JAN C. BRADFORD (we first published this piece on June 13, 2012)
“The truth is New Orleans appears to me to be at the extreme of everything, the hottest, the dirtiest, the most sickly, and at times the most healthy, the busiest, and the most dull, the wicked and the most orderly.” This frequently quoted remark was made by Bishop Whipple, a visitor to New Orleans in March, 1844. He goes on to say, “changes take place here with the rapidity of thought. Today rich, tomorrow poor, today well, tomorrow dead, today hot, tomorrow cold.” (1)
Even after one hundred sixty eight years, there is still some truth in the bishop’s opinion. One of the extremes then, as now, was an obsession with good food- an obsession which is contagious to visitors and often converts new residents into gourmands.
Joel Gray Taylor, author of Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South, commented on the cautious attitude of 19th century visitors towards New Orleans cuisine, “Perhaps Creole fare was too exotic to please the palates of Englishmen, Northerners and people from the upper South who had not had time to learn to appreciate it.” Taylor adds that travelers “looked askance at the drinking of café au lait by children and had deep private thoughts about what might be the ingredients of the gumbo that was set before them in Creole homes.”
Whipple’s diary has a great deal to say about the produce at local markets, but no compliments on the city’s rich and diverse cuisine. However, many other 19th century visitors fell in with the local food frenzy and wrote lovingly about it. Culinary historians are familiar with a quote from the English author, William Makepeace Thackeray, on his visit to the city. “In New Orleans, you can eat the most and suffer the least, where claret is as good as it is at Bordeaux and bouillabaisse can be had than which a better was not eaten at Marseilles.”(2)
Thackeray wasn’t the only visitor to praise the local cuisine. In My Diary, North and South, written in 1863, William Howard Russell comments about a dinner party, “The table was excellent and the wines worthy of the reputation which our host enjoys, in a city where Luculli are said to abound.” (Lucullus, a first century Roman statesman, gained a long-lasting reputation for lavish entertaining.)
In her travel journal, Mrs. Basil Hall, an Englishwoman, complained about the “prodigious” amount of food served during a dinner party she attended in the city. “This custom seemed to be the fashion at New Orleans”, she says. (3) She also criticized the “barbarous” hour of local dinner parties-generally around 3:00-4:00p.m. The dinners may have begun early, but often lasted well into the evening. (After a typical three hour dinner, guests had coffee and a little music in the parlor.)
Mrs. Hall was complaining about a dining method called French service, which was not the fashion in England at this time. French service included at least two main courses (perhaps more) composed of many different dishes, but always with soup and fish in the first course. In New Orleans, crawfish bisque, gumbo and bouillabaisse were popular for this course. The impressive array of dishes was always symmetrically placed and carefully balanced on the bounteous table.
The second course was the place for roasted meats, game and poultry dishes. Wild turkey, quail, and partridge were popular game dishes for the second course. The complex details of French service are daunting, but to simplify- hors d’oeuvres, vegetable dishes, salads and sometimes a sweet would be among the many dishes available during these main courses.
Following the main courses of such a meal, there was a dessert course made up of pastries, ice cream and on occasion, a towering spun sugar centerpiece from a confectioner’s shop. After this elaborate display, a second phase of the dessert course- fruit and wine- was served on the polished wood table. (Various wines were served throughout the meal, in between courses and after dinner.)
What Mrs. Hall didn’t understand is explained in The Housekeeping Book of Nelly Custis Lewis, by Patricia Brady. “A great variety of food was served in each course, but a guest was not expected nor desired to sample every dish, just his favorites”, Brady points out. (4) French service was fashionable among prosperous families in New Orleans and many other parts of the South until the food shortages after the Civil War. It had given way to a simpler dining style in other parts of the country before the 1860s.
Aside from the challenge of cooking such a meal in an exterior kitchen over an open hearth, the logistics of serving it seems impossible, given the amount of china, crystal, linen and silver involved. For example, the servers removed every single dish, candlestick and bottle from the table between courses in order to take away the top tablecloth from the stack layered there. The housekeeper’s success was very much in the hands of the slaves who cooked and presented these gargantuan meals.
Mrs. Edward Livingston, in a memoir published in 1886, describes how these meals were managed. “Highly seasoned Creole dishes, beginning with gumbo, perhaps began the dinner. “ (5)
She goes on to report that the meal was served by three or four enslaved women with bright Madras head-handkerchiefs (or tignons ). In addition there was a male enslaved servant who functioned as a butler, as well as two young boys who manned the large fan above the table (often called a punkah).
Livingston also describes a Creole dining room with floor to ceiling windows. These dining rooms, often on the first floor of the house, must have offered some interesting views to passersby.
There is consistent evidence in slave sale documents that good cooks and household slaves were highly valued. At this time there were both male and female enslaved cooks in the city. In the 1830s, Charlotte, a young enslaved woman at the Samuel Hermann house spoke French and cooked in the French style according to Hermann documents. [The former Hermann house at 820 St. Louis is now a house museum with the original open hearth kitchen and stables. ]
In her books and lectures, Jessica Harris, culinary historian and author, documents the importance of African cooks on Southern cuisine, pointing out the use of okra, smoked meat, beans and rice, hot sauce, and the use of coconut as some examples of this early influence.
The diary of Harriet Martineau reveals the simpler diet of a smaller, more modest New Orleans household. Mrs. Martineau, a visitor to the city in the 1820s, had gracious friends who offered her their house while they were away. They left a small staff of household slaves to cook for Martineau and her family.
“The slaves in our temporary abode had served us intelligently and well,” Martineau wrote. She described their meals “…at dinner broth, fowls, beefsteak with peas, young asparagus, salad, new potatoes, and spinach, all well-cooked; claret at dinner, and coffee worthy of Paris after it; this was the kind of provisions with which we were favored.” (6)
No matter whether they were rich, poor, or in between, New Orleanians in the 19th century prided themselves on being generous hosts or hostesses. Most importantly, they understood the magical influence a good meal provides.
1. Henry Benjamin Whipple, Bishop Whipple’s Southern Diary, ed. Lester B. Shippee (New York:DeCapo Press, 1968), 118.
2. Mary Barton Reed, Louisiana Cookery, its history and development. (Thesis, Louisiana StateUniversity, 1931)
3. Una Pope-Hennessy, ed. The Aristocratic Journey: Being the Outspoken Letters of Mrs. Basil Hall Written during a Fourteen Months’ Sojourn in America 1827-1828 (New York and London: G.P. Putnam, 1931), 257.
4. Patricia Brady Schmit, ed. Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book (New Orleans: Historic New Orleans Collection, 1982), 29.
5. Louise Livingston Hunt, Memoir of Mrs. Edward Livingston (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1886), 147.
6. Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, Volume 1 (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), 276.