The main difference between Creole and Cajun arguably is in migration history, as the latter group comes from Canada and the former combines people from Spain, Africa, the Caribbean and many other regions. Their cuisine is also different, varying in spiciness and the ingredients typically used for similar dishes. Although both types of people use French as a basis for their speech, Creoles rely more heavily on other languages. They also tend to include elements of African, Native American or Caribbean culture into their music and faith, while Cajuns usually use a jazz or blues style and lean toward Catholicism.
Both Creole and Cajun people are strongly influenced by French culture, but differences in their development keep them distinguishable. Cajun refers to someone whose ancestors came from Acadia, a region that includes Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The British were in control of the area in the early 1700s, and during the French and Indian War, they were afraid the Acadians would rise and fight with the French. The British expelled them from the region between 1755 and 1763, an event known as “Le Grand Derangement” (the Great Upheaval). Eventually, these displaced people arrived in Louisiana, where they settled.
By contrast, Creoles are descendants of people who settled in Louisiana — especially in New Orleans — from several countries, mainly France and Spain. Africans and African Americans, both slave and free, were also part of the population, as were people from the Caribbean, Italy and Germany. Many of the French and Spanish settlers were members of the upper class, who often had servants. People called someone with European roots "French Creole," while those who were of mixed ancestry were called "Louisiana Creole."
An easy way to remember the difference in history is that Cajun is how the word “acadien,” which is based off the Canadian region, is pronounced in Cajun French. The word Creole comes from the Spanish word, criollo, which roughly translates to native or local. People used this term to describe things that were part of the New World during the time that the Spanish and French controlled Louisiana.
Very broadly, given the backgrounds of both groups, some people say that Cajun cooking is more “country,” as those from Acadia learned to live off the land and tended to cook in pots frequently. People often describe Creole cooking as more “urban,” because these people had access to a larger variety of foods from their native countries and could shop in local markets easily. They also often brought their chefs with them, who blended European styles of making dishes with the local herbs, vegetables, seafood and other ingredients.
In general, Cajun cooking is more likely to use pork, chicken and sausage. Cooks often include crawfish as well. Creole dishes usually move toward lighter options, such as crab, shrimp and oysters. This difference is especially noticeable in traditional gumbos.
When someone is making a Cajun recipe, he or she will typically lean on what is known as the “holy trinity” of bell pepper, celery and onion. Corn and rice are also common. With Creole cooking, people use the trinity, too, but they include a lot of tomatoes, a sign of Italian influences.
Cajun cuisine usually includes a good dose of cayenne pepper, which gives it a spicy kick. It also generally uses herbs like thyme, paprika, pepper, parsley and ground sassafras root (filé). Creole dishes typically go easier on the cayenne and filé, relying more on red peppers, mustard, allspice, okra and garlic. As a result, it is full of flavor, but isn’t necessarily hot the way it often is portrayed.
In both types of cooking, people often use flour to provide a base for or thicken dishes such as sauces and stews. These bases are known collectively as roux, rue or panada. Those from Cajun descent generally use oil as the fat in the recipe, while Creole ones usually use butter. The use of butter was possible for this group because they had better access to dairy and had a stronger influence from Italy, where making roux this way was standard.
People in Louisiana speak both Creole and Cajun French. The former is a grammatically distinct form of French with roots in Native American, African, Spanish and traditional or standard French. The latter has a base mainly in Acadian French, a Canadian dialect, although it borrows vocabulary from other languages. Many Creole speak Cajun and vise versa, so the speaker isn’t important when trying to distinguish between the two languages.
Creole French is an endangered language, having few monolingual speakers out of the 20,000 to 30,000 people who know it. Cajun French is in an even worse state, with only an estimated 15,000 speakers as of 2013. Part of this is because of a previous prejudice against the French language in Louisiana, which is slowly fading. Both individuals and major organizations, such as the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, are working toward preservation.
Cajun music initially sounded a lot like the country or folk music played during the 1700s when Louisiana was still being settled. Over time, it absorbed elements of jazz, particularly Dixieland, and blues. The Creole style, because of the more inclusive “melting pot” nature of the Creole people, took on characteristics of Caribbean and African music. Both types of music, however, rely strongly on the fiddle and accordion, and both often use the waltz and two-step forms.
In general, Cajuns have strong ties to Catholicism. Many Creoles follow this religion, as well, but it is also common for them to follow other faiths based on their backgrounds. Some people, for example, lean toward Native American spirituality, using medicinal healing. Others focus on folk religions from Africa or the Caribbean. In some cases, individuals mix a little bit of everything together, using an eclectic combination of prayer, voodoo, charms, candles and “wild” church services that emphasize being “possessed” by the spirit.
Although the differences between Creole and Cajun are possible for someone to see, the two groups are increasingly intermingling in Louisiana. It is becoming more difficult for a person to label something as exclusively belonging to one category, and some experts believe that they are moving together to form one large group. Creole cooks, for example, are using crawfish in their recipes more often, whereas before, this seafood was almost totally a Cajun ingredient. Chef Paul Prudhomme is an example of someone who has merged the traditions in “Louisiana cooking.”