- Historic Sites
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
Political turmoil throughout the world played an important part in refining the culinary style of the Creoles. Aristocrats fleeing the French Revolution brought a renewed dose of haute cuisine . Those from the West Indies and Santo Domingo brought with them techniques for the preparation of fish with a Spanish flavor. In the late nineteenth century, New Orleans also became a disembarkation point for Sicilians arriving in America, and they brought along their rich red gravies and dishes using garlic and bread crumbs, such as stuffed artichokes and eggplant, which, in Louisiana, became the stuffed Indian mirliton. Yugoslavs from the Dalmatian coast were working the local oyster beds as early as 1840. Their expertise was so great that, by 1858, the local business directory had to give five pages over to oyster bars, oyster houses, and restaurants specializing in oyster dishes.
Even Asians played a part in the diet of Louisiana. Besides the hackneyed barb comparing Creoles and Chinese—“They both worship their ancestors and eat a lot of rice”—it was Lee Yuen, a rice farmer from Canton, who perfected the method for drying shrimp in Louisiana in 1867. The new process made it possible to have shrimp year round.
Between 1800 and 1860 Creole society flourished, and Creole cuisine, as it is known today, became firmly established. By 1840 New Orleans was the fourth largest city in the United States, the second largest port, and an economic center that attracted businessmen from all over the world. It was one of the first cities in the country to have public restaurants, and its hotel dining rooms served continental and Creole cuisine.
Antoine’s, America’s oldest restaurant under single-family ownership, was founded in 1840 as a French-Creole boarding hotel. The Alciatore/Guste family has preserved the landmark restaurant, which moved to its present location in 1878, almost unchanged. Third- and fourth-generation patrons not only can eat at their grandparents’ favorite table, they can eat the same food. The menu is still in French with no explanation of dishes. The food is prepared in the authentic, nineteenth-century style—much heartier, richer, sweeter, and oilier than the culinary style of today.
Creole cooking might have gone full circle and become just another outgrowth of the aristocratic gastronomy of Europe had not the Civil War come along and changed the household economy of the Creoles. Suddenly the French-speaking Creoles had to take a backseat to the influx of Americans and the Reconstruction government. The Creoles became the “redbeans-and-rice aristocracy,” people who were said to be “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.” But the Creoles still loved to eat and entertain. When they couldn’t afford fine meats, they would make a tasty gumbo from fresh vegetables and a little leftover chicken or seafood. When coffee became expensive, the refugees of the Napoleonic era in France taught them to roast the root of the Belgian endive (chicory) to stretch their supply. When the price of ice exceeded their means, they would crush glass and sew it into cheesecloth bags that were then floated in pitchers of water to give the tinkle of ice.
It is this tradition and pride that has fostered and preserved Creole cuisine. Strangely, tourism, which rejuvenated the city’s economy in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, came close to destroying the flavors that were innately Creole. Local restaurants were forced to create an Americanized version of the local cuisine that would be more palatable to tourists. Chicory was taken out of the coffee, filé and cooked-down murky morsels of crab and oyster eliminated from the gumbo, and red pepper removed from everything and replaced with freshly ground black pepper. Authenticity in preparation went by the wayside with such shortcuts as red sauces made with canned tomato paste. Visitors were served a brunch of eggs Benedict rather than grillades and grits.
In those years, Creole cuisine remained alive only in the city’s homes and its many neighborhood and family restaurants. Nouvelle cuisine and cuisine minceur came and went without making so much as a ripple on the roux-based sauces of the Creoles. By the 1980s, food writers were ready for something new, and suddenly Creole and Cajun cuisine was pulled out of the culinary closet—ethnic, inexpensive, relatively easy to prepare, and totally different from the elegant culinary style of the past decade. After more than two hundred years, Creole food has finally achieved its culinary respectability.