by Kate Heyhoe
When I die and go to heaven, heaven will be at the New York Public Library. Of course, like many cooking enthusiasts, I find the history of food, the origins of a dish, to be as integral to its appreciation as the onions, stock or seasonings with which it is made. Now, the NYPL has published a book that brings to life the recipes, people and celebrations of this nation's wonderfully rich and varied culinary roots. In honor of Mardi Gras, itself a holiday created by a melting pot of cultures, we profile a Creole Mardi Gras supper from 1880, as deftly reconstructed in the NYPL's book, Around the American Table.
The author, Michael Krondl, worked with the librarians to lovingly synthesize a series of timecapsules from the NYPL's 50,000 volumes in their culinary collection. "Timecapsules" is indeed the most accurate term, for the book is organized into periods which represent regional styles in their culinary heyday, going back as far as 350 years. Using the voices of the times, Krondl paints the picture of each era, intertwining the social, political and economic influences that contribute to setting that era's and region's particular culinary identity. He starts with the Cherokee Harvest, and works a path through such distinctive times as an American Victorian Christmas, Breakfast on the Open Prairie, the African Legacy, German Jews, Pennsylvania Dutch and Plantation Society, among others.
So, to experience this tome, travel back to New Orleans, circa 1880, for a Mardi Gras celebration. Meet Celestine Eustis, our hostess who, in the previous decade, treated guests at her lavish Paris abode to the unfamiliar and unique flavors of Creole dishes like gumbo and "jumballaya." Like the Creole recipes she later committed to paper, Mademoiselle Eustis was herself a mixture of cultures, with a Yankee father who married into a plantation family of French and Spanish blood. "Creole is a term that the French and Spanish (criollo) used for people of European and African descent born outside of their native continents," writes Krondl. "If there was ever a melting pot in America, it hung in a hearth somewhere in New Orleans, its American, French, and Spanish ingredients stirred and enriched by African hands."
Illustration from the Creole Cookbook by Lafcadio Hearn
Krondl takes us through the historical development of the region, beginning with the settling of the French explorers among the Natchez Indians' corn crops. Subsequent arrivals by the Urseline nuns, African slaves, and the 18th Century Spanish, who introduced the South American chiles and tomatoes already assimilated into their own cuisine. (Louis XV, it seems, gave the Louisiana region to his Spanish cousin to keep it from British hands.) The Arcadians, French colonists from Nova Scotia, later settled in the area to escape their British conquerors and came to be known as Cajuns. While Creole cuisine is more deeply rooted in elaborate French preparations, the Cajuns created their meals using backwoods ingredients and robust spices. Haitian refugees, too, left their mark, as did the Americans, whose influences varied from English aristocracy to Texas cowboy fare. And, as with the other great ports of the world, New Orleans' culture was showered with the colorful produce, exotic spices and multi-lingual immigrants carried there on ships from distant lands. By the end of the 19th Century, Mademoiselle Eustis had a bountiful palette from which to paint the feast for her upcoming Mardi Gras celebration.
Celestine Eustis' passion for cooking is recorded in her own book, "Cooking in Old Creole Days," which she wrote later in life. The menu and some of the recipes excerpted here from "The American Table" are originally from her own cookbook and those of such historic notables as Lafcadio Hearn and the Picayune newspaper. As Krondl points out, the more recent craze for Cajun food has taken the contemporary forefront, but the Creole past is retained throughout the region with the same sophistication and subtleties enjoyed my Madamoiselle Eustis. "Traditions are maintained among the old French families," writes Krondl, "and even the casual tourist can savor the past at ancient New Orleans restaurants like Antoine's and Galatoire's."
Here then, is a menu for Fat Tuesday, the day when all good Catholics feast lavishly before sacrificing their culinary pleasures during Lent. While the recipes themselves are over a century old, their contemporary counterparts do not diverge much from the originals. Yet, like a cultural icon or an archeological artifact, each mouthful contains the imprint of the people and events that created it. And it is to the credit of the New York Public Library and Michael Krondl that we are fortunate enough to experience these pleasures. As Ms. Eustis might say today, "Laissez les bon temps rouler!"
More about Mardi Gras and Carnaval.
This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified January 2007
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