The Cuisines of Louisiana
By Bill Hahne
In l981, I began a voyage into a strange and strikingly flavorful cuisine: the food of Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Because my southern cooking education really began on boats, voyage is the right term. I became a “floating chef.”
Relocating to the Gulf Coast from Illinois, I tried to learn how to cook red beans so that they would magically thicken themselves, attempted gumbo without learning to “do a roux,” and horrified the locals with my watery rice jambalayas. As a hotel chef in Gulfport, I was a failure. So I “downgraded” into a job as cook and deckhand on a towboat that pushed oil barges on the Mississippi River and Intercoastal Waterway — it was the best way to learn how to cook traditional Louisiana dishes. If I didn’t cook exactly the way the Cajun crew showed me, they threatened to throw me overboard (There’s a quality control incentive most of you won’t run across.). The towboat would actually stop out in the Gulf and trade diesel fuel for fresh shrimp, crabs and fish from the fishing fleet — now that’s fresh!
I survived the towboat to become chef on the cruise ship Mississippi Queen, moved on to the Natchez (as steward) and eventually became the chef at Metairie Country Club in New Orleans. As chef, I ran the galleys and kitchens, but learned all the time from my crew about Cajun and Creole food.
The early 1980s were a great time to be a chef in New Orleans. The popularity of Cajun food was booming, and I was right there with the great ones: Paul Prudhomme, Justin Wilson, John Folse and many others. Learning to cook the food meant that I also had to learn the history of the food.
Cajun vs. Creole
When talking about Louisiana’s food, the most often heard terms are Creole and Cajun. Creole is the cuisine of early New Orleans, a mixture of the cooking of the many cultures that founded that complex city. An oversimplified explanation would state that Cajun is the food of the bayous and country and Creole is the multinational food of New Orleans. But this does not do justice to all the many cultures that have contributed to Louisiana’s cuisine.
As an example, there is an area 30 miles southeast of my home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It is in the Louisiana parish of St. Bernard, deep Delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River. (You would have to say 30 miles “as the crow flies” because there is so much swamp and water that only a crow or an alligator could get there from here.) Parts of St. Bernard Parish were settled by fishermen from the Canary Islands. Their food has a noticeable Spanish accent; their jambalaya is actually a paella. Even this provenance is disputed by my friend Scotty, from the St. Bernard town of Poydras, who claims that he is Portugese.
The swamps and bayous of Louisiana and the Gulf region produce a lot of fogs and mists, and just like the fog obscures our highway, U.S. 90, the history of this region’s food — or any region for that matter — gets obscured by years of verbal storytelling. But we can trace the development of the cuisines by their ethnic history. The Cajuns claim they have more fun, so let’s start with them.
Well, after my riverboat education, I finally did learn to make a great red beans served with rice. The secret to thickening the beans is to mash some of the beans against the side of the pot during the last half hour of cooking. But you have to use a big wooden spoon, not one of those modern stainless-steel devices. This could be called a classic Creole recipe.
New Orleans Red Beans
Red beans, dried 1 lb.
Water 2 qts.
Ham bone* 1
Vegetable Oil 2 Tbsp.
Onions, coarsely chopped 2 cups
Green bell pepper, chopped 1 cup
Celery, chopped 1/2 cup
Smoked andouille sausage 1 lb.
Tomatoes, diced 15-oz. can
Bay leaf, powdered 1 tsp.
Thyme leaves 1 Tbsp
Parsley, fresh, chopped 1 Tbsp.
Rinse and sort red beans. In a 1-gal. saucepan, cover the beans with water, add the ham bone and bring to a simmer over medium heat; cook one hour. In a separate small sauté pan, lightly cook the trinity (onions, green pepper and celery) and garlic until onion is opaque, add to beans and simmer another hour. Add tomatoes with their juice, bay leaf and thyme. Cut andouille into serving-size pieces and add to beans. Simmer another hour or until beans start to soften. Mash some beans against the side of the pan while cooking. When creamy and smooth, serve over rice with chopped parsley garnish.
Have plenty of hot sauce standing by.
(*) Chef’s recommendation: use a high-quality ham base in place of the ham bone. For 2 qts. of water, use 2 oz. of base.
The Acadians were originally of French descent. They left southern France, settled in Nova Scotia in the 1600s, but left there in 1755 because of conflict with the British. Some went back to France, but most settled west of New Orleans in what became known as Acadiana. Through time, the term “Acadians” evolved into “Cajuns.” Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline is the sad epic of the long trek from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, but with irrepressible humor a Cajun towboat captain shared with me a “bonus” of the trip according to his “gran’papa’s” story. The Acadians loved lobsters, and a whole fleet of lobsters tried to follow the Acadians to Louisiana. The trip was so long that they shrank, and became (of course) crawfish.
The Acadians were quite happy being in a remote area that was bountiful in fish and game. Some of the area’s existing food became part of their diet. The Choctaw Indians probably gave them the corn, and also the bounty of the sassafras tree, from which they used the roots for root beer and the dried leaves for filé gumbo seasoning. The Spanish immediately to their west contributed a “zest” through peppers and seasonings, while Africans shared okra and sweet potatoes. (In fact, the Bantu word for okra is nkombo — so close to gumbo.) Because their French Nova Scotian ancestors were farmers, the Acadians also began planting all kinds of crops. In the 18th century, Acadiana already had pigs, chickens and corn. They planted wheat and barley, which didn’t take, and rice, which thrived.
The new Cajuns also brought their habit of eating a lot of soup, for breakfast and lunch. Their basic cooking was done in large iron pots or cauldrons, and in skillets, stirred with wooden utensils. Cajun cooking is called one-pot cooking.
Several ingredients characterize Cajun cooking:
Roux. A concept brought from France, roux is a combination of flour and oil. The Cajun version is generally dark roux, made by browning the combination while stirring. Because of the heat involved during cooking, some refer to it as “Cajun napalm.” Dark roux is a major component in gumbo, étouffées and sauces.
Andouille. This smoked sausage with Cajun accent generally is coarse-ground pork with garlic, and sometimes made with a hint of cane syrup.
Boudin sausage. This unsmoked pork sausage is made with rice, green onion, parsley and seasonings, and sometimes is bound with blood.
Cayenne peppers. These fiery red peppers are still grown on Avery Island by the McIlhenny family, the makers of Tabasco® Sauce. Cayenne is the capsicum of choice for most Louisiana cooking.
Tasso. A very highly seasoned ham, tasso is used as an ingredient in Cajun cooking to add flavor.
Seasoning. Most people consider this to mean herbs and spices, maybe salt. But, as a Louisiana chef, every morning I had my saucier freshly cut a big pan of “seasonings”: chopped onion, celery and green bell pepper, kept in neat rows — the “trinity” that you hear about in New Orleans’ TV cooking. This so-called “trinity,” with the addition of garlic, is the start of Louisiana cooking and used in both Cajun and Creole food.
Herbs and spices. Cajuns use bay leaf, thyme, cayenne pepper, salt, parsley, some basil, filé, and from what I have experienced, just about anything else they can get their hands on.
These and other ingredients can be combined to create a wide variety of traditional Cajun dishes:
Jambalaya. This rice dish is served with a variety of protein ingredients. Popular thinking agrees that the word derived from jambon, the French word for ham, and ya-ya, an African word for rice. A basic jambalaya would start with sautéing the trinity with ham and garlic, then adding rice and stock and finishing with herbs and spices. The Creoles in New Orleans added tomatoes. Every community makes a different jambalaya. The saying in Acadiana is “you eat it before it eats you.” (Alligator jambalaya is delicious.)
Gumbo. This thick, stew-like dish begins with a dark roux and the trinity; add stock, seafood or meat, and other ingredients and flavoring, and that’s gumbo. Its smoky, dark, mysterious deep flavors and aromas are served with rice on the side. Gumbos take many forms and shapes; the Cajun versions usually use dark roux and include filé powder or okra for flavor and some thickening. On the Gulf Coast of the Mississippi, bacon grease replaces the oil in a gumbo roux. In northern Louisiana and Mississippi, a gumbo is made with a clear chicken stock with the trinity, plus okra and tomatoes.
Étouffée. Literally meaning “to cook by smothering,” which, in classic cooking, means to braise. Cajuns make étouffée with a rich tomato brown sauce and take artistic license with the term braise by adding the seafood at the end of the cooking process.
New Orleans cooking is a blend of the many cultures that made the city one of the earliest major commercial river ports. Before becoming part of the United States, New Orleans was French, then Spanish. Throw in major influences from Africa, Portugal and the West Indies, then stir in smaller contributions from Cuba, Germany and American Indian tribes, sprinkle with seasonings of the Far East and the result is the delicious mélange that is New Orleans’ cuisine. In New Orleans, a person of mixed ethnic background is called a Creole — and their cuisine reflects this mixture.
Instead of the provincial pot and skillet of the Cajun, the Creole cook followed classic Escoffier guidelines in the New Orleans kitchen. The city was a big marketplace with a wide range of locally grown and imported food, and the Creole cook took advantage of that.
The gumbo of the bayou became the Lenten New Orleans’ version, gumbo z’herbs: no roux, a clear broth, lots of greens and fresh herbs and some oysters for excitement. Sauces were more elaborate and refined. The availability of cream and butter, domestic meats and poultry, imported wine and spices, produce from the Caribbean and groceries from around the world gave the New Orleans cook a wide choice in menus. Cane syrup from the plantations up river was used in many ways, including desserts. There are no better tomatoes than the Creole ones grown downstream from New Orleans in Plaquemines. Both Cajuns and Creoles made extensive use of stocks, but the Creole cook used them in greater variety for sauces and soups.
There are a number of unique Creole ingredients and foods. For example, additional spices used by Creoles are cloves, fines herbs, bouquet garni and tarragon. In any true Creole kitchen, you’ll also find:
Bordelaise sauce. Not the classic brown sauce. In New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, this hot butter and olive-oil sauce, with chopped garlic and parsley, is particularly good over angel-hair pasta.
Beignets. These diamond-shaped fried pillows of raised dough are sprinkled with powdered sugar. The best way to eat these is order too many at an outdoor café and get the sugar all over your face, hands, arms and clothes.
Café au lait. This black, strong chicory coffee is made with hot milk and typically is used to wash down the excess of beignets!
Mirletons. This squash (called chayote pears in most Caribbean countries) is cooked with many seafood dishes or stuffed and baked. They actually grow on vines on backyard fences in this area.
Shallots. The Creole cook calls green onions “shallots,” and I don’t know why. Do you?
Pain perdu. Translating to “lost bread,” this is the New Orleans version of French toast. It is made of day-old French bread lightly soaked in a beaten egg-and-cream mixture flavored with rum or a liqueur and cinnamon.
Creole desserts are rich in flavor, and include:
Pralines. Sinfully sweet pecan, sugar and evaporated milk goodies, pralines are a New Orleans tradition.
Bread pudding. In my opinion, these taste better in New Orleans than elsewhere because of the unique mixture of day-old French bread and croissants, eggs and cream with a topping of whiskey sauce.
Calas. A mixture of a rice pudding that is mixed with flour and then fried until brown, calas is then sprinkled with sugar and eaten warm.
Crème brûlée. Translated to “burnt cream,” this dessert was brought to an art form by Creole chefs who learned the exact way to blend the browned sugar crust into the custard.
There is so much more to Louisiana food than is described in these few pages. Did you know that the onion mum was created in New Orleans? Or that Ponchatoula is the strawberry capital of the world? The Creole mustard of New Orleans is nearly identical to the French Dijon mustard. Along the river and in the bayous, there is a sixth basic culinary sauce, sauce piquante that is perfect with alligator. The New Orleans’ snoball uses shaved (not crushed) ice. In Nachitoches, LA, they make a meat pie that is so good they are being commercially manufactured. Like a large empanada, these meat pies, made from ground beef and seasoning, are wrapped with pie dough in a triangle shape and then deep fried. And the Coushatta tribe continues to make its traditional hominy soup — a broth with hominy and peppers, much like the Mexican posole.
No matter what you’re looking for, one of the best ways to explore the food is to attend the ubiquitous fairs and festivals that are held all year long throughout the state. A po’ boy sandwich in one hand and a cup of andouille duck gumbo in the other is not a bad way to learn.
Chef Bill “Pops” Hahne was born in his family’s small hotel in Illinois where he started working in the kitchen at age 12. As corporate executive chef for Eatem Foods Company, Vineland, NJ, he works with food manufacturers designing better flavors. His “hobby” is being president of the Research Chefs Association. Pops lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast just outside of New Orleans, where he finds time to hang out with his buddy “Ms. Phyllis” counting seagulls and mullet jumps.
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