Creole Food Ways

Creole food ways can be divided into meats, breads, desserts, sweets, vegetables, and "extension" foods, such as files, gumbo, and etouffe. The frugal nature of Creole cookery by which people tried to use the whole animal - at least as much as was possible. The hog became meat: ribs, chops, loin, and ham. The head was conserved for meat for making tamales and/or "souse," and the brains were eaten.

Almost all Creole foods were cooked and eaten with a gravy or roux. Roux was the base for gumbo and file gumbo, a redundancy recognized even by non-French speakers. File, pounded or ground sassafras leaves, was the "thickening" added to raux and soups. It was also used, sometimes, to flavor smoked meat. Gumbo, or okra, was, like file, cooked and added to thicken the roux base in a dish which bore its name. Meats were eaten rapidly in the old days. Once a beef was slaughtered, the meat was either "put up" in strips which were smoked and dried as tasso or cooked immediately. A butcher in the 1930s would kill one beef a week, load the meat in his buggy, and take it to Montrose, then a thriving mill town. He would blow his horn, a conch shell, and people would buy up the beef Mid-week he would slaughter a hog, and the same process would result in the pork being preserved - "put up" in hot lard in buckets, smoked in smoke houses as bacon, ham or, again, tasso. Pork was also made into sausage - at least three kinds on Cane River: Andouille, Zandouille, and hot sausage.

In the old days, Creoles viewed gumbo as the traditional food for large, especially large public gatherings. The Mardi Gras and the annual Church fair produced gumbos cooked in large black iron pots outside in the yard. Most often these gumbos are, like those still served at the fair, made of chicken. More water, more gumbo, but local Creoles are critical if it gets too thin.

Spices are integral to Creole cooking. Like the roux, which must be just the "right" color and which is easily burned, the exact amount of spice is important to virtually every dish. Most important is cayenne, or red, pepper and black pepper. The red pepper is grown in Creole gardens, and local "experts" prepare it. The pepper is dried in hot, dry places, a room in the house or a shed. It may be "finished" by heating it on a stove. Strung whole, it is dried, seeds and all. Otherwise, the peppers are stripped away from the seeds by hand which yields a less hot product.

Native Americans used the sassafras leaves as flavoring, even smoking meats with them, and the dried leaves were pounded into a powder for a food additive. In Creole cuisine this Indian food way has remained intact. Where Native Americans lived in close proximity to Creole communities, they sold file and other herbs along with cane basketry to the Creoles. It is a plant (sassafras albium sp.) that grows best in the uplands, usually in the "sand hills" or terraces. Creoles on Cane River traditionally gather their sassafras leaves at the headwaters of Bayou Derbanne in the hills. Onions, shallots, and garlic are the other popular ingredients in Creole cuisine.

While fried pies - meat or fruit - echo the empanadas of their Hispanic roots and gumbo the famous mixture of Native American (file), African (okra) and French-Spanish (cayenne and raux), the Creoles see the combination as more important than the ingredients. Still, they are well aware of how their cultural roots connect them to their preferences for the table.

The pecan tree has long been grown at homes on Isle Brevelle. Long before commercial pecan groves or plantations were planted, families planted the trees. People gather pecans for their own use in cakes, pies, and the sugary pralines.

Mint was often added to iced tea. Lemonade, according to Mrs. Lily Delphin and others, was the popular cooling drink that Creoles were famous for. It is still popular in Creole homes. Zis-Zis fruit, or jujubes, is gathered in the fall; it is eaten as a fruit or made into brandy. This tree, introduced from China, may echo the other Creole cultural ingredient on Cane River, the mixture of antebellum Chinese families into the community.

Wild grapes, pecans, and other wild plant foods - including the patate sauvage - or Indian Potato often rounded out the food ways. These wild foods, like file, are resoundingly Native American. They are part of a complex of hunting and gathering that once existed all across the region.

Today only recreational fishing for crappie, white perch (sac au lait), and catfish remains popular year round. Harpooning garfish, once popular among Creoles, is now considered illegal and only rarely occurs. Gar provides a popular meat with African Americans, but is "creolized" into the boulet form for consumption. Ground gar meat is browned in a skillet and then smothered in a thick gravy and served over rice. Frequencies of wild meats vary by season, but duck, quail, geese, and other bird hunting seem less popular with Creoles than with their neighbors, although dove hunting is still popular among some of the Creoles. Deer, rabbit, and squirrel hunting are less frequent than in the past, victims to widespread land clearing in the valley and the lack of access to lumber company or federal forest land in the hills. Still, deer hunting - without dogs - is common with Creoles on the river.

Various types of fowl, particularly chickens, geese, ducks, guineas, and pigeons, have always been popular foods on the island and along Cane River. Pigeons were raised, and people recall closing the exits of the Pigeonniers so they could take the pigeons inside the building, on the nests. Chickens were raised and sometimes ranged about the yards freely, but often there was a chicken house in the backyard. Eggs were gathered daily, and chickens were cooked in gumbos, fried, smothered in gravy, baked with cornbread dressing, and stewed with flour dumplings.

Creole traditions of sharing food and drink with family and friends are as strong today as it was two centuries ago. No Creole gathering would be complete without that. Gumbos, barbecues, picnics, homecomings, church functions, the annual Heritage Day - all celebrate food and drink.

Sources: We Know Who We Are (unpublished manuscript) H.F. Gregory and Joseph Moran. Pg. 133-148.

Last updated: January 5, 2018