The Origin Myth of New Orleans Cuisine

By  Lolis Eric Elie |  April 3, 2010

Part of the difficulty in defining Louisiana Creole cuisine, and in determining the race of its inventors, is the difficulty in defining the word Creoleitself. There is consensus that, in the case of Louisiana, Creole means a mix of French people with folks from other cultures. But there is dispute about precisely which other cultures were involved in the mix.

If definitions of Creole cuisine can be considered a genre unto themselves, then Dorothy Dix's work would be a minor masterpiece, embodying as it does all of the elements that flummox me most in such prose: a flirtation with, but not embrace of, historical fact; an absolute certainty about the seminal role of the French in the development of Creole cuisine; an insistence that every group of white people ever to settle in Louisiana made invaluable contributions to the cookery of the state; a lack of specificity about the contributions made by each of these groups; and the recognition that the natural rhythm of black people is as evident in the kitchen as it is on the bandstand.

"Many things have contributed to make New Orleans a shrine to which gourmets make reverent pilgrimages," Dix observes in her introduction to Elaine Douglass Jones's Gourmet's Guide to New Orleans Creole Cookbook, which was originally published in 1933.

"One is that it has what an old colored cook once described as the 'ingrejuns' necessary to good cooking, for you cannot make omelets without having eggs."

Though I was born and raised in New Orleans, I spent most of my adult life wholly unaware of the influence of the hot breads of Virginia on the cuisine of my hometown. This fact was but one of the "gems" revealed to me by Dix:

Founded originally on the French cuisine, it was pepped up, so to speak, by the Spanish, given body and strength by the New England influence, a bit of warmth by the hot breads of Virginia, and finally glorified by the touch of the old Negro mammies who boasted that they had only to pass their hands over a pot to give it a flavor that would make your mouth water.

In those few words, Dix sounded the major themes of Louisiana Creole food, as defined by many if not most Creole cookbooks. Most of these definitions were written long before food studies had become the serious academic discipline that it is today. Still, there is a consistency to the definitions—and the mistakes within them—that can tell us much about history, class, and race.

Louisiana Creole cooking is said to have been started by a chorus of small bangs: the beating of pots by dissatisfied housewives seeking to get the attention of the governor.

In the introduction to Justin Wilson's 1990 book, Home Grown Louisiana Cookin', Jeannine Meeds Wilson reports:

Madame Langlois, the housekeeper for Governor Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, was the first great cook in Louisiana. It seems the few women who inhabited the settlement of New Orleans in 1722 were upset over the lack of familiar cooking ingredients so far away from France. The new colony experienced chronic supply problems with frequent shortages of wheat, flour, garden vegetables, and herbs. The women marched on the governor's mansion clanging pots and spoons. Le Moyne wasn't able to do much about the supply problem, so he asked Madame Langlois to show the settlers how to cook with the foods that were so plentiful in their new home.

Wilson continued:

Madame Langlois learned her skills from the Indians, the first inhabitants of Louisiana.... The Indians were masters at using all the resources available to them.... The Indians gave us filé powder for flavoring and made hominy. They taught the early settlers many valuable tricks about survival in the wilderness and about the plants and animals unknown to the Europeans who were slowly moving into the area.

Honey Naylor's contribution to the 1998 book The Food of New Orleans: Authentic Recipes From the Big Easy adds one detail to Wilson's narrative.

It was she [Langlois] who calmed the angry wives by teaching them how to use powdered sassafras for flavor in the gumbo they'd already tasted from the hands of African slaves (gumbo being derived from the west African word for okra).

Naylor goes on to add, "It is not an error to say Creole cooking is French, even though that is a gross oversimplification."

Like many others who have sought to define Creole cuisine, Wilson's argument is self-contradictory. She refers to Langlois as "the first great cook in Louisiana" before going on to state that "Madame Langlois learned her skills from the Indians," and "the Indians were masters at using all the resources available to them." Similarly, Naylor notes that historians said this so-called "Petticoat Rebellion" was "the beginning of New Orleans Creole cuisine." But her own evidence indicates that gumbo, the emblematic dish of this cuisine, pre-dated Mme. Langlois's contribution.

Naylor and Wilson seem to reach their conclusions about the origins of this food based on the reputations of the peoples involved. France has been renowned for the greatness of its food at least since 1533, when Catherine de Medici arrived from Florence to revolutionize French cuisine (and to wed King Henry II). By comparison, neither the myriad tribes of Louisiana Indians nor the various peoples of West Africa have enjoyed such widespread praise.

So it's no surprise that gumbo, the signature dish of Louisiana cuisine, is often considered to be a Creolized version of the bouillabaisse of Southern France. The misconception has expanded beyond cookbooks to the Internet. For example, on the website In Mama's Kitchen, David Adams writes:

The word Gumbo MAY have been derived from the African word Gombo that means "Okra." This is a derivation that is apropos since okra should probably be designated as the "Official Flower" of every state in the South. The origin of the word "gumbo" is disputed, however. Some sources say it derives from the Choctaw word "kombo" which means sassafras. Whatever the source, gumbo is based on the French soup Bouillabaisse, a soup which many believe cannot be translated from one place to another due to the seafood in local waters.

Though Adams acknowledges the assertion that bouillabaisse cannot be "translated," he then ignores his own evidence that gumbo has a source other than this French soup. As for the relationship between gumbo and bouillabaisse, I can find very little. In his book The Food of France, Waverley Root devotes several pages to bouillabaisse. While lobster can be included, he states that fin fish, not shellfish, dominate the dish. Seafood gumbo, by contrast, never contains fin fish. Moreover, gumbo in Cajun Louisiana often consists of sausage and fowl and no seafood. That dish lacks any connection at all to the seafood soup of Marseilles.

Gumbo does, however, have much in common with the okra soups and stews that are commonly found in Western Africa and throughout the African diaspora, where the ancestors of most Afro-Creoles came from.

The first known, printed mention of gumbo was made in reference to food eaten not by French immigrants but by African maroons who had escaped slavery in Louisiana. The following passage, from a 1764 court document, was uncovered by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of Africans in Colonial Louisiana:

Comba and Louison, both Mandingo women in their 50's, were vendors selling cakes and other goods along the streets of New Orleans. They maintained an active social life, organized feasts where they ate and drank very well, cooked gumbo filé and rice, roasted turkeys and chickens, barbecued pigs and fish, smoked tobacco and drank rum.

The word gumbo is derived from the word for okra in many Bantu languages. It seems highly unlikely that French Creoles would apply a Bantu term to a French dish. In fact, if you are shopping for okra in France, you must use the African word gombo, as the French language hasn't its own term.

But because the French aristocracy was famous for its love of elegant cuisine, it was necessary to claim that French elites created the food of the Louisiana swamps.

"Among the people of New Orleans were a group of exiled aristocrats who were accustomed to fine foods and wines in France," Wilson imparts.

The French Revolution brought displaced royal chefs to New Orleans, where they found many appreciative customers. They brought a finesse to their cooking through the rich sauces that have made many of their recipes treasures. They were also accustomed to having house servants and trained many blacks to cook for them, bringing the heritage of another whole continent into the mix.

Making a parallel point, Raymond J. Martinez writes in his 1954 book, Louisiana Cookery, "In the beginning, gentlemen of high rank who came to Louisiana from France demanded the excellent cooking to which they were accustomed."

The Original Picayune Creole Cookbook begins its definition of Creole cuisine in the interrogatory and thus raises doomed hopes that the authors will truly examine the evidence. The authors ask: How did Creole cooking come about?

From France came the chefs of that day to make their fortunes in the New World—and established themselves here with the young colony. From Spain came the best cooks of that sunny clime—and settled down beside the French artists. After a while they borrowed ideas from one another. After a still longer while the people of the New World, who learned from them, adapted what they learned to their needs and to the materials they had at hand. The result was beyond speech.

In an interview with the New Orleans Restaurants website, cookbook author John DeMers said:

Creole cooking is based on elegant French cooking—a time-honored pampering of royalty and rich people. The glorious sauces of the Creole kitchen are at least built upon the glorious sauces of the French kitchen.

Similarly, comparing Creole and Cajun cuisines, Emeril Lagasse writes, "The Creole cuisine is a more refined one, due to the aristocratic influences of the French and Spanish settlers who lived in New Orleans."

What these authors seem to forget is that in the early days of the Louisiana colony, France had difficulty finding willing settlers, much less aristocrats, eager to risk death by yellow fever and malaria to come to an uncertain future in the heat and humidity of New Orleans. Moreover, by the time of the French Revolution, in 1789, the Louisiana colony had already been well established.

Another point these authors ignore is that the shortage of women in the French colony led to the importation of prostitutes released from prison in France and shipped to the New World. While these women may have been wonderful human beings, it is unlikely that they were expert in the cuisine of the French aristocracy.

"Creole cuisine is an art in itself, reflecting the same happy combination of opposites found in Creole people who developed it," describes the anonymous author of Creole Cuisine, a book published in 1951 by the utility company New Orleans Public Service Inc., "New Orleans was settled by the French and the Spanish, and the children of marriages between these races were called Creole."

According to the 1990 book Creole Cooking (Step by Step), "To be considered a Creole in the strictest sense, you would have to have descended from a French or Spanish family who came to the area before 1803."

Expressing a similar view, Virginia Cooper shares the following in the 1941 book The Creole Kitchen Cookbook, "'Creole' is a name applied to the descendants of the French and the Spaniards who explored Louisiana and settled in the state."

Lafcadio Hearn, the nineteenth-century writer who did much to create the popular notion of New Orleans and its culture, extended the ethnicity of Creoles to many other European immigrants.

In their book, French Cooking in the New World, Frances D. and Peter J. Robotti quote Lafcadio Hearn as defining a Creole as "a white descendant of an original Louisiana settler, who may be either French, or Spanish, or German, or English, or even American."

But in this panoply of potential Creoles, only one group of people is specifically barred: Americans of African descent. Cooper makes this abundantly clear in The Creole Kitchen Cookbook:

Many of the leading citizens of Louisiana are proud they are Creoles, but they would be surprised to know that there has been in existence and still lingers the belief that the word Creole is associated with "mixed-bloods," or mulattoes, as they are more generally called.

Hearn echoes Cooper's point and in the process seems unnaturally surprised to learn that some people thought native-born New Orleanians of African descent might also be considered Creole. In the essay entitled "Los Criollos," Hearn suggests:

It only remains to observe that the Creoles of New Orleans and of Louisiana (whatever right any save Spaniards may originally have had to the name), are all those native-born who can trace their ancestry to European immigrants or to European colonists of the State, whether those were English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Russian, or Sicilian.

He continues, "But the term is generally understood here as applying to French residents, especially those belonging to old French families, and few others care to claim the name."

It, therefore, seems odd, indeed, that even among the most ignorant portion of the population of this city, there should be found any person of the opinion that a Creole may be a quadroon or an octoroon....

Hearn continues:

But when one considers that the light-tinted, French speaking colored element of the New Orleans,—the relatives and the children of true Creoles,—call themselves Creoles, and desire to be so called, the existence of the fallacy does not appear so extraordinary 
after all.

The debate about whether Africans or Europeans are the true Creoles goes back centuries. In her book Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food From the Atlantic Rim, Jessica B. Harris indicates that the term "may ultimately have been of African origin." She quotes Garcilaso el Inca, who wrote in 1602 that:

It's a name that the negroes means negroes "born in the Indies," they invented it to distinguish those...born in Guinea from those born in America, because they consider themselves more honorable and of better status than their children because they are from the fatherland....

While the cookbook authors are resolute in their conviction that the lion's share of the credit for American Creole cuisine belongs to white people, they are a bit vague in specifically defining what these white people contributed. Exactly what does Dorothy Dix mean when she writes about how the Spanish "pepped up" Creole cuisine? What does it mean to say that the New England influence gave the cuisine "body and strength"?

At times, it seems that the writers of these cookbooks are better versed in genealogy than in food studies. "The cooking here, to speak sententiously, is grandchild to France, descendant to Spain, cousin to Italy, and also it is full fledged Southern," relates Mary Moore Bremer in New Orleans Recipes.

Or consider a similar passage written by the Junior League of New Orleans in their Plantation Cookbook, "Recipes handed down through Creole families represent the fusion of European, West Indian, and domestic influences."

The Junior Leaguers elaborate:

French colonists brought a wealth of recipes that were to form the basis of Creole cooking. Robust Spanish colonials followed and imposed their own spicy touches to established dishes; the Mexicans later made similar contributions. German immigrants who farmed near the mouth of the river became the largest producers of local rice. Like corn in the uplands, rice was the staple of lowland tables. Italian colonists increased the use of garlic and hot peppers; curries and delicate spices were imported from far off India. Even a few Chinese epicureans made their presence felt.

The Junior Leaguers fail to say which recipes the French brought with them. And what was the distinction between the hot peppers of the Italians and the "spicy touches" of the Spanish? In which Creole recipes does one find evidence of the debt the cuisine owes to India and China?

Hot peppers are New World spices. So when these authors refer to the spiciness of Spanish food, they are probably referring to the cuisine of the Spanish colonies in the New World. But, with few notable exceptions, the authors credit the Spanish with this culinary influence, and not the indigenous peoples of the countries Spain colonized.

"The Creoles of Louisiana learned a little from the French, Spanish, and Indians, and by a skillful blending and the use of native foods and high seasoning created Creole cooking," Martinez tells us in Louisiana Cookery. He then conveys:

There was also the Italian influence upon Louisiana or Creole cooking which helped to give it flavor. The Italians made excellent sauces and improved the gravy for meat and fish dishes. But it seems that the Italians, believing in their own style of cooking, refused to be influenced by the French and Spanish.

But Martinez failed to describe even one of the sauces or gravies that the Italians contributed to Creole cooking.

Although Louisiana has had residents of Italian descent even before 1870, the majority of the state's Italian immigrants came after that date. By then, Creole cuisine had already been well established as a major culinary achievement.

In 1887, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote:

[The] Old Franco Spanish city on the banks of the Mississippi, where, of all the cities of the world, you can eat the most and suffer the least, where the claret is as good as in Bordeaux, and where a ragout and bouillabaisse can be had the like of which was never eaten in Marseilles or Paris.

It is unlikely that the Italians could have greatly impacted Creole cuisine by the time of Thackeray's writing.

(It is also curious that the "bouillabaisse" Thackeray tasted was apparently different from that available in France. Perhaps, dear William, it wasn't bouillabaisse at all.)

It's also noteworthy that none of these authors mention the Haitian influence on Creole cuisine. During the decade of the Haitian Revolution, 1793-1803, black, white, free, and enslaved refugees came to New Orleans. In 1812, many of the Haitians who had fled to Cuba during the revolution were forced to leave that island and settle in Louisiana. The population of New Orleans doubled during this period.

Those Haitians, many of whom were probably born in Africa, provided the last great infusion of both French and West African culture since, owing to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the former French colony of New Orleans was probably a less attractive destination for Franco settlers than the French colony it once had been. Given the time these settlers had spent in Cuba, they were apt to have been well versed in the cuisine of that Spanish colony. But by defining Haitians out of Creole cuisine, these authors are able to maintain the fiction that the food of New Orleans is derived from the French aristocracy rather than from descendants of a country that is often classified as the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

The definition of Creole as it relates to American cuisine is crucial because the food itself is the most widely celebrated American culinary achievement.

Consider the effusive praise of Count Hermann Alexander Graf von Keyserling in his 1930 book, America Set Free:

Nowhere did the absolute superiority of real culture strike me so forcibly as there.... New Orleans is the one place in America where cooking is considered an art.

Any people acknowledged to have contributed significantly to the development of this cuisine would automatically be considered major players on the international culinary stage. And, given the fact that people of West African descent have always formed a substantial percentage of the population of New Orleans, it is particularly suspicious that their influence—if the cookbook authors are to be believed—has been so minuscule.

Rudy Lombard gives voice to this suspicion in the 1978 book Creole Feast:

It is difficult to arrive at a universally satisfying definition of Creole cuisine. All such attempts in the past have failed to achieve a consensus, and have seldom been used twice; several key influences or individuals are always left out or changed.

"The one feature, however, that all previous definitions have in common is a curious effort to ascribe a secondary, lowly or nonexistent role to the black hand in the pot," Lombard continued.

Most portrayals of the black contributions to Creole cooking assume that black people had a mysterious talent for cooking and that, unlike the Europeans, they didn't include any of the techniques from their homeland in their cooking in the Americas.

According to the Junior Leaguers of Baton Rouge in their 1959 book, River Road Recipes, "The French enhanced their own outstanding cuisine with the great abundance found in Louisiana—the herbs, seafood, game, meat, vegetables and fruits."

They go on to write, "The Spanish added zest and the old Negro mammy a touch of magic with her knowledge and use of herbs."

Virginia Cooper also finds something supernatural in the talent of black cooks:

Even the Negresses, through some unknown mystery or through instinct, have grasped the art; they have discovered many valuable strong-flavored herbs and roots that are used for seasonings.

But in his book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene D. Genovese contends that the African influence on Southern foodways was central to the development of that cuisine. In a widely quoted passage, he refers to this influence as "the culinary despotism of the [slave] quarters over the big house." Considering the similarities between the Creole food of New Orleans, the cuisine of West Africa, and the recipes of Afro-Caribbean countries such as Haiti, it would seem difficult to exclude these people from definitions of Creole cooking when such culturally distant people as New Englanders and Virginians are credited with helping to shape it.

If the sentiments expressed in these older books were purely things of the past, our discussion of them would be of no more moment than the discussion of any long buried cultural relic of the days gone by. But, more often than not, contemporary cookbooks repeat the tired sentiments about Creole cuisine being primarily the product of European cooks.

In the 1998 book The Food of New Orleans, Paul Greenberg posits that the "West Indians" were third-class citizens in the development of Creole cuisine. It's clear from his reference to their bare feet that the West Indians to whom he was referring were black:

If the French represented the epitome of refinement in cooking and the lusty West Indians the barefoot contributors of seasoning, someone had to take the middle ground. Fleeing from famine, pestilence, and government upheavals came the Germans, the Italians, and the long-suffering Irish.

Yet later in that essay, Greenberg states that the Germans and the Italians who immigrated to this country were poor people, hardly more prosperous than the West Indian contributors to Creole cuisine. If Greenberg is to be believed, black people invariably rank lower than even the most wretched of white people.

In order to maintain the elaborate fiction that black people contributed little or nothing to the development of New Orleans Creole cuisine, cookbook authors of previous generations had to invent an array of white enrichments that was sufficiently broad to account for the multicultural nature of this food. Acknowledging the obvious importance of the French was not enough unless it was also made clear that the non-French elements of the cuisine came almost exclusively from other Europeans. Modern food writers have tended to accept this myth without even taking the time to examine its internal contradictions. Some cookbook authors have given significant credit to black cooks, but their work has been insufficient to counterbalance the common misconception that black people were just bit players in the development of this food. But imagine what could have happened to the black image in the white mind, or the black image in the black mind (let alone the white image in the white mind), if the contributions of black Creoles to New Orleans cuisine had been fully acknowledged. Imagine, for example, if "black" or "West African" or "Haitian" were substituted for "French" in Count Keyserling's America Set Free:

Owing to the French influence Americanism acquires a halo of beauty in New Orleans.... A time may come,—and I hope it will come—when New Orleans will wield a more attractive power in the eyes of Americans than New York. Should it come to this, then Americans would prefer the former in the same sense as every cultured German thinks more of Munich, not to mention Vienna, than of Berlin.