Susan Tucker 2014-02-11 11:21:34
In New Orleans, there are reasons both gustatory and historic to set out to find a good place to eat during the CoSA and SAA Joint Annual Meeting, August 11–17, 2013. Of course, you can swiftly find the restaurant or bar most suited to your needs via any number of virtual applications of our technology age. Or you can simply wander to any table you can find in New Orleans, one of the great public stages of eating in the world. In your walks around town, consider that the city’s culinary ways have been heralded as a consistently bright star of New World epicurean enchantment, or, more modestly, a good place to eat for more than two centuries. Global Influences The multicultural blending that formed New Orleans’s past is worth consideration. While the early colonials found the foods they craved were overwhelmingly unsuited to the city’s climate, their homesickness and even their near starvation influenced the types of meals you find today. To remedy hardships, for example, founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville solicited German-speaking farmers to come to a rural area, aptly named Côte d’Allemagne. These Rhinelanders, Alsatians, and Swiss supplied both the literal food stuff and some varying culinary traditions to the new city. New Orleans’s affinity for sausages, used in many dishes, originates from these German farmers. The city’s first African and European women also should be given credit for the early foods of the city. Native Americans taught these cooks about such key ingredients as filé, a spicy herb. A third factor influencing the food in New Orleans was the mixing of the French love of rich sauces, the Spanish affinity for spices, and the African skills in cooking and baking in a hot climate. Other New Orleans specialties bear the mark of this colonial economy, a period of making-do with the ingredients at hand. For example, in the absence of a soil dry enough to grow an abundance of potatoes, rice growing began. Chateaugué, one of Bienville’s thirteen siblings, is said to have brought two casks of rice from Saint- Domingue (now Haiti) for sowing along the Gulf Coast in 1716. Many early slaves came from Senegambia, the major rice-producing region, and they, even more so, influenced cultivation of this essential starch. These individuals and other early New Orleanians created drinks and recipes that are still part of the city’s table today. For example, New Orleanians were compelled by various slow-to-arrive shipments to drink their rich dark coffee halved by chicory. From leftover bread, they made pain perdu (similar to French toast) or bread pudding; from leftover rice, they created a breakfast fritter called calas. Red beans and rice became a Monday dish, especially appropriate because ham for seasoning was leftover from Sunday dinner and the pot of beans could be left to cook slowly while washday chores were completed. Pralines, French-derived candies made from local pecans and brown sugar, are another specialty because no almonds could be found in Louisiana. Turtle soup and bouillabaisse took advantage of other local ingredients. Finally, Creole cream cheese is a substitute for fromage blanc, served as a breakfast and dessert basic sprinkled with sugar, drizzled with syrup, stirred together with fruit, or spread on bread. Creole, Cajun, and Other Traditions New Orleanians call all things (and people) born in the city in the colonial era Creole. By the 1880s, this word changed its form to include a particular type of cooking. Even today, a Creole cook stocks his or her pantry with the same staples found in earlier eras: rice, onions, celery, tomatoes, bell peppers (green peppers), green onions, thyme, and bay leaves. In addition, as countless Creole cooks have argued, one must know how to make a brown roux with generous amounts of butter and flour in which to cook the above ingredients. Gumbo, the African word for okra, became one of the best-known dishes of the Creole table. It’s a soup of seafood and/or meat made with the African introduced okra and brown roux. Throughout the nineteenth century, the so called Foreign French (a nineteenth-century phrase used to distinguish them from the Creoles), Alsatians, many more Germans, Sicilians, and Dalmatians (Croatians) added other traditions.The Foreign French, for example, added many recipes featuring preserved meats. One favorite became daube glacée, leftover beef or other sliced or torn meats cooked with herbs, covered with a delicate brown gelatin extracted from knuckles and bones, and chilled. New Orleans bread, a lighter baguette that is more Alsatian and German than Parisian, dates from the mid-nineteenth century era. The Dalmatians dominated oyster harvesting and do so to this day. Drago’s Restaurant in the conference hotel is part of the continuation of this Croatian dominance. (Be sure to order their charbroiled oysters.) Italians added their favorites of red gravy, artichokes, hams, pasta dishes, and olives. Get yourself a muffeletta and remember the Sicilians. Building on the tradition of the German Coast farmers, the Acadians (later Cajuns) created recipes that eventually became part of New Orleans cuisine. Their rural cuisine relies on game and seafood found in forests, swamps, and bayous. Chef Paul Prudhomme,well known for such dishes as blackened fish and corn and shrimp maque choux, is credited with making Cajun food popular in the city and ultimately the world, and blending the Cajun and Creole traditions of the table. Before his time, for example, only Cajun families served crawfish warm at the table (as opposed to cold, as it was served in the city). As more sophisticated methods of net and trap fishing developed, crawfish began to appear on restaurant tables, but not until the mid-twentieth century did it become such a city or even state treasure. Two well-known dishes are crawfish étouffée and crawfish bisque. Today, Chef Donald Link at Cochon carries on the preservation and experimentation of Cajun food mixed with Creole traditions. Home Cooking and Restaurants Home cooking is revered in New Orleans. Many neighborhood restaurants and even some grand and nationally known restaurants serve foods similar to what one would find in a New Orleans residence. Until the late-twentieth century, one of the hallmarks of the city’s high and low cuisine was that the two highly resembled each other. Both home cooking and expensive restaurant food rely heavily on local ingredients. The seafood of the fancy table (oysters Rockefeller, shrimp remoulade, trout amandine, shrimp Creole, mirliton stuffed with crab) is not so different than what is served at home. Other favorites that are more appreciated either by day of the week or season are red beans and rice, Creole tomatoes, okra and tomatoes, and gumbo z’herbes. Poor-boy sandwiches (the name that the city’s purists insist on) are a neighborhood restaurant favorite, so popular that one of the newspaper columns most followed in 2011–2012 was one that featured the search for the best roast beef po’boy. (See here the acceptable contraction to the purist rule, because how can one be a purist in such a city dependent always on a blending of traditions?) The city’s restaurants have histories evocative of immigration, of change and continuity, and, for archivists, even of records. A visit to Tujague (opened in 1856 by one of the aforementioned Foreign French) will allow you to view records and have a meal not unlike one served in the early twentieth century: a New Orleans table d’hôte special built around savory shrimp remoulade and beef brisket with another piquant sauce and vegetables. Similarly, French families built Antoine’s (established in 1840 as a boarding house by Antoine Alciatore who hailed from Marseilles), Galatoire’s (founded in 1905 by Jean Galatoire, from the northern Pyrenees), and Arnaud’s (opened in 1918 by wine salesman Arnaud Cazenave who was born in southwest France). These and other city restaurateurs (almost all from the southwest of France) partook in a sort of imperialism of the French table occuring in much larger cities across the world. On the other hand, Brennan’s Restaurant (established in 1946) was started by an Irishman on a dare by descendants of the New Orleans French. New Orleans food at Brennan’s, as elsewhere, mixed typical French with Creole recipes. Brennan’s closed this summer, making headlines for New Orleanians. These restaurants’ signature dishes include oysters Rockefeller, Pompano en Papillote, turtle soup, soufleed potatoes, Eggs Sardou, bread puddings made in various ways, and Bananas Foster. Newer restuarants that have achieved international fame include Susan Spicer’s Bayona and John Besh’s many restaurants that mixed various traditions. August and Luke’s are two restaurants that are favorites of New Orleans natives. It is said over and over again that one cannot eat badly in New Orleans. We believe you will find this to be true.
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