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 the fourth part, we explore the Spanish influence on Creole cuisine.
- Portrait of Charles III of Spain (1716-1788); Artist: Anton Raphael Mengs, via Wikimedia Commons
Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762, Louis XIV of France granted New Orleans and the area of Louisiana west of the Mississippi river to his cousin Charles III of Spain. (24) Louisiana remained under Spanish control until 1800. During this time, Spanish cooks introduced many traditional cooking preparations to the Creole cuisine – one being the recipe for the flavor packed jambalaya.
This “one pot,” highly seasoned rice dish, is said to be an inspired dish of paella, the signature foodstuff of Valencia, Spain. Paella combines various vegetables, seasonings, meats and rice, some of which include green beans, butter beans, tomatoes, olive oil, paprika, saffron, salt and pepper, chicken, rabbit and pork. Quite similar to paella is the classic Creole jambalaya. This dish typically combines ham, pork sausage, and rice with butter, onions, thyme, parsley, ground cloves, bay leaves, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper.
There are two types of jambalaya – brown and red. The color of the dish is a result of the rice absorbing the cooking liquid of all the ingredients during the cooking process. Brown jambalayas are what have been influenced by Spanish cookery. To prepare such a dish, the chosen meats are first browned in a cast iron pan; this browning is referred to as the Maillard effect. The Maillard effect occurs when ingredients are seared in the high temperatures of a cast iron pot. These high temperatures boost the caramelization process of the natural sugars in the ingredients. Once browned, the rest of the chosen ingredients are added to the pan. The rice absorbs all the liquid for the ingredients and turns brown in color.(25)
- Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya. Photo courtesy Louisiana Cookin’ Magazine.
Though the creation of jambalaya as a dish has been greatly influenced by Spanish cookery, it has been said that it shares its origin with West African cooking as well. The inspiration of jambalaya in this account most likely derived from the West African dish known as jollof rice, or sometimes “benachin” which means “one pot.”(26) This meal is made with a variety of meats, onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, tomato paste, and spices, such as cumin, ginger and nutmeg. Though heavily debated as to its authenticity, jollof rice can be made with seafood and a variety of other vegetables and spices such as garlic, carrots, green beans, cabbage, curry and bay leaf. Jambalayas of West African influence are distinct from those of Spanish because they always include tomatoes or tomato paste as a main ingredient. Therefore, these are classified as red jambalayas. The typical New Orleans’ jambalaya dish is red; however, this does not necessarily connote that the main culture influence is West African.(27)
A traditional recipe for red beans and rice, a popular staple of Creole food, was also introduced to the Creole cuisine by the Spanish. Over time, this dish became a must-have comfort food among the people of Louisiana. Susan Tucker, editor of New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories, expresses – “Even as red beans and rice represent the heart, home and family, they also stand as a symbol of New Orleans itself.”(28) This statement endows us with a perfect description of the importance of red beans and rice as a New Orleanian dish. This simple, yet tasty foodstuff evolved with inspiration from the Spanish, Moros y Cristianos, a highly seasoned white rice and black bean dish. Red beans and rice were traditionally served on Mondays and were usually seasoned with a ham bone from Sunday’s habitual meal. Monday was “wash day,” and given that the African slaves had to engage in laborious hours of doing laundries, it was a simple meal for them to prepare – they could leave the beans unattended and cooking on the stove during these long hours of washing clothes. (29) Not only did this staple evolve into a traditional dish of the Creole cuisine due to its significance in African slave cookery, it gained much importance for its inexpensiveness. Red beans and rice was a cheap and effective way of feeding large crowds of people, especially family and friends. To emphasize this point, Amy Sin states in her The Ruby Slippers Cookbook: Life, Culture, Family, and Food after Katrina, “My great grandmother made such a large pot of beans on Monday, all of her eight grown children would show up with an empty pot to get some for their families.” (30)
The red kidney bean, a member of the Fabaceae family, is one of 30,000 plus varieties of beans known as Phaseolus vulgaris or “common beans.” This annual bean is thought to have originated in Peru and derived from one common bean ancestor. Indian traders from Peru were the reason for the bean’s spread throughout Central and South America. By the 15th century, returning Spanish explorers of the New World brought the legume back with them into Europe. (31) Spanish and Portuguese traders introduced the bean to Africa and Asia as well. Given the variety of subspecies, the plant can produce flowers that are pink, red, white or lavender. Additionally, there are two plant types: bush or vine. The bush plant grows upright with most of its pods held above ground with continuous flowering. The vine plant grows horizontal to the ground with most of its pods lying along the ground.32 The pods of the plant grow between eight and twenty centimeters long, each of which contains four to twelve seeds that vary in size and shape. Also, red kidney beans are generally shaped like a kidney – hence the name. (33)
Red kidney beans have a tendency of absorbing the flavors of ingredients in which they are cooked, thus making them great for the preparation of simmered dishes. Before use, one generally needs to boil them. Overall, this legume is very versatile, as it can be used in a multitude of recipes: dips, stews, soups, chili, and salads. In terms of its nutritional value, beans are an excellent source of fiber, starch, protein, iron, and potassium.
At the time the Spanish gained control of New Orleans, two new meats were introduced to the Creole cuisine, the Spanish version of jamon, “ham,” and chaurice, a “spicy smoked sausage.” The Spanish were also heavy users of garlic, onions, and parsley. In combination with the meats, these ingredients made for a popular addition in gumbos. Although chaurice was used, the Spanish ham was the preferred choice and is crucial in most Creole gumbo recipes. In the years of their rule, the Spanish government established a military to strengthen their territory’s defenses. To do this, it enlisted a number of fishermen from the Canary Islands, who settled along the coast of Louisiana. These fishermen troops, in addition to protecting their city, provided the locals with a generous supply of seafood, in particular shrimp, crab, and oysters. This is one of the main reasons why seafood became such an important ingredient in this traditional dish. (34)
24 Smith, Andrew F., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004. (p. 150-156)
25 Southern Food and Beverage Museum (from Interpreted Display). New Orleans: March 2012.
26 Yaidoo, Reina. “Jollof rice: the African dish that everyone loves but no one can agree on.” The
Guardian. Last modified August 10, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/aug/10/jollof-rice
27 Southern Food and Beverage Museum (from Interpreted Display). New Orleans: March 2012.
28 Tucker, Susan, ed. New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. (p. 129).
29 Smith, Andrew F., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004. (p. 150-156).
30 Tucker, Susan, ed. New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. (p. 129).
31 “Kidney beans.” The World’s Healthiest Foods: whfoods.org. Last modified 2001-2012.
32 Smoliak, S., R.L. Ditterline, J.S. Scheetz, L.K. Holzworth, J.R. Sims, L.E. Wiesner, D.E.
Baldridge, and G.L. Tibke. “Dry or Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).” Montana State
University. Last modified August 29, 2006.
33 Louis Bonduelle Foundation. “Red kidney beans: every knowledge on vegetables, health and