There once was a crawfish, named Cajun. He was born in an old town in Canada before moving to the city of New Orleans. Though he wasn’t necessarily the most well-liked fella in the city, Cajun was liked by other Acadians from Canada plenty. Cajun knew how to make food. He made the best food he could and perfected his craft. Cajun spent years in the kitchen serving mostly Acadians, until one fateful day when a local sat themselves down — curious about what the commotion was about. Cajun made his signature dish, and the local hollered about how tasty it was.
Quite soon after that, more and more locals stopped by the restaurant, and they too sung the praises of Cajun’s cooking. He was excited to be a part of the community, but Cajun knew that the road to true acceptance meant spreading his knowledge to the cooks of New Orleans. So he set off — a book in one hand and a soft tip pen in another — and shared his way of cooking with cooks, home cooks, and even head chefs. They loved it. Cajun, and Cajun cooking, had become indispensable facets of New Orleans.
Let me tell you about another crawfish. I’ll call her, Viet. She was a young, scared crawfish from a war-torn state and sought refuge in New Orleans, as well. See, there were these long, beautiful rivers in New Orleans that reminded her of the rivers back home, and she was a hell of a fisher with the boat skills to back it up. Viet, though she could not speak the language or relate to the people, thought she could help her community somehow with the shrimp that she caught and the boats that she drove.
People became enraged.
Viet was a sweet girl, but she was too darn good for the other fishermen to keep up. Everyone asked Viet because she was faster in the water and cheaper on the books. Unfortunately, this meant that the local fishermen were out of a job. So, they enlisted the help of their local Ku Klux Klan to scare Viet into hiding. And boy, Viet was scared. They burned her boat. They burned her fish. When she tried to stop them, they even burned her skin. A smear campaign began to convince locals that Viet was a dangerous critter. Viet ran away, hiding in the anonymity of the city — she put on a hat, some pants, and a coat to disguise herself as one of the other humans.
One day, Viet was at a new restaurant that had just popped up at the corner of the street. Fresh fragrances — smells she had never encountered before — filled the air around it, and she was drawn in like a magnet. She slowly grabbed the door handle and trepidatiously began to open it before immediately shutting it closed. Viet could not believe her eyes. There was a crawfish in there! She looked to her left to see a menu taped to the window, and the top was a picture of a crawfish and the title: Cajun’s Cuisine.
Viet composed herself and headed inside, covering her face with her large hat. She went directly to the counter and asked the crawfish for his favorite dish that he’s ever made. The crawfish sat her down at a table and headed back to the kitchen. Moments later, he came out with a plate of food and set it at her table. As he was turning around, a towel unknotted itself from his waist and dropped on the ground. Viet reached down to pick up the towel for him. She dropped her hat.
Viet scrambled for the hat, but it was too late. The two had met eyes for a moment before Viet was able to put on her hat again. The crawfish sat down at the seat across from her and asked, “Well, what brings a crawfish like yourself here of all places?” He was constraining his excitement, as he had never seen another crawfish in town.
The two spent the evening together, finding out they had much more in common than they had ever dreamed. Their food was born out of fusion, and they knew how to handle food. Their old homelands were both dominated by the French at one point. Cajun invited Viet back to the kitchen to try out some of her food, but she was nervous. She had never cooked for people outside of her family before. Still, it wasn’t every day that she saw another crawfish, so she obliged. She made noodles and rice and pork and beef and all types of foods that Cajun had never tried before.
The two would talk frequently after that day, sharing recipes and techniques with each other. They talked for hours on end about different ingredients and how it could apply to their respective styles. Viet, in particular, was excited to add a fresh spin on Cajun’s recipes. After she made him the new dish for dinner, Cajun decided to try to put some of these new concoctions on the menu at his restaurant. The dishes were scrumptious! Surely, the customers would be excited about some new flavors.
The locals were not excited. They were furious. They yelled and screamed and cursed Cajun to his face. “Do not change these recipes,” they demanded. “They were already perfect!”
Cajun was trying to calm the lunch crowd down. Then one man, in a white robe and hood, saw from the corner of his eyes another set of red whiskers in the kitchen. He barged his way through the double doors and saw Viet cooking at the wok. He grabbed her by the collar and dragged her out of the kitchen, throwing her onto the floor for the crowd to see. This was the crawfish that stole all those fishermen’s jobs. The locals lashed at her, for who would ever want to eat Viet’s cooking in New Orleans?
That evening, after the shop closed down, Viet told Cajun that she was moving. Cajun was saddened, but he would never force her to stay. Cajun could not move with her, for he was too integrated into the community to leave. The two parted ways, forever indebted to each other’s exchanges.
Viet moved to Houston and set up her own shop. There weren’t rivers in Houston, but there were hungry people and Viet was sure there’d be someone out there that would like her cooking. She went to the bank, took out a loan, and set up shop right around Chinatown. She set her prices low and hoped for the best. Day by day, she slowly attracted more and more customers. And eventually, the Houston locals embraced Viet’s cooking as one of their own!
So one day, Viet decides to make a dish that she learned from Cajun. She prepared the food, rinsed, and boiled. Here was the quintessential change. Viet decided to season after it was all boiled, and she added garlic, butter, and Cajun’s favorite seasoning. The dish was presented to the regular lunch crowd and nearly overnight, her food became a cult classic. She made a variety of dishes to complement it and named this style after her cherished friendship with Cajun. She called it, Viet-Cajun.
The style of cooking made its way out west to California and took the nation by storm. Except for one place: New Orleans. The locals at New Orleans still insist that there was no space for Viet’s cooking, even with her new Viet-Cajun style. If they were going to eat from a crayfish, it would only be Cajun’s style.
This story is one that lives to this day — a story of how Viet-Cajun food is not accepted by the home of Cajun food because locals believe there is not a better way than their own. No improvements can be made. Their way is authentic. And it may have to do with race, or it may have to do with tradition. Probably both. Vietnamese people, like all Asian-American people, are seen as the perpetual foreigner and thus are unable to become fully integrated in today’s societal framework. In a similar vein, the emphasis on tradition prevents innovation because it assumes that any change would be offensive, rather than additive. It is a common way for food to otherize without being “wrong”.
Viet-cajun food has been thriving around the nation, thanks to the acceptance of Houston’s food culture and their large Vietnamese population in the 1990s. Many people say that one cannot go back after having Viet-Cajun crawfish. Yet you will not be able to find a single restaurant in New Orleans, even ones owned by Vietnamese people. Vietnamese restaurants would insist that there is no room for innovation on such a staple meal. For cajun cuisine, crawfish is the cornerstone of its livelihood and a symbol of its origins.
Cajun food came from a fusion of French, African-American, Native American, and Spanish culinary techniques and ingredients; it utilizes readily available, local ingredients and is relatively simple to prepare compared to typical French cuisine. Cajun people, an ethnic group of French-Canadian descent, have resided in New Orleans since the 1800s (this is not to be confused with Creole people). Vietnamese food, on the other hand, utilizes the fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French influences and combined the ingredients the French brought over (e.g., baguettes, beef, coffee beans) to their locally grown ingredients. It’s the battle of the po’ boy and the banh mi. The difference, as you may have noticed, is in power — one group came from colonizers, another from the colony.
Perhaps that’s where the answer lies — in ownership. Viet-Cajun food threatens Cajun cuisine because it would mean seceding pride and relinquishing their claim on crawfish. More important than trying new flavors and improving upon their dish with the help of other cultures, Cajun cuisine seems to be maintaining a false sense of superiority because of their diminished power setting. They were never the most wealthy of white people, being categorized as rural compared to the Creole city-folk. However, some did own slaves which furthers the complexity of power. Now, in an age where Cajun food can be summed up as “eating what you can find”, there is a need to have some sense of self-governed presence. Enter: crawfish.
Vietnamese people could not possibly claim a distinctly and uniquely Louisiana-born cuisine. Crawfish were indigenous to the area and the seasonings are righteously claimed by Cajuns. In contrast, Vietnamese people came from afar, on boats, and are merely foreigners in America. Never mind where they were actually born or how much they contribute to their community, Asian-Americans suffer from the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype.
“Just as they stole our jobs, they try to steal our food.”
Crawfish may not be the right hill to die on, and it may not even be a place to exercise dominion in the first place. However, I think the absolute unwillingness and essentialism provides a certain commentary on why people can weaponize authenticity in food. Think of a time when you’ve heard someone say, “you haven’t had real authentic tacos,” or “you haven’t had real pizza.” What does that mean? Does that mean that you haven’t had a Neapolitan pizza from Rome or does it mean that you haven’t had a pizza from a small Italian family in New York? Authenticity does not always equate to the preservation of culture but rather it is closer to the lived experiences of individuals and their memories.
Say, for example, you visit Vietnam to learn what real authentic pho tastes like. You would be hard pressed to find a single version of pho even in the same region, let alone the entire country. Saigon pho is very different from Ha Noi pho and whose version is most authentic will depend on the individual. Some people will use authenticity to hurt even the most native chefs. Others may use it to defend their food from critique or humiliation. There are those that exotify “authentic”, hole-in-the-wall restaurants as a way to virtue signal. And finally, there are those who see authenticity as a way to preserve their family history and memories. Thus, there are four parts to authenticity: weaponization, defense, exotification, and preservation.
In the case of crawfish, we can eliminate exotification and defense. Local Cajuns do not have to go out of their way to exotify their own food, nor do they have to defend it from critique because they are in a position of superiority and white supremacy. One could argue that it is preservation, though the amount of commerce surrounding it does not give the argument a strong base to stand on. What exactly are you preserving if every crawfish joint in Louisiana uses the same cooking process? There is no family recipe here. Instead, the intolerance of Vietnamese innovation must come from a place of weaponization — to say, despite the clear influence and homage to traditional Cajun cuisine, “your version does not belong in my kingdom.”
New Orleans. Why?