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Like most of the foods ladled into bowls in its neighborhoods, rich and poor, New Orleans has been about assimilation from the start. There's something about the austerity, the dizzying survival demands, of building a colony on a less-than-desirable piece of New World real estate that enforces pragmatic cooperation, if not always affectionate embrace. As with all those foods in all those bowls, many old cultures have gone into the New Orleans pot. One new culture has come out.
To understand New Orleans "bowl cuisine," it's necessary to grapple with the birthrights of many nations, many histories, and many languages. Ours is an immigrant culture, after all. Yet even issuing the standard pronouncement that New Orleans is "Creole"-meaning French, Spanish, and African-ignores the fact that our most meaningful links are not to the gentle courts of Europe but to the tangled jungles of West Africa and the Middle Passage melting pots of the Caribbean. Despite our quasi-European posturing, you'll find something of Europe in New Orleans but virtually nothing of New Orleans in Europe. Our culture sees its reflection not in the mirrors of Versailles but in the clear,blue waters plied by traders, conquerors, embezzlers, refugees, indentured servants, and slaves.
Still, even before French was spoken here, a colonization beginning in 1718, these bayous, forests, and fields were inhabited. Native Americans lived, worked, and cooked here, the same "noble savages" who so fascinated Europeans of the eighteenth century, not to mention the single American who had the most to do with making New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase part of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Moments of understanding, let alone genuine respect, were few when it comes to these Native Americans, whose tribal affiliations included Choctaw, Attakapas, and Houma. Yet in a strange, New Orleans spin on that fabled first Thanksgiving, the "Indians" were always among us. In 1722, in what historians have nicknamed the Petticoat Rebellion, the women of this struggling French colony marched on Governor Bienville's mansion to protest their altogether boring diet. The governor jumped from both frying pan and fire by hooking the ladies up with his own cook, one Madame Langlois, who shared the secrets she'd learned about hominy and the savory ground sassafras leaves called filé. She'd learned these secrets not from French chefs-there weren't any chefs in France until a bit later anyway-but from men and women of the tribes on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Years later, the French would encounter yet another food tradition in south Louisiana's countryside, an Attakapas smothered corn dish. They tried their best to spell the Native American name, coming up with the pidgin-French words maque choux.
The French of New Orleans form the oldest of the city's many immigrations, beginning with the claiming of this bend in the Mississippi for King Louis in 1699 and its clearing for settlement by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville in the spring of 1718. Still, the French domination was by no means swift, with colonists arriving in several distinct (and now intriguing) waves. Acadians-we know them as Cajuns-were among the first French speakers to disembark, driven from their homes in Nova Scotia between 1756 and 1765 after their defeat by the English in the French and Indian War. The Cajuns, however, generally rejected life in the "big city" and headed down the Mississippi and its many tributaries toward the Gulf of Mexico-or out onto the broad grasslands of southwest Louisiana, where they would later master the science of growing rice. Cajuns didn't find much to like about New Orleans until the early twentieth century, when the discovery of oil forced them into big business with both New Orleans and their neighbors across the Sabine River in Texas.
Those French who did prefer city life came as a result of several key historical events in France and the French-speaking parts of the New World. The French Revolution of 1789 sent many members of the titled class who escaped the guillotine to this French outpost, a place from which few ever managed to escape. Yet an even more important milestone was the arrival of French-speaking people, both black and white, from the bloodbath of slave rebellions throughout the 1790s on Saint-Domingue, known today as Haiti. These islanders nearly doubled the population of New Orleans, so the fact that their "French" culture was colored with the Catholic-tinged nature worship known as voodoo and infectious rhythms and harmonies from Africa had a dramatic impact on a culture suddenly far removed from Paris. One final flourish of Frenchness happened after New Orleans had (reluctantly) joined the United States. Some of Napoleon Bonaparte's officers and foot soldiers arrived here after the emperor abdicated the French throne for exile on the remote island of Elba. Around the Napoleon House, a legendary saloon in the French Quarter, these soldiers awaited their general's return to power as long as he was alive.
The Spanish reign in New Orleans proved far less extended than the French-and far less welcome as well. When Louis XV unexpectedly handed the neglected colony to his cousin, Charles III of Spain, on November 3, 1762, there was rebellion, resistance, rioting in the streets-just the sort of thing some visitors enjoy when they come to New Orleans now. The violence got so serious that an Irishman serving Spain (known to history as Don Alejandro O'Reilly) showed up with 1 frigate, 28 transport ships, and 4,900 armed men. Suddenly, the local citizenry recognized the good sense of the ownership change.
It is said, looking back, that the Spanish government taught even French New Orleans new lessons in corruption. All the same, Louisiana history has shown time and again that corruption and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive. Thanks to able governors whose names now inscribe New Orleans streets-most notably Galvez but also Carondolet, Miro, Gayoso, and Salcedo-the Spanish rebuilt what is still called the French Quarter after a disastrous fire, leading the place to have far more in common with Old San Juan than with any city in France. They also rebuilt many aspects of New Orleans cuisine, bringing the rice of paella from Moorish Andalusian kitchens, a dish that evolved into jambalaya. They brought their black beans served over white rice (colorfully called moros y cristianos), which evolved into red beans and rice. And they even brought their notion that among the things used to "stretch" dark roasted coffee, toasted and ground chicory root tasted best. If the French delivered the Old World to the doorstep of New Orleans cooking, Spain propelled the Hispanic New World deep into its heart.
The stories of French and Spanish culture in New Orleans have been told and retold throughout the early American history of New Orleans, a function of locals assuring each other how unique they are. But the stories of African culture in New Orleans went underrecognized for some two centuries. Bitterness born of larger racial issues helped agitate what, in some ways, was the country's most tolerant racial climate. As early as 1720, there were free African Americans living in New Orleans; these "Creoles of color" or gens de couleur libre numbered nearly 11,000 by the start of the Civil War. Although there were tensions, there was also the recognition that the French language and the Catholic faith helped bind people who otherwise would have been isolated. Many of those who called themselves Creoles competed well in trades like carpentry, cabinetry, and especially masonry, while others grew wealthy and philanthropic. Thomy Lafon, for instance, built hospitals and orphanages with his money, while Henriette de Lille walked away from hers to found an order of nuns ministering to slaves.
Later, after the social upheavals of war and Reconstruction, it was a different type of African American in a different setting who crossed the boundaries between black and white. It was musicians playing a new form of music they called jazz who became the toast of first the short-lived Storyville red-light district and later of New York, Chicago, London, and Paris. Sidney Bechet left New Orleans for Paris and spent more time with Josephine Baker than with most of his kin back home. Louis Armstrong, of the gravel voice and the ingratiating grin, became the best-known ambassador New Orleans ever had. His favorite food, he told anyone who asked, was identified in the way he signed his letters: Red Beans and Ricely Yours.
For a long time, what recognition did reach the African-American cooks of New Orleans reflected their degrees of servitude. The recipes, went the story, were French and Spanish, but all the cooks were African American. Thus, in time, it was only natural that they tweaked this dish or stroked that one. What took much longer to catch on was the truth of a profound African influence, passing from the tribal dishes of that faraway shore through island after island in the Caribbean and finally moving onto the North American continent. This influence has everything to do with New Orleans by the Bowl, since innumerable slow-cooked gumbos, stews, and soups that strike onlookers as "soul food" (from gumbo itself to greens stewed with salt pork to smothered black-eyed peas) have linguistic links and even culinary counterparts not in Paris or Madrid but in the villages of West Africa.
As you can see, no single culture made New Orleans food what it is, but a strange, poorly defined, and probably unrepeatable sequence of accidental interactions. These interactions did not stop with French, Spanish, and African influences, however-far from it. The great age of immigration found many landing here and contributing to the melting pot of New Orleans. This century-long assault on any notions of cultural purity was led by Germans, Irish, and Italians and was expanded almost daily by immigrants from Greece, the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, and virtually anywhere that followers of Judaism tried to find or make a home.
Germans were, surprisingly, among the earliest settlers, heeding the invitations of those seeking in vain to lure Frenchmen to Louisiana. As many French arrivals were prisoners, smugglers, and army deserters, the population didn't seem to be heading in a promising direction. With a history of religious and political persecution, though, many Germans thought the promises made in Europe by scoundrels like John Law (who floated the Mississippi Bubble, the first great American real estate scare) sounded like an improvement. Many Germans found their way to the river parishes above New Orleans, an area that became known as the German Coast. This initial colonization is somewhat forgotten, thanks to their habit of blending with the French population. The surname Zweig, for instance, meant twig or branch, filling the records of future generations with citizens renamed LaBranche.
A later wave of Germans remained truer to their homeland, establishing in New Orleans a series of huge, successful beer gardens and restaurants (including the much-missed Kolb's on St. Charles Avenue) and upwards of a dozen first-rate breweries to keep these thirsty places supplied. Still other Germans operated small groceries, with one family building a local chain of stores. Years after these supermarkets shut down, "Schwegmann's" is to groceries in New Orleans what Xerox is to photocopies.
The first Irish, arriving in the early 1700s, were, rather predictably, escapees from a whole series of failed rebellions against British rule. Surely, these people thought, French or Spanish domination would have to be better. Irish immigrants arrived in New Orleans in waves throughout the early nineteenth century, some impoverished, some quite well-to-do. But the floodgates opened in 1845, with the potato famine that reduced Ireland's population by about two million. Even today, a section of New Orleans known as the Irish Channel recalls an unsuccessful effort to keep poor Irish and German settlers from mingling with old-money Creoles of the French Quarter or nouveau riche Americans living on the uptown side of broad Canal Street. The Irish of New Orleans cooked meals, to be sure-the same corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew, and brown bread found in other Irish-heavy cities like Boston. But the legendary Owen Brennan called his restaurant "French" for a reason. As his sister, matriarch Ella Brennan of Commander's Palace, later put it, "There's no such thing as Irish cuisine."
Italians were part of local history as early as 1682, when Henri La Tonti served as LaSalle's lieutenant during his exploration of the Mississippi, but most of the first real settlers disappeared in much the same way that their German counterparts did. Geronimo Chiapella became Gerone La Chapelle, and Filipo Ravenna became Philippe Ravenne. Yet beginning in the mid-1800s, the same immigration from poor, persecuted Sicily and southern Italy that created Little Italys in northern cities like New York gave the New Orleans concept of "Creole" yet another chance to assimilate and expand. Some of the first Italians to arrive became produce farmers on the West Bank of the Mississippi, slowly taking on the task of delivering their goods for sale in New Orleans and eventually expanding the French Market to one of the nation's most colorful produce markets. Restaurants too found their way into the Italian vision, with red sauces made slowly with fresh tomatoes becoming so common they'd later be treated as another invention of the Creoles.
One invention no one could beg, borrow, or steal from the Italians was the muffaletta sandwich, a mountain of cold meats and cheeses laced with savory olive salad on a thick, crusty, round Sicilian loaf. It was created as nourishment for Italian laborers in the market; now visitors from all over the world have to try a muffaletta before they leave New Orleans.
Statistically speaking, these were the major ethnic groups that made the city's culinary mix look and taste like nothing the world had ever seen before. But others have come to the city much as these larger groups did so long ago. Oystermen of the Dalmatian coast came here in the late 1800s, and to this day most of the people supplying our beloved bivalves have names ending in "-ich." Greek sailors stepping off boats at the Mississippi River docks in the middle of that same century stayed, married, founded a church-and became the first official Greek community in the Americas. Jews escaping from Europe came here too, mostly from the Mediterranean branch known as Sephardic. They brought their culture and their tradition of philanthropy, as evidenced by the namesake hospital and other legacies of Judah Touro.
Excerpted from New Orleans BY THE BOWL by John DeMers with Andrew Jaeger Copyright © 2003 by John DeMers
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.