Regional History and Influence on Cuisine

Major Influences on the State's Culture

No other state has a more varied or colorful past than Louisiana. The layers of history can be seen in the 18th-century French buildings of the Vieux Carre (New Orleans's French Quarter), with their splendid Spanish courtyards hidden just behind the gates. New Orleans began as a French settlement in 1718, became Spanish in 1762, then French again briefly just after 1800, and with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, American.

European Discovery and Settlement

Before the age of European exploration, the region was inhabited by thousands of Native Americans. The largest tribes included the Caddo, the Natchez, the Chitimacha, and the Choctaw. They planted vegetables, hunted game, and fished along the east bank of the Mississippi River. The first Europeans to enter the area were from Spain. Among them were Hernando de Soto and his expedition that explored large parts of what is now the southern United States and came though Louisiana in 1542.

French Rule

The French established their first settlement in Natchitoches in 1686, but they found it difficult to attract settlers to this isolated part of the New World. King Louis XIV asked an organization of traders, called the Company of the West, to manage the colony. Headed by John Law, the Company tried several schemes to attract settlers, including attempts to lure fortune seekers by claiming Louisiana was a land filled with gold and silver. The French government encouraged prisoners and debtors to pay for their crimes by moving to the new colony. Nevertheless, not many people came to Louisiana until 1718, when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, established a port city, which he called New Orleans. Located just 110 miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans later became the commercial center of the South and one of the country's most important international ports. The capital of the territory developed a strong character all its own. European settlers brought with them fine clothing and furnishings and established elegant traditions like banquets and balls.

Spanish Rule

By 1762, France was deep in debt and at war with Britain over control of North America. No longer able to afford to develop the Louisiana territory, France offered it to Spain. For 40 years, Spain helped Louisiana to flourish and added its special flavor to its heritage. The territory's population boomed at this time. New arrivals from Europe joined the original French and Spanish settlers. These Europeans, called “Creoles,” were generally wealthy and educated, and they brought with them a variety of celebrated European customs and traditions. Germans established towns and villages in the north-central region of the state. Scots, Irish, and British settlers arrived to settle in Louisiana's northeast. One of the most important groups to come was the Acadians, who established farms along the bayous west of New Orleans. Acadians were French settlers forced to leave Canada by the British during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763, also called the “French and Indian War”). Some returned to France or went to other colonies, but many chose to settle in southern Louisiana, where they became known as “Cajuns.”

Slaves brought to work on Louisiana's expanding network of plantations made up the largest group of new residents. Many slaves were brought to the colony directly from the African regions, while others were taken from French islands in the Caribbean. By the beginning of the 1800s, more than 30,000 slaves would live in Louisiana, making up nearly half of its population.

Becoming Americans

In 1803, the French needed cash to finance another war with Britain. In a deal that would nearly double the size of the United States, President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from the French for only $15 million. Just nine years later, in 1812, Louisiana became the 18th state to join the Union. Cotton, sugar, and rice were the three most valuable crops in the world during this time, and Louisiana's humid climate and rich soil were perfect for growing all three. More than 1,600 plantations were established. Steam-powered vessels found their way down the Mississippi River all the way from the East Coast to New Orleans. Goods produced throughout the United States could now travel by river to the Gulf of Mexico and from there, sail to international ports. By the mid-19th century, New Orleans was the largest city in the South, the third largest city in the nation, and one of the busiest ports in the world.

A Gumbo Society

Cajun Country, Also Known as Acadiana

The term Cajun describes both a geographical area and the people who live in or come from that region. Forcibly expelled by the British from their homes and farms in Canada during the second half of the 18th century, many Acadians made their way to southern Louisiana, where, over the generations, their descendants have formed the nucleus of Louisiana's Cajun life and culture. Originally farmers, trappers, and fisherman, the Cajuns had to rely on local resources, such as the fish, shellfish, and wild game. Native Americans taught them how to exploit the swamps, bayous, and surrounding forests. The Choctaws, Chitimacha, and Houmas showed them how to use ingredients such as corn, ground sassafras leaves or filé powder, and bay leaves. Wildlife, including alligator, crawfish, and turtles, were used by the Cajuns in their cooking. They depended on their black cast-iron pots. Because of the simple utilitarian kitchen of the traditional Cajun, one-pot meals were practical and common. This is reflected in their jambalaya, grillades, stews, étouffées, fricassées, soups, and gumbos. Because of the frugal nature needed to survive in the Bayou country, nothing was ever wasted by Cajuns, including all portions of butchered meats, stocks, and vegetables. The Cajun people are well known for their hospitality as well. In spite of the tragedy that befell them, they cook with a joi de vive, or love of life. They are also known for the term lagniappe, which refers to “something extra and not expected,” like a few extra shrimp in the étouffée, or 13 cookies in a dozen (commonly known today as a “baker's dozen”). Cajun French, still spoken today, uses words and grammar derived from traditional French, English, Spanish, African, and Native American languages. Tucked away among the bayous and swamplands of the Atchafalaya Basin, this area is now considered one of the last great wilderness regions of the continental United States.
Plantation Country

Just west of New Orleans, winding along both sides of the Mississippi River, can be found flowing fields of sugarcane. Plantation agriculture flourished in Louisiana in the 18th century. These plantation owners influenced the area in many ways, particularly by teaching their slaves English rather than French. African Americans had a profound influence on the cooking style of the region. When they cooked, they combined ingredients such as rice, beans, and green leafy vegetables with traditional African ingredients such as okra, yams, onions, and garlic. They also favored a cooking technique called “slow roasting” and extended this idea of continuous cooking to traditional French roux.

Also, being closer to New Orleans and on major transportation routes, the Germans, Spanish, French, English, and Americans from along the Mississippi River were more cosmopolitan than people in the swamps and on the prairies to the west. A large number of Germans arrived during the Spanish period, settled upriver from New Orleans along the German coast, and provided most of the vegetable crops needed by New Orleans. The Germans also brought pigs, chicken, and cattle. Their extensive knowledge of all forms of charcuterie helped establish the boucherie and fine sausage making in South Louisiana. Escaping the lack of economic and social opportunities in Europe, the Italians came to the area as farmers, blacksmiths, and merchants. Famous for their own cooking skills, their influence on the cuisine can be seen in the pasta, red gravies, bread baking, garlic, eggplant, and artichoke dishes.

The Crossroads

Central Louisiana became a meeting place for the many cultures of Louisiana. This is where the Native Americans thrived for centuries. All the tribes cultivated pumpkins, squash, and corn. They used wild berries, nuts, and persimmons in their cooking. Later, the French and the Spanish each ruled this region. Englishmen sought their fortunes here and American settlers flooded in after the Louisiana Purchase. Czech, Lebanese, Afro-Caribbean, Italian, and Syrian cultures contributed to the heritage of this region.

Sportsman's Paradise

The forests and rolling hills of northern Louisiana were a hunter's paradise for Native Americans, French trappers, and American settlers of the early 1700s and 1800s. Today there is still opportunity for wild turkey, duck, partridge, and quail hunting. Catfish, both freshwater and pond raised, is abundant.
Louisiana's Gulf Coast

Louisiana's shores, marshes, bays, and bayous yield a variety of seafood. Blue crabs and oysters are harvested, and in the brackish waters where the Mississippi joins the Gulf of Mexico are some of the most fertile shrimping grounds in the country. Redfish, trout, flounder, and pompano are found farther out in the gulf. South Louisiana is the crawfish capital of the world, supporting a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry. Sometimes called “Louisiana lobster,” the crawfish is much smaller and its color varies with the water in which it lives, as well as its variety. Although it is found in swamps and marshes throughout the state, the best wild populations occur in the overflow basins of the Atchafalaya, Red, and Pearl rivers. Crawfish farms have also been established where the crustaceans are cultivated for local use and for shipment to other states.

New Orleans

In 1718, Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, chose a high spot along the Mississippi River to be the center of the French colony of Louisiana. It was strategically located to control traffic on the Mississippi. It was also a port that allowed immigrants to arrive from other countries. In the 18th century, the Spaniards governing New Orleans named all residents of European heritage Criollo (roughly translated from the Portuguese for “native to a region”). The name, which later became Creole, is claimed by different groups of people. The traditional New Orleans definition included those who could trace their lineage to aristocratic French or Spanish ancestry. They used the word to imply someone of refined cultural background with an appreciation for an elegant lifestyle. These people brought not only their wealth and education but also their chefs and cooks. With these chefs came the knowledge of the grand cuisines of France and other parts of Europe. Additional interpretations of Creole include former slaves who often took the same last name as their former owners and traced their lineage in the same fashion. Today, Creole cooking reflects the history of sharing and borrowing among the state's ethnic groups. In addition to the French, Spanish, and Americans, ethnic groups that included Haitians, Caribbeans, Italians, Germans, and Irish made significant contributions to the culture of the city.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 5.2.5).