Dishing up New Orleans Food History
This evening marks the end of the delicious—and educational—2014 FOOD in the Garden programming in the Victory Garden. This fall we explored a different key maritime region with connections to the War of 1812 each week: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and this week, New Orleans. What contributed to the global and unique cuisine of the Big Easy? How did immigrants shape the culinary heritage of the original foodie city? Our final week we’ll be joined by Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company, Capital City Co., and Phillip Greene in the marketplace and our very own James Gagliardi will be signing copies of Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location, the first Smithsonian Gardens book on gardening.
New Orleans conjures up images of ornate cast-iron railings, boisterous brass bands, and of course, red beans and rice. The cuisine of New Orleans is a true melting pot of flavors and cultures, a product of its unique location on a major waterway and its tumultuous and storied past. Jambalaya, beignets, and chicory coffee are the confluence of hundreds of years of cross-cultural connections and shared meals steeped in French, Spanish, Caribbean, American Indian, and African traditions.
The archetypal New Orleans meal (in this author’s non-scientific, Yankee opinion) is red beans and rice. Like much of the city’s cuisine, there is debate over the origins of this nutritious & delicious one-pot dish. Precursors of the dish can be found in Spanish, Haitian, Caribbean, and African cuisine. No matter the origins, each chef has their own idea of the “perfect” recipe for Monday dinner, the traditional day to dish up this classic. Before washing machines, Monday was customarily the day to spend hours scrubbing the family clothes. Because this was an all-day process a pot of beans with a ham bone and some vegetables was set to simmer for an easy meal after a busy and sudsy day. Dishes that originated in the working class and slave communities migrated to the elegant tables of the French Quarter and into the city’s lexicon of flavor via hardworking and innovative cooks utilizing a truly global arsenal of ingredients. From the tables of stately homes to mom-and-pop joints, you’ll find this king of dishes on the menu in Louisiana homes and restaurants today.
Rice, like the apples featured on the blog last week, is a species introduced from afar but an American dietary staple through and through. The history of rice in the United States cannot be untangled from our dark history of slavery. More and more scholars argue for a West African introduction of rice cultivation techniques to the Americas, with rice being transported over the treacherous Middle Passage and grown by enslaved Africans in their small garden plots. This year we’re growing ‘Carolina Gold’ rice in the Victory Garden. It was a successful plantation crop in the Carolina Lowcountry, its sweet and clean taste complementing delicate fish stews. However, ‘Carolina Gold’ was too finicky a crop to keep up with the mechanical, modern world and was almost lost to extinction. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and a small group of rice farmers are leading the charge to put this historic rice back on the table.
New Orleans native Louis Armstrong considered red beans and rice to be his favorite dish among many favorite dishes. He loved red beans and rice so much he often signed off on letters with “Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong.” Not able to join us at FOOD in the Garden this evening? Whip up a pot of this New Orleans favorite with this recipe for red beans and rice from Armstrong and his wife Lucille, courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and NPR.
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator