tribes each with their own language and customs, all living in their different pockets of the Delta.

PALMER: We call it Bubancha in Choctaw, that means the land of many tongues. This was where the Chitimacha, the Houma, the Choctaw, a host of different indigenous tribes were here and still are.

GRABER: As well as all these different Native American communities, Boyce told that after colonization there were all sorts of groups who used the marshes as a place to hide out from the rest of the world. There were pirates, there were convicts, there were people who had escaped slavery, some Spaniards here and there.

TWILLEY: And of course there were plenty of French around, too. West of New Orleans, in the Delta, the aristocratic French colonists had set themselves up on plantations and were living it up like they were still at Versailles

GRABER: All of these different cultures, they shared a landscape, and kind of surprisingly, lots of them shared a name. Unless you were native American or a new immigrant, you were Creole.

PALMER: Sure. So Criollo, the original term, is actually Portuguese. So Criollo became, obviously Creole, which is a French terminology.

TWILLEY: This definition of creole was a surprise to me, these days people in the Caribbean and Louisiana often use creole to mean specifically only people who have mixed European and African heritage. But back in the 1700s and 1800s, that wasn’t the case.

PALMER: Everyone was Creole. It’s just like we call ourselves American today, right? All of us come from different places, but yet we are all American. And so here in Louisiana, before the Louisiana Purchase, if you were born in Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase, you were Creole. Whether you were white, native, Black, you know,.. even Asian because we even had, you know, some Asians that were here as well, if they were here before the Louisiana purchase.

GRABER: OK, so that’s who the Creole were. But when you hear about, about Louisiana cuisine today, you hear about Creole but you also hear about Cajun food. So who were the Cajuns? That’s coming up, after the break.


TWILLEY: These days, you can find Cajun food everywhere: Cajun chicken, Cajun shrimp, Cajun spiced potato chips. But to meet the originals Cajuns, first we have to meet the Acadians, who started out actually as French people, from maritime Western France.

UPHOLT: The Acadians, essentially they originated as a bunch of peasants in France, right?

MARCELLE BIENVENU: And they were farmers, they were, they were, fishermen, they were trappers.

TWILLEY: Marcelle Bienvenu is a food writer and a culinary historian in southern Louisiana. She can trace her ancestry back to those original Acadians.

GRABER: Marcelle told us that thousands of these farmers and trappers left France in search of a better life in the New World, as so many people did at the time. And they settled mostly in Maine and Nova Scotia.

TWILLEY: Which is where they became the Acadians—many historians believe they just borrowed the native word cadie or quoddy which mean “place of” and called their new home la cadie, the place, which then got anglicized as Acadia. And then eventually that was shortened to Cajun.

GRABER: And then in the mid 1700s everything went to hell.

UPHOLT: During the seven years’ war. You know, France and Britain were fighting, and Britain was coming in and taking over Nova Scotia, and so they knew they had to get out.

BIENVENU: And of course, the reason that they were thrown out of Canada was that they would not pledge allegiance to the English flag. So they were thrown out. It was called le grand dérangement. I mean, they were put on, on boats and ships and they were separated from their families.

UPHOLT: And they wandered around for a while. Some of them went back to France, but weren’t particularly welcome there because they were, you know, weren’t seen as high class French people. And so this was a moment when Spain was in charge of Louisiana and of New Orleans, and. It was in this era where, you know, struggling to keep control of it. They’re like, we don’t have enough colonists here. So Spain said, yeah, you guys come on down here. You’re Catholics close enough. We’ll, we’ll put you up.

BIENVENU: And of course, you know, I often think, poor things that came to New Orleans, hot as hell, right? And they’d been in freezing cold weather. They must have gone, we have, we at the end of the world. But they acclimated, and they made a very nice home for themselves here.

GRABER: And of course they had to eat! They were used to eating barley and wheat both in France and in Canada, but those didn’t grow in Louisiana.

BIENVENU: So they had to, they had to start all over again, really. Because they had to learn what they could grow here and what they could eat here.

TWILLEY: Times were tough for the Acadians at first. The colonial government in Louisiana gave them some seed corn and they grew that—that became their staple grain.

GRABER: And to go with their staple grain, they had to forage what they could—and, as we’ve pointed out and like the Native Americans already knew, there was a lot you could hunt and fish and catch in the delta.

BIENVENU: Whatever crawls, swims, or flies, ends up in a pot.

GRABER: Barry Toups runs a crawfish farm and bed and breakfast in Cajun country, and, like Marcelle, he can trace his ancestry back to the original Acadians.

TOUPS: I tell a joke, you know how you tell a difference between a regular zoo and a Cajun zoo? A regular zoo has a description of an animal underneath it. The Cajun Zoo has a recipe underneath it. There’s not much we don’t eat.

BIENVENU: Eating. [LAUGHS] They do that 24 hours a day. They have a love affair with food. They’re so worried about what they’re going to have today, tomorrow, next week. And that’s what they do. That’s what they talk about.

TWILLEY: In part, this Cajun obsession with food came about because the original Cajuns were really poor. They weren’t on the best land, that was being used for plantation crops. Instead they were in the bayou, in the swamps, on the worse land, just growing and catching whatever they could.

GRABER: One of the things Barry’s ancestors would have caught in the wild is crawfish. Today people farm crawfish, and Barry has one of those farms himself. But you still kind of have to catch them.

TOUPS: We’re going to go out in the boat. I’m going to pick up that first trap. After that, you’re going to actually pick up the traps.

TWILLEY: Barry took us out to look at his crawfish ponds on a gorgeous sunny winter’s day.

TOUPS: It’s so quiet. I mean, the country life, Cajun country, you can’t get no better than this.

GRABER: Crawfish can still be caught in the wild, but for his crawfish ponds, Barry buys a bunch of starter crawfish either from farms or from the wild, and those bury themselves in the mud under the water and have lots of babies that grow up into the crawfish that we caught with him.



GRABER: Barry had about 60 baited traps laid out in his pond, and Nicky and I were going to be the ones to pull them out of the water and empty out the little crawfish.

TOUPS: So you’re going to sit right there and you’re going to face me. And so you’re going to pick up the trap, you’re going to dump ’em here, you’re going to hand the trap back to me and I’m going to put it back in the water.

GRABER: Okay. I, I, I have my marching orders here. I know what to do.

TWILLEY: Because I’m so generous I let Cynthia go first. Barry made it sound simple, but it took some coordination. While he drove the boat, Cynthia had to reach out over the water, grab the top of the trap at exactly the right moment, dump the crawfish out in the boat, and then get the trap back in the water, all without pausing for a second.

TWILLEY: Cynthia, you got it going!

GRABER: I had to lean out that one. Didn’t want to fall in the water.

GRABER: We each took turns, we got the hang of it, and then we headed back to Barry’s b&b.

TWILLEY: How was that for a harvest?

TOUPS: That was…. decent. What y’all think?

TWILLEY: Oh, we had a good time.

GRABER: I have no comparison, but that was fun.

TWILLEY: You reckon—what do you reckon, nine pounds?

TOUPS: Yes. I, I’m guessing nine pounds.

GRABER: Nicky was just about right—it was ten pounds! Which Barry said could serve maybe a couple of Cajuns, and maybe 3 or 4 of the rest of us.

TOUPS: I, I, on a give—any given day, I could sit down and eat every one of those. By myself. But usually three to five pounds per person.

TWILLEY: Barry washed the crawfish, and then he put them in a pot with veggies and boiling water. When they were done he drained them and seasoned them with his own spice mix



TWILLEY: Well, that’s a plate?

GRABER: To be honest it was not a plate, Barry loaded three giant round trays overflowing with crawfish. He put one of them in front of each of us.

TWILLEY: First of all, I’d like to say you’re sitting in front of like, I don’t know, 50 crawfish.

GRABER: There’s a lot of crawfish. And I’m very inexperienced in the crawfish world. Okay, here we go.

GRABER: Twist that. Pull it out. What am I—? Just suck this. Not doing a great job there, but it tastes good.

GRABER: They taste a lot like lobster, and they pretty much look like tiny little lobsters, too.

TWILLEY: Crawfish are a Cajun favorite. But also this way of cooking, just boiling everything up in a big pot over an open flame, that’s a signature Cajun move.

GRABER: That’s because, like we said, the original Cajuns were pretty poor, they didn’t have big kitchens with lots of equipment. They had a fire, and they had pots.

BIENVENU: They had to cook over wood fires. So that’s why we have such a devotion to cast iron pots.

TWILLEY: Devotion is not an understatement. When Marcelle’s father died, he put some conditions on his kids who were inheriting the family cast iron.

BIENVENU: And he had this fabulous collection of cast iron. And it was in his will. We all had to sign a paper that if we took the things, we had to keep them clean. [LAUGH]

GRABER: Along with having small farms and living in tight-knit communities and cooking simple stews and soups in cast iron pots, came a kind of communal approach to food. They had to always be looking out for each other to survive.

UPHOLT: I mean, we still have a traditions of boucheries here in Louisiana. So that’s like the pig slaughtering.

BIENVENU: The only thing they don’t use is the squeal. Papit, my grandfather, used to have two or three at a time, I mean, two or three pigs, hogs. And they would start early in the morning. And they’d have to, you know, kill the pig, shave the pig, cut up the pig, cook the pig. They, they used everything. My favorite thing was the backbone stew. And they, that was the last thing they would serve in the afternoon. And they would always have a fiddler or somebody, you know, that was dancing. It was a community thing. Everybody that worked on the farm or re relatives and, it was a, it was a, to-do. But everybody, you know, could eat off of that for months.

TWILLEY: This tradition of helping each other at harvest time, that also extended to feeding each other. In Cajun country, you couldn’t let someone leave without offering them food.

BIENVENU: Mama used to say, you never knew on Sundays how many people were going to show up. So you better be ready to make a long, what she called a long gravy. Kept adding water, making it bigger, longer, and cooking another pot of rice.

GRABER: The Cajuns all kind of developed the same traditions, but they didn’t necessarily eat exactly the same things. And that’s because of the history of the region. Remember, the delta is full of all these swamps that were difficult to cross and it was hard to get from one place to another.

UPHOLT: And so because of this sort of labyrinthian nature of the Delta, it’s just this place of pockets and different communities may be tucked away.

TWILLEY: Boyce told us this bayou-filled landscape made it so that while there was a shared food vocabulary, a shared set of techniques and dishes, each place also developed their own particular version of each dish, with different local ingredients—more seafood for those who lived by the water, more frogs legs near the swamp, more salt pork and venison for those who lived on drier ground.

GRABER: And the ingredients also changed over time, too. We told you that first the newly arrived Cajuns couldn’t afford the wheat and barley they loved so they switched to corn, and then in the early 1900s people realized that rice grew really well in such a hot, wet environment, and so rice became a mainstay.

TWILLEY: Cajuns today wouldn’t dream of serving you a meal without rice or French bread—but rice is a relatively recent addition to the cuisine, and wheat for bread is even newer—that was expensive to transport out from the city, so it was a real luxury for most of the region’s history.

GRABER: Speaking of the city, the cuisine there was for a while quite different from the cuisine in the country.

UPHOLT: And so the food in New Orleans, Creole food in New Orleans, is much more this mixture of sort of the French, the fancy French people that came down and the Black enslaved people that were working with them and cooking with them.

PALMER: It was, it was constant serving, constant dishes, you know, and because they wanted to live like they were in Versailles. You know, right here in New Orleans.

TWILLEY: And these dishes were really classical French haute cuisine, just made with local ingredients. So you’d get things like trout almondine, so fish with a fancy French almond sauce—except it was often made with local fish and pecans which are from Louisiana.

GRABER: But the people who were cooking these dishes weren’t French, and they weren’t white. They were enslaved, and because their owners were obsessed with entertaining, the enslaved women who could cook cost a lot.

PALMER: So the value of a cook in New Orleans was at a high price. And obviously because this was a town of Mardi Gras, this is a town of balls. This was a, a town of, you know, making appearances, right. To, to… to cultivate this Creole culture.

TWILLEY: Even after Emancipation, the cooks in grand New Orleans households were almost always African American.

PALMER: What’s fascinating is, there were many, ads, after slavery where they were looking for Creole cooks. So why was that important? Society. Right? Their place in society. Even if an American governor or somebody who was an American businessman, if he came here, he would still need to keep up with Creole society because it was seen as improper to have American cuisine, like, what is that? Like, it’s bland. It’s this, like, are you kidding me? Don’t invite me to your home.

GRABER: New Orleans had been American for more than half a century at this point, but if you moved there from out of the region, it was kind of like moving to a different country, at least in terms of food. And the reason local Creole food was so highly valued and tasted so unique wasn’t just because it was French food transplanted to a new city, it was really because of who was cooking it.

PALMER: It is a very multicultural city, but we can never forget the Black hand in the pot.

TWILLEY: One of the best known Creole dishes today really embodies this fusion of French haute cuisine with local ingredients and African cooks. Zella says the very first mention of this iconic dish dates back to the late 1700s, in French legal records stored at the Louisiana Historical Center.

PALMER: They have an archival document that talks about an enslaved woman, who washad to testify in court against a man who ran away. And that’s the first time she meant that gumbo was mentioned.

TWILLEY: Because the woman confessed to giving the runaway gumbo.

GRABER: Gumbo is a thick stew of vegetables and seafood or meat. The French part is that it starts with and is thickened by a roux, which is flour and fat cooked up together into a kind of paste.

TWILLEY: The local part is of course the seafood, chicken, or sausage, but also a native ingredient that was used as a thickener, file powder. File powder comes from the sassafras tree, and it was prized by Native Americans for its unique flavor, which is apparently kind of like root beer.

GRABER: There are different gumbos but many include okra, and that’s gumbo’s heart. This dish really comes from West Africa. In Bantu in what’s now the Congo, the word for okra is basically gumbo.

PALMER: Kimbombo. And there are different versions of gumbo in the Congo, and Senegal’s soup is called soup okanja. There’s okra stew in, in Nigeria. So okay: the meaning of an okra soup already existed in Africa, obviously.

GRABER: But the African stew became what we know of as gumbo through the blending of all those cultures in New Orleans.

TWILLEY: Another classic Creole dish is jambalaya, which if you haven’t had it is a spicy seafood or meat and veggie rice pilaf, kind of like a paella, but spicier.

PALMER: But the, the root of it comes from jollof rice and jollof rice is, you know, there’s always debate about jollof rice, who, who makes it better? Senegal, Nigeria, or Ghana, but it is from Senegal originally.

GRABER: We’ve mentioned spice a few times, and this love of cayenne pepper came partly from Spaniards. Chiles are native to the Americas and Spaniards loved them. And the use of cayenne also came from enslaved Africans, because chilis got to Africa in the 1500s and quickly became popular in West African cooking.

TWILLEY: All of these Creole stews, and other iconic creole dishes like étouffée, which is French for smothered—they all have a lot in common. They’re fusion dishes, they combine local ingredients, French and African culinary techniques, they’re all spiced with cayenne, and they all start from a base that Creole cooks call the holy trinity.

DEE LAVIGNE: Of course we’re in the land of the Trinity, which is onion, bell pepper, and celery.

GRABER: Dwanisha Lavigne goes by Dee, and she’s the director of culinary programming at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Dee made us a classic shrimp creole, and that trinity she started with is a variation on the classic French base called mirepoix. That has onion and celery, too, but it has carrots instead of bell pepper.

TWILLEY: Shrimp creole is like shrimp étouffée without the roux. I’m simplifying, but really they’re pretty similar, please don’t get mad at me. They’re basically spicy stews.

GRABER: Dee chopped up the vegetable trinity, she chopped up some garlic. She also said that most Creole dishes usually include tomatoes, and she decided to chop up fresh tomatoes instead of using canned.



LAVIGNE: Definitely cayenne, usually the base of everything. We definitely use a lot of cayenne pepper here.

TWILLEY: Dee sautéed everything till it was nice and soft, and added a lot of butter.



GRABER: She kept cooking for a while, and then added the tomatoes.


LAVIGNE: I think it’s coming together nicely.

TWILLEY: She added a little bit of broth, and then right at the end, the shrimp

GRABER: Once the shrimp went in, we didn’t have to wait too much longer to eat. Just a few minutes to quickly cook them.

LAVIGNE: That’s it. Our shrimp are done. Woohoo. All right. We’re going to finish with a little bit of butter and then we’re going to plate up. [WHISPERING] Then we’re going to try it.

TWILLEY: Dee gave us each a bowl of this orangey brown brothy stew, you could see the veggies and the shrimp, and she’d put a scoop of rice in the center.

GRABER: And of course we tried it.

TWILLEY: All right. A shrimp. ’cause that’s the star of the show, right? [QUIET CHEWING] Mmm. [CHEWING]

TWILLEY: It’s perfectly cooked. I was thinking that’s, that’s the exact right amount of time for a shrimp and it tastes great.

GRABER: Mmm hmm, it’s very rich and savory with just a little bit of a—you get the kick. That’s delicious. [CHEWING]


LAVIGNE: Hmm. I am very, very pleased. This is really, really good.

GRABER: Don’t worry, we didn’t just eat the shrimp, we ate the entire dish!

TWILLEY: It’s what we do. So, now it makes sense, this is the story of how New Orleans Creole food got to be—these are the classic dishes, and the influences that shaped them. But then what about Cajun dishes, aren’t Cajuns famous for gumbo too?

GRABER: They are, and it’s because though we’ve described the city and country as being pretty separate, they only were up to a point. There was a lot of movement back and forth, especially as time went on and transportation improved.

PALMER: And, you know, and in, in Southwest, Louisiana and Lafayette Lake Charles and Opelousas, it’s Cajun and Creole is, it’s a very thin line. Right. They’re neighbors, they’re cousins, they’re koosans.

TWILLEY: What that overlap means is that where Creole city folk might have been enjoying a shrimp creole or a shrimp étouffée, in the country, they had the same dish, but they might have made it with local crawfish instead. Which people in the city historically looked down on.

BIENVENU: It was called poor people’s food. Yeah, I remember I had a friend from New Orleans and she’d come visit and she says, y’all eat crawfish? I said, mm-hmm. They didn’t eat crawfish. You could not find a crawfish in, in New Orleans till the ’70s. Mm-mm, they didn’t have that. Mm-mm. Well it was country stuff. You don’t think those people in New Orleans was going to eat a crawfish.

GRABER: Today, everyone loves crawfish, and Marcelle made us a classic crawfish étouffée.

TWILLEY: It was really pretty similar to the shrimp creole we ate with Dee, but it started with a roux, and of course there were crawfish, not shrimp, and Marcelle didn’t use any tomatoes.

BIENVENU: That smells good, don’t it girls?

TWILLEY: It did, so we once again grabbed our spoons.

TWILLEY: Mm. That’s delicious. I think it’s great.

GRABER: I love the texture of the, of the crawfish and the, and the, sauce. It’s really delicious.

BIENVENU: With rice and French bread, you got it.

TWILLEY: Okay, at this point, we were full and happy, but actually if possible even more confused than when we started. Everyone was talking to us about Cajun food being one thing and Creole food being another, but honestly, the differences seem to come down to the most minuscule things.

GRABER: Like tomatoes. Apparently it’s common to have tomatoes in your gumbo in the city, in Creole food, and not so much in the country. Marcelle told us a story about when she worked at a fancy restaurant called Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.

BIENVENU: When I was at Commander’s Palace, I called my mother and I said, mom, I just had this wonderful seafood gumbo, and it had tomatoes in it. She said, don’t eat it!

TWILLEY: Marcelle ignored her mother, and turned out she thought this tomato-based Creole-style gumbo tasted just fine.

BIENVENU: And mommy said, oh, I cannot believe y’all eating that. And I’m like, it’s all good to me. So, it, it, it just depends on whowhere you are and who’s going to cook.

GRABER: Zella says honestly it’s not even clear that everyone in New Orleans, in all the neighborhoods, in all the wards, that all of them use tomatoes in their Creole gumbo.

PALMER: And so I think I. It is best to ask someone and, you know, say, okay, Seventh Ward, you know, how do y’all make your gumbo? Ninth Ward, how do you make your gumbo? Right? Uptown, how do you make your gumbo? Instead of making assumptions that people are putting Rotel cans of tomato in the [LAUGHING] gumbo?

TWILLEY: So yeah, there’s the confusing tomato issue slash non issue. Another of the seemingly tiny differences that cause big divisions between cooks in the region is the precise color of your roux.

GRABER: Like we said, roux is a paste of flour and fat that you cook in a pan. First it turns a kind of golden color, but the longer you cook it, the toastier it becomes, and the darker color gives it a richer flavor.

BIENVENU: I did a study with my students and we did a thing on roux. So, and I had some students from North Louisiana, some from Baton Rouge, some from New Orleans, some from Lake Charles. And we did a study. And the further west you go up from Lafayette, the darker the roux.

GRABER: The theory is that the folks in drier Cajun country away from the marsh and the seafood ate gamier meat with stronger flavors, and so it made sense to make a darker roux with a stronger flavor to support that.

TWILLEY: But then also some folks just say to heck with it and don’t use a roux at all.

LAVIGNE: My mother-in-law’s gumbo doesn’t have a roux. [GASP] Surprised, right? Doesn’t have a roux. She’s never made a roux gumbo ever. So I’m going to tell you, like I tell everybody else, you go to an old lady’s kitchen and tell her she’s doing it wrong. She’s been in New Orleans her entire life. How you going to debate that?

GRABER: So apparently there are rules, but there are no rules, and really, who knows.

BIENVENU: I said there was no rules, but there’s some rules. At least that I follow. No tofu in your gumbo.

TWILLEY: That said, I’d eat it, so feel free to add tofu if you’re making gumbo for me.

GRABER: I’d eat it too. But the point is, the fact that these cuisines are so similar makes sense, because their stories are so closely related and overlapping. Today, there’s little difference between the two.

TWILLEY: And in fact these days, both are super popular and not just in Louisiana. So how did these two cuisines that are so rooted in a very specific and unique place—how did they take over America?

GRABER: And why on earth can you buy a Cajun veggie burger at Burger King in China?!? That story after the break.


GRABER: Until the mid-1900s, Cajun country, outside of the city of New Orleans, it was still pretty poor. And then people discovered that the same forces that created the delta, pushing all that mud and organic matter down repeatedly over thousands of years, it created something incredibly valuable.

UPHOLT: And so that, it’s sort of the fact that the continent drained down here is part of why we have such rich oil resources here.

TWILLEY: In the 1950s, the oil industry in the Gulf really got going. In the end scientists figured out that a tenth of the world’s recoverable oil and natural gas reserves lay under the Gulf of Mexico, which basically ka-ching.

UPHOLT: I think a lot of people would were quite happy. The per capita incomes in the delta were really high in those early years after oil was discovered because there was a lot of work, whether it’s surveying or processing.

GRABER: Oil poured out, money poured in, and the food scene changed, too. People had money for more expensive ingredients like flour. Fried food became more common—things like po’boys, like fried shrimp and fried oyster sandwiches.

TWILLEY: Marcelle told us that at the height of the oil boom, people in the Cajun capital of Lafayette had the highest per capita spending on restaurants in the entire country. And they were mostly eating Creole and Cajun food.

GRABER: So Cajun and Creole food were both clearly well loved and super popular in their home regions. But how did they spread out from Louisiana?

TWILLEY: Well let’s back up. Because actually, Creole food already had taken the world by storm.

PALMER: One in particular, person who I always love to talk about is Nellie Murray. And, in 1893, she would took Creole cuisine to, the World’s Fair in Chicago. And, she brought Creole cuisine to the world and even cooked for Susan B. Anthony.

GRABER: The famous suffragette. Who I’d certainly heard of. But I’m going to be honest, I’d never heard of Nellie Murray before.

PALMER: So she was third generation enslaved cook at the Louisiana governor. Paul Octave Hebert’s Mansion. In Bayou, Gala Louisiana. So after the Civil War, she moved to New Orleans. She moved in with the Hebert family and was, you know, still worked in their service, but she also was able to say, no, no, I’m going to start my own business.

TWILLEY: Nellie started her own catering business, cooking for rich white people who still wanted to eat the amazing Creole food that had always been prepared for them in the past by their enslaved cooks.

GRABER: Nellie got so well known locally that she was chosen to represent Louisiana at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and her food immediately became a huge hit. People from around the world came to the fair, and so Nellie went on to become an international sensation.

PALMER: And she went to London, she went to Paris, she went to Berlin. She went to all of these incredible places. And she cooked some of the most, delectable Creole culinary dishes that you can think of.

GRABER: She also wasn’t afraid to be public about the injustices Black people were still suffering. That was something that was potentially dangerous. But in a way she could do this because she was so famous.

PALMER: She was also unapologetic about speaking up against segregation and streetcars. And, you know, there was even articles about that, about her speaking up and saying that it was appalling that she had to sit in the back of a streetcar, you know? And this was a dangerous time. But they said, if you don’t know Nellie Murray like you, who are you? You don’t, you’re, you’re nobody basically. [LAUGH]

TWILLEY: Nellie sounds like a rock star. But Zella says her story also shows us that Creole cuisine was already recognized as something quite special.

PALMER: I mean, if you think about the World’s Fair, that was a time, a symbol of power, right? And she had a line of people around the, Louisiana, you know, building that was built just for the Chicago World’s Fair. It’s profound. Clearly it was, a cuisine like no other.

GRABER: Zella told us Nellie was the pioneer, but other people wrote about Creole food as well, they wrote Creole cookbooks, it was a big deal, on a national and even international scale. And that continued for decades.

PALMER: And then obviously we have people like, Lena Richards in the 1950s, a profound Black woman who had her own culinary school. She cooked, you know, she was with first personfirst woman, first American woman, African American woman to be on television and have her own cooking show. She had her Lena Richards cookbook and all of these Creole dishes, you know, are still in there. And she even created frozen food products.

TWILLEY: But when it comes to Creole cuisine today, the woman most people think of? Meet Leah Chase.

PALMER: Leah Chase was the queen of Creole cuisine, in my eyes and many eyes.

GRABER: Leah Chase was the daughter of farmers, she came to New Orleans and worked in the sewing business, she married a musician who knew people like Ray Charles and Lena Horne. And his parents owned a local sandwich shop.

PALMER: And so she, was able to talk to her mother-in-law and, and say, hey, you know, we should turn this into a fine dining restaurant. We also, as African Americans, we deserve to have fine dining as well, because we have to remember, this is during time of segregation

TWILLEY: Leah’s restaurant was called Dooky Chase, Dooky was her husband’s nickname. And Dooky Chase became a gathering place for Black New Orleans.

RAY CHARLES: [SINGING] I went to Dooky Chase’s to get something to eat / The waitress looked at me and said / “Ray, you sure look beat” Now it’s early in the morning (Early in the morning) / I told ’em it’s early in the morning now (Early in the morning) / Yeah, early in the morning (Early in the morning) / I ain’t got nothing but the blues…

GRABER: Ray Charles sang about her, Bon Appetit did a story about her on her 93rd birthday.

CUSTOMER: Anybody who was somebody who was Black, right? Was right here. Right at Dooky Chase.

LEAH CHASE: This was always called the restaurant. They never said, I’m going to take you to Dooky Chase. This was the only restaurant. What do you say, what’s the restaurant? The restaurant, going to the restaurant. And that was always a good feeling when they said, this is our restaurant. Because one time it was all they had, they had no other place. I always say we changed the course of America in this restaurant over a bowl of gumbo. When the Freedom Riders came from this area, they left from here, they always met here. We always had gumbo and fried chicken.

TWILLEY: The Freedom Riders, in case you’re not familiar, were civil rights activists in the early 1960s. Their whole thing was to sit in pairs on buses, one white person, one Black person sitting together, to protest segregation. And what they did helped bring down Jim Crow.

GRABER: Meanwhile, on a lighter note, Disney, in their version of the princess and the frog, they based the princess on Leah Chase.

TIANA: Poor Louis!

ALLIGATOR: You know what would make me feel better? Ow! Oh! Crawfish, smothered in remoulade sauce. Mercy! Got your little mouth! With some bananas foster, sprinkled with praline? Ow! Mama!

TIANA: How about some swamp gumbo?

ALLIGATOR: That’ll do.

TWILLEY: Leah died just a few years ago, but Dooky Chase is still going strong and hosting everyone from Barack and Michelle Obama to Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

GRABER: What the stories of these incredible women also tell us is that Creole food was and is huge. But in the 1960s and 1970s, even though Lafayette restaurants were incredibly popular locally, Cajun food was still kind of looked down on from the outside.

TWILLEY: In the first part of the twentieth century, Cajun culture in general had been actively suppressed—kids were punished for speaking French in school, and outside its homeland, Cajun music and food were the opposite of cool.

PALMER: And there was a time in New Orleans where everything was heavily New Orleans Creole. You could get, you know, trout almondine and, you know, all types of dishes. Everyone was making the same dishes because obviously it was a tourist generator and money, you know, money stream for us to sell these, Creole dishes that everyone loved. But then here comes Paul Prud’homme, you know, Cajun chef and you know, the blackened redfish that his technique of blackened redfish. They went crazy for it because it was something different

TWILLEY: Paul was the youngest of thirteen kids who grew up in a rural Cajun home, and he trained as a cook. He went to New Orleans to make his name, and at the age of just 25, he became head chef at one of the fanciest New Orleans restaurants.

BIENVENU: And, Paul Prudhomme was brilliant. He had the most incredible taste. He, he, he… I used to say he wanted things to roll around his mouth, that he’d get all this fullness of, of, of flavors and tastes.

GRABER: Marcelle knew him when he first got famous, in the 1980s, she was around when he put his spicy blackened redfish on the menu, and she saw the whole thing blow up. People could not get enough.

TWILLEY: The context here is that Cajun music was already having a bit of a moment. Folk music in general was cool again in America, and lots of local traditions were being revived.

GRABER: In the 1960s and 70s, Cajun music was showcased at the Newport folk festival, and local Cajun musicians got big recording deals, and Cajun in general was becoming hot. Paul’s blackened redfish caught that wave.

TWILLEY: It’s hard to overstate how big of a trend this was: to the point that the red drum fish, the fish that Paul so famously blackened—its stocks in the Gulf were so depleted in just a few years after Paul put it on the menu, that the Department of Commerce banned fishermen from catching it.

GRABER: Even with how famous Paul had made his blackened redfish and Cajun food in general, Marcelle didn’t think it’d stick.

BIENVENU: And I thought maybe after Paul kind of calmed down, it was going to be a fad. It was going to be finished, you know, all that.

TWILLEY: But, when Paul moved on to open his own restaurant, a young up and coming chef named Emeril Lagasse became head chef in his place.

EMERIL: Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

GRABER: Emeril wasn’t Cajun, but he cooked Cajun food, and he became famous for it. And the Cajun trend continued to grow.

TWILLEY: And then fast food companies went Cajun. The first one was a Louisiana chain that you can find worldwide.

VOICEOVER: Popeyes’ Cajun seafood celebration is back! Featuring Popeyes’ popcorn shrimp basket. Tender shrimp seasoned with Popeyes Cajun spices.

TWILLEY: Marcelle knew the founder of Popeyes

BIENVENU: And he said, if it wouldn’t have been for Paul Prudhomme, he would have been afraid. You know. But once everybody decided that spicy was good, he said, let’s go with it.

GRABER: And of course other companies knew a cash cow when they saw it.

AUSTRALIAN VOICEOVER: New spicy Cajun chicken burger! From McDonalds. The taste is deliciously …irresistibly…surprisingly…hot! [COUNTRY MUSIC]

VOICEOVER: Now, at Burger King! The whaler fish sandwich goes Cajun.

TWILLEY: Today, New Orleans and the delta region is famous pretty much the world over for food in general—Cajun and Creole both.

PALMER: To me… there should be no, you know, rivalry in, in between Cajun and Creole. Because we have the greatest, you know, cuisines in the world, in my opinion. Right.

GRABER: And a lot of people agree. But to us what’s interesting isn’t so much the dishes themselves, as much as how those dishes came to be. How this landscape, a landscape that’s unlike almost any other in the entire world, and the people who came to live there with their own traditions, how the two things came together and something entirely new was created.

TWILLEY: It’s such a fusion of a unique ecosystem with a distinctive mix of cultures and the result is something that has truly transcended its local origins. But you know I’m going let Hank Williams bring it home.

HANK WILLIAMS: [SINGING] Jambalaya, crawfish pie and fillet gumbo; ‘Cause tonight, I’m going to see my ma cher ami-o. Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o; Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou…


GRABER: Thanks this episode to Boyce Upholt, Zella Palmer, Marcelle Bienvenu, Barry Toups, and Dee Lavigne. We have all their links on our website,

TWILLEY: Extra huge thanks this episode to our producer, Claudia Geib. And to our supporters for making the show possible.

GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode, ‘til then!