The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book

In 1900, for just twenty-five cents, a freshly published copy of the “compendium of our local culinary science . . . an authentic and complete account of the Creole kitchen” could be obtained from any New Orleans newsstand.  (10)

So opens Rien T. Fertel’s essay “Everyone Seemed Willing to Help” The Picayune Creole Cook Book as Battleground 1900-2008.  Appearing in The Larder, a collection of foodways articles edited by John T. Edge, Elizabeth Engelhardt and Ted Ownby, Fertel’s research maps out  fights over what is creole and who is responsible for creole, amongst many other skirmishes.  You could view this war over recognition and ownership concerning the cuisine of Southern Louisiana as a Civil War map of Union and Confederate forces arrowing toward each other.

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The introduction to the first edition of The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book announces the crisis:

But the civil war, with its vast upheavals of social conditions, wrought great changes in the household economy of New Orleans, as it did throughout the South; here as elsewhere, she who had ruled as the mistress of yesterday became her own cook of to-day; in nine cases out of ten the younger darkies accepted their freedom with alacrity, but in many ancient families the older Creole “négresse,” as they were called, were slow to leave the haunts of the old cuisine and the families of which they felt themselves an integral part. (5)

Terms of racial discrimination and division appear within a lament for the loss of the “Old South,” while at the same time, marking the dire situation for the “mistress/cook of to-day.”  Food and its recipes paint a city being laid siege to, a field bordered by advancing armies, a river and port blockaded.   Marching across this map, slaves and freed slaves define not only the cuisine of New Orleans and the “Old South,” but in so doing are labelled the enemy.  Consider Toni-Tipton Martin’s words in The Jemima Code,

The book [Picayune] perpetuated the stilted reasoning that she who owns the cook owns the recipes, yet simultaneously imparted a measure of visibility to ignored cooks.  It exposed the frustration felt by a growing number of white employers who found it impossible to separate their contempt for black servants from their dependence upon them, and it forecast a coming practice by mainstream cookbook authors–one that opened a crack in what David M. Katzman described as “southern caste etiquette,” which dictated that blacks not appear to be in control.  Ever.  (39)

As Tunde Wey points out in his Civil Eats article, Dining in the Era of Kaepernick
Is dining the final frontier of American racism? This chef says yes

This is a crisis not of inventiveness in the kitchen, which is another issue, considering the velocity at which derivative restaurants and menus are being created, and the scene is hastily homogenizing.

This is a crisis of imagination. A failure to see the role that food and dining can play in creating more racially equitable communities.

Along with “a crisis of imagination,” we can differ with the Picayune’s Cook Book in 1901 about the main concern being there are not enough “mammies” staying down on the plantation, and put forth the most important concern is that the cook book naturalizes differences between black and white by attempting to erase the creators of Creole cuisine.  One way to create a “racially equitable community” is to give credit where credit is due, so let me say that Creole cuisine certainly carries culinary traditions from France and Spain, but those traditions would have died on the vine without the foodways of West Africans like the Yoruba and Aja who constituted part of the Atlantic Slave Trade arriving at the port of Charleston.  Where in history onto today, this recognition has not been fully achieved, it is possible to imagine a dinner table where descendants of African and European families, now all Americans, sit down to eat a bowl of Crab Gumbo Gombo aux Crabes, while telling tales of ancestry, home and travels.  Let’s begin.

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Now here’s some gorgeous and large Gulf Coast shrimp, and of course, if you’re going to cook crab gumbo, you need the crab.

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All cleaned and ready to contribute their glory.  First of all first, we need to simmer a stock.

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Catfish heads swim above a gathering of shrimp shells and under a floating garden of celery, bok choy, green onions, parsley, bay leaves, cloves, garlic, onion tops, carrot ends, green pepper slices, Old Bay seasoning, and roasted seaweed.  Hours later, it’s time for the roux.

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Butter, whole wheat flour and then an hour and a half of a slow burn as all darkens and glistens.  Next up, coarsely diced onion.

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The roux sticks to the onion, and when the onion turns translucent it’s time for the okra.

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Cooking with okra has opened up much about the connection between the American South and West Africa for me, and its “sliminess” is much appreciated when looking for that needed thickening agent.  Let’s turn to some local peppers.

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A range of colors, all the better for the final bowl put in front of hungry eyes.  Now it’s time to strain the stock.

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Bowl of stock, pan of sautéed onion, okra and peppers in a roux.  Excellent.  I cut off the crab claws and legs, saving the legs for another stock, cut the body in half, and then stir claws and halved torsos in a golden mixture.

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Ready now to pour in the stock and then add some quartered corn to give the gumbo a touch of a Lowcountry Seafood Boil.

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Another half an hour and it’s time to serve and what a feast for eyes and mouth we have.  Friends are over so it’s time to sit down and eat, remembering that conviviality gives civilization its heart.  We’ll end with our gumbo and some Buckwheat Zydeco. Bon Appétit!

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