How the Munchies Shaped a State’s Culture
As the grandeur of the antebellum era swiftly declined and Louisiana’s gentry dissolved, the people of Louisiana sought a new culture that the poor would call their own. While modern Louisiana culture is commonly referred to as Cajun, it is a misleading term. Louisiana’s current Cajun culture is not only built upon the practices of the French who migrated from Nova Scotia post the French and Indian War, but also traces its roots back to numerous countries whose citizens who sought a better life in the New World only to find poverty after immigration. Following the loss of the Civil War, unity became a necessity for Louisiana as the state was plunged into an economic depression, which meant that immigrants of many flavors would band together via one universal language: food.
Although Louisiana is universally known for its French roots, it is more fitting to begin with the nationality which contributed the most to Louisiana’s success. The Native Americans introduced the immigrants to the richest part of Louisiana which is known as the swamp floor pantry. Crawfish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters were carelessly tossed out by immigrants who didn’t understand the value that swamps offered. To other immigrants, swamps were wasteland that seemed productive only in breeding mosquitoes. However, Native Americans showed other immigrants how to catch and cook food which was both abundant and quite easily accessible. If it were not for the Native Americans, Louisiana’s food would have been missing ingredients both unique and native its land.
Likewise, the French and Cajun immigrants left a huge imprint on Louisiana’s food and culture. The roux, a soup base made of flour and butter, originated from the French and serves as the basis for most of the iconic Louisiana dishes. Gumbo is the most notable of all of Louisiana’s roux-based soups and is available in many different combinations from seafood to duck and sausage. In addition, Louisiana’s favorite breakfast comes from the French. Beignets are made of fried dough and topped with powdered sugar, which may sound more like dessert than breakfast; however, they are a perfectly acceptable breakfast food and are the reason that Café du Monde in New Orleans a famous tourist attraction.
Correspondingly, there are the Spanish, who owned Louisiana before the French and through a little property-swapping. Paella is a Spanish dish which was altered to suit the taste buds of Louisiana. Today, the Louisiana version is well known as jambalaya. In addition, the Spanish brought the spice and flavor to Louisiana cuisine that is considered its trademark, such as chili peppers.
Equally as important are the Germans. Their most prominent contribution was sausage making. Louisiana has several sausages exclusive to the state. Andouille and Boudin are special sausages used in jambalaya and gumbo which add to the unique flavor of Louisiana food. Cheese was also a German contribution to Louisiana cuisine. Contrary to the name, Creole cream cheese was brought over by the Germans also.
Furthermore, there were the English and Italians who brought their own ideas to the mix as well. The English introduced bread pudding, a favorite dessert, and pastries. Cured, un-smoked hams and bacons were also notable contributions of the English. Italians brought over olive oil, pastas, and tomatoes. Tomatoes are used as an alternative to traditional “brown” jambalayas to create “red” jambalaya, also called Creole jambalaya. This is another misleading term because the Italians introduced the tomato to Louisiana dishes.
It is also important to realize the effect that former slaves had on Louisiana cuisine. After slavery turned its ugly head, African Americans integrated into Louisiana society and made their own contributions to the state’s cuisine. Soul food, or using leftover cuts of meat or vegetables, serves as the basis for Louisiana food. Dishes like gumbo were originally used to get rid of scraps of meat or seafood by making them into an easy soup and it is clear to see that the African American concept of soul food inspired the recipe. African Americans were also expert preservers and introduced drying, pickling, and smoking to Louisiana food.
After all, “We don’t eat to live, we live to eat,” can be heard as often as “Laissez Le Bon Ton Roulet” down the streets of New Orleans, proving how tightly Louisiana citizens hold on to food as part of their cultural identity. While the French portion of Louisiana history is so openly celebrated, the other contributions to Louisiana culture are sadly ignored; however, they cannot be completely suppressed. No matter what name given to Louisiana culture, it will remain the True Melting Pot of a people united in food.