Native Americans and Seafood
Greetings from Dodge City, KS. Here on a business trip and I decided to finish this post which I began last week. Welcome to all my new likes on the Facebook page. I hope I can continue to provide a bit of historical entertainment for you pleasure. To that end and in a bit of shameless self promotion, here you will a find a “bonus chapter” from Vol. 1 of The Petticoat Rebellion. The chapter currently under composition in Vol 2 is also about the discovery and adaptation of the local watery resources to Gerard and Suzanne as they continue to mythologically create the cuisine for which New Orleans is famous.
A VISIT TO THE HOUMAS (Ch.13 from vol. I)
When my countrymen first arrived in Louisiana under the command of Sieur d’Iberville, the many villages of our Native brethren lined the river and streams between La Balize and the Arkansas Post. During the next three decades, we discovered an important fact about “les petits nations”. Here in the New World, or at least here in Louisiana, the people do not stay in one place very long. Entire villages and towns move about quite freely and quite often. For instance, my current visitation and mission to the Houmas nation will take me upriver to the Pointe Coupèe settlement, then back downriver to where the Mississippi forks a few leagues below the Baton Rouge. At that point, we will travel down La Fourche (the Fork) into the swamps, streams, and lakes that is the marsh to the south and west of New Orleans. In all of these places we hope to meet with the Houma people and bring them the Good News and learn from them the ways of catching and cooking the abundant seafood and fishes that inhabit our rich new land. I am traveling to these settlements with Father Anselm**. Pere Raphael has sent him to minister to the Houmas and the the Frenchmen at Pointe Coupèe and beyond. I am tagging along to help him in his work, and not accidentally, to learn as much as I can from our little brothers about the local food production.
Past Baton Rouge, the land begins to rise. To the east, the terrain rolls away in hills and gullies, with bluffs very much like cliffs along the river and other waterways. to the west stretches a vast flatness of grasslands and meadows, which we call praerie in French. The settlement at Pointe Coupèe lay on the western side of the St. Louis. More technically, it is situated on a loop in the river that has been “cut off” from the main stream and now forms a lake. Folks moving up from Baton Rouge and even the local Indians often call the place False River. Pere Anselm and our party stayed there a couple of months, while Father preached the Word, and made arrangements to start building on a permanent chapel to serve the population. Since the locals were Frenchmen like ourselves, and – more to the point – cooked with the same ingredients I do, following the same methods and cooking on a hearth, there wasn’t much done here in the kitchen that I did not already know. So I spent most of my time, helping with the chapel and exploring the surrounding country. The settlement side that is the western bank is the rich alluvial prairie, which is perfect for the plow. Large farms had already begun to be established. On the eastern side of the river, the land was much more broken up and vast forests covered the hills and bluffs along the bayous and streams running down into the St. Louis. It was a rich hunting ground for native and settler alike, and the forest trees were filled with nuts, berries, and fruits of all kind. This indeed is a wondrous land and The Lord has blessed our countrymen in being able to come and partake in its bounty.
Monsieur d’Iberville first found the Houmas on the hills and bluffs of the eastern side of the great river. But, as I said earlier, these New World folk do not stay in one place for long periods of time. Pere Anselm and I did, indeed, find some of the Houma nation at Pointe Coupée, but we also learned from them that most of their people had moved south to the big fork in the river below Baton Rouge. During the visit, I had concluded that my time would be best spent in learning about the watery food resources that abound in Louisiana. To that end, I was excited when Pere Anselm finally decided to visit the scattered Houma nation down La Fourche and minister to them there. So, after some pleasant months, we left the rich farmlands around the False River and headed down the St. Louis (aka the Mississippi) toward La Fourche. Our first stop was at the town which had been a native community since before we clumsy Frenchmen stumbled into the river’s mouths. Since we arrived some thirty years ago, it had been occupied by the Bayougoulas, the Chitimacha, and now the Houmas. Here where the river forks, we stayed for a few days to get some sense of where we were headed. As Pere Anselm sought information about their beliefs and their spiritual culture. I befriended the hunters, the women, and the fishermen to see what they fed their people and, more importantly, how they acquired it and how they prepared it for all to eat.
Since I was expressly seeking information about the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of the local fruites de mer, the very first thing I learned from the Houmas is that – most interestingly – the native nations do not eat their symbol or sacred animals. The Houmas, recognized by the red crawfish, would not have consumed it. It was the same for the other petits nations as well. Each nation has its sacred animal, and will not consume it. Now as to the crawfish or, in French, la ecrevisse, this water dweller is very like a miniature lobster. while most of the nations find it very tasty, specifically the tail meat, it is small and rather difficult to extract the meat. But, once one has peeled enough of them, they make a variety of delicious dishes.
Anyway, since the Houmas do not prepare or consume them, for now we will consider the other fishes and their kin. La Fourche itself as well as the numerous streams, bayous, lakes, and ponds that are the Houma homelands provide a wealth of tasty species, including gar, choupique, catfish, paddlefish, sunfish,bass, eel, sac a lait, sturgeon, gizzard shad, and buffalo fish. As we travelled down the La Fourche closer to the Mexican Gulf, the natives took drum, croaker, speckled trout, redfish, flounder, and mullet from the coasts and bays. Along with the various finfish, during our extended visit we caught and consumed oysters which were abundant in the lakes and coastal waters. Everywhere from the river down to the Gulf, there were huge amounts of mussels, shrimp and crabs. From the marsh itself, I learned to prepare and – surprisingly, really enjoy – frogs of extraordinary size and even turtles, terrapins, and alligators. Finally, even though my Houma friends and guides showed me how, I couldn’t bring myself to consume the snakes.
Gathering the harvests of the waters occurred in many methods. The Houmas (and, most other natives) harvested the catch with hooks, lines, hoop nets made of rabbit-vines, cone-shaped traps made with wooden slats, trot-lines (a local creation where many hooks are dangled from one strong line stretched over the entire stream) and weirs ( sort of a fence or corral set into the stream, which were first used by the Natchez nation). Sometimes, fish were speared in shallow water by night and sometimes poisoned.This technique was usually employed in summer when the small streams were low. Poison was obtained from the horse chestnut, or buckeye; the root of the devil’s shoestring, or catgut or from green hickory nuts or walnut hulls. The natives would crush these materials and stir them into a pool, where the fish, with their gills paralyzed, floated to the surface.
Once the fish and/or shellfish are gathered, there is virtually no difference between our “civilized” way of cooking and preparing the meal, and the cooking ways of Houmas and other nations in the region. Well, maybe one difference, all of their cooking is normally done outside over a fire pit, whereas ours is usually done over the fire of an indoor hearth. Nevertheless, boiling, baking, broiling, roasting, frying, and parching are all accomplished on the bayous and marshes surrounding La Fourche just as in the royal kitchens of Paris. Separate pots are used for each type of food prepared, meat, vegetable, grain , or fish are usually cooked separately, except when combined in common soups, porridges, stews, and mush. Here, in this part of the new world, at least, bear oil serves as quite an adequate substitute for olive oil. I can only wish that my readers can see from this, that even to its most level, we Europeans are really not much advanced in the ways of life as our “little brothers” of the Americas. ‡
After a large catch, the Houmas would put the extra fish on a grill over a low fire to smoke and dry for later use. This common method would also be used for any game or other meat they wished to preserve over time.
As to the cooking of the fish, as is normal among all folk, there is a traditional set of cooking styles for any and all of the fish to which then are added all sorts of variations. For instance . . .
A very common method of preparing shellfish, especially crabs, crawfish, or shrimp is to boil them. The process is similar which species is being cooked. There are actually two stages in the boiling method, cleaning and boiling. Begin with live crabs or crawfish, with shrimp this is not necessary. Cleaning the shrimp is a simple matter of washing them in clean water. Some people like to devein the shrimp. There is even a special tool, sold in most local supermarkets, which is like a long curved toothpick which makes this easier. This usually works best with larger shrimp, with small shrimp, the vein does not make that much difference. When boiling fresh shrimp, remove the heads (reserve for stock), but do not peel the shrimp, then proceed to the boil.
Since live crabs or crawfish is used in boiling, the cleaning process is a bit different. The first stage is gently hosing down the shellfish to remove all the external dirt, mud, vegetation, etc. Once cleaned the animals are then “purged”, that is coved in a bath of brine, which serves to internally clean them out. From the purge the crabs or crawfish are dropped live into the boiling water.
Before starting the cleaning process, it is useful to set up the boiling pot and start the seasoning and boiling. While there are large pots sold for the specific purpose of boiling seafood, stock pots are also commonly used. Also, if you are cooking for two (or one), a large 2 or 3 quart saucepan works equally well. Start with enough water to cover the intended quantity and then some. The first seasoning is salt, which is used liberally to make a strong brine. The second essential is some form of pepper. Cayenne is usually used, but there are several cayenne and spice/herb mixtures commercially available under the name of “crab boil”. Experiment with several of these to find your preference. After these two, the boiling pot is open to interpretation. A standard combination is onions, celery, garlic, and lemon. The combinations, however, are endless and totally up to the cook. Bay leaf is often used, and most boils include fresh corn-on-the-cob and new red potatoes in the mix.
The actual cooking of the shrimp is done very quickly, for two minutes to be exact. The overall procedure, though is somewhat lengthy. Adherence to the strict timetable will insure a perfect boiled shrimp every time.
Step 1; Add your chosen seasoning to the boiling pot and make the stock first, boil for about 10 to 15 minutes minimum.
Step 2: Add the potatoes to the pot, return to boil and let boil for four (4) minutes.
Step 3: Add the corn to the pot, return to boil and let boil for eleven (11) minutes.
Step 4: Add the clean shrimp to the pot, return to boil and let boil for two (2) minutes.
Step 5: Turn off the fire, remove the pot from the burner, add one half a bag of ice to quick cool the shrimp, the shrimp will sink into the flavored stock and begin to soak up the seasoning.
Step 6: Let the shrimp “soak” for 15 to 20 minutes, the longer they soak, the more seasoning they absorb.
Step 7: EAT !!!
*The above procedure is adapted from Frank Davis Cooks Cajun, Creole, and Crescent City. By Frank Davis, Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, LA: 1994.
Basic fried fish or shellfish
Frying means cooking something in hot oil. In colonial Louisiana that meant either bear oil, olive oil, lard, or butter. Seasoning the seafood with some salt and placing it into the heated oil is the simplest method. One can fry in deep fat (about an inch or two deep in a home kitchen) or simply in a pan coated with the fat or perhaps a quarter to a half inch in depth. Seafood generally cooks through very quickly. Depending on the size and thickness of the food being cooked, anywhere from a minute on each side to no more than five minutes a side should do. If deep fat is used the fish, oysters, shrimp, etc. will be done when it floats. That’s it!
The art of turning cooking into cuisine is what makes a culture like the Creole famous and sought after. Knowledge, experience, openness to new ingredients and methods, a sense of simplicity, and even some playfulness all combine to make a process as simple as frying into a work of art. A first step may be adding more spices and herbs to the seafood before the frying. A common second step is to “bread” the seafood in flour, breadcrumbs, or a combination of both. After these have been done and tested to your taste, the addition of sauces or the combination of other meats or fish with the fried morsels is a final step in the potential endless line of variations on the “frying” theme. To get started, lets do three dishes to explore the basics of fried, breaded and sauced seafood.
Remove the heads and peel the shrimp, reserve the heads and peels for making a seafood stock. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper, fennel and/or ground coriander add that “Louisiana” taste. In a pan heat up your fat of choice until a small ball of meat or some bread sizzles when it is dropped in. Keeping temperature in mind, add one or two shrimp until they began to sizzle, then add the rest of the shrimp one at a time until they all are happily sizzling away. Let them fry until pinkish brown in color and they begin to float in the fat. Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula and drain on paper towels until cool enough to eat. Enjoy!
Breading catfish (or anything else)
Breading (simple) Mix a cup of flour and a cup of cornmeal together, add some salt and cayenne pepper. Begin with this simple mixture, then add other herbs and seasoning to taste. Vary the type and grind of the flour and cornmeal as well. Place the mix in a clean, empty butter tub. Get the deep fryer or a heavy pan ready, place the pan on the heat and add about one half inch of oil (of your choice). Have the fish soaking in water or beer. Place a fillet or some “nuggets” in the flour, close the lid and shake the tub until the fish is coated. Using the same test for temperature (as above) place one small piece in the oil, when it begins to sizzle, add the fillet or the nuggets. Bread the rest of the fish in the same manner, and fry for about five minutes. Judge the time by the thickness of the fish, and turn over at least once in the hot oil. Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula and drain on paper towels until cool enough to eat. Enjoy!
Breading (complex) Use two types of breading, a flour mixture as above and some breadcrumbs in separate plates. Soak the catfish as above, but also prepare and egg/milk wash (seasoned as you like). Prepare your hot oil and proceed: Shake the wet fish in the flour mixture, from her though move the fish to a quick dip into the seasoned wash, then roll in the bread crumbs. Repeat until you have enough to fill the pan. Place all the fish into the pan and let fry for five to eight minutes (depending on size).Turn over at least once in the frying process, Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula and drain on paper towels until cool enough to eat. Enjoy!
These same breading techniques work well with shrimp, oysters, any fish fillets you like, chicken, pork chops, and small, thin cuts of beef.
Ramoulade Sauce (1693)the following recipe is translated (by the author) from Massialot, Francois. Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, Chez Charles de Sercy, au Palais, Paris, 1693.
For several fillets of fish, one makes a sauce called Ramolade, it is made of chopped parsley, chopped leeks, chopped anchovies, chopped capers, put it all in a plate (bowl) with a little salt, some pepper, nutmeg, oil and vinegar, mix together well in a little water; Set your (cooked) fillets on a dish, and sprinkle with this Ramolade. Now, some dishes add some lemon juice, to serve it cold.
SOME HISTORICAL NOTES
About 50 miles upriver from New Orleans, the Mississippi opens one of its largest distributaries in SE Louisiana. On its western bank a large bayou drains some of its mighty waters through a rich and fertile plain down into the Gulf. So large, in fact, that its name defines it, not as a bayou, but as a fork in the great river. Later usage has demoted it to a bayou, but Bayou LaFourche still remains the fork in the river at present day Donaldsonville. Even in the earliest French records, this river fork, and the land around it was occupied.
Figuring out which Native group lived where in Lower Louisiana is an on-going puzzle. Between 1699 and 1750, the Louisiana Indians grew and shrunk in numbers, moved around, merged together, broke apart, fought with each other, lived with each other in the same villages and towns, battled the French settlers, traded with them, intermarried (or at least interbred) with Frenchmen, Spaniards, each other, and even some British wanderers. It is safe to say that basically they were rovers of the swamps and rivers of SE Louisiana. Comparing and analyzing the colonial sources along with modern studies of archaeology, tribal histories, and Native Louisiana folklore, a picture emerges of nomadic groups who survived along the edges of the marsh and the various rivers and bayous that is the Gulf coast of south Louisiana. It may be useful to compare their wanderings to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the buffalo hunters of the same era on the North American Plains. In simple terms, all of these family groups and clan/tribes followed the game migrations. Seasonal villages were built along the group’s migratory cycle. People came and went with the seasons or with the flux in population. Different groups merged together and broke apart as climate conditions, landscapes, game populations, and human politics demanded. Unlike our neat Euro-American farmsteads, settlements, ranges, and ranches, which we claim and call our private property, Native Louisianians lived in the best places they could find, and the distributary at Bayou LaFourche remained a “best place” for this entire period and beyond.
Here in 1699, Iberville found the Chitimachas. Upriver he met the Bayougoulas and the Houmas. Further on were the Tunica. Later the Tunica joined the Houmas, then fought with them. The Tunicas eventually moved north to the Red River confluence and the Houmas south to Bayou LaFourche. By then, the Chitimachas and Bayougoulas had merged, and had been absorbed by the Houmas.* In any event, the now consolidated Houmas spread out down LaFourche and over the marshlands on either bank. It was here that Frere Gerard finds them in the 1730’s.
Frere Gerard indeed found them on the LaFourche in the 1730’s. Today, native Houma Indians may be found all over Louisiana. Our readers need to be aware that although the evidence is overwhelming, the Federal government still does not recognize the Houmas as a native nation ! Typical of the injustice caused by the silly action or non-action of the US bureaucracy, we should do all we can to right this wrong. To learn more about Louisiana’a largest Indian nation and their battle for recognition and against this blatant injustice, please visit:
* In modern times, the Chitimachas again split from Houmas and are now their own group – the process continues.
** Vogel, The Capuchins in French Louisiana, p.60
† Kniffin, et. al., pp. 202-204.
‡ All of this has been paraphrased from Kniffin, et. al., pp. 204 ff.
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