December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
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.
Across most of America nowadays the term Creole when applied to food variably conjures up images of charred, blackened fish and meat, overbearing, fiery seasonings, and a ubiquitous red sauce not unlike the kind you buy in a can. As a seventh-generation native of south Louisiana, and as a food writer, I join other locals in feeling a twinge of horror at what has befallen my native cuisine since it became the food fad of the eighties. The dishes for which people happily wait in line outside the local Cajun/Creole guru Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen—and for which they gladly pay high prices in restaurants from New York to San Francisco—would shame the men and women who toiled to create America’s preeminent native cuisine. Remaining virtually unnoticed by the majority of the new wave of Creole food fanciers are the Creole delights we’ve enjoyed for generations: succulent oyster patties, hogshead cheese, trout meunière, mirliton stuffed with crab meat, and daube glacé .
It is a popular misconception that the terms Creole and Cajun are interchangeable. While there are similarities, Creole is the sophisticated, worldly urbanite and Cajun is the provincial country cousin. The inhabitants of New Orleans created Creole cuisine, a subtle group of dishes utilizing spices and rich sauces. The Cajuns, having settled at a later date in more remote areas of the Louisiana countryside, had to improvise with ingredients readily available in the bayous.
Creole and Cajun cuisine did not develop in a linear way from French gastronomy to the same extent that American cooking derived from the English and European cooking styles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Louisiana cuisine, whatever it might be called, is the literal melting pot of America. In a pot of gumbo served today in a traditional New Orleans house, there is a French roux, African okra, Indian filé , Spanish peppers, Cajun sausage, and oysters supplied by a Yugoslav fisherman, all served over Chinese rice with an accompaniment of hot French bread made by one of the city’s finest German bakers.
This harmonious cuisine, born out of the mixture of cultures, evolved because of Louisiana’s geographical isolation, plus its settlers’ hardships, pride, instinct, and the Latin cultural desire to eat well. For two centuries Creole cuisine kept changing to satisfy the needs and tastes of each new group who came to settle in Louisiana. Nowadays, starting with breakfast, with its calas (rice cakes) served with cane syrup, all the way through to the after-dinner treats of café brûlot and pecan pralines, the inhabitants of south Louisiana happily eat a unique diet.
From the rash of articles and cookbooks extolling the merits of Creole and Cajun food, it appears that the early seventeenth-century French settlers possessed such extraordinary culinary acumen that all they needed was an introduction to a few Indian herbs, a Spanish spice or two, and voilà , within a few years Louisiana had a legendary cuisine. Although almost any person in Louisiana of French ancestry will probably serve up this theory, it isn’t exactly the way things happened.
La Nouvelle Orléans was founded in 1718 by the French Canadian Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, on a Muskhogean tribal portage at a strategic crescent on the Mississippi River, thirty leagues upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. The actual site was a small, verminous swamp, an area that is marked on maps of the period as being inhabited by “Savage Man Eaters.”
For a time the Compagnie des Indes, which controlled Louisiana, decided to colonize the area from the jails, brothels, and debtors’ prisons of France. The colony was in such chaos that the regent, Philippe of Orléans, finally put a stop to the practice in 1720. Early on, the unfortunate settlers discovered that the staple of their diet, wheat, would not grow in swampy, humid Louisiana. In spite of the fact that they named Lake Pontchartrain after the French minister in charge of providing them with staples, the settlers went for as much as two years without a shipment of flour.
If it had not been for the kindness of the Indians, the French would have starved. These Indians were adept at living off the land. They cultivated corn, from which they made a variety of breads; many kinds of squash, including the chayote (mirliton) and cushaw that are still popular in Louisiana today; and dried beans. They made sweet syrups from persimmons and chokecherries as a flavoring for smoked meats. Their stews were thickened with powdered sassafras, today called filé powder.
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.
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.
By 1743, when the Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, known as the Grand Marquis, arrived as the governor, New Orleans had developed its own elegant Creole society. By all accounts, the governor and his entourage of officials led a life as close to that of the Court of Versailles as could be mustered. They brought their own chefs from France and kept the prominent locals awestruck with their elaborate feasts.
Perhaps Creole cuisine would have become just a slightly distressed reproduction of eighteenth-century French cuisine had not the Spanish come. In November 1762 Louis XV of France secretly gave Louisiana to his Spanish cousin Charles III in an effort to keep it safely out of the hands of the British after the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War. The Spanish introduced to the Louisiana diet the culinary tricks that they had learned from the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Even the term Créole comes from the Spanish word criollo , originally denoting a person of European or African descent born outside those countries.
It was during the Spanish period in Louisiana that the first Acadians came to settle in the area. They descended from families that had left France in the early 150Os and settled in Nova Scotia. In 1755 the British demanded they pledge allegiance to England or be expelled from Canada. When they refused, they were deported, some being sent to the American colonies and many to France. When those in France who were destitute were offered a home in French-speaking Louisiana by the Spanish, many accepted, and by 1763 they had begun to found settlements deep in the swamps and bayous around New Orleans. They quickly adapted to the rough life and happily lived off the bountiful fresh foods that the wetlands provided. Today the Acadians in Louisiana, now called Cajuns, number perhaps three-quarters of a million and many still speak a French somewhat akin to that of the seventeenth century.
The Spanish were familiar with many of the New World’s foods long before they arrived in Louisiana. In the fifteenth century Columbus had brought yams, tobacco, kidney beans, maize, and red pepper back to Southern Europe and North Africa. Later the Spanish explorers brought back the tomato (known as “wolf peach,” “apple of the moors,” and “love apple”) from Mexico. The Italians and Spanish adored it: the French and English thought it was poisonous. As a matter of fact, the French did not begin to use it until 1850, when the Empress Eugénie introduced it at Napoleon’s table.
The Spaniards brought their love for peppers and the tomato back with them to Louisiana, and they began the practice of adding green pepper to sauces and meat dishes, which would arrest the growth of bacteria, reducing the spoilage that was a constant problem in those days before refrigeration. When coupled with the roux, the tomato became the integral ingredient in shrimp Creole sauce; in the rich gravy for grillades; and in the base for courtbouillon, a thick seafood stew similar to bouillabaisse. The Spanish paella, a rice and shellfish dish, became the forerunner of Creole jambalaya.
The early Creole proverb Misé fe macaque mangé piment (“Misery makes the monkey eat red pepper”) perhaps suggests why hot peppers were such an important ingredient in this region of the country. The Cajuns were economically, culturally, and geographically cut off from the more cosmopolitan areas. As Joel Cavaness, an accomplished Cajun cook and a direct descendant of the original Acadians, explains: “We grew up in the bayou eating only what we could grow, catch or shoot and cook in one big pot. We ate what was in season, which could mean that we ate crawfish daily for weeks. The great variety and spice in our diet came from combining various peppers from the garden with some onions, garlic and bell pepper to create bisque, étouffé, courtbouillon, sauce piquante , jambalaya, gumbo, or just simple, well-seasoned, boiled crawfish, shrimp, and crabs.”
From the Spanish period onward, no matter how poor, each household could easily grow one or two varieties of hot peppers. The flavors of foods, from old raccoon meat to “mud bugs” (crawfish), were greatly enhanced by the addition of a little salt and a dose of red pepper. Eating pickled and raw pepper is still a popular south Louisiana barroom sport, a proof of manhood. If the Spanish influence was ever in danger of fading, the Mexican War reversed the trend. Hundreds of Louisianians went off to Mexico in the 184Os and returned home with a renewed passion for the pepper. One of these men brought the Mcllhenny family of Avery Island some special Mexican pepper seeds. The result was Tabasco sauce, which now sells more than seventy million bottles annually.
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.