Cookbook review: The Picayune Creole Cook Book from New Orleans

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Review
 
The Picayune Creole Cook Book
Cookbook

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

We seem to get particularly attached to cookbooks that have been compiled to chronicle and preserve the food culture of a region or country. This is why we believe that David Thompson's Thai food is such an important publication. Thai society has always relied on recipes being handed down orally from one generation to the next. However, when there emerges a generation that is just not as interested in the food traditions then a serious problem arises. Thompson has set in stone many of the important recipes of this great cuisine.
This also happened in Nice when the mayor, Jacques Médecin detected that there was a danger of the great recipes of the local cuisine no longer being preserved by the new generation - hence he wrote his seminal La Cuisine du Comté de Nice.
The Picayune Creole Cook Book from New Orleans also served a similar process at the beginning of the twentieth century. The New Orleans newspaper set out to collect and codify all of the important Creole recipes that constituted one of the two great cuisines of southern Louisiana. The other great cuisine was Cajun cuisine but this would take much longer to codify.
To understand New Orleans cuisine it is important to understand the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisines and how they have progressively merged over the last two centuries as the cuisine of the city and the cuisine of the bayou have mixed, merged and mingled.
Many try to understand the cuisine and culture of New Orleans on a two or three day fleeting visit to this complex city. We went back and forth to New Orleans for an entire year and still feel that we have not fully understood all of the influences that have come to play in this city.
Both Creole and Cajun cuisines essentially owe their roots to the French.
The Cajun food and culture is derived from the French who, for reasons of religious persecution, migrated to Nova Scotia and the surrounding islands in Canada and set up an 'Arcadian' society that lasted for two hundred years. However their presence was inconvenient to the British and they were ruthlessly evicted from their lands in 1755. Some were sent back to Europe, many died on the high seas and some ended up finding a home in the mangrove swamps known as bayous in the Mississippi delta of Louisiana.
Here they developed their characteristic three pot cooking. One pot for the rice or gruel, one for the meat and one for the vegetables. Many of the main dishes are based on an oil and flour roux which is cooked to either a light or very dark brown depending on the style of dish. The Cajun cuisine has evolved. Sometimes dishes which are emblematic of the cuisine such as blackened redfish were invented relatively recently but have captured the imagination because they use techniques that have been practiced for centuries. When we first saw blackened redfish being cooked at Paul Prudhomme's temporary restaurant in New York in 1985 we didn't realise that is was an innovative rather than traditional dish.
The French also directly settled the Louisiana delta and in particular New Orleans. Here they were joined by people from the Caribbean and slaves from Africa. There was intermarriage and there was the intermingling of food cultures as many of the aristocratic French had Negro cooks who combined the beloved French techniques with their own. These people and this food took on the name of Creole. Thus gumbo, the wonderful soup, has influences from Africa (for example then use of okra which was brought to the area by slaves), is based on a French style roux, on introduced Spanish flavours and also draws on Cajun techniques.
And now to the book itself.
It is divided into fifty chapters in the edition that we have. You need to be prepared for some slight variations as there have been many reprints and editings of the original.
Reading the introduction you might almost think that the Picayune was on a crusade. Consider this sentence:
"The moral forces of good cooking cannot be too forcibly insisted upon."
There is a lot of declaiming about the need for housewives to be able to provide for their households at a low price.
But it is the recipes themselves that are the main attraction of this book. Ox-tail soup is a classic of simplicity and the required frugality. It is also an example of precision since the ox-tail is to be cut to the length of a peanut and the carrot is to be diced to the size of a green pea and is to be combined with precisely one square inch of ham. Onions are cooked in lard with the ox-tail, the carrots and ham, along with some thyme, bay leaf, cloves and garlic. When these are all ready, flour is added and browned before consommé (stock) is added and then the whole lot is simmered slowly for four hours. The serving is traditional, with the ox-tail soup being ladled into a bowl and then two tablespoons of sherry added at the table. If a restaurant followed this recipe today it would be received kindly by food lovers for its purity and depth of flavour.
And we love the admonishing of the potential cook in the recipe for Consommé with poached eggs. Here we are warned to transfer poached eggs to cold water after cooking because "the boiling water tends to make the edges ragged, and eggs served in this slovenly manner are not tempting'.
Chapter VII sees the arrival of the classic gumbo. The gumbo is rightly one of the world's great dishes when it is done with care and attention to detail. We have had the privilege of enjoying a classically prepared gumbo at Commanders Palace in New Orleans and at a little café in Donaldsonville a short drive up the Mississippi on the way to Baton Rouge.
One of the first gumbo recipes is for Gumbo Filé which is flavoured with the pounded leaves of the sassafras tree. These used to be harvested by the local Choctaw Indians and brought down to the French Quarter Market. Unfortunately this market is now little more than a sad tourist trap, however you can still get a glimpse of this tradition if you go to the Crescent City Farmers Market on a Saturday morning and you can see the filé being prepared in a beautiful and enormous mortar and pestle by a very engaging local.
It would be impossible to pick out other recipes for a description as there are just so many. We think it is important to point out that may of the recipes are quite close to classical French recipes of the nineteenth century and are also very close to those recipes still being used by the traditional restaurants in New Orleans such as Galatoire's, Arnaud's and Antoine's.
This is an important book for a number of reasons. The food lover can gain a sense of the history of Creole cuisine, there are recipes that are still relevant (for example many of the gumbos) and it is a snapshot of Creole cooking at the beginning of the last century.
 
     
   
     


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