Two years ago, New Orleans turned 300, and the storied city that didn’t take Hurricane Katrina sitting down is not only back but better than ever. The Big Easy’s culture of food and drink—in restaurants as well as in home cooking—is deservedly well-renowned. Actually, it’s loved. There’s something else about the cuisine of NOLA that makes it stand above the crowd: the fact that the entire “cuisine” is recognizable—not just a dish or two, which is more commonplace—as being native to a city in the United States. We talked to Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, native New Orleanian and author of the award-winning book “New Orleans–A Food Biography” about this exceptional cuisine.
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Chowhound: In “New Orleans–A Food Biography,” you’ve created a timeline of events tied to the creation of NOLA’s cuisine that range from 1492 to 2010. Can you share your thoughts with us on which of those events were the most important in terms of shaping the city’s food into what it is today?
LW: Some of the things I think are most important to our food don’t really have to do with an exact moment. One thing I think is very important and it’s often forgotten is the whole Colombian Exchange thing, and that there was already eating here when the French people came and founded the city. A base of foods had already been identified by the people who lived here—they knew and were already cultivating oysters, for example, and they knew and were eating bison and creating smoked bison they were able to keep all year—and that is basically the origin of what the Cajuns call “tasso” today. There were tomatoes, pecans, and the filé made from sassafras, so we wouldn’t have what we have without absorbing all of that. There was a baseline to start, and so that’s an important cuisine.
Chowhound: So there was a native cuisine and an original food culture that had to do with what grew well in the area and what the people who were living there were eating when the area was colonized that still affects the cuisine today?
LW: That’s right. The city was founded in 1718 by the Le Moyne brothers. They were French in the sense that they came from “New France” (Canada) but they’d never set foot in actual France. But they were considered French in the way that the French considered every place that became a part of France to be France, which is different than the English, who always knew there was an England and there were the colonies. But the French had a different approach: This was not a colony of France, this was an extension of France.
The brothers were trappers, and very familiar with the native peoples of New France, so when they came here they knew they needed to learn about the food directly from the native people. So they weren’t afraid to eat alligator, and all that kind of thing, because it was French alligator. The English, who by contrast wanted to continue their English identity by eating like an English person, had early settlements where everyone literally starved to death because they wouldn’t eat like a native.
Chowhound: So at that point, the newly settled NOLA was considered to actually be France?
LW: Yes, and soon following that (in Paris especially) the French were developing the restaurant. The Grand Cuisine of France was in its earliest stages of development, so the people who were settling here brought the mindset with them of the whole Age of Enlightenment, which in France was being applied to the Arts—one of which for the French was eating and cooking. So that meant that the mindset for developing a cuisine was already in the people who were here.
Chowhound: So NOLA had started developing a new cuisine of its own even before the 1800s?
LW: Yes. Then in 1763, NOLA was ceded to Spain, so we were actually Spanish until 1803, which was the Louisiana Purchase, and so we were Spanish longer than we were French. A lot of people don’t realize that. And the Spanish brought a taste for spices, because the Moors had been in Spain all this time so that Arab influence meant that as part of the Spice Trade they were much more interested in cardamom, as an example, and all the spices, than were the French. So the taste of spices came in but it was an overlay on this French attitude about food, so it was adopted and absorbed. The Spanish also had a taste for rice, so they were bringing the idea of rice and other things as well. They brought covered markets and a control of food, and they began to license taverns and bars in a way that was done by auction, and that’s how they got the money to run the city. Since this wasn’t taxes like income tax, but instead a tax on drinking, they encouraged everyone to drink, because the more you drank, the more taxes they’d have.
Chowhound: That’s an interesting idea. And so the culture of drinking (and the eating that goes alongside the drinking) was actually built into the concept of creating and maintaining a city that would thrive, economically.
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LW: This next point has no exact date but during the 18th century the enslaved Africans were brought to NOLA. People talk about the French—the attitudes were French but the actual cooking was African.
Chowhound: Can you describe which specific cooking techniques were African?
LW: Frying is something that’s very African, it’s not that nobody else fries, but frying as a basic technique of quick cooking—you know it’s so much quicker to fry chicken than to bake it, and all that sort of thing. Also, Africans had the technology to grow rice and they worked in the cane fields because we’re a sugar-producing area. The French who were brought here were predominantly taken from prison—it was mostly petty crime, so there would be pickpockets, and prostitutes, and maybe people from debtors’ prison. Often these people had no skill, so they couldn’t come here to this wilderness and farm, because they didn’t know how! So that technology was brought here by the Africans, and a lot of the foodstuffs that were grown here were grown only because the Africans knew how to do it. The white people who were here didn’t know the technology—they depended on the slaves for their lives.
Chowhound: So far, you’ve told us about the native cuisine, the French influence, and the importance of the Spanish settlers and the African slaves.
LW: Next, two things were happening sort of at the same time. There was the Haitian uprising, which brought a big influx of planters and slaves along with the cooking of the Caribbean, and around the same time was the Louisiana Purchase, which made NOLA (and all of Louisiana) American, which brought in all these Americans who came from other places that were already in existence and that also brought a different taste to the area.
Chowhound: The Louisiana Purchase was in 1803, so already in less than a hundred years, NOLA had experienced the effects of so many cultures.
LW: So–this is also not an event, but something that’s important. And that is that we are a port. From the beginning, when Europeans began to cultivate coffee first in the Caribbean then in Central America then later in even South America all of that coffee came into the port of NOLA. And all kind of things from the rest of the world came in through the port of NOLA. Tropical fruit was coming in from early on, because once you were there, growing coffee, you might as well bring in pineapples and bananas and all that sort of thing.
Then there was the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation after the war gave freedom to enslaved Africans, and that caused an enormous labor shortage and because of that people from the Philippines, China, and Sicily were brought in and brought in all these new food influences. And then from around 1885 to around 1915 there was—because of what was going on in Italy, and in Sicily in particular—tens of thousands of Sicilians came to NOLA, mostly having some kind of relative or some contact already in NOLA. They took over the French Quarter and it was known as Little Palermo. They say that at the time, it was second only to Palermo for the speaking of the Sicilian dialect. It was a huge influx of people and of course that changed the food of NOLA.
Following that, in the 1970s after the fall of Saigon, a huge quantity of people from Vietnam came to NOLA and we have a huge Vietnamese settlement.
And I would say that the last thing that was really significant to our food was Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Chowhound: How did that affect the cuisine? For a while back then, I remember people didn’t believe the cuisine would survive.
LW: I think it caused a renewal of interest in our food and our local cuisine, because there was a diaspora, because you couldn’t be in the city because it was underwater, so people were spread out all over so they were in Memphis, or Seattle, or Minneapolis, or wherever they might have a relative and of course they couldn’t eat the food they were looking for—you couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy a bottle of filé for your gumbo—people couldn’t find coffee and chicory, and they came back feeling that we can’t lose this! We can’t come back as this homogeneous place that’s part of America and just eat frozen pizza and just this kind of thing. So that’s part of it—a kind of food awareness—and also there were many many Mexicans who came into the city to help rebuild, so you end up with taco trucks, and tamales, and refried beans, and all kinds of really good food became available, and then it began becoming oyster tacos, and all this kind of stuff, because that was what was here. Then shortly after the first wave of people from Mexico, people from other Central-American countries were coming to work on the rebuilding of the city. So you had a kind of Latin influx of Latin influences on the food. And that was only in 2005.
Chowhound: There’s so much to the cuisine of NOLA. Is it possible to sum it up in a few words?
LW: In NOLA, you come here as an ethnic group and we just suck you in and we Creolize your food, so it changes your food as well as our food, so it’s a totally different phenomena.