Gumbo Weather

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When readers ask about the prominence of food in my books about New Orleans, I always say I can’t imagine not writing about it. Food is as much a part of the city’s fabric as jazz, Mardi Gras and humidity, and I know from living there eleven years that when people aren’t eating they’re usually talking about it. The city has been a gustatory destination for well over two centuries, so when I began Creole Son about French painter Edgar Degas’s 1872-3 visit, I knew I had to include the local cuisine.

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Dating to 1840, Antoine’s is the granddaddy of French Quarter restaurants.

 

The Creoles famously loved to eat, and because Degas’s mother Celestine belonged to that particular ethnic group, it’s reasonable to assume he did too. As a well-educated Parisian of some means, he no doubt had a sophisticated palette but probably found dining in New Orleans as exotic as the city itself. He certainly had a great menu to choose from with Louisiana’s incredible bounty of fish, oysters, crawfish and shrimp pulled from river, bayou and gulf, along with abundant game like duck, deer, quail and turkey. The subtropical climate also yielded oranges, lemons, bananas, all sorts of berries and dozens of varieties of vegetables. It was an embarrassment of mouth-watering riches which, put in the hands of French, Spanish and African Creole cooks, raised local ingredients to a culinary art form. I tried to envision Degas’s first encounter. “He sipped more coffee and watched, fascinated as black hands assembled a colorful Creole still life on the long table. Iced figs nestled alongside broiled ham, golden fried perch, smoking grits, Lyonnaise potatoes, olives, celery, and cornbread awash in shiny cane syrup.” Later on in the story, Edgar and his brother René visit a sugar plantation where they were “served a sumptuous lunch of fresh river shrimp on ice, redfish bouillabaisse, roast venison and baked sweet potatoes. The grand finish was peach meringue pie and café noir.”  Because Degas visited in December, he would no doubt have experienced a Creole réveillon, “the elaborate meal served after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” where he could have sampled “teal duck à la Bigarade, daube glacées, roast turkey with oyster stuffing, Louisiana yams, soufflé of bananas au rhum, winter squash, strawberry ice and mince pie.”

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Some of these dishes were lifted from vintage menus, but I wondered what Degas was served at his family’s house. Since he was there in winter, I needed to know what foods were available in the cold weather months, and I found all the answers in The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book. This invaluable research tool offered hundreds of nineteenth-century recipes as well as menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekdays, holidays and special occasions. Especially important were guides to seasonal foods which listed what was available each month and, just as importantly, what was not. As the weather warmed, for example, New Orleanians stopped eating red meat for “hygienic reasons,” along with oysters and crawfish. Bananas and oranges were available year-round while cucumbers “ripened under glass” in time for Christmas. Pecans were another yuletide treat, but Degas almost missed strawberries which didn’t appear until March.

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Sausage and seafood are only one of many possibilities for good Louisiana gumbo.

My favorite New Orleans food factoid didn’t come from research, however, but from living in the city. Every fall, without fail, the first cold snap sent locals rushing to dig out sweaters, turn on the long dormant heat thermostat and scurry into the kitchen to make a roux. The same refrain, heard all over town, is one I still find oddly comforting. “It’s gumbo weather!”

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Liz
    Jul 22, 2013

    OK, Michael — you’ve made me very very hungry! And thanks for including these wonderful graphics.
    Yum!

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