Many people – New Orleanians included – don't understand the distinction between Cajuns and Creoles. Cajuns are rural, descended from the 18th Century French-Canadians who moved to South Louisiana and celebrated in Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline. Creoles are a mix of French, Spanish and African. Along with mixed-race inhabitants and free people of color, they settled in the bustling port city of New Orleans. While Cajuns were mostly farmers, Creoles were urbane. Painter John Singer Sargent’s famous 1884 portrait Madame X of Louisiana-born Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau captures their sophistication.
Early on, the term Creole referred to a slave born in the New World, a free person of color or to people of mixed racial heritage. Especially after Louisiana transferred to American control in 1803, the white descendants of the French and Spanish who lived in New Orleans increasingly adopted the term "Creole" to distinguish themselves from the influx of Americans whom they disdained.
The Creoles were never Cajuns, also a French-speaking people but coming to Louisiana via Canada and settled in rural areas. The Creoles saw themselves as urban and sophisticated. A refined style of European living was their aspiration, and their love of gastronomic pleasures gave birth to the cocktail and much of New Orleans’ signature cuisine.
The integration of Creole New Orleans into America didn't happen seamlessly.
The first American administrators didn't even share a common language with their new city's citizens. Opportunity-seeking Americans arrived in New Orleans and settled in the Faubourg St. Marie (to be called "St. Mary's") on the uptown side of Canal Street.
This neighborhood became known as the American Quarter in opposition to the French Quarter where the Creoles lived. Political, social, and economic tensions arose between the two neighborhoods, and no-man's-land was Canal Street's wide "neutral ground," a term that is still used for any New Orleans street median.
The Creoles loved the opera, masked balls, and café life and saw the Americans as pushy and pointlessly ambitious and greedy. One notable Creole was Bernard de Marigny who inherited a fortune at the age of 15, a fortune which he heedlessly squandered over his long life. He loved to gamble and is credited with popularizing craps, a Creole dice game. Although American businessmen offered to help him develop his plantation downriver from the French Quarter into a thriving commercial area, Marigny instead sold lots to other Creoles. The locale became a district of charming cottages that white Creoles used to house their mistresses and inevitable second families. An eclectic mix of free people of color, artisans, and immigrants also lived there.
Today, the largely residential neighborhood called the Marigny is a lively hodge-podge of Creole cottages and shotgun houses, punctuated by a growing number of restaurants and the now famous Frenchmen Street, one of the best places to hear live music in the city. Across Canal Street, hotels and office buildings fill the American Quarter, now called the Central Business District.
While Creole French is no longer spoken in New Orleans, Creole culture lives on in the city’s architecture, local traditions and most especially, its world famous cuisine. With rich sauces, local herbs, red ripe tomatoes, and locally caught seafood, you can find a taste of Creole in restaurants all over the city.