Blue Bayou

New Times' annual Best of Phoenix just came out and, true to form, someone's not happy about being named the best. Like, for instance, the clothing boutique that was incensed at being singled out as "best place for drag queens to go shopping."

This year, it's the folks from Chez Bubba's Caribbean and Creole House in Phoenix. Chez Bubba's won Best Sweet Potato Pie. It did not win Best Creole/Cajun, an honor that went to Justin's Ragin' Cajun Cuisine in Phoenix.

Two callers last week were upset that Chez Bubba's "only" won for its pie, claiming the shop should have received an award for everything on its menu. Good enough; the restaurant does serve some mighty nice Creole shrimp and smothered chicken. Things got weird, though, when one angry caller accused us of committing an injustice by not separating Creole and Cajun into two categories. This guy claimed we were "racist, prejudiced and discriminatory" against Jamaicans, Caribbeans and any ethnic group not part of "the Phoenix bureaucracy" because we lumped the two cultures together.

Things got even stranger when Chez Bubba's owner Myron Stephenson phoned to apologize for the caller (a frequent patron), and explain his take on why two categories were required. Seems the differences are greater than just cooking style. Stephenson contends, for example, that Creoles are better educated, and would "never cook alligator tail, or anything they would have to chase through a swamp." Cajuns, on the other hand, are an intermarried group with the afflictions that come from being of a small gene pool, he says.

Wow. And we thought we were just being concise -- Cajun and Creole are combined categories in many major publications that recognize various cuisines and those who prepare them. Sure, there are differences between the two, mainly involving the influences of French-Southern-Indian (Cajun) and French-Spanish-African (Creole). I could fill the rest of this column on the subtleties of each, with fascinating facts such as Cajun cooking usually uses pork fat, while Creole cooking uses butter, and that Creole cooking often uses more tomatoes, while Cajuns prefer more spices. But I won't, because in the end, both cuisines feature staples like jambalaya, gumbo, blackened fish and étouffée, and to the average consumer, that's information enough.

All of this discussion, in fact, would have been pretty boring if I hadn't picked up so many (outrageous) pointers from Stephenson. He says you can spot a Cajun by his last name -- just pick up a Louisiana phone book and look for the moniker with the most listings (they're all one happy family, after all). Or, he advises, watch for the guy twitching and screaming obscenities; he says Cajuns have the highest incidence of Tourette's syndrome of any single culture. Or listen for someone speaking such broken and mangled French even he can't figure out what the heck he's talking about. As Johnny Carson would say, "I did not know that."

Justin Chacon, owner of Justin's Ragin' Cajun, had no comment on Stephenson's cultural characterizations. He says he wants to stay out of the whole thing and enjoy his award. There's history specific to Cajun and Creole, he agrees, but "it's no big deal to not differentiate between the two cuisines. It's like chili -- everyone makes their own recipe, and everyone thinks theirs is the best."

Here's predicting a Best of Phoenix winner for 2001: Best Comedy Act, for "You May Be a Cajun If . . . ," by Myron Stephenson.

After Dinner Mint: Watch for a new bar to open inside another Best of Phoenix winner, the Chuck Box at Scottsdale Road and Shea in Scottsdale. The Tempe location's still limited to beer and wine, but Scottsdale swillers can enjoy full liquor libations at the carved wood bar, probably as early as next week, I'm told.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet