The French colony of Louisiana has, for three hundred years, had the reputation of being poor, ill-managed, and essentially a failure as a colonial enterprise. This picture – of what would become one third of the United States, one of the biggest seaports in the world (New Orleans and New York continually trade back and forth the honor of the biggest port in North America), and the heart and soul of the greatest, some say the only truly unique, culinary tradition of America – Creole/Cajun cuisine of course – was locked into place 300 years ago in 1716.
In those days Louisiana government was divided between two chief offices, those being governor and ordonnateur. The governor was primarily the military, legal, and political official, but the ordonnateur held the purse strings and was in charge of the economic development of the colony. In 1716, the ordonnateur was Marc-Antoine Hubert (pronounced oo-bear). Hubert arrived in Louisiana in late 1716 and immediately noted that the population took no interest in agriculture and lived essentially by trade with the Indians. As of 1716, hardly any Africans had been brought to Louisiana and the “peculiar institution” of slave-based plantation agriculture had yet to be established. The proprietor (Crozat) and his governor (LaMothe de Cadillac) continued the foolish quest for mineral resources instead of building up Louisiana’s true sources of wealth, an international trade infrastructure, agriculture, and the exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources of field, forest, and waterway. The development of these economies would be tapped as the French colony expanded in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. But in 1716, Louisiana was indeed a picture of starvation and woe.
Things began to change after the founding of New Orleans, although I do not think that it was BECAUSE New Orleans was established. As the colony grew through the first half of the century after 1718 the above mentioned tripartite economic forces (trade, agriculture, and natural (non-mineral) wealth) came more and more into play. New Orleans served as the focus for this cultural and economic growth. As Bienville’s “founding father” role came to it’s natural conclusion in the early 40’s and with the coming of Vaudreiul’s influential regime through the 40’s, New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s French culture came into full flower. Had it not been truncated so soon by the French defeat in the Seven Years or French and Indian War (1756-1763), Louisiana’s French culture may have blossomed into one as influential as Canada’s French heritage. In fact, despite of 1763, Louisiana’s Creole culture, nourished by Spain’s effective but not overpowering rule, is as influential as any heritage in the United States – perhaps even more-so.
The guiding light of the culinary history, The Petticoat Rebellion, is the idea that “They Had To Eat”. And even though it was true that “officially” there was much starvation and woe in the colony, as least early on; it was also true that one of the hallmarks of Creole cuisine, using what was (and is) available and making it into a truly marvelous experience, was a natural outcome of such a situation. Before 1718, and more extensively after, gardens were being grown behind most houses, chickens and pigs and native foods (venison, seafood, the three sisters) were regularly available, and even a few “habitations” or farms had been established. In fact, one of the anniversaries to be celebrated in 2016 is the first importation of rice into Louisiana in 1716. Who knows, perhaps in 1716, some French settler and an Indian friend sat down to the first pot of Red Beans and Rice along the Mississippi. (see page 29 of The Petticoat Rebellion for the recipe).