A Culinary 'Trip' to Louisiana

About twice a year, my dining friends and I come together for a gala dinner. Each dinner is themed, usually around a time or place that has significantly shaped the way we eat. I'm currently exploring cuisines of the Americas, and the most recent dinner took us to the southern United States. The images in this post were taken at that dinner, and the content derives from my preparatory research.

Southerners and Yankies alike will tell you the South is “different,” and it’s not just down to slavery, nostalgia or the accent. The French Crown established a port at the mouth of the Mississippi in 1718, a river that is navigable almost as far as modern Canada. Calling the port Nouvelle Orléans and their colony Acadie, they set about claiming land either side of the great river. At one point, French rule stretched in a huge crescent from the Gulf of Mexico to Quebec. That was not to last, though. The English colonists pushed them back, splitting the colony into its Louisiana and Quebec portions and claiming possession of the central belt (without regard to the native nations who lived there). Louisiana was briefly ceded to Spain in the 1760s and returned to French rule under Napoleon, who promptly sold it to the United States.

French speakers remained in the majority until the late 1830s, and French continued to be used in ordinary discourse by about a quarter of the population until after the First World War. A census of 1830 records a population of just over 3,000 white residents, a similar number of enslaved people, and about 1,500 freed black and coloured residents. The city was the largest market for enslaved people on the continent. Ten years later, the population had risen to 102,000, with the immigration coming mainly from Germany, Ireland and other parts of the United States. It continued to be a major centre for selling humans.

Let us consider the cultural mix of the area: native Chitimacha, Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez and Tunica, colonists from Germany, Ireland, France, Spain and Britain, enslaved and freed people from all parts of north and west Africa. Each culture has its own food traditions. The port brought in produce from Europe, the Caribbean and south America, including vegetables, wines and spirits. The river brought produce from further north: milk and butter, meat and game. Native cuisines introduced spices like cayenne and herbs such as sassafras, as well as local plants, corn species and other cultivated grains. The Mississippi itself teems with fish, its estuary rich with various shellfish and their predators. Such is the mix that creates the food of the South. It's no wonder it's so exciting.

Throughout the South, food is enjoyed complex, rich and spicy, made with regional ingredients and European (especially French) methods. It would be wrong to speak of "southern food" as if it were a single tradition, though. Three distinct but overlapping strands of cuisine have emerged from the region's history:

· Soul Food is often identified with the urban poor, the black populations, the inheritors of slave traditions. It is strongly influenced by traditional African cuisines and makes great use of cheaper ingredients like offal, preserved grains and vegetables. The term 'soul food' points to the importance of sharing food for building community, for preserving culture and heritage, and for sustaining the spirit as well as the body. African Americans, both poor and wealthy, are rightly proud of this tradition and scornful of its exploitation as something "folksy" or contrived.

· Cajun Food belongs to the inheritors of the Acadian culture of French settlers. It is generally meat-heavy, with strong emphasis on smoked and cured meats. Away from the main centres of population, it was important to preserve food for the winters and make best use of it. Without refrigeration, dairy products were rare, and Cajun cooking makes little use of butter or cheese. French-style sauces predominate, with oil being used in place of butter for the roux, but they are big, flavoursome affairs, full of spice and local herbs. 

· Creole Food is the food of those of mixed heritage: city-dwellers and those who have flourished in the mercantile spaces of the port of New Orleans and the towns along the river. It is characterised by refined techniques, the use of soft fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, imported rice, wine and brandy, and the presence of butter and other dairy products.

The same interplay of cultures that gave rise to the cuisines of the south is also responsible for the emergence of its music. Enslaved Africans were taught to play European classical music for their masters’ entertainment. Away from the “big house,” they would improvise classical forms over traditional rhythmic percussion. Jazz was born. Borrowing Biblical language to avoid repercussions from their oppressors, enslaved singers might decry the injustice of their enslavement in hymns that followed African musical idioms. Such hymns gave us the Blues.  French folk music was reinterpreted by slaves, Irish immigrants and others unfamiliar with its forms and has given us the bouncy, bright dance rhythms of Zydeco.

Although slavery casts a long and still frightening shadow over the South, its food and social cultures are full of joy and vibrancy. Courtesy and manners are extremely important, and hospitality is dearly prized. Treat yourself to a cooling julep this week, make some cornbread and gather the neighbours. Put on some music, dance, make lively, and do your bit to build the kind of relationships that stifles racism and hatred.


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