Forks in the Road
Traditionally, the food in North Louisiana has been the mainline Southern cooking found all across the inland South. As Scotch-Irish farmers, Anglo planters and African slaves moved further west, they carried their methods of preparing food with them. Various and scattered ethnic groups made their differing contributions, which were for the most part absorbed by the predominant Protestant culture.
European, African and American Indian ingredients and culinary traditions combined to produce Southern cooking, which is characterized by all manner of pork parts and preparations; fried chicken; chicken and dumplings; barbecue; corn; corn bread and hush puppies; grits; buttermilk biscuits; white gravy; fried catfish; baked and candied sweet potatoes; okra; turnip greens; black-eyed peas; watermelon; sweet tea; and a wide range of sweet desserts, including banana pudding, rice pudding, strawberry shortcake, pies, cobblers and layer cakes.
Vegetables have traditionally been an important part of Southern food, as noted in Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. Neal writes: “The variety of fresh vegetables on the Southern table is staggering. Any one meal may present fried okra, corn, butter beans, sweet potatoes, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, coleslaw, cantaloupe. Such wealth often eclipses any meat served; by midsummer all-vegetable meals (with biscuits or corn bread) are common.”
North Louisianians often take their cues from Dallas rather than New Orleans and are more likely to visit Texas than the Crescent City. (A trip from Shreveport to Dallas is 186 miles, while the distance from Shreveport to New Orleans is 347 miles.) But the northern portion of the state, as much as it resembles neighboring Mississippi or Texas culturally, is still part of Louisiana, and its food bears influences from further south. Chief among those are red beans and rice, gumbos and gulf seafood. Today, crawfish is popular in North Louisiana in ways it never used to be, and Mardi Gras, a Catholic holiday, is celebrated in a decidedly Protestant region. In fact, the Shreveport-Bossier Junior League cookbook, published last year, is titled Mardi Gras to Mistletoe and features a cover photograph of a King Cake, Mardi Gras beads and doubloons –– strikingly French imports from New Orleans.
Central Louisiana is a kind of transition zone between North and South Louisiana that keeps travelers from suffering culture shock when going from one part of the state to the other. With today’s interstate highways, you can speed from one end of the state to the other; it used to be an all-day journey that required a lunch break somewhere in the middle.
Plenty of Deep South food traditions exist as you move into Central Louisiana, but the influence of French Louisiana becomes stronger. This is particularly so in the Cane River area around Natchitoches, which was founded as a trading post by the French in 1714 and is the oldest permanent settlement in Louisiana. The town is known for the Natchitoches meat pie, a fried pastry stuffed with ground meat, onions and spices. In the past, the pies were made by black women and sold on the streets of Natchitoches. Today they are available at restaurants and often featured at festivals.
The nearby settlement of Isle Brevelle on the Cane River was founded by free Creoles of color, some of whom owned plantations and had slaves of their own. Their Creole heritage is celebrated at the St. Augustine Catholic Church Fair each October, where visitors can sample local foods, including meat pies, gumbo, tamales and pecan candy.
To the west of Natchitoches in Sabine Parish, the area’s Spanish past, which dates to the period when it was a part of Spanish Texas, is celebrated at the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta in October. Cooks compete in a tamale cookoff, and festival-goers can sample a variety of tamales. To add complexity to the cultural stew that makes up Louisiana, for years the winner of the cooking contest was a Vietnamese woman.
Opinions vary on where French Louisiana really begins. The French Triangle, as it is called, is said to have its apex around Marksville. Below that point, the rural areas and towns were settled by the Acadians who were forcibly exiled from Nova Scotia, as well as by other French-speaking peoples.
Even if you didn’t know where the boundaries were, you would realize very quickly when you had passed into the southern part of the state. If the boudin and cracklins that are sold in many gas stations didn’t tip you off, you could visit a grocery or supermarket and marvel at the large selection of rice, which is a crucial staple of the Cajun diet. And between seasons, rice fields are used to raise the crawfish that have become so emblematic of Louisiana.
Rice, in fact, can be seen as one of the distinguishing features that separates North and South Louisiana. To be sure, rice is eaten in the northern part of the state –– but not to the extent that it is in South Louisiana, where the grain is an integral part of at least one meal every day. It’s unusual to find a household in South Louisiana without an electric rice cooker and usually a big one at that.
In Cajun Louisiana, people eat rice and gravy virtually every day. Instead of the white milk gravies that are common in the northern part of the state, these brown gravies are produced by a long, slow simmering of seasoned meat or poultry with onions, garlic, celery and bell peppers; a dark-brown roux; and water or broth. “Rice and gravy” may also refer to the delectable court bouillons, sauce piquantes, stews and étouffées made with seafood or crawfish. For many, the rice and gravy are more important than the principal ingredient.
Another crucial difference between the two regions is the coffee, which is much stronger in the South. It was coffee, in fact, that first opened my young eyes to the cultural divide. I was attending a high school student council convention in South Louisiana, where we were lodged in private homes. The first morning, I was served a demitasse of strong black dark-roast coffee. I thought it one of the best things I had ever tasted, so unlike the weak brown brew I was accustomed to. I was hooked, and for years after moving away from Louisiana, I ordered my coffee from here. There may, indeed, be some truth to the old saying, “Good coffee and the Protestant religion can seldom if ever be found together.”
South Louisiana’s fabled gumbos include the chicken-and- sausage varieties that predominate inland as well as seafood gumbos that are more common in coastal areas. Cajun gumbos rely primarily on a dark roux as the thickener rather than on filé or okra. The sausage is usually smoked, but fresh sausages occasionally make an appearance, as does tasso, a heavily spiced and smoked pork. The variations among gumbos are almost endless.
Boiled crawfish, shrimp and crabs are extremely popular in South Louisiana, either prepared in the backyard or eaten at restaurants that specialize in boiled seafood. Fried catfish, shrimp, oysters, crawfish and soft-shelled crabs are available almost everywhere. Everyday vegetables include okra, greens, corn, sweet potatoes, field peas, red beans and white beans (with rice, of course). Desserts occupy a less prominent role than they do in North Louisiana. Bread pudding is the most ubiquitous, and, like gumbo, everyone makes a different version. Sweet dough pies are another favored treat. Traditionally, syrup cake was a popular dessert, and occasionally you will find it on a restaurant menu.
In addition to the Cajuns, other ethnic groups settled the area and made their contributions to the mix. American Indians introduced corn and filé to arriving immigrants. Africans brought okra. German settlements in the prairies and along the German Coast between New Orleans and Baton Rouge contributed sausages. Jambalaya, a dish of rice and various combinations of meats, poultry and seafood, resembles both Spanish paella and African rice dishes. Just as the Anglo Protestant culture absorbed others in North Louisiana, the Cajun Catholic culture did the same in South Louisiana.
New Orleans occupies a place all its own in the culinary landscape, and, once again, coffee is a defining marker. The city’s cafe au lait, made from dark-roast coffee flavored with chicory and mellowed with hot milk, is a signature beverage. Apart from homesick natives exiled in the hinterlands, so the saying goes, “Once you cross the Huey P. Long Bridge, people stop using chicory in their coffee.”
The Creole cuisine of New Orleans is the product of a complex mixture of nationalities and influences: French, Spanish, American Indian, African, Caribbean, German, Italian, Irish and Croatian, among others. The city’s position as a port gave it access to imported foodstuffs and seasonings, and a wealthy upper class existed that could afford expensive ingredients with which to embellish Louisiana’s bounty of game, fish and seafood from Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, coastal marshes and the Gulf of Mexico. The result was the development of an elaborate cuisine with an unmistakably French accent, though often with New World additions.
Although white gravy is a feature of cooking in North Louisiana and brown gravy is emblematic of South Louisiana, gravy does not come to mind when describing New Orleans cuisine. Rather, one thinks of rich and elegant sauces, such as rémoulade, meunière, hollandaise, béarnaise and marchand de vin.
The fabled Creole repertoire is noted for such delicious dishes as savory gumbos made with all manner of meats, poultry, seafood and okra or filé; crawfish bisque; turtle soup; shrimp rémoulade; oysters Rockefeller and Bienville; pompano en papillote; chicken bonne femme; meat, poultry or seafood enrobed in one or more satiny French sauces; sautéed pompano, trout or red snapper topped with lump crabmeat; buttery and peppered barbecued shrimp; and grillades and grits.
Equally famous and revered are the simpler foods of New Orleans, such as red beans and rice; jambalaya; poor boys filled with fried seafood, roast beef or any number of other options; muffuletta sandwiches; boiled crawfish, crabs and shrimp; and oysters on the half shell.
Desserts and sweet confections occupy places of distinction in the Creole firmament. It is impossible to imagine New Orleans food without pralines, bananas Foster, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, soufflés, crème brûlée, caramel custard, calas, King Cake and beignets.
Distinctions are often made between Creole and Cajun cooking by saying that one is city cuisine, the other country cooking. That was once valid, but increasingly the lines are blurring. Cajun cooking has come to New Orleans in a big way, and Cajun Country cooking is no longer strictly Cajun. Professional chefs and home cooks now feel free to draw inspiration from wherever they find it. Tradition, instead of being a culinary straitjacket, provides a base for striking out on unexplored paths.
Over the past several decades, new waves of immigrants have been making their culinary presence felt throughout Louisiana. Asians, particularly Vietnamese, as well as Hispanics, are introducing new culinary influences and novel ingredients to our already-rich multicultural gumbo –– and we are all the better for it.