There are two things you ought to know if you are going to New Orleans. How to pronounce the name and knowing the difference between Cajun and Creole.
We are leaving Memphis and heading south on Interstate 55. We are driving straight through Mississippi, only stopping to eat and fill gasoline. After some hours the dull highway landscape changes. From out of nowhere small huts on tiny islands unfold in what seems to be wetland. In front of us a giant lake appears. The Interstate does not abide, but continues straight ahead. Suddenly the road grows tall feet. We are crossing the lake on the numerous pilings that make up one of the longest bridges in the world. Lake Pontchartrain, a road sign declares. We are soon there. NOLA. New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Orleans and Paris
I have prepared myself for the journey. Read about the history, Hurricane Katrina and the kitchen of New Orleans. I know this where you find a culinary pride and a unique cuisine the same way you will encounter in other food cities like Paris, Mexico City or Bangkok.
Saveur Magazine characterizes New Orleans as the country’s best food city. But there is more. At home there are two books in my bookshelf about the world’s culinary capitals. Side by side there is one about Paris and one about New Orleans. Little New Orleans with its barely 500,000 inhabitants until 2005 and big Paris with its 10 million people. They have both contributed to the world’s culinary heritage. How can such a little city make such a big contribution?
La Nouvelle Orleans
New Orleans has been called the most European and most Caribbean of all the American cities. But it is also a southern city with a history of sugar and slaves. New Orleans or La Nouvelle Orleans was founded by the French in 1712. Already in 1762 it was ceded to the Spanish. It was and is a city of stark contrast. It was in New Orleans the first opera in America was raised. From the onset New Orleans was based on slavery as the French made sure ships filled with African slaves arrived. Here the country’s largest slave marked took place. Tremé just north of French Quarter is the oldest Afro-American neighbourhood in the USA, home to jazz and Louis Armstrong.
Germans, Irish and Italians arrived in big numbers in the 18th and 19th century. French Quarter was nicknamed Little Palermo due to the influx of Sicilians. One of their grocery stores, Central Grocery founded in 1909, is still run by the same family. Some of the most recent immigrants to arrive in New Orleans were refugees fleeing the Vietnam War. In Louisiana they encountered something familiar; rice paddies and former French colonial rule. New Orleans also has a close kinship with the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Haiti or Saint-Domingue was once a French slave colony. In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution slaves, former slaves and slave owners fled the island and headed for New Orleans. The Caribbean influence is reflected in music, architecture, second lines, voodoo and one of the most cherished dishes, rice and beans.
Sleepless in New Orleans
We check in at the Hotel Richelieu in the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré. I open the door to the balcony, and stare at a long communal balcony in wrought iron. This is one of those moments where you find yourself at the place you only before have known through pictures and dreams. It looks like it is raining because the glass on the balcony door is soaking wet, but it is only vapour due to high humidity. From the balcony I get a good look at the old and worn buildings of the French Quarter dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Just like in Oslo, this is a city with just a few tall buildings. New Orleans is so filled with food culture and history. How can I savour all of this? I want to cry. I am only here for two days.
The Storm we always feared
When you arrive in the French Quarter, little reminds you of what happened August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the city. Most of New Orleans is situated 2 feet below sea level, and 80 % of the city was flooded. In areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward water levels reached as high as 13 feet (4,5 meters). Hurricane Katrina, or the Storm, was a man-made disaster. The levee system broke down due to lack of maintenance. What then unfolded is hard to comprehend. People lost their homes. They drowned in their attics. For six weeks the city was evacuated. Anarchy and looting was the order of the day. People did not know what they came back to. And many never returned. The population decreased from 480,000 to 360,000. Those who ventured back home met the stench of their refrigerators with rotten food. The streets were filled with cemeteries of duck-taped refrigerators.
Oysters and cocktails
Today there is a different smell in New Orleans. The smell of oysters. I have a reservation at Acme Oyster House. I have never tried oysters before, but this is the place to try it. The love for oysters is another thing people from New Orleans share with the French. Here it is savoured raw on top of a saltine with horseradish and hot sauce, charbroiled or deep-fried in the poboy sandwich.
As a first-timer in New Orleans I have to fall into some of the tourist traps, like rushing to Bourbon Street and try the overtly sweet Hurricane with rum and grenadine. New Orleanians however prefer other drinks in a city known for its cocktails and liberal alcohol laws permitting drinking in public with to go cups. Until recently you could also buy a drink at so-called drive-through daiquiri joints. Two of the cocktails of New Orleans are Brandy Milk Punch and Cajun Bloody Mary. The Brandy Milk Punch is like a dessert cocktail, made with brandy, cream, syrup and nutmeg. It that’s too overwhelming try the Cajun Bloody Mary: Vodka, tomato juice, mustard, garlic, lime juice and Tabasco all adorned with okra.
Crawfish and rice
They say people in Louisiana eat everything that doesn’t eat them first. Don’t be too surprised if alligator, turtle or frog appear on your menu. However, New Orleans is first and foremost a seafood town, and a town that loves its rice and beans on Mondays. New Orleans is surrounded by and established on water: the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mississippi. No wonder seafood is such an integral part of life. All the wetland is beneficial if you like crawfish and rice. Louisiana is one of the largest producers of rice and the largest producer of crawfish in the USA. In the 1970s and 80s farmers started to use rice fields as ponds for the crawfish making, making these mudbugs more available. But the successful story of crawfish farming is threatened by the salty sea. In the past 75 years the coastline of Louisiana has eroded the size of Delaware.
Not a city in which to be careless
New Orleans is not a safe city. Along with Mississippi and New Mexico Louisiana is among the poorest states in the USA, and New Orleans is one of the most dangerous cities in the country in terms of murder rate. To quote Lonely Planet: ”New Orleans has a high violent-crime rate; it’s not a city in which to be careless.” The boundaries between safe and unsafe, do not necessarily follow boundaries of neighbourhoods, but streets. This is a city where you literally have to be street smart.
Dazed and confused
Staying here makes me dazed and confused. What looks like the sea is the Mississippi. Bourbon Street reminds me of the worst of Amsterdam. The restaurants in the French Quarter look French with their uniformed waiters, white tablecloths and dressed up guests. The receptionist at my hotel talks like she is a New Yorker, but she has never ventured outside Louisiana. The weather and flora is so tropical you could easily close your eyes and pretend you are in the Caribbean. In the bars they serve one the of quintessential English cocktails, the Pimm’s Cup, but the English never settled in this part of America. And one of the things I associate the most with the USA, the ubiquitous international chain stores, are not present.
The greatest confusion of them all, of course, is the difference between Cajun and Creole. Both can trace their origins back to France, but in two different ways. They vary in time and geography. One is the food of a city, the other is country food.
Creole is the cuisine that has evolved in the city of New Orleans, reflecting the people who have settled there over a period of 300 years. The Creole cuisine has a lot in common with the French cuisine, but borrows elements from other cultures too. It could be cayenne from the Caribbean, okra and rice and beans from Africa, tomatoes/canned tomatoes and pasta from Italy and paprika from Spain.
Looking at it politically you might say the cuisine of New Orleans is a result of inequality. New Orleans was a divided city with a slave-owning aristocracy where the slaves, both Native Americans and Africans, worked in the fields and in the kitchens. Some known Creole dishes are Trout Amandine, Oyster Rockefeller and Bananas Foster.
The Cajun cuisine on the other hand was born in rural Southwestern Louisiana. This is where French Catholics fled after the British conquered Acadia (Acadie) in Canada in the 1750s. The people from Acadia were called Acadians, in which the word Cajun derives. Cajun food is the food of refugees, one pot wonders made with what was available in the swamp, be it alligator, squirrel or crawfish. No slaves were forced to work in the kitchen. Rice and pork are of utmost importance, and everything is utilized, from pig’s feet to its blood in sausages (boudin rouge). Starting in the 1980s, Cajun cuisine has acquired international fame due to chef Paul Proudhomme, and the two kitchens cannot be separated like water and oil.
Most of the French refugees who were later known as Cajuns have never been to France, and they lived a quite isolated life until the 20th century. Today they speak a French dialect called Cajun French, and the heart of Cajun country is Lafayette. Donald Link, prominent New Orleans chef and a native of Southwestern Louisiana, describes his Cajun roots this way: ”It is a land where any given gas station sells tasso, andouille, hogshead cheese and smoked pig stomach.”
Jambalaya – a common thread
The most characteristic dishes of Louisiana, gumbo and jambalaya, belong to both kitchens. Jambalaya resembles the Spanish paella and was originally a frugal Cajun dish made with what was at hand. Like paella jambalaya is food made in large skillets enough to feed a crowd, and served at festive occasions such as Mardi Gras. If it is brown, i.e. without tomatoes but with andouille, game or chicken, it is Cajun. If it is red, i.e. made with tomatoes, it is Creole.
What forms the basis of jambalaya and a whole range of dishes in the Creole and Cajun cuisine, is the holy trinity. Consisting of chopped onion, celery and bell pepper (paprika) this is the Louisiana counterpart to the French mirepoix, the Spanish sofrito and the Italian sofritto. The flavour is further enhanced with garlic (often called the Pope), thyme and bay leaves.
According to Tom Fitzmorris, New Orleans’ most renowned food critic, Creole is the oldest comprehensive regional cuisine in America, recognized as a thing apart in the late 1800s, when the earliest Creole cookbooks appeared. “It had a French face, a Spanish soul and African hands. Soon it would get an Italian heart and a Cajun smile.”
I left New Orleans the same way as I came. Over Lake Pontchartrain. Eastbound. From the Interstate I get a glimpse of the empty shells in Lower Ninth Ward that were homes until Katrina. The beauty of New Orleans is sad and brutal at the same time. Still, I can’t wait to get back, and now I know how to pronounce the name. It ain’t Noo Or-LEENS, honey, it’s N’Awlins.
Note: I visited New Orleans in the autumn 2010.
Jambalaya (makes 3-4)
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 celery sticks, diced
1 big bell pepper, diced
3 big tomatoes, diced
1-2 sausages (preferably andouille, but chorizo will also do)
4-5 chicken thighs
200 g shrimps
600 ml water
250 g long-grain rice (but I have to admit I like to use short-grain risotto rice)
2 bay leaves
3 scallions/spring onions, sliced
2 tbs cajun seasoning
1. Heat oil in a wide frying pan. Sauté the sausages and chicken until nicely coloured, about 5-10 minutes.
2. Now it is time for the holy trinity: Add the onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper and Cajun seasoning and fry for 10-15 minutes until the onion is softened.
3. Add the rice and fry for another i 1-2 minutes.
4. Add water, bay leaves and diced tomatoes. Cook until the rice is done.
5. Right before serving, add the shrimps and scallions. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Garnish with parsley.