To really understand the roots of Cajun food today, we must look back to the 16th and 17th centuries when the new Acadian arrivals from France were perplexed at some of the unusual foods at their disposal.
- The Acadians brought their extraordinary culinary skills with them from France, and applied those skills to the foods that were available in their new land. Some foods were familiar, like pigs, cows, and chickens, but others were strange and some adjustment was needed to incorporate meadowlarks, groundhogs and porcupine into their meals. Likewise, root vegetables, potatoes, and spinach were old acquaintances, while plantain leaves, samphire, and brined, salted herbs were new ingredients.
- In researching food from the old days in Acadia, I was surprised to find so many recipes and cooking methods similar to those I learned from my Cajun relatives as I was growing up. I didn't realize that dishes made 350 years ago could be so much like recipes we cook today, with the main difference being in the names. Fricot is a soup, a bit thinner than soups we make but prepared in much the same way, and consisting of the usual soup ingredients of chicken, fish, or meat, vegetables and potatoes; Viande Fricassée is much like my Grandmother Olympe's Fricassée of Beef, though Grandma used a roux to thicken the stew rather than the potatoes that thicken the Viande; the Mioche au Naveau, mashed turnips and potatoes, is a close match to my recipe for Buttery Potatoes and Turnips with Green Onions, and the Pâté a la Viande is simply a meat pie.
- Beans and pork were a specialty of my Grandpa Pischoff, who paired them together just as the old Acadians did, though the Acadians served their beans with sugar and molasses. Both cultures relied heavily on animal fat in their cooking, and the one-pot meal is central to both Acadian and Cajun cookery. The biggest difference between old Acadian and new Cajun cooking is found in the seasonings (see below). Also, Cajuns are not known to cook meadowlark, bobolink, weasel, or snow bunting soup; eel pie; roast porcupine; goose tongue greens and samphire greens; and pork fat and molasses pie. These dishes were developed to make use of the ingredients available to Acadians in the 1600s – 1700s.
Basic Acadian Foods in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pigs were an important element in the Acadian kitchen, as most of the meat consumed was pork. Lard was used for frying as well as for flavoring soups and stews, and for any application needing fat--although in some areas bear fat was used for frying.
- Cows were used for milk, cream, and butter, and oxen were work animals; neither were killed for food until they were too old to be serviceable. Game was plentiful in the form of wild rabbit, moose, deer, porcupine, squirrel, groundhog, and beaver. Sheep were used mainly for wool, as young animals were never killed while they were still useful, and the older meat was considered too strong and unpleasant to eat. Chicken and geese were the favored birds, along with partridge, pigeons, blackbirds, meadowlarks, wild duck, and seagulls.
- The most common vegetables were root vegetables, such as cabbage and turnips. The greens were mostly wild and included herbs, spinach, and dandelion greens. The blossoms of dandelions were used for wine, and spruce trees and hops were used for making beer. Herbs and plants were used as medicine; those still familiar to us today are mint, plantain leaves, and sarsaparilla. Summer vegetables were corn, beans, and tomatoes; grains consisted of wheat, oats, and barley, although bread products were made mostly from buckwheat. Berries and apples were the main fruits, while maple trees provided syrup and sugar. The abundant fish included herring, cod, smelt, gaspereau, halibut, trout, clams, oysters, and lobsters.
- So while the Acadians applied their food preparation methods to familiar ingredients in their new land, they also used their extraordinary cooking talents and applied them to the many new foods with which they were surrounded. Thus, the tradition continued by using their tried and true cookery style with foods both new and familiar. For nothing was ever wasted in an Acadian kitchen.