EATING THROUGH NEW ORLEANS’ HISTORY

New Orleans’ most famous dishes reveal history, influences and diversity.

Bird's-eye-view of New Orleans.
Bird’s-eye-view of New Orleans.

It all started with the French back in 1718. It was then that Sieur de Bienville discovered La nouvelle Orleans and set up shop in the port city. The French brought with them a unique culture and French bread – considered by some as the ingredient that established bread pudding, one of the most popular desserts in New Orleans.

I learned this at the New Orleans School of Cooking during my visit to the city. The chef, Kevin Belton, prepared piña colada bread pudding which mostly consisted of dry bread, butter – a lot of it – and a touch of piña colada. Belton said that Louisiana cooking is not classical meaning that you don’t have to follow the recipe step-by-step. He added that those who don’t know how to cook will be the best at preparing Louisiana cuisine because it’s all about freestyle – this was great news for me.

chef.kevin.bolton
Chef Kevin Belton

While Belton chopped, poured and mixed, he gave the class a quick background on some of the local cuisine and how they originated.

He explained that a lot of the dishes he was preparing – jambalaya, gumbo and pralines – had a French undertone but were also influenced by other cultures including European, American, Caribbean and West African that turned New Orleans into the diverse city it is today.

Belton said that jambalaya includes Cajun (descendants from Acadia – modern day Canadian Maritimes), African and German influences.

The word itself derives from the French word ‘jambon’ meaning ‘ham;’ ‘a la’ meaning ‘in the style of;’ and the African word ‘ya’ meaning rice. Andouille sausage included in most jambalaya recipes is made by the Germans but named by the French further showing the various cultures that influence the dish.

Seafood Gumbo Creole. By Creole Contessa.
Seafood Gumbo Creole. By Creole Contessa.

Gumbo is perhaps the most popular dish in New Orleans. The gumbo Belton made for the class consisted of flavored stock; sausage; the African vegetable okra; the Choctaw file powder; roux, the French base made of flour; and the ‘holy trinity’ of Cajun cuisine: onions, celery and green peppers.

Belton said that gumbo is a good example of the fused Creole culture that shaped New Orleans. Music, literature, architecture and pretty much everything in the city displays this diversity.

Although New Orleans is nearly 300 years old and has endured invasions, civil wars and natural disasters, it still maintains its history and originality.

From the intricate architecture, to the cobblestone streets, the French Quarter is dripping in history and culture!
From the intricate architecture, to the cobblestone streets, the French Quarter is dripping in history and culture!

The French Quarter, for example, is the oldest and most popular neighborhood in the city – astonishingly, it was the only part of New Orleans that wasn’t damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  And although it’s called the ‘French’ Quarter, many of the buildings were built under Spanish rule.

The Bourbon Orleans hotel, part of the New Orleans Hotel Collection, is one of the buildings found in this area and I was privileged enough to stay here during my visit. It is located by two major landmarks: the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America, founded in 1720; and Jackson Square (Place d’Armes) where French colonial New Orleans was originally centered.

Similarly to the cultural fusion found in New Orleans’ dishes, the hotel also displayed influences from the various cultures that shaped the city. It’s exterior showcased traditional French designs from the mid-19th century and the interior included a blend of Spanish and French décor, furniture and drapery in deep colours such as forest green, navy blue and red. My room overlooked the courtyard and featured French window screens, a king-sized bed with white linens and red pillows, and the bathroom was designed with dark green marble.

Some of the amenities that the Bourbon Orleans hotel includes are balcony suites, free Wi-Fi, a salt water pool and two restaurants: Bourbon ‘O’ and Roux on Orleans, which serves one of the best gumbo dishes in the city.