By Kathleen Flinn
“Today you came to Louisiana,” drawled the cab driver as he whisked me along the highway into downtown New Orleans. “So tomorrow, let Louisiana come to you.”
As he dropped me off at my French Quarter hotel, he leaned out the window to add, “You go eat yourself a lot of Cajun and Creole, and you’ll understand what I mean.”
That was 14 years ago. Since then, I’ve realized that Louisiana seduces its visitors the way clever women often find their way to men’s hearts—via their stomachs. Food is a strong part of the state of mind of Louisiana, so much that its distinctive cuisine is inextricably tied to its history, its culture and the people who settled it.
“I can’t say enough about how important food is as a way of life down here,” says James Rivas, the chef and manager of the Original Pierre Maspero’s Restaurant in the French Quarter. The Chicago native left his hometown to study Cajun and Creole cooking in New Orleans and he never left. “I’m a chef, but I have to say that I’ve learned the most by going to people’s houses and watching natives cook.”
Cajun food was developed in the Acadian region along the coast of Southwest Louisiana by French Canadian settlers from Nova Scotia. The meaning of the word “Creole” has shifted over the years. Derived from the Latin creare, meaning “to create,” it originally referred to the offspring of Spanish and French settlers, and later included those of African descent. Now, it’s most often applied to those of mixed heritage.
“Creole cuisine is really more of a combination of the Spanish, African, Italian and French influence on the town of New Orleans, whereas Cajun comes from the southern region of Louisiana,” Rivas says. The European influence yielded a sophisticated result heavy with butter, while the formerly cold-weather Acadians developed a hearty, spicy country-style cuisine. “So they’re actually quite a bit different.”
Gumbo offers an excellent example of how these cultures blended, then adapted to take advantage of the local crops, bountiful seafood and the spices coming into New Orleans’ busy port. A gumbo can be Creole or Cajun, depending on what’s in it, with subtle variations in preparation. Initially evolved from the French method for bouillabaisse, it was transformed in part by the African slaves who often worked as cooks. They added a spicy edge to the techniques brought by the European settlers. The addition of the local okra crop and a powdery spice called filé made from sassafras leaves came from the Native Americans nearby. Even the word gumbo is melded from numerous origins, from the Choctaw name for filé powder (kumbo) and African words for okra (kingumbo and nkomo).
But regardless on whether it’s a refined Creole gumbo, heavy with tomatoes, or a raging thick Cajun version, spiked with andouille sausage, there’s always one similarity, says Tim Lange of The Gumbo Shop restaurant in New Orleans.
“Everyone has their own idea about what makes a good gumbo,” says Lange. “But everyone agrees that the key to a good gumbo is in the roux.” A roux is a thickening and flavoring blend of oil and flour that’s gently cooked over moderate heat until the color eventually darkens. Roux forms a vital base for many Louisiana dishes. Essentially heated oil, a roux is often called “Cajun napalm” due to its nasty habit of causing serious burns.
As is typical with classic gumbo recipes, The Gumbo Shop starts most gumbos with a dark brown roux. Then they add what locals typically call the “holy trinity” of Louisiana cooking—celery, onion and green bell pepper. After that, any combination of meat or fish can be added to make a gumbo. Lange’s personal favorite is the Shop’s duck and oyster gumbo, an example of how not only the people and history melded, but the way Louisiana fare combines meat, fowl and fish in ways unusual in most American cooking.
Otherwise, what would you make of 143-year-old restaurant Tujague’s beef brisket in Creole sauceserved with shrimp? Or consider the famed Brennan’s breakfast entrée Eggs St. Charles: poached eggs atop a crisp fried trout? Even something as simple as a sandwich rates a distinctive cuisine-mixed-history treatment. Consider the region’s most famous something-between-bread concoctions — the po’ boy and the Muffaletta.
An enduring legend of the origin of New Orleans’famous po’ boy sandwiches notes that it was first developed during a streetcar workers’ strike of 1929, when locals handed out sandwiches to all the “poor boys” on strike. Today, the primary requirement of an authentic po’ boy is that it must be made from crusty fresh French bread, with roast beef, fried oysters and ham among the top filling choices.
The Muffaletta sandwich began at The Central Grocery Co. in 1906, although it’s always been more deli than grocery. A sandwich as big as most people’s heads, it’s named after the large, round Italian bread on which it’s served. It’s then stoked with ham and cheese and topped with a green olive dressing.
Gumbo might reflect the literal melting pot that Louisiana became as it evolved from French outpost to Spanish fort to American state, but it’s not alone. Every bite of Louisiana fare can be tied to history in some way, as well as seemingly everywhere you eat when you’re in New Orleans. Relative to the rest of the United States, it’s an old city with a long memory, and a history reflected in its food. Just consider that the famed old guard restaurant Antoine’s has been serving food for 165 years, with only subtle changes to its menu. Their tenure makes Brennan’s seem like a relative newcomer, opening in 1946.
So when you are next in New Orleans, let Louisiana come to you. You might start with a spicy Creole crepe at Petunia’s or an elegant eggs Sardou at Brennan’s. For lunch, it might be a bowl of gumbo or a Muffaletta sandwich. For dinner? There seems to be an endless string of options.
“I could never live anywhere else,” says Rivas. “I would miss the food too much. It’s a part of me now.”
This was originally published in AAA Going Places April 2005, (pre-Katrina) and won a Charlie award for magazine feature excellence from the Florida Magazine Association.
strong>Chicken Andouille Gumbo
This classic gumbo recipe combines chicken with andouille, a spicy pork sausage. If you can’t find andouille, you can use smoked or Italian sausage, but be sure to add additional cayenne to make up for the lost heat. Filé powder made from sassafrass leaves provides a distinct flavor, but it can be omitted if you can’t locate it. Based on the gumbo served at The Gumbo Shop, 630 Saint Peter St., New Orleans. Voted best gumbo in the city by locals.
1 whole chicken sectioned into 8 pieces (about 2 1/2 lbs.)
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced into rounds
3 qts. water
1 qt. okra, fresh or frozen, sliced into rounds
1/2 cup flour
2 tbs. vegetable oil for cooking
2/3 cup vegetable oil for roux
2 cups onions, chopped
1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 tsp. garlic, finely chopped
1 16 oz. can tomatoes, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 tsp. black pepper (or to taste)
2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1 tsp. file powder (optional)
White rice, steamed for serving
Cut the chicken into eight pieces, cover with water and simmer over low heat for about an hour until chicken is tender and easily removed from the bones. Pour off water (now stock), and set aside. Once chicken is cool, remove the meat from the bones and set aside.
As the chicken cooks, prepare the vegetables and sausage. In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil, add the okra, and sauté over medium high heat for about 10–15 minutes or until all the “ropiness” is gone. This may take a little longer if fresh okra is used. While the okra cooks, prepare the garlic, bell pepper, celery and tomatoes. Slice the sausage into quarter-inch rounds.
When you have at least 20 uninterrupted minutes, make the roux. Combine 1/2 cup oil and 1/2 cup flour in a heavy Dutch oven. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring it constantly or very frequently until it turns to a dark brown color. To the roux, add the onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic and sauté until vegetables are tender. During this process, allow the vegetables to stick to the bottom of the pan a bit, then scrape the bottom with a metal spoon or spatula. This allows some of the natural sugars in the onions to caramelize, rendering great depth of flavor. Add the sautéed okra, the tomatoes and sliced sausage. Cook 15 minutes. Add the bay leaf, thyme, basil, cayenne pepper and salt. Then add the reserved chicken stock, mix well and bring to a slow boil. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours with the pot loosely covered, stirring occasionally, skimming foam from time to time. Add the cooked chicken and simmer another 15 minutes. Remove from heat, skim off excess fat.
Just before serving, stir in filé powder if using. Do not reboil after adding filé, as this tends to make the gumbo stringy. Serve in large bowls over steamed rice. This recipe will yield about six entrees or 10 to 12 appetizers.