Building an 18th Century Creole Pantry, Part One

Compiling a list of foodstuffs that were available to the kitchens in Creole New Orleans and the Île d’Orleans in the first half of the 18th Century is relatively easy. The original sources that are available to us today, i.e. journals, colonial documents, letters, travel books, etc. abound with mentions and/or discusssions of food. In this pre-industrial, agricultural society food was also a staple of regional and international trade. Thus, many of today’s “grocery items” occur in the shipping and commerce records of the time as well.

More difficult to determine and to document are the edibles that were made available throughout the Caribben/Atlantic world via the activity of smuggling. It was a norm in colonial mercantile economics that trade could only occur between the colony and the metropole (or mother country). So any trade that crossed “national” boundaries, French to Spanish to British, was simply illegal. Therefore, such trade was de facto smuggling. Not that this stopped anybody from doing it anywhere and everywhere along the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico littoral. And New Orleans was the geographical center of the northern half of this trade.

Creating a cookbook, on the other hand, to reflect the French colonial period in Louisiana’s history offers special challenges. There are virtually no extant recipes from this place in time and space. Fortunately there are a few existing French and English cookbooks from the mid-18th century still around. We must be careful using them, however, as they are continental not colonial in origin. There also exists an odd collection of recipes or descriptions of cooking and dishes from the colonial records. These are tantilizingly incomplete by their very nature, and consequently leave a good bit to the modern imagination. One particularly exasperating habit of the colonial “food writers” are their references to the kitchen gardens (les potagérs) of the day. Some list a few plants like peas, cabbages, onions, etc. but then go on use such phrases such as “other garden vegetables” which leave the researcher in a quandry as to what exactly these “others” were. And finally, the most telling of all; and what may turn out to be the controversy of the early French Creole cuisine is the tomato. Myriad references place the tomato (grown and consumed in central and south America for centuries prior to The Petticoat Rebellion Cookbook’s time period) in the gardens of Mexico and Caribbean in the 1700’s. Spain and Italy on the continent had been growing and consuming the pomme d’amour since the 1500’s; evidence also exists of the tomato being introduced to New Orleans Creole cuisine by the 1760’s. But the question remains, and such a question is central to the Petticoat Rebellion Cookbook, “Did Bienville ever eat a New Orleans’ Tomato?”

Until research yields a resolution to the great Tomato question, our Creole Pantry must be stocked without the succulent base of our ancestors’ red gravy. But this is no tragedy. The foodstuffs that are known to exist in Fench New Orleans are more than enough to keep us busy for some years to come. Let us begin with the culinary gifts received from the Natives who were here long before the Europeans stumbled into their forests and waterways.

Every schoolboy & girl knows the story of Squanto showing those Pilgrims in Massachuetts how to grow corn. European cultivation of maize, the “corn” from America, goes back more than 100 years earlier to Columbus’ time. The French settlement of Canada during the 17th Century introduced the two Canadian LeMoyne brothers to a corn dish which they used extensively in the colonization of Louisiana. Iberville, in his earliest contacts with Louisiana Indians, along the Biloxi coast, was both the recipient and the provider of Sagamité. Apparently a type of porridge, this dish seems to have been universal to the Indians of the Eastern Woodlands. It was basically what we call today, grits. That is coarsely ground maize boiled with practically anything else that was available. Just in the first few days of exploring the Gulf coast between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi, Iberville had sagamité mixed with meat, just plain, and mixed with plums. We see, then, that in Canada and in Louisiana, the Natives provided the Europeans with Indian corn.

This native grain, along with beans and squash, together are called the three sisters of Native American agriculture, and served the Indians as the basis of their diet. The “three sisters’ are so-called because these crops are easily adapted to grow together in one field and, in fact, form a symbiotic relationship. The corn grows on stalks which can reach five to six feet or higher and puts out rather broad leaves. The beans then have a stalk upon which they can climb. Beans also help the corn by fixing the nitrogen in the soil, as corn tends to deplete it. The squash and melons spread along the ground and serve as a ground cover, which has the effect of providing weed control.

Louisiana Natives balanced the diet provided by the three sisters with game and seafood. “Before 1699, the tribes or groups in and around New Orleans hunted for their meat, as they had no domesticated animals. Game included the white tail deer, buffalo, bear, raccoons, rabbits (cottontail & swamp), squirrels, beavers, & otters. Also, alligator, muskrats, beetles, locusts, lizards, and porpoises. Birds included turkey, pigeons, sandhill cranes, and quail, as well as ducks, geese, egrets, pelicans,

and water hens.” (Folse, John. Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine. pp. 6-7) The hunting activity

also provided bear oil (for fat) as well as skins and furs to serve as textiles. SE Louisiana is a water world, and the Natives took full advantage of this resource. Included in the seafood harvest, the Natives took ”Fish, freshwater & coastal saltwater; oysters and clams, shrimp, crawfish, crabs, alligator, turtles, terrapins, and snakes.” (Folse, pp. 8-9) No discussion of Native Louisianan contributions to Creole New Orleans cuisine is complete without noting, pounded sassafras leaves or File’ {fee-lay} (Folse, p.12)

Benard de La Harpe left a journal of his time in Louisiana ending in 1724. Even though La Harpe”s chief mission in Louisiana was the exploration of the Red and Arkansas Rivers, his notes, as in so many cases of these types of journals, gives us some very good information as to the Native’s livlihood. The following inforamtion is from La Harpe’s journal covering his explorations in 1720:

April 27: Describing the land around Natchitoches and the agricultural produce of the natives:

. . . the lands are good for the cultivation of corn, grains, tobacco, indigo, and cotton. . . . The Indians sow a small amount of wheat in . . . March and harvest it in June;”

“The ordinary woods (contain) nut trees, pecan trees, the nut of which is very good, raspberries, and persimmons. … The Indians smoke them to preserve them and make a flat bread with them. There are also plum trees … Three kinds of vines. If cultivated, would produce good grapes. The prairies are filled with strawberries, mushrooms, shallots, and wild parsley. In addition, one sees almost everywhere buffalo, bears, deer, rabbits, squirrels, hares, and other wild animals, as well as turkey, geese, ducks, swans, partridges of both species . . .”.

August 29: Exploring the Arkansas/Oklahoma country the French party come upon an Indian … “party which was busy smoking lion (sic) meat. This is an animal the size of a horse, but not as long. It has red fur, thin legs, and a forked foot. Its meat is white and delicate.” {this sounds like it might hve been an antelope, JGL}

September 3: “These Indian leaders had brought corn bread and smoked meats with which they feasted the travelers.”

September 5: Mentions several food items already noted above, but including river fish and rosemary.

The above catalog of foodstuffs show a prosperous and advanced culinary economy that provided the Natives of Louisiana with resources that could be the envy of many Third World cultures today. The French being recipients of some of this Native largesse made the colony viable during those first troubled decades. The very essence of Creole, however, is the mixture of these (and other) cultures. The French were no slackers when it came to the dining table. And while support from the “mother country” was sparse and intermittant at best, the French cooks around the campfires and kitchen hearths made foundational contributions to what has become a signature feature of Louisiana culture.

French ships (as well as Spanish and British) had been plying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean almost since Columbus opened the New World at the beginning of the 16th Century. During those two hundred years prior to the 1699 settlement of the French Gulf Coast, the now famous Columbian Exchange (of flora, fauna, disease, and especially foodstuffs) had been vigorously altering the American landscape. When Iberville and Bienville arrived at the beginning of the 18th Century, they accelerated this process along the littoral from just west of the Mississippi to the Perdido River and Pensacola. Even though French Louisiana is infamous for the scarcity of support from the metropole in Paris, as the decades passed more and more French culinary imports were merged with the Native food resources to begin the process of Creolization and the emergence of Creole New Orleans’ now world famous cuisine. The northern Gulf Coast first “officially” saw the importation of European victuals from the exploration/military ships that coasted the barrier islands between Mobile and the Mississippi in early 1699. The ships carried with them some of the following items common to the fleets of the Atlantic powers in the 17th and 18th Centuries:

Every day, sailors were to get one gallon of beer, 500g of biscuit, 100g of salt beef or fish, butter and cheese. The absence of fresh fruit and vegetables ensured that the terrible disease of scurvy would continue.”

By the end of the 1700’s, sailors of the Atlantic powers were consuming:

. . . meat four times a week, and had a hot meal every single day. . . including beef, pork, pease (garden peas or varieties of chickpeas) cheese, and even butter to go along with the inevitable ship’s biscuit which was washed down liberally by a gallon of beer per-man per-day. (In port, the) ships might be provisioned with fresh meat and baked bread instead of ‘hard tack’, and fresh vegetables might be taken on board as well.”

(Above notes refer to the British navy, since available French records are not as accessable, we can roughly extrapolate similar items to be included on the French ships of time.)

On the Louisiana coast, this naval fare was supplemented with the abundant, fish, oysters, and fowl which were literally there for the picking in 1699.

Since French colonies were primarily economic and military in nature (as opposed to the settlement of the land and population movement between Europe and America, as in the Spanish and British areas), the administrations loved to count things. This is fortunate for us, as the counting included such things as land use and agricultural resources. In the census counts at the beginning of the French period are found some of the primary ingredients of the Original Creole Cuisine:

Census of 1704: nine oxen, 14 cows, 4 bulls, five calves, about 100 pigs, 3 kids, and 400 hens.

Census of 1708: 50 milk cows, 40 calves, 4 bulls, 8 oxen. 1400 pigs & sows, about 2,000 chickens.

Occaisionally Provisions from France would arrive: “flour (wheat??), beef, bacon and salt; vegetables, butter, oil and vinegar were sent but often spoiled in transit” . . . “Trade relations developed with Havana, Martinique, and St. Domingue { which sent} bacon, flour, sugar, tobacco, cocoa, molasses, and casks of wine. {Locally} chickens, white flour, and corn were available. (Folse, pp. 25-27)

In 1727, the Ursulines arrived in New Orleans to minister to the sick and, as was their primary charism, to the females of the colony (Europeans, Native, and African, slave or free). One of their number, a young novice, Marie Magdeleine Hachard, wrote home to her father on a regular basis to report on their progress in the new colonial world of North America. Among the landscapes and descriptions of life in the new town, she included much information about their culinary lives. This tradition is alive and well in the New Orleans of today, where we regularly discuss the day’s dinner as we consume breakfast, and what we ate or are going to eat at the social events we attend. Miss Hachard (aka Sister St. Stanislaus) gives us the following lists of ingredients to include in our 18th Century Creole Pantry:

Letter II:
Bread costs ten cents a pound and is made of Indian corn meal; eggs from fifty cents a dozen; milk fourteen cents a gallon, We eat meat, fish, peas, and wild beans and many kinds of fruits and vegetables, such as pineapple, which is the most excellent of all fruits; watermelon, sweet potatoes; pippins . . . figs, bananas, pecans, cashews.

In fact, we live on wild beef (buffalo??), deer, swans, geese and wild turkeys, hares, hens, ducks, teals, pheasants, partridges, quails and other fowl and game of different kinds. The rivers are teeming with enormous fish, especially turbot which is an excellent fish, ray, carp, and many other fishes unknown in France. They make much use of chocolate with milk and coffee. A lady of the country has given good provision of it. We drink it every day. During Lent, meat is allowed three times a week, and during the year, meat is allowed on Saturday as in the Island of St. Domingo. We accustom ourselves wonderfully well to the wild food of this country. We eat bread which is half rice and half flour. There is here a wild grape larger than the French grape, but it is not in clusters. It is served in a dish like plums. What is eaten most and is most common is rice cooked with milk. The people of Louisiana find very good a food called “sagamite,” which is made of Indian corn crushed in a mortar, then boiled in water, and eaten with butter or cream.

Letter IV
we have been given two cows with their calves, a sow with her little ones, some hens and some Muscovy ducks. . . . we have also turkeys, and geese. “

We drink beer. Our most ordinary food is rice cooked with milk, wild beans, meat and fish.”

wild oxen (buffalo) are caught in large numbers. We pay three cents a pound for that meat, and the same for venison”

Wild ducks are very cheap. Teals, geese, water-hens, and other fowl and game”

in summer, fish are common and very good. Oysters and carps of prodigious size which are delicious. We also eat watermelons and muskmelons, sweet potatoes”

. . . peaches and figs and blackberry jelly, lots of oranges.”

Letters of Marie Magdeleine Hachard aka Sr. St. Stanislaus

(founding Ursuline) arr. 1727; d. 1760:

Of course, other cultures whose representatives immigrated to Louisiana, continued in the 18th Century to add to the Creole Pantry. The scope of the Petticoat Rebellion Cookbook is the first 40 years of French Louisiana’s existence, 1699 to roughly 1740. These dates exclude two very important contributors to today’s New Orleans’ cooking, the Acadians and the Spanish (with those darned tomatoes again). This essay covers the Native Louisianans and the French. The Germans, Swiss, and Africans with their vital agricultural and culinary contributions are covered in a subsequent paper. Also to be studied in this context are the elusive and amorphous contributions to the pantry from the international markets of smuggling.


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