Louisiana cuisine has delectable French connection
Louisiana’s celebrated food is the product of diverse influences, not the least of which was the haute cuisine of France.
If you know anything about Louisiana, you probably know that it’s delicious. The state is practically synonymous with great eating, and lusty cooking is a cornerstone of the local culture. But what makes Louisiana cuisine so special?
At its most basic, Louisiana cuisine is Old World cooking, modified to use ingredients from the lushly productive local waters and fields, and diversified along the way by the many ethnic groups that call Louisiana home. But there was something else at play in Louisiana’s earliest days that produced a crucial distinction in our cuisine. Louisiana maintained a strong affinity with France during the same period when the French were developing haute cuisine and the idea of the modern restaurant. Though far away and in a much different environment, Louisiana’s early European settlers paid close attention to these cultural signals from overseas. “I believe they were mirroring a French approach emerging at that time,” says Liz Williams, executive director of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans. “They had the mindset that food was an art and a philosophy, and that it should be prepared a certain way.”
The attitude gave rise to Louisiana’s Creole cuisine, a style that shares DNA with many French classics, from the lavish use of buttery sauces to an inherent compatibility with wine. That same cultural approach would influence the way cooking from different ethnic groups was interpreted in Louisiana. The state’s French founders also brought slaves, who, even as they endured terrible injustices, made an indelible African contribution to local cooking.
The name “gumbo” comes from a Bantu word for okra, a key ingredient in many gumbo recipes. A fresh round of émigrés poured into south Louisiana after the 1804 slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), adding a Caribbean influence to the plate. Native peoples also nurtured the cuisine, especially in the use of local seasonings. Most famously, Indians introduced filé, or ground sassafras, which is used to thicken and flavor stews. The Acadians, or Cajuns, who traveled from Canada to the Louisiana swamps after a long, difficult exile, developed their own sturdy, more rural style of French cuisine, distinct from the refined, urban Creole style of New Orleans.
The Spanish generally get credit for spicing up Louisiana cooking with red pepper. Germans led a wave of 19th-century European immigration through the port of New Orleans, and the sausage-making traditions they brought remain essential to any Louisiana menu. Italians also arrived in great numbers, and they made such an impact on local tastes that a subset of Louisiana cuisine is known as Creole-Italian.
The pattern of ethnic contributions and free interpretation continues in the modern Louisiana kitchen, with people from Southeast Asia and Latin America increasingly influencing the local palate. It all shows that Louisiana’s culinary glory belongs to the whole state and its arch of history. The reward for visitors is that sampling this rich heritage is as easy as pulling up a seat and digging in.