Presbytere & Church: A View from the Kitchen

A Tricentennial Xmas Gift. Prepublication of Vol.2, Chapter 2


Frere Gerard sat on an old stool at the kitchen door looking out upon the potager. The Presbytere and the Church had come a long way since those early days eight or nine years ago, he thought, when it was a problem to get a couple of eggs to fry up for the brothers’ dinner. His kitchen was finally in place, the central hearth with its brick ovens, iron fixtures, black pots and pans, cranes, trivets, and fire dogs was always burning—except during the wee hours of night. The pantry was stocked with flours, seasonings, and grains. Just outside, a few yards from the kitchen door, the smokehouse was hung with sausage, hams, game, and fowl from farm and field. Just beyond—taking up the square between the Presbytere and the Rue Royale—was his pride and joy, the potager, bursting with herbs, vegetables, fruit bushes, and even some small trees.
‘Yes,’ he reflected, ‘New Orleans has certainly taken on the character of its place as a colonial capital.’ Tonight, he decided, after the hustle and bustle of after-dinner clean up, he would sing a Te Deum in thanksgiving for his fortune in landing in this wonderful country. One thought led to another, and soon Gerard was reflecting on the essential truth that Louisiana was indeed a New World. But he wasn’t thinking in terms the new and exciting adventures to be found in exploring new lands, immense mountains, mighty rivers, and the vast open spaces peopled with colorful and sometimes dangerous inhabitants. Gerard’s whole experience as a lay brother in service to his God and brothers of his cloister had shown him a much tamer version of life in the New World. His everyday affairs of tending to the potager, the marketing, and his kitchen had changed over the years as the needs of his fellow priests, brothers, and missionaries were met with the new and sometimes very different foods and conditions of supply. At home in his quiet monastery in Charleville, those problems had been met, solved and developed into a routine sanctioned by literally centuries of now hidebound methods and rules. When Gerard was a young monk training in his northern French convent, the everyday fare of the monks consisted of Porridge, Soup, Vegetables, Bread, and on very special occasions some Fish or Poultry. Here in the New World, the porridge had become grits, the soup was often as not gumbo, and while the vegetables were pretty much the same, Gerard’s bread could have been made from maize flour, rice flour, occasional wheat flour or some combination of the three. Gerard’s New World poultry was also basically the same as what he had learned to cook in the Champaignois – chicken, duck, and/or geese. Here in the colony, he added the ubiquitous turkey, as well as numerous game birds and pigeons. And as to the fish ! That perhaps will require a separate accounting. Regardless of these newfound riches of land and water with which to feed his company, Gerard was able to, by and large, stick to St. Benedict’s dietary rules. As can be seen, the rule leaves lots of elbow room to deal with local conditions. Gerard’s guidelines would have been excerpted from:

Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries: Chapter 39: On the Measure of Food

. . . that every table have two cooked dishes . . . and if any fruit or fresh vegetables are available, let a third dish be added.

. . . Let a good pound weight of bread suffice for the day,
whether there be only one meal or both dinner and supper.
If they are to have supper, the cellarer shall reserve a third of that pound,
to be given them at supper. . . .

. . . Except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely
from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

And Chapter 40: On the Measure of Drink

“Everyone has her own gift from God,
one in this way and another in that” (1 Cor. 7:7).
It is therefore with some misgiving
that we regulate the measure of others’ sustenance.
Nevertheless, keeping in view the needs of the weak,
we believe that a hemina (@ 10 oz.) of wine a day is sufficient for each.
But those to whom God gives the strength to abstain
should know that they will receive a special reward.

Gerard thought back to the problems of those early days especially providing bread and wine for the Liturgies. This, of course, would have been the primary consideration for any kitchen establishment of Catholic clergy, whether in monastery, mission, or parish. Since the beginnings of the monastic movement in mediaeval Europe, the first job at hand would be the production or procurement of bread and wine for the liturgies of the individual or group. Throughout the Middle Ages, as monasteries and convents moved into new territories, the planting of wheat and grapes would have been first on the agenda. It would be no different in the New World. In Louisiana, prior to the first productions of the field, bread and wine would have been supplies by the local trading/supply networks. In New Orleans, wine and flour came to the colony with the brothers, more were supplied by the supply ships from France, and then local production would have taken over as the seasons progressed.

Recipes: The physical POD book upon publication will contain several more recipes.

Chicken De Balize: With a Caribbean kick (The Balize was the French colonial term for the mouth of the river, there was a port facility there where ships of all nations could unload cargo to barges and pirogues for shipment upriver to New Orleans, not all of it sanctioned by the authorities. It’s location and trade practices also made it more part of the Caribbean than the Gulf Coast colony.

Small onion or half a large
Half a green pepper
Stalk of celery
5 toes of garlic
Third of a bunch of parsley
One jalapeño or to taste

2 tsp. Allspice, 1 tsp. ginger, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, salt (increase or decrease these spices to taste)

Corn flour/or meal

2 large chicken breasts, 3 leg quarters

1 large sweet potato, sliced
in circles (like chips) or sticks (your choice)

Chop the veggies into a traditional Louisiana mirepoix. Make a rub with some cornmeal and the spices. In the bottom half of a broiler pan (the kind that used to come with new stoves – maybe still do???) sauté the mirepoix for about 10 minutes, add some chicken stock, if it dries out too much.

Rub the chicken pieces with the spiced cornmeal. Place some sliced sweet potatoes in the bottom of the pan. Grease the top sheet of the pan, arrange the chicken on the top with the remaining potato slices. Bake at 350 for 2 hours.

History: The Capuchin parish of St. Louis, King of France 1720-1763.

Any discussion of colonial Louisiana usually includes several mentions of the Jesuits as the religious leaders of the enterprise. This is another popular misconception about colonial Louisiana. After all, the Jesuits are still here, in New Orleans, in some force. One only has to think of Loyola University (N.O.), the “Jesuit” church on downtown Baronne St., the corner of Banks and Carrollton. However, during the 1700’s the Jesuits were in and out of favor in France – even expelled for a while. During the French Revolution, all clergy were personae non grata. Upon the founding of New Orleans, it was the Capuchin monastic order* that was tapped to provide the religious leadership for the new capital**. The Capuchin order, under their third (really the first, as the first two were VERY temporary) pastor, Father Raphael, were the ones who actually built the church of St. Louis on the square, as well as the first Presbytere on the corner of Chartres and St. Ann. Both were destroyed by the fires of 1788 and 1794. They were rebuilt still under the aupices of the Capuchins. The famous Pere Antoine (namesake of the alley between today’s Presbytere and Cathedral) was a Capuchin pastor.***

As tro their life in the new colony, more insight may be gained from an original account, the journal of a minor company employee stationed in New Orleans during the late 1720’s. the journal of Marc-Antoine Caillot provides a brief vision of the Capuchin parish activities including an interesting comment on the morals and life of the priests and brothers of that first Presbytere. (See A Company Man, p.8)

“I forgot to say that there is also a monastery of Capuchins. there are three priests residing there, of which the warden is the vicar general of Quebec. . . . Their building is quite beautiful but too small for a monastery. Their garden is large and well cared for.”

( Here follow a few lines praising Father Raphael, the warden (leader) of the mission).

But, Caillot continues, “It is not the same same with the other priests, who secretly lead very excessive lives, of which it not necessary to make an account.
{Caillot then proceeds to make an account !}
Here in New Orleans they each wear shirts with lacy cuffs, silk stockings, and slippers, and carry money, a snuffbox, a watch, and a parasol.”

Caillot makes no mention of the foodways of the monastery, with the possible exception of his mention of the garden. But, as has been discussed by Symons⚜︎, cooks and kitchens (usually the domain of the servant class) are rarely spoken of in the writings of the bourgeois and/or the official classes. Frere Gerard, the [fictional] cook and gardener at the New Orleans Presbytere, is a lay brother – not quite a servant – but not quite a monk either. Can we also infer from the “excessive lives” of the priests that they ate differently compared to monks in a European cloister? Probably so, as official food supplies were few and far between, early New Orleans’ cooks and household chefs made due with what they had, or could produce in their gardens and backyard pens, or could find in the local markets.

The first Capuchin monks sent to Louisiana were from Champagne. Our fictional cook, Gerard, and his brothers were first drawn from the Charleville monastery in Champagne. Whoever the real monastery cook was, it was his task to blend the old world culinary traditions with New World circumstances (hunger, then plenty, then hunger again, sporadic food supply chains). By 1700 in Europe (France, Champagne, Charleville), a monastery would have been producing it’s own food for centuries. Mostly grains, vegetables, and fruits along with a very limited amount of meat (poultry and fish). Most in this locale (the province of Champagne) would have certainly produced it’s own wine as well. If a monastery did not have it’s own mill, there was certainly one nearby. In Louisiana, there were at first no mills and the the only agriculture was whatever the local Natives were growing, i.e. corn, beans, and squash. There was plenty of wild, native fruits, berries, and nuts. It was the cook’s task to create something from these resources as well as begin the process of establishing the monastery’s own food supply chain. At first, this would have been planting the “kitchen garden” (potager). Beginning in the late 20’s and certainly by 1740 gardens, farms, and mills were producing the food needed by the capital and the surrounding region. Local farms and backyards were also producing pork, poultry, and some occasional beef. Hunters ranging up the Mississippi, into the Ozarks, and the prairies to the west of the river (past Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee) were supplying game and especially the “wild beef”, that is buffalo. The Illinois Country (Upper Louisiana) was exporting downriver hams, bacon, and wheat flour. We also cannot forget the use of the literally vast seafood resources found in the bayous, rivers, lakes, and Gulf coastal areas. This would have been especially important to the convents at the Presbytere and on Ursulines Street. So, after a very shaky start in the early 20’s, the cooks in the Ile d’Orleans were – by the 30’s and 40’s – able to utilize a growing, varied, and more regular food supply. It must also be recalled that despite the pitiful “official” supplies from France, Louisiana’s economy was largely based (60 – 70%) on the smuggling trade. This contraband consisted mostly of slaves, dry goods & textiles, but also foodstuffs from the Caribbean and New Spain (Pensacola, Mexico, and Texas), were supplied from these sources.

Holding to our theme that Louisianians HAD TO EAT something, the cooks, gardeners, Natives, traders, hunters and fishermen had by the 1730’s began the traditions of not only feeding the population but of feeding them in the stylistic origins of the famous Louisiana cooking of today. Along with native resources, consider the food heritage of the Champagne region from whence the Capuchin “Gerard” would have hailed – Ardennes smoked hams, wild boar, game birds, jugged hare, pig’s feet, blood pudding (boudin), dandelion salad, andouillettes, chicken in champagne, hams in crust, trout, brie cheese (from western Champagne) {see The Food of France, W. Root}. Before closing this discussion of actual food issues, a brief word should be said regarding early cooking methods. Frere Gerard’s iron pots and pans would be at home in any Louisiana kitchen today. Cajun cooking for sure, and Creole as well, is essentially “iron pot” cooking. Stews, gumbos, etoufees, fried fish or chicken, have been traditionally cooked in the iron pot since colonial times, and in the old world, going back centuries to classical times. Even now, in the 21st century, Mama’s iron pots are passed down to the daughters (or sons, as the case may be). If south Louisiana cooks did not inherit their iron pots, they acquired them in most instances as wedding gifts.

* The monkeys were named after the habits and hoods of the Capuchin order, not vice versa.

** There is much more to this story, at one point, French Louisiana was divided into three territories, each with a specific religious order assigned to minister to the inhabitants.
See Baudier, Roger. The Catholic Church in Louisiana. New Orleans: A.W. Hyatt Stationery Mfg. Co. Ltd.,1939.

⚜︎ Symons, Michael. A History of Cooks and Cooking. Champagne, IL: U. Of Illinois Press, 1998,2000.

***More on the activities of the Capuchins and the building of the Church and Presbytere can be found in Volume 1 of The Petticoat Rebellion, Chapter 10.


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