New Orleans is a city rich with diverse cultures evident in legendary dishes such as gumbo, etouffee and the Creole “trinity” of vegetables, shrimp stock, and a touch of cream.
Its culinary traditions, particularly Creole and Cajun cooking, are the basis of many restaurants and homes, each with its own unique recipes and stories. While there are multiple variations of the same dishes, their individual histories dating back 300 years are as distinct as their flavors. They reflect the complexity of colonization, staying true to ancestral roots, and the constant exchange of ideas and lifestyles.
A Savory Melting Pot of Tradition
Food is the preservation and representation of one’s culture and ideals. This is especially true in Cajun food, known for its “country” style of cooking due to its rustic origins and preparation of foods by German and French colonists. Cajun cuisine includes heavy seasoning, along with salt and smoke as a way to preserve meats back when refrigeration was not an option. As a result, delicious pork based sausages such as boudin and andouille sausages were made. Modern day dishes like Copeland’s andouille sausage and red beans and rice entrée happily uses these products of the past, all while honoring the long time tradition of celebrating and combining cultures via food.
The beauty of Creole cuisine is its ability to bring together different backgrounds while highlighting their individualism at the same time. For example, while red beans and rice is a Caribbean influenced food, the tradition of serving it with a side of pork comes from the Christian practice of using leftover pork from Sunday dinners. Creole food is the result of people from all cultures living in the same area of New Orleans over time, including Native American, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Italian, among many others. As such, dishes such as Jambalaya pasta (traditionally a rice dish from Spain) in Copeland’s are not unusual, though unique in its flavor combinations.
Good-will Gesture Turned Staple
One of the newer additions to the New Orleans food scene is the po-boy sandwich, dating back to the Depression era. During a transit strike in New Orleans, restaurant owners Clovis and Benjamin Martin fed the strikers these famous sandwiches for free. In order to accommodate the strikers’ hungry appetites, a custom made loaf of French bread was made to span as long at 40 inches. The sandwich was filled with all things hearty, which included a combination of seafood, meats, and cheeses. Po-boy, made for the “poor boys,” became a famous symbol of solidarity for the working class, and continues to be a popular comfort food of New Orleans restaurants such as Copeland’s.
If there is only one New Orleans tradition to remember, it is that there is no “right way” to make traditional New Orleans dishes. Foods such as gumbo, red beans and rice, and even po-boys can come in a variety of forms depending on where one breaks bread, whether it’s at a dining establishment like Copelands of New Orleans here in the Atlanta area or at someone’s home in the middle of New Orleans.
While the essentials are universally the same, it is the details—resources, history, and family—that make each experience new and unexpectedly delicious.