Everyday Eating in New Orleans, 300 years ago

Along with the historical matter that usually populates these pages. this tricentennial year will also be spent trying to capture a sense of what life was like for the founding generations. After all, a culinary history is by definition a cultural history. Putting ourselves into New Orleans’ everyday affairs is the goal here. What better way to commemorate our Tricentennial?

In seeking to uncover a cultural everydayness of French colonial Louisiana, we begin by seeking out the routine methods of food consumption. Was breakfast, lunch, & supper the norm in the eighteenth century?

The first reference checked is 200 years after the fact, but The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook proposes in its introduction to speak to the ladies of 1900, “to do as their grandmothers did, acquaint themselves thoroughly with the art of cooking in all its important and minutest details, and learn how to properly apply them.” . . . “To gather up from the lips of the old Creole negro cooks and the grand old housekeepers who still survive, . . . (before) Creole cookery, with all its delightful combinations and possibilities, will have become a lost art . . .”

The grandmothers here probably refer to to the Civil War/Reconstruction generation who did, in fact, still survive into the early 20th Century as well as ancestors of the colonial, American, and ante-bellum generations . This volume’s cultural information, or what we call today “foodways” (which without doubt reflect the ideals of the New Orleans household during the “Gilded Age”) can at least dimly reflect nineteenth and eighteenth century culinary customs, we do see the meal triumvirate of breakfast, luncheon, and supper may have been well established during the post-colonial period.

Examining some European background into the same question yields a slightly different picture. In Europe, prior to the settlement of the Americas, while most people ate whenever they could, meals prepared in kitchens tended to be two time a day. There was ‘dinner’, the main meal of the day, taken in the middle of the day (anytime between 11 am and 2 or 3 pm), ‘supper’ which tended to generally be a light meal, was eaten at 5 or 6 pm. More often than not supper was leftovers from the earlier midday dinner. Breakfast, as a meal, did not become institutionalized until the mid-1800’s. Prior to that, it was usually some porridge, or fruit, or bread, and something to drink. Breakfast was also usually eaten between the morning chores. Another point to consider is that mealtimes are culturally based. That is, eating (or indeed timekeeping itself) in an agricultural society (pre-1900) is a lot different than eating in an post-1900 urban culture. Meals certainly varied according to the relative wealth of the household as well as he time of sunrise and sunsets from season to season. The best we can say is that two meals a day was a general norm, with the main midday meal being the largest calorie intake of the day.

{Background for the above: The Rule of St. Benedict,
Massialot, etc.)

What and how does Suzanne cook on a daily basis for the Marigny family?

Early morning – “petit dejeuner” hot bread, coffee, milk, cream cheese, cornbread
Midday meal – “dejeuner”
Evening meal – “souper”

Having said all of that, what could life had been like in Tante Suzanne’s kitchen at the Marigny household?

One morning Suzanne found some mushrooms in the garden, wondering about what to cook for tonight’s dinner, she searched around her larder. Finding some items, she decided that a chicken dish was be perfect after the recent spell of bad weather. Not really thinking much about it, Suzanne set about preparing the meal in what would become a hallmark of future interpretations of the Creole cuisine she was helping to create – that is originating a world class cuisine simply from what she had on hand around the kitchen. Of course, such high-minded culinary philosophy would never have entered her mind; at least, not this morning.

The first task at hand was to kill, clean, dress, and cut up a chicken from the yard. She left the bloody work to one of the kitchen helpers. She knew first hand how to do it, but one of the benefits of being the Marigny’s chef de cuisine was being able to leave the dirty work to others. While some may consider tonight’s meal to be fancy eating, it was to this Creole family simply a well cooked weekday’s ‘dejeuner’, or perhaps ‘souper’.

She began by slowing frying, rendering perhaps is a better word, the chicken pieces in some bacon fat to get a good base for the dish. Next, she prepared a simple white sauce, en Francais, un bechamel. This classic and simple sauce is prepared with four spoons of butter, four spoons of fine wheat flour, two and a half cups of milk (heated), salt and pepper, and some thyme leaves.

Suzanne would begin by melting the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Then stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but not letting it brown — about 2 minutes. Adding the hot milk, and continuing to stir as the sauce thickens until it comes to a boil. She adds the thyme, then salt and pepper, lowers the heat, and cooks, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Finally she removes it from the heat and sets it aside.

Now after the chicken had rendered out a fair amount of grease, she sliced a dozen or so mushrooms and a handful of chopped parsley, then added this to the hot grease and sauté for a few minutes. Then put the chicken back into the pan, add salt and pepper, and cover each chicken piece with some of the bechamel sauce. Cover the pan, put it on a low fire and cook for about an hour. When the time is passed, remove the chicken pieces from the pan, add the rest of the sauce (perhaps thin it a bit with some stock or water). Mix the sauce well, return the chicken to the pan, cover again and cook for another 45 minutes to an hour. Serve over rice, or just by itself with some hot bread.


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About Jerry Laiche

Jon (Jerry) Laiche, B.A., M.A. is a  working historian, writer, and co-author of “1718: The Petticoat Rebellion Cookbook.”  He is a twenty-year veteran teacher and scholar, having taught courses in Louisiana, American, and World History, and is a member of the Historic New Orleans Collection. In addition to his background as an historian, he has taught Religion in the High Schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and was adjunct professor of Computer Ethics and Internet Technology at Tulane University.  In addition to his academic duties, Jerry has served his schools as a technology coordinator, network administrator, librarian, and Internet guru.  During his teaching tenure, Jerry also was the recipient of two grants from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.  The grants enabled his school to establish the first High School Women’s Studies program in New Orleans.  He was the founding Director of the Archdiocesan Teacher Learning Center (Computers in the Classroom).  For three years, he owned and operated “The Philosopher’s Stone” a bookstore on the Northshore specializing in rare and antiquarian volumes.  With his smart and beautiful wife, Beth, he currently coordinates the “1718 Project” to commemorate the 2018 New Orleans Tri-Centennial.  He and his life partner currently live at Beltane Grove, one acre and a cottage, 30 miles north of New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain. (Rev. Samhain: Oct. 31, 2018) jlaiche@earthlink.net http://1718neworleans.com https://1718neworleans2018.wordpress.com/ Home Office: (985) 795-2372 Primum est Edare, diendi Philosophari