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A True And Delectable History Of Creole Cooking
New Orleans cuisine—with its French roux, African okra, Indian filé, and Spanish peppers—is literally a gastronomic melting pot. Here’s how it all came together.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Most of the early French settlers were unwilling to live on Indian foods, and it became crucial to the survival of the colony that the Compagnie des Indes find some sturdy farmerimmigrants who might be able to grow something for the French settlers to eat. Parts of Germany and Switzerland were inundated with handbills promoting Louisiana as a “paradise.” As a result several hundred German settlers had been lured to the area by 1721. Quickly realizing that New Orleans, “the Paris of the New World,” was hardly an idyllic place to farm, they preferred to settle twenty miles upriver in an area known as the Côte des Allemands, away from the mildew and malaria of the city. The Germans did their job well, supplying the city with fresh produce. They also soon became fine bakers of French bread and pastries. Even today most of the top local bakeries bear Swiss and German names.
The lack of women, medical personnel, and teachers in La Nouvelle Orléans prompted Bienville to write home asking that members of the order of Ursuline Sisters, the nuns he had seen at work in Canada, come to assist him in Louisiana. The first Ursulines arrived on August 6,1727, and they immediately became indispensable members of the colony. They provided a home for the upstanding, middle-class filles de cassette or “casket girls” (so called because of the governmentissued chests with clothing and linen that each brought), who were sent over regularly from 1728 to 1751 to become wives for the colonists. The Ursulines took care of orphans, conducted a free school, operated a hospital, and instructed the slaves for baptism.
It was these nuns, the daughters of French aristocratic and middle-class families, who brought with them knowledge of the latest French culinary fashions. One of the Ursulines, Sister Xavier Hébert, was the first woman pharmacist in the New World. A condition of the agreement between the Compagnie des Indes and the Ursulines in 1726 was that the sisters would plant an herb garden in Louisiana and teach its benefits. A bay leaf added to stews and soups prevented souring, and it also kept weevils out of the flour; dill was used to encourage soothing sleep, oregano to reduce swelling, parsley to remove the smell of garlic, shallots for strength, and sage “to put fever to flight.”
If the nuns brought with them the rudiments of French cuisine, blacks can be credited with using what little was available locally to devise something edible. By 1744 the Compagnie des Indes had imported some two thousand slaves from the west coast of Africa and the West Indies. The 1724 Code Noir , French regulations for treatment of blacks, made Louisiana a pleasanter place for them to live than Britishruled areas. Also, the French were lax in enforcing regulations against miscegenation.
Black cooks had a sophisticated tradition of preparing food. Their African ancestors had traded with Arabs since the eighth century and had left a legacy of various cultivated Middle Eastern vegetables. By the sixteenth century West African farmers were growing corn, peanuts, yams, eggplant, garlic, and onions, which they had assimilated into their native diet of kidney beans, varieties of rice, green leafy vegetables, and okra. Foods were prepared by long, slow cooking and were served with delicate sauces.
It is thought that okra, called kingombo , was brought to the New World by slaves. The popular mainstay among Catholic families of Louisiana, gumbo z’herbes , is taken from a similar African dish made of various greens and herbs. An old saying states that a new friend will be made for each different green used in the soup. During the months when okra was in season, it was the key ingredient for thickening gumbo, replacing the Indian filé powder used the rest of the year.
Add the cream and egg mixture to the pan, stirring constantly. Bring almost to a boil, add seafood and brandy…
In New Orleans, as in France, having a good cook was crucial to one’s social status, and, as in France, the proper Creole lady did not venture too far from the kitchen while the meal was beins prepared. Male and female slave cooks enjoyed such an elevated social position that they were taught to read and write in order to make use of French recipes. “The preparation of food is as much an art form to my people as music,” says Leah Chase, noted chef of Dooky Chase’s restaurant in the central city area, the black counterpart of Antoine’s. “There isn’t one famous Creole dish that didn’t pass through the hands of a black chef or cook before it came to be written down.”
Black cooks are credited with taking the French peasant’s thickener, roux (from the French roux beurre , which means “reddish-brown butter”), as a base for sauces, stews, or soups. Especially in Creole and Cajun dishes, which traditionally are slow-cooked in a single large pot, the thickener is a key element. Among local cooks today roux made by a master is considered an even better gift than chocolates.