Real Food Origins: New Orleans

There is such a cosmic confluence of events happening in my geeky little world. Chinese New Year began Monday with the New Moon, and yesterday was the First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary here in New Hampshire, USA, as well as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which signals the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent, in one big fat Tuesday of decadence before the spiritual lean times roll. It seems a most auspicious time to begin a new blog series.

A few months ago, The Husband presented me with a challenge:

“Choose any city in North America. Prepare a meal of at least 3 courses, with at least one course from each of the following centuries: 1600’s, 1800’s, 1900’s. Use mid-century as your time reference. As before, you can only use ingredients that were available in the city you choose, at the time you choose for the dish. If you choose a city that didn’t exist in all 3 centuries, use ingredients available to the closest human population at the time. Bonus points for finding dishes that were popular with the population at the time.”

“As before” refers to the first recipe challenge The Husband gave me, which resulted in my creation of Three Sisters Soup. I assumed this challenge would be as straightforward as that one. It could have been, I suppose, if I had chosen the first city that popped in my head: Boston.

I love Boston. I live not terribly far from Boston, and I’m familiar with the history of the city and its regional cuisine. But then I read the challenge again, and wanted to embrace all its nuances. I wanted to be more thorough in my search for a North American city that was a) settled in the 17th century, b) known for its unique foodways. After a long look at a map of North America, and a list of its oldest cities, I decided on New Orleans, never suspecting what an inspiring journey I was beginning.

My knowledge of New Orleans and its cuisines was pretty generic, absorbed from Anne Rice novels, Mardi Gras scenes in movies, and generalized versions of “Cajun/Creole” dishes I had eaten and prepared. This is probably how most people “know” New Orleans, from pop culture references, and that is an honest-to-goodness tragedy. I now know New Orleans is one of the most fascinating, diverse, and remarkable places in the United States, and its signature dishes are some of the best examples of a truly American, as in “E Pluribus Unum”, cuisine. I have never visited there; I only vaguely thought about going there at all, until I started this project. Now, it’s almost imperative I get there, somehow. Until that day, I will bring New Orleans to me (and you), through the magic of the Internet. I did a little shopping.

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The book on the left is my primary resource for the historical/culinary timeline of New Orleans, and it has a great description of the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisines-yes, it matters. The book on the right is a collection of recipes compiled by the Times-Picayune newspaper after Hurricane Katrina, a story which deserves its own blog post.

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Here I have assembled a few special New Orleans products, which, except for the Louisiana Hot Sauce, I had to order online. The coffee came vacuum-packed in that bag, and I transferred it to the jar. It is particularly important to my homage to New Orleans, because it is this coffee/chicory blend that is used in proper New Orleans cafe’ au lait, which is a completely different animal from any cafe’ au lait I can get here in New England. I’ll be giving all of these items their day in the sun in upcoming posts.

If one word could be used to describe New Orleans and its inhabitants, that word is resilient. In its nearly 300-year history, New Orleans has survived colonial neglect, wars, disease, famine, and natural disasters. Through all of that, the people of New Orleans have uniquely embraced and blended the food cultures of its Native American and French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, German, Irish and Italian immigrant populations, and created a city that celebrates life to its fullest. While that may seem indulgent and decadent on its face, if you consider the history that runs though the city’s veins, you begin to understand the instinctive joie de vivre of a community that deeply understands the adage, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.” It’s in that spirit, that intense embrace of life and all that is good in it, that I have found my passion for this project.

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