a certain "lagniappe"
From the Cook & Tell Column (March 5, 1981)
It’s Fat Tuesday, and too late to fly to New Orleans to take part in Mardi Gras, but a backward glance from right here might unearth some facts you may not know about this colorful city.
The annual weeklong Mardi Gras celebration climaxes a two-month social season that begins on Twelfth Night, back in January. Mardi Gras, the actual day before Ash Wednesday, winds up several days of revelry during which a parade is held every night, followed by a grand ball, with each day’s festivities sponsored by a different social club. Fat Tuesday’s parade has two parades and two balls, the most spectacular of the whole week.
A king reigns over each parade and the queen he selects reigns over the ball. Elaborate costumes, gift-giving, street dancing, bell ringing, entertainment, feasting and folderol are rampantduring the week. Nothing like Mardi Gras, with its pomp and froth, happens anywhere else in the USA. Fisherman’s Festival and Windjammer days don’t even come close.
Mardi Gras is only one example of the New Orleans blend of sophistication and earth vibrance. Another is the harmonious coexistence of beloved Dixieland jazz, New Orleans’ special contribution to American music, with the opera and symphony that flourish in that city. The glamorous elegance of the upper crust and the spicy, full-flavored lifestyle of the Cajuns and Creoles combine to give New Orleans a certain lagniappe—"something extra,” in Creole lingo. Nowhere is this something extra more evident than in the native cuisine, a food tradition that proves the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts.
Crawfish, oysters, Gulf shrimp, crab, gumbo, jambalaya, beignets, pralines: these are as characteristic of New Orleans as are the Rampart Street Blues and the wrought iron balconies of the French Quarter. Oysters Rockefeller originated here. Tabasco sauce, the hot pepper seasoning that built a Louisiana family’s fortune, seasons many of the dishes with a West Indian flavor. Tomatoes, pepper and onions sauteed in oil entitle a dish so embellished to be described as “Creole Style.”
Besides a multitude of elaborate gourmet recipes, New Orleans cookery offers just as many less fancy “classics” that evolved at the hands of Black kitchen workers over the generations. Jambalaya is one of them, for which there are endless variations using combinations of ham, shrimp, oysters, chicken and game.
This simple recipe comes from Corinne Dunbar’s, a legendary New Orleans restaurant, with adaptations from me. Some recipes leave out the ham, which to me is essential, and probably has something to do with the name jambalaya (jambon meaning ham in French). Some urge oysters instead of shrimp, which sounds wonderful and very Cajun. And some don’t call for tomatoes, another essential, in my opinion. Obviously, jambalaya is a lot like jazz, relying heavily in improvisation.
JAMBALAYA FOR 8
2 onions, chopped
4 T. butter
1 15-oz can tomatoes
½ small can tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
½ green pepper, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
1 t. snipped parsley
½ t. thyme
3 or 4 cloves & a bayleaf
1 lb. ham, diced
2 lb shrimp, boiled and peeled
1 c. chicken, shredded
3 c. cooked rice
Saute onions in butter til soft, add tomatoes and their liquid and tomato paste and cook 5 min, stirring constantly. Add next 7 ingredients and cook 30 min, stirring often. Check to see if a small amount of water is needed and shake a bit of Worcestershire and a dash or two of Tabasco, carefully, as you go along.
Stir in ham, shrimp and chicken, cook a couple minutes and add rice. Season to taste, simmer covered about 30 min stirring often. Add water or broth if necessary, up to a cup or so may be required over the whole time but finished product should not be too soupy.
I’ll close on a nostalgic note, remembering a long-ago visit to the coffeehouse at the French Market in New Orleans for café au lait and beignets, their famous “doughnuts” made from a secret recipe. You must eat them as soon as they’re made to enjoy at their peak of puffy, heavenly lightness.
1 stick butter
1 c. water
½ t. salt
2 t. sugar
1 c. flour
3 or 4 eggs
Cut butter into 6 pieces and heat with water to boiling in heavy saucepan. Stir together flour, salt and sugar in bowl. When water boils and butter melts, add flour mixture all at once, beating vigorously off the heat until mixture pulls away from sides and balls up. Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously for a firm, waxy dough. Drop by spoonfuls into deep hot fat (375) and fry til rich golden brown. Dust thoroughly with confectioners’ sugar.
It occurs to me that both of these recipes could be made in my new favorite kitchen tool, the Dutch oven. Did I make the Jambalaya? No. Did I make the Beignets? Again, no. I’m confident that since my mom tested everything before it went to print, they’ve withstood the test of time. Also, I’m confident that you’ll tell me if they didn’t.
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Mom conveniently left out the part about beads; either she was blissfully unaware of this custom or intent on keeping her column G-rated. Or both. My own murky Mardi Gras memories mercifully occurred in the days long before camera phones, and, yes, beads were involved, as were many, many Hurricanes and a trudge through calf-deep garbage on Bourbon Street with a raging hangover on Ash Wednesday. I did enjoy the étouffée, though.
The restaurant, a NOLA institution since 1935, closed for good in 1987, six years after this column was originally published.
I am way overdue for a visit to New Orleans. But these recipes create a virtual visit!
Amie, you are doing your mother proud. (And this Mom2 also). 💖