The kings of Creole
Hurricane Katrina posed the greatest threat ever faced by New Orleans’ culinary scene. But determined foodies are ensuring that the Big Easy’s distinctive food heritage is preserved
It’s just days before Thanksgiving in New Orleans and instead of heading to the kitchen, chef Tory McPhail takes to his private library.
The 43-year-old is Executive Chef of Commander’s Palace, one of the city’s oldest restaurants set in an unmistakable, turquoise-coloured Victorian mansion within the leafy Garden District.
Going to the library to dust off an antique cookbook is part ritual, part inspiration for the multiple-award- winning chef. It’s his way of coming up with new dishes for an ever-evolving fine-dining menu and a discerning clientele.
This morning he lifts two old favourites down from the bookshelf. They are The Compendium of Cookery and Reliable Recipes published in 1890 and the intriguing-sounding How to Cook a Wolf, a collector’s item first published in 1942.
The fabric cover of the former almost comes away in Tory’s hand: its spine broken, the book’s leaves are loosely attached to the cover by a few worn threads.
Even so, after all those years and all that handling, Tory believes a book like this still has plenty to say about America’s culinary traditions and Creole cuisine, the unique food of New Orleans.
He explains: “Coming here, I quickly worked out that I needed to understand the philosophy of the food. I had to respect it and pay it homage before I could reinterpret it and create something new.”
Tory, a native of the State of Washington, arrived in New Orleans as a 19-year-old kitchen hand, drawn to America’s 46th-largest city by Mardi Gras, jazz and the all-pervasive urge to cook Creole food. With the exception of a few years at top restaurants overseas, the culinary science graduate has been in ‘Crescent City’ ever since.
“I come back to these antique recipes time and time again,” he says. “For me, it’s important to capture the intent of the early home cooks – to get the feeling of the dishes they made.
“I look at the ingredients. I see how they prepared a dish. I’ll still blow the recipe apart and make something modern. But my goal is to create something new from something much loved and familiar from the past.”
In the culinary vernacular of the US, Creole cuisine means dishes such as gumbo, red beans and rice, turtle soup, po’ boy, shrimp remoulade and the delicious icing-sugar-coated pastry, the beignet.
In truth, it’s the only authentic cuisine developed in the US – a culinary taonga of sorts that’s taken three centuries to evolve. And while it is rooted in French cooking, Creole cuisine combines ingredients and methods from the Spanish, African and West Indian slaves, plus the Native Americans and the city’s Italian, German and Irish immigrants.
Poppy Tooker, New Orleans food writer, cook, broadcaster and food advocate, says that New Orleans’ cuisine wouldn’t exist today if her fellow citizens were ambivalent about their unique food culture. It’s a cuisine that’s evolved and lasted because everyone in New Orleans, regardless of class, religion or race, eats it. It’s a truly shared experience, she says.
To call us food obsessed is an understatement. In this city, everything revolves around food – our food. We’re different from all other US cities in this respect and it’s always been this way
POPPY TOOKER — FOOD WRITER
If history is anything to go by, Poppy is right.
Just four years after the French colonised New Orleans Commander’s Palace in 1718, the city opened its first cooking school. By 1791 New Orleans’ first open-air farmers’ market, French Market, was in full swing.
Antoine’s, the city’s first restaurant, followed in 1840, with many more eateries hot on its heels – the likes of restaurant. Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s and Tujague’s.
The city was also quick to commit the ingredients and methods of its emerging cuisine to the page, publishing cookbooks such as The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book in 1901, which detailed more than 800 Creole recipes gathered from home cooks throughout the city.
These days it’s impossible to tally the many cultural references to New Orleans’ distinct cuisine – from odes like Elvis Presley’s 1958 classic Crawfish (from the movie King Creole) to the innumerable cooking shows explaining how to whip up the perfect roux for your seafood gumbo.
At Tujague’s, a 160-year-old restaurant in the French Quarter, they still serve the very same beef brisket and horseradish sauce that tantalised diners’ taste buds back in 1856 when their doors opened for the first time.
Despite all this, says Poppy, New Orleans faces the same pressures on its food traditions as anywhere else. Fewer people are cooking at home and the convenience of fast and highly processed foods makes those foods a common choice. People’s tastes are changing, particularly when it comes to dining out. Younger people want less formality; they want to book online; and they want a changing menu.
The biggest threat to the city’s food heritage in recent years, however, arrived out of the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005: Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that put 80 percent of the city under water.
And while low-lying regions of the city, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, were hardest hit, the Category 3 storm severely damaged many heritage buildings in the French Quarter.
At Antoine’s, the storm destroyed the dining room ceiling, collapsed walls and floors and cost the owners US$16 million in repairs. Chief Executive Rick Blount reportedly contemplated tearing down the 175-year-old building.
Commander’s Palace, open continuously since it was founded in 1893, was forced to stop trading and close for 13 months of renovations.
Looking back, chef Tory says: “I can’t begin to tell you how emotional it was during that first week of opening. Our customers, so many regulars, were delighted to be back. I remember being on the front door, embracing people, people breaking down [while] talking about their stories of the storm. And then we sat down and ate together. It was a very moving experience.”
As well as destroying built heritage, Katrina washed away centuries-old cookbooks – precious keepsakes handed down through generations – and caused a mass exodus of dispossessed cooks, waiting staff and food producers. The upshot was a heritage food scene near collapse.
Liz Williams, author of New Orleans, A Food Biography, and founder of the city’s Southern Food and Beverage Museum, says people realised what was at stake and rallied.
“Restaurants slowly rebuilt and began looking at ways to modernise their menus and broaden their clientele to recoup costs and guarantee their long-term survival,” she says.
People returned to the city to live and work. A long-standing recipe-sharing column in the local paper, The Times-Picayne, became a place where home cooks could go to find lost recipes and was eventually published as a book.
New oral histories, films, podcasts and books on the food of New Orleans were commissioned by organisations such as the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum opened its doors in 2008 as “a non-profit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South.”
Poppy stepped up to champion the comeback of lost Creole dishes such as Creole cream cheese (a dish lost because of the commercialisation of farming, not the hurricane). And she redoubled her efforts to document the city’s food heritage, writing award-winning books such as Tujague’s Cookbook: Creole Recipes and Lore in the New Orleans Grand Tradition, published in 2015.
She explains: “I think Katrina reminded us of what we had to lose. We came face-to-face with the reality and it motivated many of us to do something about it.”
Mark Latter, fourth-generation owner of Tujague’s, says he’ll be forever grateful to Poppy for the role she played in helping the restaurant to capture its history and move past the devastation of the storm.
“She was able to take the time, do the research and get the stories and recipes down on paper,” says Mark. “To me, the history of our food is the history of our city. It’s our identity. And it’s something we want to hold on to as we modernise and head into the future.”
New Zealand food historian André Taber says there’s undoubtedly a lesson in the New Orleans’ experience for New Zealand.
“Overall,” says André, “I’d say their passion for food, cooking and eating is pretty outstanding. And they’ve done an impressive job of documenting their food ways to ensure they’re passed on to future generations.
“See, no one has ever done a proper survey here in New Zealand. So we’ve no real idea of how we’re eating today, compared with 30 or 40 or 100 years ago.
“The question is, do New Zealanders care and is there any food culture here to document in the first place? In my research, I’ve found very little evidence of a unique Kiwi cuisine or a shared identity expressed through food.
“Definitely in Māori cookery there are some authentic dishes. And if I had to settle on a single food that does, in some way, tie us together as a nation, I would probably pick kumara. It’s the one native ingredient that’s appreciated by the Pākehā mainstream and Māori, as well as newcomers from Asia and South America.”
The idea that food can unite people and express a shared identity is one that appeals enormously to chef Tory.
“For us, at Commander’s, we have customers – born-and-bred locals – who’ve been coming here for a very long time.
“They’re part of the Commander’s family and we’re part of theirs. When they come here, they’re excited to try something new, but they want to be reminded of that time they came here with Grandma and what they ate together.
“Or they want to come here and try a new take on a favourite dish their Grandma used to make. It’s about making food memories together. That’s New Orleans to me. It’s a city where the people and the food are intertwined. They’re part of the same story.”
MAKE YOUR OWN RED BEANS AND RICE
450 grams dried red beans (red kidney beans, preferably Camellia brand)
3 tablespoons oil (can be bacon fat or butter or other oil)
2 onions, diced
3 stalks celery (including
1 seeded green capsicum, diced
Bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or a
teaspoon of dried thyme
450–900 grams sliced smoked sausage or ham hocks or a combination of the two
10 cups chicken stock or water
1 teaspoon cayenne, more or
less to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups cooked white rice
1⁄4 cup chopped spring onions for garnish.
Allow the beans to soak in water overnight. Heat the preferred fat in a large pot. Add the onions, celery and capsicum and allow to sauté at medium heat for about five minutes, stirring to distribute the vegetables. Add the parsley, bay leaves, thyme and ham bone. Stir. Add the meat and brown it. Add the liquid and the beans. Heat to a boil and simmer for two hours. With a large spoon, mash about a quarter of the beans against the side of the pot. Stir this creamy part of the beans back into the liquid. Stir in the cayenne and salt and pepper. Cook for another 30 minutes. Remove from the heat. Discard the bay leaves. Serve over rice and garnish with spring onions.
Recipe from New Orleans, A Food Biography by Elizabeth M Williams.