In 1978, an important and historic book called “Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets” by Nathaniel Burton and the late Dr. Rudy Lombard was published about black chefs in New Orleans. The now classic cookbook told the stories of 15 master chefs with deep roots in New Orleans who revealed their secrets through more than 200 recipes about Creole cooking. Until now, Burton and Lombard would be the only storytellers about Creole cooking and black chefs.
Fast forward 38 years and Zella Palmer, program chair for Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture, is working with students to put the final touches on their upcoming documentary, “The Story of New Orleans Creole Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot.” The documentary continues the story that can only be told by those who know the Creole culture and history best.
“I consider myself a repat to New Orleans. My family goes back to the early 19th century. Jeremy Shine (the documentary’s co-producer) is well as a repat from Chicago and his family goes back that far as well. The other students who worked on the film are from Vacherie, LA and the 3rd Ward in Houston which also has deep Creole roots,” says Palmer.
Cuisine Noir caught up with Palmer to learn why this documentary is so important as well as why Creole culture and food continue to capture the hearts and stomachs of people around the world.
What is the significance of this documentary?
The Story of New Orleans Creole Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot” is about the history of black chefs, vendors, grocers, butchers and everyone who worked in the food industry from 1718 to the present in New Orleans.
Not since 1978 has there been any comprehensive research about the contributions of New Orleans black chefs to the world-famous Creole cuisine. Dr. Rudy Lombard died over a year ago and we wanted to continue his research and honor his legacy. We told him about the documentary and conference when we met with him at Dooky Chase restaurant [before his passing]. He was very pleased that his research would continue to be passed down for the next generation. The classic cookbook [“Creole Feast”] is out of print but is a favorite in African-American culinary research. If Burton and Dr. Lombard hadn’t published the cookbook, we wouldn’t know who those black master chefs were from the 1930s to the 1980s.
Everyone involved in this documentary has roots in Louisiana. All of us are descendants of cooks, farmers, butchers, trappers and the list goes on. It was a journey for all of us.
Why is it more important that this story is told directly from Creole people and those from New Orleans?
Cultural appropriation is something that is talked about a lot in the food world right now. With that being said, it is important for those born and raised in New Orleans black culture or raised in it to tell their own stories. Those who cooked and grew the food from generation to generation. It was important for us to let their voices be heard just like with “Creole Fest” in 1978.
Tell us more about the history Creole cooking in New Orleans.
The history of Creole cooking started on the shores of West Africa before it left for the New World. When the Europeans arrived many had to live for decades with West Africans and learn their ways, their customs and what they eat. How else would they learn how to enslave them? So the European palate was introduced to West African culture and cuisine in those port cities before it was brought to the New World. When those first West African cooks had to cook for the Europeans who built the slave ports on the shores of West Africa, the Creolization process started.
Then, of course, millions of West Africans were enslaved and were taken aboard ships and fed basic indigenous staples to survive the Middle Passage. So when enslaved Africans were brought to the ports of New Orleans they had to adapt to Louisiana climate, the produce, and cook for the French, Spanish and then the Americans.
The first Africans to Louisiana were the Senegambians, Wolofs, Yorubas and Igbos. They were the bakers, the cooks in the French Quarter, the butchers and the plantation cooks. So they brought all of the ancient culinary traditions of West Africa into the kitchen while adapting to their environment. All of those cultures over time including the Native Americans (the Choctaws and the Houmas) from Louisiana, Haitian, Afro-Cuban, and the enslaved African-Americans from Virginia during the domestic slave trade created the Creole cuisine of New Orleans.
What is it about Creole food that still fascinates us even in 2016?
New Orleans food is quite different from Louisiana [food]. It is different from Bayou food. New Orleans is a much more refined food. It is fine dining; it is fine cuisine. In New Orleans, we’re near the port so we have a lot more seafood dishes.
We’re fascinated by Creole food because it is a symbol of New Orleans. The culture, the tradition and you won’t find it any place else. It is the best of all worlds; West African, French, Spanish, all the colonies that were once here. It is rich, bold, very fine flavors and it is one of the finest cuisines in the world.
When we think of Creole, we automatically think of New Orleans, but what about other Creole cultures outside of New Orleans and the U.S.?
I think that it is something that we need to appreciate and honor our Creole culture here in New Orleans, Southwest Louisiana, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Chicago, Los Angeles, even in Africa. Wherever there are Creole people it is always an amazing experience. It is interesting because when you start losing a culture it is usually the language that goes first and then lastly the food. And when you lose the food that is the end of the culture completely. In listening to some of the interviewees’ stories for our documentary, so much of Creole culture and cuisine is already lost Post-Katrina. Hopefully, our documentary will revive some of those dishes we lost in the storm and throughout the centuries; calas, veal pocket with oyster dressing and court bouillon to name a few.
“The Story of New Orleans Cooking: The Black Hand in the Pot” is produced with a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities. It is expected to be released later this winter. But you don’t have to wait for a sneak preview. To view the promo trailer, click here.