New Orleans Gumbo Part 2: The French Influence


Tatiana A. Galli

 

Foodle copyright Megan Pendergrass

New Orleans Gumbo – A Six Part Series

To read the other parts of this series, click here.

This hearty and flavorful bowl of soup is one dish that hits near to the hearts of those who reside in New Orleans. Not only is this food item an important staple in many homes of Louisiana, it is one that epitomizes the state’s cuisine as a whole. This enduring dish serves as a time machine to transport an individual back to the beginning of the cuisine’s existence. Exhibiting many diverse cultural influences, this dish provides an excellent example of the cultural melting pot of New Orleans. Evident in almost all of the city’s cuisine, the cooking traditions of those that immigrated fused together with the creation of what is known as one of the unique cuisines in America – the Creole Cuisine. This five-part series will focus on the histories and influences of the French, African, Spanish and German cultures, as well as particular ingredients, on the celebrated evolution of the Creole cuisine. In this second segment – the French.

 

Panoramic View of New Orleans-Federal Fleet at Anchor in the River, ca. 1862. Illustration from Campfires and Battlefields by Rossiter, Johnson, et al., via Wikimedia Commons


French

The city of New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718, and its Creole cuisine evolved around the fundamentals of French cookery traditions. One major ingredient, used in classical French cooking since the mid 17th century, that remains essential in the preparation of many Creole dishes is roux. A traditional French roux is light in color, made from equal parts of white flour and fat, and used as a thickening agent for sauces. Although many Creole cooks have their own way of making a roux, the origin of Creole roux is strictly French. Over time, Creole cooks created a new and darker version of the sauce. This new roux was prepared by toasting flour in oil until the flour turns to the desired dark color – light brown, dark brown, red, or black. Not only does this roux act as a thickening agent for soups, sauces, stews and étouffeés, but it adds considerable flavor to any dish. Not surprisingly, Creole roux is the key component in the traditional dish, gumbo. Although the roux is entirely absorbed by the jumble of food ingredients in the gumbo, its taste and texture is what makes gumbo – well, GUMBO![1]

Though recognized as a common world-wide staple, bread played a particularly significant role in the evolution of Creole cuisine. Bread preparation in the early days of New Orleans followed 18th century French techniques. The bread of this time was heavy, round in shape, and available in one, two, or four pound loaves. Although it is uncertain when the transition from heavier, rounded bread loaves to lighter, longer loaves occurred, French culinary history provides us with some information. By the mid-1700s, Parisian bakers began to use softer dough to produce more elongated loaves. Because the traditional rounded bread loaf had little crust and was made of heartier, denser flour, the preference for refined white flour breads that yielded more crust aided the transition to the production of elongated French bread loaves. To prepare a new batch of dough, the French usually use a levain, or “starter,” that is taken from a previous batch. New Orleanians, on the other hand, create a new yeast culture. This New Orleanian method results in a lighter, thinner crusted loaf, while the French technique produces a slightly sour and chewy loaf.[2]

The production of bread and the unfortunate issue of poverty were often closely linked throughout the history of New Orleans. Bakers typically donated stale loaves of bread to the poor and charitable institutions. Quite frequently, they would, under government contract, make fresh breads for Charity Hospital. Sometimes, if governmental officials caught bakeries shortening their loaves for sale, they would force them to donate the bread to the poor. Bennie and Clovis Martin, two brothers from Raceland, Louisiana, moved to New Orleans in the mid-1910s. Both men worked as streetcar conductors for the New Orleans Railway and Light Company until they began their own coffee stand and restaurant in 1922, called Martin Brother Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market. Located in a working-class neighborhood in the lower section of the French Quarter, during the beginning years of their business, the brothers’ main clientele was workers in food markets, such as produce, fish and meat markets, and longshoremen. Given that they gained a great reputation for their creation of carryout sandwiches, the brothers’ service of coffee slowly declined. By the time the Great Depression stuck America, they modified their business into just a restaurant. In 1931, the Martin brothers relocated to an area that was closer to their bread supplier, John Gendusa Bakery.[3] This move sparked the birth of what is now known as the “po’ boy” or “poor boy” sandwich.

New Orleans second line parade at “Po-Boy Festival” on Oak Street. By Infrogmation of New Orleans. Photo by Infrogmation, via Wikimedia Commons

Characteristic of French bread loaves are its narrow tips. For sandwich making purposes, the tips of the loaves would be cut off, leaving for use only the broader mid-section. As the number of sandwiches made increased, more bread waste acquired, at least for the Martin brothers – many other restaurants would routinely serve the these left-over tips alongside many dishes. The brothers confronted Gendusa with the problem and in collaboration they decided to produce a longer, more uniform and rectangular loaf of bread. Gendusa called this new loaf “Special.” This name, however, did not endure. Although the etymology of the name “poor boy” remains in heavy dispute – many believing that the term “boy” was used to racially describe poor African American men – the name evolved in relation with the street railway workers.[4]

As mentioned above, the Martin brothers worked as streetcar conductors before becoming successful restaurant owners. More specifically, Bennie and Clovis were members of the Amalgamated Association of the Electric Street Railway Employees, Division 194. At the start of the Great Depression in 1929, transit strikes broke out throughout the nation, leaving hundreds of union jobs in question. To show their support, one of the Martin brothers sent a letter to the union reading, “Our meal is free to any members of Division 194.” Although these free meals were only intended for union workers, they slowly became a shared meal among the many starving, now poor, people, especially among the workers’ families. By this time, the brothers were swamped with customers. So much so that Bennie Martin stated that “whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say ‘here comes another poor boy.’”[5] Thus, the sandwiches became known as the “poor boy” sandwich. Today, it is widely known as the New Orleanian pronounced “po’ boy” sandwich.

Shrimp po-boy and gumbo. Photo: Tatiana Galli

This past March, my senior seminar class, “Environment Connections Chicago-New Orleans,” had a wonderful opportunity to visit New Orleans for our spring break. During our three night stay in the city, I made it a point to try several iconic Creole dishes – one being the po’ boy. Unfortunately, due to an allergy, I was unable to try the signature sandwiches, the shrimp or the oyster po’ boy. Luckily, I was surrounded by many of my classmates who love fish, one being my boyfriend, Brian. Thus, I lived vicariously through him. When our meals were served at the table, I could not help myself but to closely examine the “popular” dish. Quickly, I shot a picture of Brian taking his first bites. Atop the light, fluffy, yet crispy bread loaf was a load of deep fried shrimp, fresh ripe tomatoes and lettuce, and a thin layer of velvety mayonnaise. Accompanying the po’ boy was a generous side portion of homemade gumbo. This brown stew was speckled with an array of colors, each of which was either a vegetable or sausage. Resting on top of this luscious looking stew laid a mound of long-grained white rice garnished with vibrant green chopped scallions. As he took his first bite, I watched his face brighten with delight and heard him softly hum “Mmm- mmm” – this is no exaggeration. Before he went in for his second bite, I eagerly stopped him to asked, “How is it?!” and he impatiently answered, “Delicious!” For the next five minutes, I watched him stuff his face in the over-sized sandwich, savoring every mouthful until he devoured it to nothing but crumbs.

Though it was not the iconic shrimp po’ boy, my sandwich was delectable. Just as the shrimp sandwich, the jumbo loaf was stuffed with ripe tomatoes, crisp lettuce, and seasoned grilled chicken breast, all of which was smothered with the buttery mayonnaise dressing. As I took my first bite, I was pleasantly surprised at the many flavors of this simple sandwich – sweet of the tomato, creamy sourness of the dressing and slight pungency of the chicken.  Although the meal burst with flavor, I was most interested in the many textures my mouth experienced while eating this sandwich. With each mouthful, I got the crisp fluffiness of the bread’s crust, the crunchiness of the lettuce, the mushiness of the tomato, the juiciness of the chicken, and most importantly, the silkiness of the mayonnaise. All in all, it was a fantastic sandwich. However, if my rather plain po’ boy was delicious, I can’t even imagine what the shrimp po’ boy tasted like!


[1] Abel, Leary, and Perret, 2004.

[2] Tucker, 2009.

[3] Tucker, 2009.

[4] Ibid

[5] Tucker, 2009.  (p. 49)

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