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

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