Monthly Archives: November 2013

How is culinary history done?

http://1718neworleans.com

Thank you Catherine Howard! I was lying in bed this morning wondering what I was going to blog about this week. And what do I find in my inbox when I finally get myself up to attend to my morning activities, but Catherine’s blog about blogging. Yes, I admit it. This blog was started because because as an aspiring author, I was led to believe that 21st Century authors should have a blog. I also admit that I began my book because I thought it raised the possibility that I might be able to make some money with it now that I was retired. Also the fact that I was now retired and desired something intellectual to challenge me and pass the time I suddenly had on my hands. Anyway, now that the book and blog are up and running, both are moving along at a good pace.

Whether or not anybody reads the blog is a completely different question. I have never received any response from anyone, I did receive a comment once, way back when I started, but nothing really since then. And yet, I still write it. So what does this mean? A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with another writer (my wife), and I quoted or misquoted Miss Howard as follows, “No one gives a flying —- about your book.” or words to that effect. While I had accepted this premise intellectually for many years, over the past few months I have come to accept it emotionally. To me, this seems like progress. Another way of putting this is that now I have come to a point where I write because I want to, I write – for no other reason that that I am a historian. This is indeed progress. So, thank you again , Catherine Howard, for putting into words a lesson that all writers must learn.

Now then, what is a culinary history? More to the point, how does one do culinary history? The 1718 Project, of which this culinary history is the first fruit, started out as a straight history exercise. A teacher of history and biblical studies, (truth be told-taught very much by the same methodology) now faced with retirement, I was looking about for something to do. My mind was quite naturally bent to pursuing my lifelong love of historical study. But, what to study? Here it was a few years away from New Orleans’ 300th anniversary, well if that isn’t history I don’t know what is. So now I had it, I would write a history of the founding of New Orleans. Before going on now, if you don’t already know, I am a foodie (more on this later) and a native of the Crescent City. Research commenced on the history book, research as I learned to do in grad school getting my Masters degree. Then something happened. The more primary sources I read, the more they seemed to talk about food. So now my research, notes, and writings split into a history book and a cookbook. But, there were no recipes from the 1700s. At least, none that were readily apparent in the research. But there was a place to begin. The journals of the French explorers of early Louisiana often listed the foods that they ate or that they traded with the Indians. Food lists were also available from shipping manifests. And then, in the research, there appeared the letters of Marie Hachard, an Ursuline nun who was writing home about life in New Orleans. In these letters there were long paragraphs identifying all the foods that were available to the nuns either through their own industry or by gifts to the convent. With this beginning, we started thinking of possible recipes that the colonists would’ve eaten based on the ingredients available. We turned to very early creole cookbooks from the late 1800s. We even discovered two French cookbooks from the 18th century, mainly directed at the aristocratic tables. Research then led to food production and/or resources provided by local farmers, hunters, fishermen, and Pirates. The data began to yield recipes, chapters, and a morass of details and contradictions. Culinary history was being done, and like all things culinary, the kitchen was a royal mess while the meal was being prepared.

Finally, I arrived at a solution for all the seeming inconsistencies. This culinary history, would be a combination: first,  a story-historical fiction-that would tell the tale of life in New Orleans during the 1700s; next, Recipes from the journals by the French explorers of early Louisiana, from the extant French cookbooks of the 1700s, and created from the ingredients, the foodstuffs, that are listed throughout the primary sources. Finally, essays based on ship supply lists, early agricultural records, records of the people who lived and worked in French New Orleans, what they grew and what they ate. There are ample food references found in the primary records. This last is the “hard history” of the book. Many of the recipes are straight from these primary records and sources. Just as many recipes are based on the foods that existed in New Orleans and Lower Louisiana during the 1700s. All is woven together by the tales of Frere Gerard and Tante Suzanne. this my response to the question – how is culinary history done?

http://1718neworleans.com

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Filed under 18th Century, Creole Cooking, Louisiana History, New Orleans Tercentennial, Non-Fiction

Let us welcome Tante Suzanne

Tante Suzanne and Gerard sat down on the levee with their cans of steaming coffee. She opened her aprons to show her companion the treasures hidden therein. Inside were five elongated fruits of red and green color, a half-dozen precious brown nuts, and a handful of little dried out black pods.”Where did those come from!?” exclaimed Gerard. “Shush”, Tante Suzanne said, “you want the whole levee to hear you?”

Gerard had met Suzanne at the levee market a few years earlier. Like himself she was responsible for running the kitchen and the potager for a large family at a nearby home in the city. Although her mother had been African and a slave at the time of her birth, she herself was freeborn. All of her brothers and sisters were freeborn as well, due to an agreement between her mother and the Frenchman she worked for. In fact, before she was 10 years old her mother was also freed by her French owner. Nevertheless, free mother and children alike, had followed Monsieur Miragouen from San Domingue to Mobile in the early 1700s. As those early years in Louisiana passed by, Monsieur Miragouen had established a thriving farm and cattle ranch a few miles up the river from the city on the bay. By her early teens, Suzanne had demonstrated an affinity for the hearth and the garden. And by the time she was 20 she was the cook at the big house on the farm. A few years later her father died and Suzanne was forced to consider her options because of her lascivious half-brother Louis. A tall and handsome woman, Suzanne was often forced into uncomfortable positions as she, Louis and the others were growing up. He would playfully grab her or hold her against a tree making indecent remarks. Now that he had inherited his father’s farm and ranch, things were getting a little too serious for Suzanne.

A few years prior to this, when Governor Bienville had decided to build the new colonial capital at New Orleans about 150 miles west of Mobile, her brother Romulus had decided to go along and help settle the city. As Suzanne’s talents had manifested themselves in the kitchen, so her brother’s had shown up in the stable yards. With his knowledge of and seemingly natural abilities to handle horses, Romulus quickly found work in a large household of a rich merchant in New Orleans. Suzanne decided to move to New Orleans herself and within a few short months she established herself with the same family in their kitchen and gardens. While settling into her new city and  workspaces, she often saw this interesting looking fellow at the markets in town seeming to be a bit out of place. One day, while examining some freshly caught catfish and shrimp being offered by a riverman, she bumped into this fellow, and a conversation began as to how to best prepare these gifts of the Great River.

Over the next few seasons Frére Gerard and Suzanne became fast friends, sharing cups of coffee on the levee along with their recipes, gardening ideas, and methods of running kitchens. On this day at the levee market, Suzanne, called Tante by her household family, had come across one of her acquaintances from the bayous and swamps west of the city. This area has long been a thriving depot for boats and pirogues coming up from Barataria Bay with fabrics and foodstuffs, whose origins in the busy ports of the Caribbean islands and cities along the Gulf Coast from Veracruz to Pensacola, were not officially sanctioned by the New Orleans Superior Council. This is why the spices were hidden in her apron. Now to be shared with her close friend Gerard were some wonderful chili peppers, nutmegs, and cloves.

Gerard gratefully accepted a few of the chili peppers, two of the nutmegs, but left the cloves for Suzanne this time around. On her part, Suzanne was already thinking of the wonderful puddings and cakes she was planning to bake for her household’s next Sunday dinner.

 

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Filed under 18th Century, Creole Cooking, Louisiana History, New Orleans Tercentennial