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Creole Defined: Not An Exact Science

It’s unexpected fun when a book title raises questions, i. e., Creole Son, my novel about painter Edgar Degas’s time in New Orleans. When people ask me to define Creole, I say it’s probably not what they think but lots more besides. Few ethnic terms are more misunderstood. The word comes from the Portuguese/Spanish criar meaning “to breed” and was applied to those born and bred outside the mother country. They were called criollos, which morphed into Creoles.

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Napoleon’s Creole Empress, Josephine de Beuharnais.

The two most famous Creoles are probably Empress Josephine, born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and Simon Bolivar, a Spanish Creole born in Venezuela. Degas’s New Orleans-born mother Celestine made him half Creole. Creoles can also be of Portuguese, Italian and African descent.

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Elegantly dressed Creoles of color were common sights in New Orleans.

The term “Creole of color” was commonly used in 18th-century New Orleans, but did not necessarily mean a slave. The free Creoles of color created a society of professional men, cultured women and debutante daughters who lived in fine houses, owned slaves and even plantations. Their achievements were remarkable considering they were only a few generations from slavery, but their culture was destroyed by the Civil War. In a bizarre case of race redefinition, the term Creole now only meant white. Fortunately, the end of Jim Crow laws empowered Creoles of color to reclaim their rightful identity.

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The definition of Creole was debated in the black press.

For most people, however, Creole means food. Everyone’s heard of Shrimp Creole, and Creole seasonings, mustards and sauces are in grocery stores everywhere. When I lived in New Orleans I discovered something rarely found outside Louisiana, Creole cream cheese and Creole tomatoes. The cheese is often combined with cream and sugar and served with fruit and even made into (wait for it) Creole cream cheese ice cream! The eponymous tomato is grown in Louisiana’s river parishes and is feted every June at the Creole Tomato Festival in the French Quarter. Creole is also attached to language, architecture, two breeds of pigs, sheep, tobacco, mangoes, and even paint colors. Then there’s Zydeco music, Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call and of course Elvis’s King Creole, which I believe is a wise place to stop.

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Part of a series about eccentricity, extravagance and ephemera in the antebellum South.

3 Comments

  1. Liz
    Apr 22, 2013

    Thanks for this superb explanation of a term that can be confusing. And now you’ve introduced me to a new food: Creole tomato! Can’t wait to taste one.

  2. Cathy
    Feb 24, 2014

    Does a person of Creole heritage need to have been born in New Orleans?

    • Michael Lewallen
      Feb 24, 2014

      As my article explained, Empress Josephine was a French Creole born in Martinique and Simon Bolivar was a Spanish Creole born in Venezuela. It has to do with being born out of the mother country, not in New Orleans.

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