Point of View: Louisana Cooking

Several people have asked why I have not written more about the food and perhaps put in a few recipes. Probably everyone already has at least one Cajun cookbook on his or her bookshelves, but I thought I might as well venture into this area anyway.

First, however, I will require that you accept a little philosophy about food that is probably believed by only myself, but since this is my web page, that is enough.

First, you have to think back to the way things were several hundred or perhaps, in some cases, a thousand years ago: No refrigerators, wood as the main source of heat, no supermarkets, no packaged food, no microwaves, etc. You get the point. Next, certainly with the Cajuns, they had large families. Six to ten children were common. Often elderly grandparents lived with them as well as one or more other relatives. There was no welfare program and, contrary to popular belief, the church more often than not did not provide any long-term support. So people had to make do with what they had.

Very few women worked outside the home, and the resources available to them to meet the needs of their family were very limited. The following narrative is related to Cajuns but it could as well describe the French, Poles, Germans, Irish, Scots or almost every other nationality.

When the Cajuns lived in Canada, although they were French through and through, many had modified their lives to survive in a cold wilderness rather than a more organized country like France. When they came to Louisiana, they had very little money, power or political influence. The good land went to the rich English land barons and the better-off Germans who settled just before and at the same time the Cajuns arrived. The Cajuns were pushed west from New Orleans to areas that had been considered unproductive or even uninhabitable. Only a small portion of the land could be farmed and there were few jobs. In order to survive, the Cajuns turned to doing what the land (or swamps) forced them to do. Fish and wildlife were abundant, so they fished and trapped. So, too, did their food reflect their environment. Beef was scarce, although there were small areas where they could raise beef. Hogs could be left to run free and rounded up each fall to be butchered during the cold weather. Chickens also ran free and lived on bugs and insects. But the main source of food was fish. The second major source was wildlife. In addition, most families had a garden in which they could raise various vegetables year round.

Given the above and adding to it an innovative and determined housewife, you get the development of Cajun food. One recipe for Gumbo calls for: one cup bacon drippings, one cup flour, 8 stalks of celery, three onions, one green pepper, one pound okra, several tomatoes, a slice of ham, two cups of chicken, one pound of crabmeat, several pounds of shrimp, one pint of oysters, and two quarts of chicken stock. This would feed twenty people. That would turn out to be about four ounces of meat per person--not much for a main meal. But put together with the vegetables and served over rice, it made a satisfying dinner.

The point of all this is that with a scarcity of some items and without a way to keep food fresh, innovative cooks looked for ways to get the most from what they had. We are used to meals where there is one meat item, one or two vegetables, potatoes, a salad and dessert. If you look at most ethnic foods, some particular soup with many interchangeable ingredients stands out. Gumbo could be made with almost any type of meat and, more often then not, more than one type was used. As a child, I can remember gumbo made from fish, shrimp, oysters, chicken, squirrels, and other items too numerous or revolting to mention.

It is hard to think of Polish food without thinking of Pierogi. These small dumplings with different fillings are popular in every Polish restaurant and also can be found in the supermarkets today. It is probably much easier to think of what hasn’t been used for fillings than what has been. It is easy to think of early Polish women taking what she had left over, combining it with other things, and letting it be a surprise when she put it on the table.

The famous Scottish dish Hotch-Potch contains nine or ten items at least and is used as a main meal. Again, leftovers combined with new ingredients are common. These old recipes typically yield less then five ounces of meat per person. Another Scottish dish, Haggis, uses about five different types of meat but yields only about three to four ounces of meat per person. It also is used as a complete meal.

So with all of this I will give you a recipe in line with the above. Being of a somewhat cynical nature, I believe that probably a number of successes were the result of a mistake or error so I will skip those recipes. Probably the best known of these is Blackened Redfish. I am sure someone put the fish in a pan, forgot to watch it, and it burned. Being innovative, they claimed it was what they intended and got away with it.

So after all that, you are now going to get just one recipe. Probably not worth all the trouble you have gone to get to them--but that’s the way it is! Click here for my special Gumbo recipe