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Beyond Gumbo Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim
By Jessica B. Harris
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2003 Jessica B. Harris
All right reserved.
Introduction: Beyond Gumbo
Creole Fusion Food
From the Atlantic Rim
Most Americans who see the word Creole immediately take a mental journey to the city on the Gulf Coast known as New Orleans. They think only of jambalaya and redfish court bouillon, of grillades and filé gumbo. Although the deep rich flavors of a Louisiana gumbo are definitely a part of the Creole world, the Creole experience extends beyond the Crescent City to encompass the food of the southern Atlantic rim. It's gumbo z'herbes, but it's also a dish of flaky grilled snapper topped with a sauce chien prepared with onion, shallots, garlic, scallions, parsley, vinegar, and biting hot chile in Martinique. Creole food is Puerto Rico's lechon asado, complete with crisp skin and a saucer of tangy, sour orange mojo for dipping. Creole is a peanut patty in Mexico called prasle de cacahuatl and okra soup in Savannah. It's crawfish and crab backs and, yes, it's even the taste of red beans and rice on a Monday morning in New Orleans.
Crioula, Kreol, Créole, Krio, and Creole all come together in the Creole world, as do the foods of Barbados and Bahia, Belize, Mexico's East Coast, and South Carolina's Gullah peoples. Creole food is the food of the descendants of Nigeria's Yoruba peoples in Brazil, the Sephardic Jews of Curaçao, and the Bahamians of Key West. In short, Creole food is the food of the Atlantic rim. It's the world's original fusion food, one that was created centuries ago when Africa and Europe met in the New World.
No word is more loaded with meaning than Creole. In the Crescent City alone, its meaning changes virtually block by block, from the Garden District to the Ninth Ward. In French, it can even include some of the food of the inhabitants of islands in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps it would be best, therefore, to begin our journey into the world of Creole food with a look at the word itself.
The debate is not new; even in 1914 in New Orleans, the word was much contested. According to Louisiana: Comprising Sketches of Parishes, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons Arranged in Cyclopedic Form, edited by Alcée Fortier of Tulane's Department of Romance Languages:
Creoles -- Webster defines the word creole as meaning "One born in America or the West Indies of European ancestors." Charles Gayarré, in a lecture on "Creoles of History and Creoles of Romance," at Tulane university on April 25, 1885, stated that the word creole originated from the Spanish word "criollo" from the verb criar (to create); that this word was invented by the Spaniards to distinguish their children, natives of their conquered colonial possessions, from the original inhabitants, and that to be a "criollo" was considered a sort of honor. The transition from the Spanish "criollo" to the French "créole" was easy, and in time the term was extended to cover animals and plants, hence such expressions as creole horses, creole chickens, creole figs, etc. Negroes born in tropical countries are also sometimes called creoles, but according to the definition above, this is an erroneous use of the term, as the negro's ancestors were not European.
Among the white people of Louisiana during the French and Spanish dominations, this use of the word was never tolerated. [The italics are my own.]
That's precise enough for 1914 and, indeed, if one looks up criollo in the current edition of Nuevo Pequeno Larousse Illustrado, it reads, "dices del blanco nacido en las Colonias; y de los españoles nacidos en America" ("said of whites born in the colonies, and of Spaniards born in America"). Even the contemporary Spanish definition confines itself to discussing race. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language seems to clear up some of the confusion by including the following:
1) a person born in the West Indies or Latin America, but of European, especially Spanish ancestry. 2) a person of French ancestry born in Louisiana.
However, as 5th and 6th meanings under the same listing, the dictionary compounds the confusion by adding,
5) a person of mixed Spanish and Negro or French and Negro ancestry. 6) (l.c) Archaic, a native-born Negro, as distinguished from a Negro brought from Africa.
The traditional uptown New Orleans definition, cited by Lyla Hay Owen and Owen Murphy in Creoles of New Orleans, states, "Most old-guard New Orleanians declare that the only true definition of a Creole is one that states, 'a Creole is a person born in the colonies of pure Spanish and pure French parentage, a Caucasian,'" thereby asserting that the term Creole of Color is a contradiction in terms.
This is further confused by the first meaning in the recent Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, that a Creole is, "a slave born in his master's house, Negro born in the colonies, white person born in the colonies." The etymology of this definition is given as the Spanish criar -- to be brought up -- which, in turn, comes from the Latin creare, (to create or to beget.) The rest of the definition of the word covers the usual territory, but adds that, when the creole referred to is white or mixed, the word will take a capital letter. Webster's adds a note that Creole food is prepared in a style characterized by the use of rice, okra, tomatoes, peppers, and high seasonings (as in creole sauce or lobster creole). It further adds that, in Alaska, the term refers to a person of mixed Russian and Eskimo blood!
Finally, there is the Richard Allsopp's definition in the 1996 Dictionary of Caribbean English, published by Oxford University Press. A member of the editorial board for The New Oxford English Dictionary and a native of Guyana, he's well positioned to help us straighten out the confusion surrounding the origin of the word:
[T]he term in all its senses, connotes New World, especially Caribbean, family stock, breed, and thence quality. Originally (17th C) it was evidently used with pride by European colonists (esp. the French) to refer to themselves as born and bred in the "New World" and spelt with a capital C. (ex. Napoleon's wife Josephine de Beauharnais was a Creole)
It was then extended to distinguish "local" from imported breeds, especially of horses and livestock, then slaves locally born as different from original African importees. With this sense the status of the word dropped (18-19C) among whites but rose among blacks and coloureds locally born, and freed men. In many post-emancipation Caribbean societies the term became (19-20C) generally a label either of a class embracing non-white persons of 'breeding' or an excluded class of ill-bred blacks.
This exhaustive definition further adds that the Spanish word considered to be its origin by Webster is, in fact, adapted from the Portuguese crioulo, and that Spanish etymologists Corominas and Pasual confirmed as recently as 1989 that the Portuguese origin is undisputed and goes back to the word criar, to create. More important for us, they suggest that the word may ultimately have been of African origin and cite Garcilaso el Inca who wrote in Peru in 1602:
[I]t's a name that the negroes invented...it means among the negroes "born in the Indies," they invented it to distinguish those...born in Guinea from those born in America, because they consider themselves more honorable and of better status than their children because they are from the fatherland while their children are born abroad, and parents are often offended to be called criollos. The Spanish, in like manner, have introduced this name into their language to mean those born in America.
Where do these conflicting definitions leave us? To seek yet another definition of Creole, one that will keep all of its historic and social contradictions and yet will allow for the diversity of Creole life throughout the hemisphere and, indeed, in places in which several cultures come together. This definition is closer to the usage of the word by specialists in linguistics, who state that, although a creolized language is the result of the melding of two other languages, it becomes the mother tongue of its speakers. This is the closest parallel to creolized foods, as they have indeed become greater than the multiple dishes that spawned them. This definition of Creole, one of blending, allows for the coming together of diverse elements to create a vital, vibrant new entity; this is the case with the mixing of Native-American, European, and, African culinary arts, creating what is commonly called Creole cooking not only in New Orleans, but in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe; and Pointe Coupée, Louisiana. This is what we taste in the pots in Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, Brazil; and in San Salvador in the Bahamas; in Brooklyn; Barbados; and Belize; Jamaica, New York and Jamaica, West Indies -- the food that resulted when Africa and Europe came together in the Americas.
Resulting from the confluence of the Columbian exchange, the Atlantic slave trade, and the European age of exploration, and extending over subsequent migrations of Indians, Chinese, Levantines, and more Europeans, true Creole food has long been the hallmark of the Southern Atlantic rim. Ironically, although centuries older than Pacific-fusion cuisine, this cooking, with its international range, has not yet been presented to the eating public in all of its delicious complexity. Creole cuisine is at the matrix of nueva cocina latina. It is found in the Mexican food of Veracruz, the stews of Panama, and the comidas criollas of Colombia's coast. The food of the Creole world is the culinary soul of New-World Cuisine.
In this fusion cooking, the basic foods and cooking techniques of western and central Africa come together with the foodstuffs of the Americas, the culinary traditions of various colonizing European countries, and the influences of later immigrants from Asia and the Levant. The results are a multiplicity of dishes that reveal their Creole kinship in the use of marinades, the use of nuts as thickeners, the thought of seasoning well, spicy condiments, and leafy greens. It traditionally places the emphasis on vegetable-filled stews, and an abundant use of fish and seafood -- what the world is now learning is an optimum diet. Most recipes are based on grains and vegetables, and flavorful fish and fowl are the main sources of animal protein. Other meats are used in festive foods or as flavoring. Tastes that are as bright as tropical sunshine are hallmarks of Creole cooking.
The people of this Creole world have a common history and many similarities in taste, but each has brought something different to Creole cuisine. Influences from France, Spain, Holland, Denmark, Portugal, and England mingled with those of the Yoruba in Brazil; the Ashanti, Fanti, and Denkiera in Jamaica; the Wolof in New Orleans; the Toucouleur, Igbo, Ewe, Fon, Kru, Hausa, Kalabari, Songye, and more. The native ingredients of the Americas crosspollinated, literally and figuratively, with those brought to the Americas from Europe, Asia, and Africa and went into the dutchies, iron pots, coui, and canaris of the New World.
The Americas have long been a culinary crucible. From the first inhabitants of Mexico, who began to domesticate grains, legumes, and tubers, to the native peoples who brought South American ingredients with them as they migrated northward to populate the Caribbean, to the early peoples of the American southeast, and beyond, food has been evolving in this hemisphere for millennia. Following the arrival of the Europeans, successive waves of settlers: explorers and conquistadors, pirates and peasants, missionaries and monarchs, the indentured and the enslaved -- all brought the flavors of Spain, Portugal, England, France, the Netherlands, Africa, Asia, the Middle and Far East to American shores, making the hemisphere one of the world's original melting pots.
The Creole world is a major part of this melting pot, which extends from pole to pole and from sea to sea. The coastal cities of the Creole world were the first place that worlds collided in this hemisphere. It was in Veracruz, Mexico, that Hernan Cortes stepped ashore and unleashed a wave of destruction that, even today, makes conquistador a synonym for destroyer or cultural terrorist. It was in a James River port town in Virginia, in 1619 that the first enslaved Africans came ashore in what would become the United States -- one year before the arrival of the Mayflower and the establishment of the Plymouth colonies. It was in cities like New Orleans; Charleston; Savannah; Philadelphia; New York; Kingston, Jamaica; Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe; Georgetown, Guyana; and Cartagena de los Indios, Colombia, that the Creole world would define itself and begin to develop a cuisine that is recognizable even when its origin is not.
This is a cuisine that is defined by the simplicity and the freshness of ingredients, and by the intricate kitchen techniques required by festive preparations that call on culinary know-how from three continents, and an overarching insistence on taste. The original fusion food, the food of the Creole world, is truly multicultural. Here, vanilla borrowed from the Mexican Aztecs may meet up with rice grown by African agricultural methods, and European techniques of pudding making to produce a rice pudding -- that is uniquely Creole.
Columbus's first taste of cassava, served to him by a cacique or Caribbean chieftain, was only the New World genesis of this mixing of cultures. Europe and Africa had come together several decades earlier as, first, Vasco da Gama, then others circumnavigated the African continent, leaving behind European outposts that would mark the beginning of the creolizing of the coastal food of that continent.
The African culinary matrix began with a diet of grains and tubers. These were used to produce porridgelike mashes similar to the attieké and ablo, the acaça and ugali, the fufu and couscous of today's continent. They were topped with soupy stews prepared from meats ranging from guinea hen to bush rat and supplemented with onions, garlic, gourds, and a wide variety of leafy greens to form a culinary paradigm that is one of the prevalent ones of Creole food: a soupy stew served over, or with, a starch. The late anthropologist William Bascom in a landmark article on Yoruba cooking, cites five traditional cooking techniques that were used among the West African Yoruba, but that can be assumed to have existed continentwide, generally:
boiling in water
steaming in leaves
toasting beside the fire
baking in hot ashes
frying in deep oil
These techniques are all abundantly evident in the creolized cooking of this hemisphere. In addition to these methods, I want to suggest several other culinary threads that seem to signal a transhemispheric web of culture that link the food of the creolized world:
composed rice dishes
abundant hot sauces
dumplings and fritters
seasoning and coloring foods
seasoning pastes like sofrito and Bajan seasoning
abundant use of okra
use of pig and pig parts
dried, smoked, and pickled ingredients as flavorings
confections using nuts (including peanuts, pecans, and coconuts), fruit pastes, and cane sugar
preponderance of professional women cooks and their importance
There are regional specificities, such as the use of codfish in the Caribbean and in South America, and techniques vary from place to place, but in general, the creolized food of the African Atlantic world has a flavor all its own.
Composed Rice Dishes
The Grain Coast of West Africa produces its own variation of rice -- a wet rice that is worked agriculturally, according to a task system that is replicated virtually unchanged in South Carolina's Low Country, where the grain was the wealth of planters. The region of West Africa, which includes countries from Southern Senegal to Sierra Leone and Liberia, is noted for its rice cooking. The national dish of Senegal, thiébou dienn, a red rice and fish dish, is similar to the red rice that graces many of Charleston's and Savannah's tables. Thiébou niébé is a close Old World cousin of Hoppin' John, a traditional New Year's Day dish for much of the Low Country and the American South. It's also similar to the composed rice dishes served for luck throughout the Caribbean.
Creolized New World variants of these African dishes also include all of the rice and legumes dishes of the Caribbean basin, like Barbados's peas and rice and Jamaica's rice and peas, a dish so popular in Jamaica that it is known as its coat of arms. Puerto Rico's arroz con gandules and Cuba's moros y cristianos, as well as congris, made with red beans and served in both Cuba and New Orleans are other examples of creolized food. There's the riz aux gombos and the matété crabes of Guadeloupe, as well as myriad dishes that reflect a preference for rice over other starches. In New Orleans, this is seen not only in the red beans and rice that is the traditional Monday dish (which, by the way, is much loved in Haiti, where it is known as riz national), but also in the scoop of rice in the gumbo plate, and the many different varieties of jambalaya -- one of the classic dishes of New Orleans cuisine.
Abundant Hot Sauces
The Creole cooking of the African Atlantic world is also known for salsas, mojos, marinades, sauces, molhos, rubs, seasonings, and pepper sauces -- some of the most flavorful and the most piquant condiments in the world. They are evidenced in Trinidad's kuchela -- a spicy shaved mango dish, perfect with everything from shrimp to grilled chicken; in the multiple sauces of Brazilian cooking; in the chutneys of the English-speaking regions; and in the recaitos and adobos of the Hispanic world. We like it hot, and it is not surprising that this area of the world, in which the chile originated, has its own particular way with hot stuff. Jamaica's Scotch bonnet is one of the world's most potent chiles and turns up in everything from the jerk of the Maroons to the Pickapeppa and planter's sauces of the big houses. Trinidad's turmeric-hued hot sauce is legendary among chile heads, and the sheer abundance of chiles available in a Mexican market would give pause to even the most savvy chile aficionados. Africa's pre-Columbian taste for the spicy adapted to the arrival of chiles from the Americas with alacrity on both sides of the Atlantic. Native peoples and enslaved Africans alike somewhat creolized the tastebuds of the transplanted Europeans, who found that using hot sauces aided their digestion, and also helped them to perspire and, thus, cool off in their new tropical environment.
Dumplings and Fritters
The fritter factor is nowhere more evident than in the cooking of the Creole world. New Orleans' beignet owes its name and its taste to the French, but the Crescent City's other famous fritter, the cala, that used to be hawked through the streets by women of color, crying "bels calas, bels calas tout chauds," comes straight from Africa. It probably takes its name from a similar fritter sold in like manner by the women of Bong country, Liberia, an African rice-growing region.
Savory fritters abound as well. The bean fritter that is prepared by Yoruba women in Nigeria and sold throughout the streets as accra or akara has become so popular up and down the African coast that one apocryphal story suggests that the capital of Ghana is named for the fritter. It, too, has found a place in the New World. Akara turns up as Bahia's acarajé, the primary street food of that city, gives its name, albeit spelled acrats to the codfish fritter of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In Curaçao, in the cookbook of the sisterhood of the Sephardic temple of Mikve Israel, the hemisphere's oldest continuous Jewish congregation, it appears surprisingly under the name Kala, a rice fritter from Liberia. Recipes for fritters both sweet and savory make abundant use of ingredients, ranging from pineapple bits to pumpkin to leftover pieces of meat.
Dumplings also play a major role in the food of the Creole world, placing the starch in the soupy stew instead of under it. They are yet another example of how stretching a meal to serve many mouths became a regional taste. Philadelphia's pepperpot was traditionally served with foufou dumplings made from the plantains, which were available in that city as early as the eighteenth century. Jamaica's red-pea soup would be incomplete without a few of the flour dumplings known as spinners. In Barbados, wise cooks always put a tiny pinch of sugar in their dumplings; in Guadeloupe and Martinique dombrés are so loved that they are served with everything from crabs to red beans.
Seasoning and Coloring Foods
Seasoning pastes abound in the Creole world, from the sofritos of the Hispanic world, green or the more traditional red, to the light cilantro paste used to season green rice in Curaçao. In Barbados, mixtures of verdant herbs and spices called Bajan seasoning are tucked into scores in fish or fowl prior to cooking. Elsewhere, lightly sautéed pastes of herbs and seasonings become the flavor base for soups and stews, and act as one of the building blocks of the intensity that defines Creole flavor.
Today's superstar chefs create flavors in food as artists prepare a canvas, layering flavors on top of one another. Creole cooks have done this for centuries. The unspoken, and virtually always unwritten, part of any Creole recipe from the Caribbean is to begin with a lime wash, in which the meat, fish, or fowl to be cooked is bathed in a mix of fresh lime juice, salt, and water. Although this is undoubtedly a holdover from the days when tainted meat or fish had to be doubly cleaned, the result is an underlying zest that is the foundation of many Creole dishes. In New Orleans, most cooking directions begin, "first, make a roux," as that flour and oil mixture is the flavor base into which the onions, celery, bell pepper, and the rest go. In Brazil, garlic is browned in oil at the start of many a recipe, giving the dish a unique flavor base: then and only then can the actual cooking begin.
Color is important, too. There is a tendency to tint food like rice with an orange hue, reminiscent of the foods colored by palm oil, which is used heavily in West Africa. Turmeric and saffron impart a yellowish hue, but palm oil, known in Brazil as dende, gives a brilliant orange, also produced by achiote or annatto in recipes from the Hispanic Caribbean and from parts of Brazil that don't use palm oil. Deep, rich, brown stews are another hallmark of Creole cooking in the Caribbean and New Orleans, and many old-style cooks caramelize cane sugar in oil to give a color and flavor base to their dishes. Others use a commercial product known as browning to achieve the same effect.
Abundant Use of Okra
When the African-American songwriter Olu Dara sings "Okra," he's singing of more than just a vegetable that has become emblematic of the food of the American South. He is singing of a food that is virtually totemic for all Africans in the diaspora; for everywhere that okra points its green tip, Africa has been. From the caruru of Brazil, to the fried okra of Mississippi to the sopa da guingambo of Puerto Rico, the scattering of Africans in this hemisphere has flung the seeds of this mucilaginous vegetable north, south, east, and west.
Some have written that the slaves brought okra over on the Middle Passage. I suspect, though, that anyone who has thought of the horrors of that journey would realize that this is likely to have been nigh unto impossible. It is far more likely that okra, like breadfruit and other items, was brought to this hemisphere to provide inexpensive fodder for the enslaved Africans who had to be nourished to work.
A taste for the "slimy" has long been an accepted and, indeed, a cherished mouth feel on the African continent, where it is given by indigenous ingredients such as okra and meloukhia. In the New World, this taste translates into many dishes. In Curaçao, the slipperiness comes from cactus tuna in dishes like ka dushi. But, in the rest of the Atlantic Rim we slide on okra, the one vegetable absolutely emblematic of the African presence in the New World.
Use of Pig and Pig Parts
Pig is so much a part of the diet of the Creole world that it seems difficult to believe that the little four-footed porkers didn't exist in this hemisphere until the arrival of the Spaniards. The omnivorous pig has walked this earth for centuries and is a relative of the wild boar. Easy to raise because they're docile and will eat almost anything, they have become the totemic meat for many in the Creole world. Brought by the Spaniards to the Caribbean in 1493, pigs rapidly acclimatized and became readily available. In 1514, Diego Velasquez de Cuellar reported to the Spanish king that the two dozen pigs that he had brought to Cuba in 1498 had increased to thirty thousand. In the 1600s, pirates, freebooters, and other brethren of the coast captured wild pigs and made an alternate business of selling their skins and meat. They preserved the meat by smoking it over a wood chip fire in boucan, or smokehouses and, therefore, were given the French name boucaniers, or in English, buccaneers. By the time Père Labat, a Dominican friar, arrived in the Caribbean region in the late seventeenth century, a boucan de cochon had become an acceptable way to party in the Caribbean. Settlers imitated the cooking methods of the buccaneers, albeit with domestic swine instead of wild hogs. Labat indulged in the feast and gave readers one of the first descriptions of New World barbecue.
During the period of enslavement, Africans benefited from the fact that almost every part of the pig is edible, and that its skin can be tanned into leather. It's said, laughingly, that Blacks in the southern United States eat everything on the swine from the "rooter to the tooter." Throughout the entire hemisphere ears, feet, snouts, maws, and chitterlings all go into the pots to emerge as andouille, souse, head cheese, boudin, chicharron, and more. And where would we be without the lard that is used in baking in much of the American South and in the cooking of Mexico and the Hispanic world? Indeed, from the boucheries of southern Louisiana, to the lechon of the Hispanic world, the souse of the English-speaking Caribbean, to the sausages that go into Brazil's feijoada, pork is one of the hemisphere's prime meats.
Dried, Smoked, and Pickled Ingredients as Flavorings
It is undeniable that there is a cultural curve that extends from Africa to the New World, then upward from coastal South America into the Caribbean and beyond. This curve is fascinating, as Africa's hold on culture mutates as the curve moves northward. Tribal influences change and vary, the intensity of Africanisms heightens or decreases all along the arc, but the African culture is always present. This also applies to the use of seasoning ingredients.
On the African continent, there is a tradition of using dried or smoked ingredients to season soupy stews. Senegal's guedge and yète and the superfunky dried, smoked shrimp of the République du Benin are examples. In the New World, dried ingredients are used as well, and dried, smoked shrimp are still a major seasoning ingredient in the Afro-Brazilian cooking of the state of Bahia. As the arc moves northward, the dried ingredients give way to the pickled pork and smoked and salted fish that are used to season the pots of the Caribbean. Salt cod, a legacy of the slave trade, pickled and smoked herring from the seafarers, and the pickled pork that was also aboard ship take over seasoning duty from smoked shrimp, and the result is a change in flavor. Further north, in the southern United States, smoked ingredients return with seasoning pieces of fatback or even leftover ham or ham hocks, when available. Codfish turns up rarely, if ever, unless the cook comes from the Cape Verde Islands or is a transplanted Caribbean native. The constant throughout is the cardinal importance of the flavoring piece of meat, and the need for getting as much flavor as possible from as little animal protein as possible.
Confections using Nuts, Coconuts, Fruit Pastes, and Cane Sugar
Less studied than other influences on Creole cuisine, but no less delectable, is the world of Creole confections. From the praline of New Orleans to the sugar cakes and rum-scented fudge of Barbados, to the cocadas and coconut sweets of Colombia and Brazil, the love of sugar in the Creole world is evident everywhere. It is highly ironic, given that no area of the world was more transformed by sugarcane! The monoculture of one region -- Brazil -- and, later, the Caribbean and parts of the American South, resulted in the depopulation of another: Africa. The culinary conjunction of the two brought about an abundance of desserts and candies that will please and delight even the most discriminating sweet tooth. New Orleans's praline may take its name from the French Duc du Praslin, but its taste is pure Creole. It turns up in variants: In Brazil, it is called pé de moleque; in Curaçao, where it is made with peanuts and called a pinda, and even in Texas border towns where it goes by the Franco-Aztec-Spanish name, prasle de cacahuatl. Fudges abound, as do preserved and glaceéd tropical fruits.
In the northern regions cakes and pies make their mark, and, throughout the Creole world, bread puddings and rice puddings deftly transform leftovers into culinary tours de force. The love of sugar is an acceptable vice in the Creole world, and one that is frequently indulged.
Preponderance of Professional Women Cooks and Their Importance
L'art culinaire créole is very much a woman's art. In many parts of the Creole world, the culinary dictum, "mistress of the stewpot, master of the flame," holds vibrantly true. Men may man the fire pits, the jerk, the boucan, and the barbecue but, women, the true keepers of the flame of this culinary tradition, are in charge of such dishes as the blaffs and callaloos of the Caribbean, the moquecas of Bahia and myriad other dishes of the Creole world. Another unifying element in Creole cooking is the predominance of professional women cooks. While Europe has made haute culinary matters the realm of men, the Creole world still celebrates the deft hand and sure judgment of women chefs. From Brazil's smiling baianas de tabuleiro through all of the madras-clad chefs of the Caribbean to -- yes -- Aunt Jemima, a Creole woman at the stove is the hallmark of authenticity and of good food.
For centuries, women in all parts of the Creole world have found freedom and purpose in the kitchen. The enslaved Africans and their descendants were able to triumph over the rigors of a system that gave them no control by controlling the diets of their masters. Incidentally, in many cases, the women cooks saved the lives of those who enslaved them by providing them with a diet that was based on their knowledge of tropical foodstuffs and of proper nutrition for the climate in which they were enslaved.
In the conditions of urban slavery, some of the women were sent into the streets to sell dainties -- sweets or savories that they'd made on their mistress's account. In some cases, they were allowed to keep a small portion of the monies raised and, indeed, some women in New Orleans, Bahia, and other places, were able to purchase their freedom and that of their loved ones through this work. Free women sold items, and often huckstering was their financial mainstay. Food for freedom was more than a thought; for women cooks in the Creole world it was a way of life.
Anyone who has ever attended Guadeloupe's celebrated Fête des Cuisinières has seen some of the survivors of an earlier generation of Creole chefs as they strut their stuff in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre. Women of immense style, they parade the streets bedecked in a king's ransom of gold jewelry, their ample shapes swathed in the flamboyant colors of their chosen fabric of the year. Their baskets, brimming with food, are draped with miniature kitchen implements and their aprons embroidered with the grill of Saint Lawrence, whom they have selected as their patron for his martyrdom on the grill. These women radiate contagious abandon and infectious joy, their deep-throated laughter echoing around the hall in which the luncheon banquet is traditionally held. Champagne flows, the sensuous coupling of the accordion and clarinet begins the biguine, and they sway contentedly, inviting all to join them in the dance. Seductive and coquettish, adept in the kitchen and perhaps in other rooms of the house as well, this image of the Creole cook has been mythologized and fantasized about by writers and artists for generations. She's the one in the samba de roda ring clapping and singing in Brazil; the one tempting the indecisive buyer in the praline shop in New Orleans; the woman behind the coal pot at Oistin's, inveigling the tourist to just try one more fish cake or another piece of fried chicken. She's been sung about in the lyrics of Dorival Caymmi in Brazil and pictured as Jorge Amado's Gabriela, praised in the works of Lafcadio Hearn, and painted by artists known and unknown. This jovial, gracious cook is only one side of the picture -- the public view -- whereby talented resourceful cook meets canny salesperson who knows she must hawk her wares to put food on the table for the folks back home.
The other side of the coin is less festive, but no less important to the equation. Here there is little music and even less jewelry; an inventive housewife with few resources and fewer pennies who must feed a large family and comes up with a stew or a dish that is so delicious that the family clamors for it even when money isn't tight. Creole food, the preeminent taste of the Atlantic Rim of the New World, is a triumphant food that comes from sorrow's kitchens. It was conceived in the kitchens of the hemisphere's big houses, casas grandes, fazendas, and plantations, and nurtured over coal pots and three-rock stoves in the slave cabins and in the shanties of the black shack alleys. Its African matrix was seasoned with the mixing and mingling of races and nations -- Spanish, Dutch, French, Indian, Portuguese, Chinese, and more -- that has produced words like mulatto, mestiço, quadroon, marabout, mustafino octoroon, among others. This Creole food is undeniably the true food of the Western Hemisphere, a food created from an international larder of ingredients and a world of techniques that make something rewarding from difficult circumstances.
Copyright © 2003 by Jessica B. Harris
Excerpted from Beyond Gumbo by Jessica B. Harris Copyright © 2003 by Jessica B. Harris. Excerpted by permission.
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