Dinner Tonight: A Springtime Pasta Ad-Lib

I’m trying to come back to blogging on the regular. I keep falling into the mental trap of waiting until I have something BIG to say before I post something. My oven has been broken for a month, and I’ve been working my tail off, and I’ve been using those as excuses not to get on here and write. Well, no more! Here’s a post about my favorite at-home pasta dish!

As a late-20-something who works full-time and side-hustles often, it’s not that unusual, despite my love of cooking, for me to order out upwards of twice a week or to simply sit in front of my computer for six hours, snacking on Oreos and Red Vines instead of making dinner. This behavior has become much more common since my boyfriend started splitting his time between Chicago and New York. In my mind, it’s just easier to cook a meal for two people than it is to cook for one.

But this dinner I’m about to share with you is pretty dang easy! And you can customize it according to your mood, what’s in season, or how many people you want to feed.

I think I prefer to have an audience for my food, so when I’m cooking for just myself I tend to get bored. So I’ve picked up a few tricks to make eating alone more exciting:

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  1. Eat off of pretty dishes! I found these blue plates and bowls on sale at Crate & Barrel and now they’re my favorite things in my kitchen. Plus, they’re really photogenic; I feel like they make every food look prettier.
  2. Keep it simple, keep it small. Honestly, if it takes more than 20 minutes to make, chances are I’m going to give up right off the bat and end up browsing Grubhub for the same amount of time it would have taken me to cook. So having a few simple ingredients around that work well when you throw them together is the easiest way for me to make sure I get back in that kitchen.
  3. Play with your food. Find foods that make you laugh, that pop with color, that look new and strange to you! You might be the only person eating, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make every meal an adventure.

So now to the main event: my weeknight pasta surprise!

 

I’m currently obsessed with campanelle pasta. They look like little ruffle-y trumpets and I love it! I’ve been buying multiple boxes of it every time I hit the grocery store.

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Next, I pick a protein. For tonight’s dinner, I’m using Aidells Cajun Style Andouille sausage (it’s not even close to authentic andouille, but it’s smoky and has a little kick), but you can use whatever you want. I also really like using chopped pancetta or some prosciutto. Bacon will do the trick, too! You can leave out the meat, if you prefer. I like having something that’s maybe a little salty, or smoky to add an extra layer of flavor to the dish.

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Veggies come next. Right now my refrigerator is pretty sparse, but I have some nice asparagus and green beans hanging out in there, so that’s what I’m using. Frozen peas are also nearly omnipresent in my kitchen, and are super easy to pop into almost any meal.

Put an egg on it! I like to add a poached or fried egg to my pasta. I just love the way a runny yolk looks, feels, and tastes. Of course, if that’s not your jam I’m not judging. You do you, Boo!

I also like to add some aromatics to my pasta, whether that’s a little lemon zest, some basil, or a little crispy fried garlic. Tonight I am without herbs or lemons so fried garlic it is! If I’m frying garlic, I like to keep the olive oil I fried it in to fry up an egg with later. That oil gets infused with all the garlicky goodness my little heart can stand.

Now that you’ve chosen your players, it’s time to get cooking.

Cook your pasta according to the directions on the box, but if you’re only cooking for yourself, don’t make the full box. I make sure my pasta water is really well salted. That saltiness will transfer to your pasta as it cooks so you don’t have to add much more when you’re adding the other ingredients later.

While you’re waiting for the water to boil, prep your veggies. If you’re using asparagus or green beans, throw them into the pot when your pasta is about one minute away from al dente. If you’re working with something that takes longer to cook, like broccoli, add it to the pot when you add your pasta. Strain the pasta and veggies together, but make sure you reserve about 1/3 cup of the pasta water for later.

Once you’ve drained the pasta, you can set it aside for a minute. I like to prepare most of the dish in one pot so I have less to clean up later. In the pot I just used for the pasta, I melt a couple tablespoons of butter or olive oil over medium heat. Then I add my meat, and maybe some garlic or chopped shallots. You can even throw some mushrooms in if you’ve got them!

Once everything looks nicely browned and tender, add your pasta and the water you reserved before draining. That water, and the starch that it contains from the pasta will help to bind everything together. Turn the heat down a little and start stirring. As I combine all the ingredients together, I also start adding a hefty sprinkle or two (or five) of parmesan cheese. I keep stirring and adding cheese until the dish looks slightly creamy, but not super saucy. You can also add more butter and olive oil to help facilitate the process.

Next, I plate my pasta and prep an egg to go on top. If I have fresh eggs, I poach one (it’s actually pretty easy to do). If not, or if I want more diversity of texture, I fry one up in olive oil.

Jamie Oliver gives a pretty nice tutorial on a few ways to poach eggs.

And Bon Appetit has everything you need to know about making the perfect fried egg.

Now tuck in and enjoy!

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Again, you can make as much or as little of this dish as you want and you can use pretty much whatever ingredients you have in your kitchen. It’s easy, it’s pretty, it’s fun, and it keeps me fed even when I don’t think I have the energy to cook.

Let me see what you’re cooking tonight and how you make your perfect pasta!

 

Ain’t She Sweet… Potato Pie!

Goes great with coffee!
Goes great with coffee!

Even though the weather here in Chicago has been all over the place lately, I say it’s still pie season. I’m lucky enough to live in an apartment that’s on the small side, so on days like today, even though its chilly out, I can turn off the heat, fire up the oven, and stay nice and toasty on that residual heat. I decided to make the most of my oven and play around with an old classic of mine, sweet potato pie.

Pie is wonderful! I loooooovvveee pie! And Sweet potato is my favorite. But guess what? I hate pie crust. Okay, before you gasp in horror and question whether or not I have a soul, hear me out. Pie crust is THE trickiest thing to get right. I’ve had pie crust that’s too soggy, too dry, too flaky, you name it. I’ve probably made every incarnation of a bad pie crust. I’ve made some really excellent ones, too. But I think that my favorite pie deserves a crust that goes above and beyond. I think a truly delicious sweet potato pie deserves a chocolate cookie crust.

You heard right!

It’s crispy, crunchy, buttery, sweet, crumbly, and absolutely perfect for the fluffy filling of this pie. Plus, chocolate goes really nicely with sweet potato pie.

I used a recipe for chocolate wafer cookies from Laura’s Sweet Spot. This is a great basic recipe for chocolate wafer cookies in general. These cookies are delicious, and the site recommends using them for an icebox cake– a thing you should totally do if you get the chance!

Of course you can purchase your favorite chocolate wafer cookie at the store and go from there. I don’t normally have the time to bake a huge batch of cookies just so I can use them in other baked things. No shame in taking shortcuts, BUT I guarantee you won’t regret making your own.

Once you’ve got your cookies, toss them in a food processor or a blender. You’re basically going to treat this the way you would a graham cracker pie crust. Hopefully you’ve made (or bought) a lot of cookies because you’re going to need about a cup and a half of the ground cookies. Mix your cookie grounds with some sugar and butter, press it into your pie dish, bake it for a little bit then let that baby cool! You can prep the crust the day before if you don’t feel like slaving away over a hot oven for an entire day.

Now, if you’re making your cookies from scratch, and you don’t like the texture of a crumbly cookie crust, just treat your chocolate cookie dough the same way you would a traditional pie crust. Roll out your dough, fit it to your pie dish, par bake it, and then let it cool. Chocolate pie crust > traditional pie crust, I promise.

So all my local grocery stores do this thing where they carry humongous cans of sweet potatoes, enough to make like five pies from. I never have enough people to make that many pies for, so I’ve started roasting my own sweet potatoes instead of searching all over the city for smaller cans. Feel free to use store-bought, but I’ve found that baking your own sweet potatoes allows you to better control how sweet your pie is, which is kind of nice. If you’ve got the time (and believe me, this is one of the least hands-on elements of this pie), skip the can.

I also like to top my pie with pecans, because why not? If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m deeply invested in my sweet potato pie and I don’t mind taking it over the top. If you want to take this pie even further, you can make caramel from your sweet potatoes (!), and pour it on top of your pie as it cools. Or if caramel isn’t your thing and this pie still isn’t enough of a showstopper, make a meringue and pipe that on top of your pie about halfway through baking (if I’m doing this, I skip the whole layer of pecans, and just sprinkle a few on top of the meringue).

Now invite your friends and family over because you have just made the best pie in the world and everyone needs to know it.

…or just save it for yourself, I won’t tell.

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Ain’t She Sweet Potato Pie

Sweet Potato Filling

3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters

1/2 cup water

1 8oz can of evaporated milk

1 egg

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pinch of ground nutmeg

Enough pecans to cover the surface of your pie (optional)

Chocolate Cookie Crust

1 1/2 cups ground chocolate wafer cookies

1/3 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons of butter, melted

Mix your cookie crumbs, sugar, and butter together until well combined. Press that mixture into your pie dish (I use a 9 inch pie plate), and bake it at 375 F for about 7 minutes. Let it cool before adding filing.

Roast your sweet potatoes along with 1/2 cup water in a 9×13 baking dish covered with foil for 1 hour at 425 F. Take the foil off and roast uncovered fro another 15 minutes. Let those sweeties cool, too! 

Mix your roasted sweet potatoes with the evaporated milk, sugar, egg, cinnamon, and nutmeg until the mixture is smooth. Pour your sweet potato mixture into your pie crust, top with pecans, and bake at 350F for about 1 hour. You’ll know it’s done when a knife it toothpick inserted into the middle of the pie comes out clean.

Let it cool, then shovel it into your face.

Now ain’t that sweet?

 

On Mardi Gras, Community, and Les Américains

Cream cheese and almond filled king cakes I made myself.
Cream cheese and almond filled king cakes I made myself.

Happy Mardi Gras, ya’ll!!!

Fat Tuesday is always one of the most conflicted days of the year for me. During the Mardi Gras season the swamp water that fills my veins encourages me to ask, “what would I do, who would I be if there no rules for me to play by?” The season always fills me with a sense of possibility, hope, and mischief. I wake up every year on Mardi Gras day and yell out a joyous greeting to the world. But then I immediately remind myself that for the people around me, it’s just Tuesday, and my exited antics will only annoy people everywhere I go.

I haven’t been able to spend Mardi Gras in Louisiana since I was a little kid. Every year, I spend the holiday in places where people just don’t understand the holiday.

“Right, isn’t today the day where people get drunk and girls show their boobs?” -Every northerner I’ve ever met.

This morning alone I’ve seen several northerners (des Américains) try to give their take on how to celebrate the day. From feast menus that worry a little too much about the texture of gumbo, and turn king cake into something that looks like it would be served at a child’s birthday party, to vegan po’ boys, My day has already come with it’s share of northern aggression.

So let me tell you what Mardi Gras means to me:

Mardi Gras is the season, the day, the spirit, that brings all kinds of people together during one of the leanest times of the year. It’s a time when barriers get broken down and folks can look at each other is equals. Mardi Gras is when communities come together, so, naturally, food is essential to this holiday.

Courirs de Mardi Gras are held this time of year: a few folks run from house to house in their neighborhood or town, collecting ingredients for a gumbo from every house. One person might give a chicken, another the onions, somebody else volunteers their pot. At the end of the courir, everybody gets together and shares a meal. Gumbo, too, is such a communal dish anyway, I think the only folks who really stress about the texture of the okra used in it (if any is used at all– Creole gumbo typically leaves it out) are folks serving it in restaurants. At a courir, nobody is going to send back their bowl of gumbo because they’re not used to the texture of okra.

The king cake is a mainstay of Mardi Gras parties, helping to bring an air of egalitarianism to the groups if people gathered to celebrate. It’s often suggested that whoever finds the baby in the king cake is supposed to throw the next party (Mardi Gras is a season, y’all, not just one day; folks have a lot of opportunities to return the favor of playing host). The king cake relies on traditions of openness, of inviting people into your home no matter what you have or don’t have. Mardi Gras is about bringing what you’ve got to the table, and mixing it with everybody else’s something.

At the very least, that’s Mardi Gras at its best.

There’s a whole history of elitism, classism, and racism tied to the holiday. But since folks in Louisiana started celebrating the days between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, just about everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, has found a way to get in on the action. Look at the history of the Mardi Gras Indians. Hell, look at the ragtag Krewe of Couche Couche out of Lafayette, Louisiana that my family has had the honor of marching in for decades.

As I took my first sips of coffee this morning I said a little prayer, “please, let northern folks leave their sensible nonsense behind today and find some joy.” Now more than ever I think we need to be able to smile at strangers on the street, offer up a little of the good inside us. We need to find ways to sing and dance and laugh even when the world around us is bleak. That’s what folks do in Lousiana. When things look dark, they light the world with their joy. That, to me, means choosing constantly to engage with the world in joy and love in spite of what anybody says. I don’t think that’s such a silly or frivolous notion; I think it’s necessary of any of us are going to survive to a ripe old age.

 

If you’d like to try some more traditional Louisiana recipes today, here are a few:

Café Brulot 

(from Talk About Good! La Livre de la Cuisine Lafayette compiled by the Lafayette Junior League)

16 lumps sugar

12 jiggers of cognac

4 sticks cinnamon

2 twists of lemon peel

24 whole cloves

4 large twists if orange peel

10 demitasse cups strong coffee

Allow all ingredients (except coffee) to muddle 1 hour before serving. Blaze all for 1-2 minutes. Add coffee slowly. May top with whipped cream if desired after serving.

 

Momma’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

(A family recipe)

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil

2 bell peppers (whatever color strikes your fancy), chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 (5 pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces

1 pound smoked sausage

2 ½ quarts of water

2 bay leaves

Tony Cachere’s (a Creole seasoning mix) to taste

Heat oil in a stockpot over medium heat, add flour and stir until the roux is a dark brown. Add onions, bell peppers, and garlic, and continue to stir for 1 minute. Next add the water, bay leaves, chicken, and a healthy sprinkling of Tony Cachere’s. Bring to a slow boil and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and tasting to make sure it is properly seasoned. After 30 minutes have past, skim the fat off the top of the gumbo and add the sausage. Cook for another 30 minutes or more, until the gumbo has reduced by at least one third. Continue skimming fat off the top as it cooks. Serve over rice and chow down!

Note: While some might consider this sacrilege, you can buy a pre-roasted chicken from the grocery store, shred it, and use that instead of a raw chicken. I often do this so I don’t have to worry about bones in my gumbo.

Southern Living also has some great links to king cake recipes and more on their website. Please, whatever you do, don’t build your king cake like a birthday cake, they’re not the same thing even if your birthday happens to fall on Mardi Gras this year!!!

Joyeux Mardi Gras et laissez le bon temp rouler!

 

Galette des Rois and Mardi Gras

January 6th is, for most folks, just another day in January. For some, it’s the official end of the Christmas season, the day to throw out your Christmas tree. For my folks in Louisiana, January 6th, or Epiphany, marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. Today people in much of the French diaspora celebrate the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. I’m not what you would call a religious person, but I will never turn down an occasion to celebrate– especially if it involves cake.

There are so many wonderful foods that I associate with the Mardi Gras season in Louisiana (king cake, jambalaya, calas, beignets, and of course, gumbo), and I plan on making every one of them for y’all this year. But today I’m going to focus on a traditionally French confection, the galette des rois.

I love these cakes because they combine three of my favorite things: puff pastry, sweet almond paste, and prizes! The galette des rois is pretty common to northern France (in southern France, the gâteau des rois looks a little different), and around this time of year French bakeries go all out in the making and selling of these cakes. Inside every galette, you’ll find a tiny prize, or fève. Fèves can range from a simple almond or dry bean to some of the most beautiful tiny porcelain figures you can imagine. If your slice of galette contains the fève, you’re crowned king or queen for the day. You can see why this tradition is fun for the whole family, right?

Now, I grew up eating king cakes from Louisiana which are pretty different from galettes des rois. And while I’ve made king cakes before, this is my first galette. I’m using David Lebovitz’s recipe because he keeps the measurements pretty clear and also because he’s a huge fan of French food and an all-around talented dude.

 

When I finished making the filling I kind of freaked out because it looked like there was way too much for just one galette. I then calmly reassured myself that vertical height is a good thing and that a great many soft substances thicken up when you chill them overnight. So after assembling my galette, I chilled it overnight. Lebovitz says that if you’re worried about any of the filling leaking out, you can mix a little corn starch into it. I decided that I didn’t need to add anything extra. This was a mistake.

When I took my galette out of the oven it had an almond filling tail. I didn’t take a pic for y’all because I was ashamed. Luckily, the filling explosion baked really nicely and was easy to just pull off of the rest of the galette.

I probably should have etched my designs deeper into the crust, but I didn’t want to fully puncture the dough. I think it still looks nice though.

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If you’re making this with a kid or kids in the house, it is customary to let the youngest one dictate who gets which piece. Don’t forget to chew carefully as you eat, there may be a fève lurking in your piece. I used a walnut in mine and accidentally cut it in half! I guess that means my boyfriend and I are both royalty for the day.

Hope you enjoy! Bonnes fêtes y’all!!

 

Darken the Roux: Chapter 1

*This is the first post in an ongoing series that investigates the history of gumbo, and black women in Louisiana. Basically, I’m adapting my undergrad thesis for the internet, so more people can read it.

Crossing Oceans on a Grain of Rice

As a child, growing up between Louisiana and Washington State, nothing excited me more than helping my mother in the kitchen. I could watch her chop, whisk, mince, and stir for hours. She always gave me some small task to complete while she explained how an entire dish worked. These served as recipes in our house. Numbers and proportions were never exact, but smells, sounds, color, and of course, tastes were everything. It seemed like my momma could cook just about anything. Since we come from a long line of Louisiana Creoles of Color (I’m also descended from Cajuns on my dad’s side of the family), our kitchen was never without bell peppers, onions, creole seasonings, and some form of smoked salty meat. Of all the wonders that came from my mother’s kitchen there were certain dishes that outshone all the others: jambalaya, rice dressing (or dirty rice), and gumbo, naturally. The pot my mother used to make gumbo was large enough for me to measure how much I’d grown from winter to winter. Could I fit inside it? Could I manage to pull it out of its cabinet? Hoist it onto the stove? Was I tall enough to stir without splattering the contents?

Gumbo was reserved for special occasions and particularly lean times in our house—times when a lot of food was needed but our budget was tight. Momma always made enough to feed an army (when it was just the two of us, a pot of gumbo could last for weeks if stored properly). To me the dish has always tasted like love. But living in northern climates, my love of gumbo was somewhat of an oddity to my friends. Most of the ingredients—Andouille sausage, roux, and okra—were foreign to them. And since northerners have been perfectly happy eating impostor versions of gumbo since the 1980s,my friends had a hard time seeing why I loved a dish that to them was a slimy, abhorrent Campbell’s soup flavor. As I grew older, my friends and lovers brought me to pseudo Cajun restaurants to try to appeal to my wild southern palate. As I scoffed over and over again at the poor excuses for Cajun and Creole food that were placed in front of me I was always met with the question: “If this isn’t real gumbo, what is?”

My sadness at every mediocre bowl of gumbo is more than just the disappointment of a native palate. Gumbo carries within its flavors a story—the story of women who came before me. When I taste a good gumbo, I can taste the history behind it. Gumbo’s history is tied closely to the history of black women in Louisiana. It traveled across the ocean with them on slave ships. As black women adapted to their new lives in Louisiana, gumbo evolved as well. Gumbo’s popularity and persistence in the identities of Louisiana is largely due to the systematic exploitation of black women. But Gumbo also tells the story of black women’s bravery, malleability, perseverance, and power. It tells the story of the numerous women who originated the dish, those who helped it evolve, and those who turned their knowledge of gumbo and dishes like it into culinary empires. The story of gumbo in the United States begins with hunger and violence. It begins with a grain of rice.

A side note before we get into the nitty-gritty: I use the terms “Creole,” “Creoles of Color,” and Cajun pretty often when talking about Louisiana, its food, and its history. While these terms might sound interchangeable to folks outside of Louisiana, they connote worlds or cultural differences. The term “Creole” has had a wide variety of uses and meanings over the years. When I say “Creole,” I’m referring to white, Louisiana-born descendants of French and German settlers. “Creole of Color” refers to the class of people born in Louisiana who are descended from the children of African slaves with French and German settlers. “Cajun” refers to descendants of German planters in the southwest portion of Louisiana (west of the Bayou Teche). There are also class connotations in the “Creole/Cajun” divide. Creoles were often wealthy landowners, whereas Cajuns are a historically working-class group.

Gumbo utilizes the formula that has fed every group of people in Africa since anyone can remember: stew + starch + animal protein. This formula is no secret; people the world over have survived on stew since we started cooking things, but the ingredients of a gumbo—specifically rice and okra—tie the dish directly to Africa. The Transatlantic Slave Trade is directly responsible for bringing African foods like okra, yams, watermelon, and back-eyed peas to the United States. While popular myths romanticize slaves carrying okra and other seeds across the Atlantic in their hair and clothes, records indicate a much more intentional importation of African foods. Most of the foods brought to the Americas from Africa were brought onboard slave ships to feed newly captured Africans. In her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, culinary historian, journalist, and professor of English at Queens College/C.U.N.Y. Jessica B. Harris traces the origins of various cereals, as well as rice and yams to the areas of the continent that slaves were taken from. She traces cereals, like sorghum and millet, to parts of Sudan and east Senegal, and yams to the western coast of African between the Côte d’Ivoir and Cameroon. The Senegambia region of Africa, which includes present-day Senegal and the Republic of Guinea was deeply reliant on rice as a food source. Cereals like sorghum and millet can be traced to parts of Sudan and east Senegal, and yams to the western coast of African between the Côte d’Ivoir and Cameroon. This area was also responsible for supplying two-thirds of Louisiana’s slave workforce during the French slave trade. The foods that accompanied enslaved blacks through the Middle Passage from Africa are not only the basis of most of what is called “soul food” in the United States, they also serve as a direct historical link between contemporary black Americans and our African ancestors.

The Middle Passage, the journey of enslaved Africans from their home continent to the New World, was a period of systemic violence calculated to dehumanize and break the spirits of thousands. The successful transportation and training of slaves required that slavers do everything in their power to remove every sense of dignity and of culture from their captives.This presented two problems to slavers: on the one hand, their cargo needed to be delivered in good condition; on the other hand, slaves needed to be taught to accept their new position as chattel. In her book Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, historian Gwendolyn Mildo-Hall explains the ways in which captains bringing slaves to Louisiana were instructed to “pay a great deal of attention to minimizing mortality” among their cargo, and were told to “take good care of the health of the blacks, to prevent the black women from being debauched by the black men and crew, and to clean and scrape the slave quarters every day to avoid rot.” They were also advised to avoid taking on captives that were too old, too young, or too sickly to survive the journey across the Atlantic in the first place. Early slave traders learned quickly that not only was it more costly to bring food provisions from Europe to feed the slaves picked up in Africa, it was futile. Enslaved Africans would not eat food that did not resemble the flavor profiles of their native land. In order to ensure the survival of their cargo, slavers had to pay special attention to the diets of their human cargo. They needed to keep their ships stocked with foods that Africans were accustomed to eating. Consequently, the Transatlantic Slave Trade quickly fostered a second market in African foodstuffs. For their role in feeding slaves, African foods became almost as valuable to the economy of the North American colonies as African people. Within a few generations, the foods brought to north America solely for feeding slaves became staples of the white American diet. 

Food played an important role on how slave traders dealt with their second problem as well—that of converting a cargo of people into a cargo of slaves. Food, or more precisely, eating, became a major point of contention on many slave ships. Even when slavers provided foods like rice, yams, okra, or beans for their captives, it was not uncommon for the newly enslaved to go on hunger strikes. Some would only accept the water given them, while others chose escape through starvation. Refusing food was such a common tactic of rebellion among slaves that slave traders developed the speculum oris, as a means of punishment as well as a solution. An alternative when whipping failed, the three-pronged thumbscrew device was used to force open the mouth of a slave, so that they could be force-fed through a funnel. Women often bore the lion’s share of punishments on slave ships.

In her book Ain’t I A Woman, bell hooks recounts an incident reported by Ruth and Jacob Weldon on the slave ship Pongas:

In their personal account of life aboard a slave ship, the Weldons recounted an incident in which a child of nine months was flogged continuously for refusing to eat. When beating failed to force the child to eat, the captain ordered that the child be placed feet first into a pot of boiling water. After trying other torturous methods with no success, the captain dropped the child and caused its death. Not deriving enough satisfaction from this sadistic act, he then commanded the mother to throw the body of the child overboard. The mother refused but was beaten until she submitted.

African women were also used to expose and punish suspected uprisings. Gwendolyn Mildo-Hall tells of an uprising on Le Courrier de Bourbon headed to Louisiana from Gorée:

As they were leaving Grenada on October 4, a conspiracy among the slaves was uncovered. A young nègre tried to indicate through gestures to the ship’s officers that a revolt was planned. The officers could not understand clearly what this nègre was saying. They sent for two women slaves, one from Senegal and the other from Gorée, to interpret for them. Both of the women claimed they could not understand the nègre. They were tied to a cannon and lashed, but the women still said nothing. After several other black in shackles were lashed, the woman from Senegal declared that a nègre aged about forty-five “was the sorcerer who raised their vain hopes,” and that the woman from Gorée knew this as well but did not want to admit it right away. They started lashing the woman from Gorée the same as the other blacks, and she affirmed the woman from Senegal’s declaration, pointing out the same nègre as the leader of the conspiracy to slit the throats of the whites.

hooks argues that black female slaves were the most frequent victims of brutality during the Middle Passage because white slavers could “brutalize and exploit her without fear of harmful retaliation. Thus, in preventing a revolt, women were the first to be brutalized into betraying their fellow captives. White slavers probably feared that any attempt to beat a confession out of a black male slave would only hasten the revolt itself. Because black women were not perceived as a threat, they were forced to become tools of oppression at the hands of their captors.

In order to fully enslave a people, one must destroy all ties to their culture. As African women were transmitters of their native cultures (the ones who kept the knowledge of food, agriculture, medicine, language, and many religious customs), this was largely accomplished by violently debasing them. The brutality black women suffered separated them from their countrymen; it was intended to destroy solidarity among slaves. Slavers often used sexual assault as a means of asserting both physical and psychological dominance over black women and men. But the same reasons that made black women victims of endless brutality on slave ships, sometimes allowed the preservation of certain aspects of their native cultures. While many of the cooks hired on slave ships were free people of color (usually men), they were often aided by “confidential slaves, who were given positions of power because of their linguistic ability or because they were deemed more tractable.” These confidential slaves were quite frequently women, who retained knowledge of recipes and food preparation practices from their homelands. Black women slaves were often trusted as interpreters between slavers and captives as well as among groups of slaves. It was frequently through these confidential slaves that knowledge of African foodways, languages, and traditions were brought to the United States.

Black American foodways rely heavily on the aspects of African foodways that slaves were able to protect and import through the Transatlantic Slave Trade.The African captives brought to the United States infused their agriculture and food practices into the culinary narratives of the rest of the country over time. But in Louisiana, African rice was the catalyst for the slave trade itself. When the first slave ships arrived in Louisiana from Africa in 1719, bringing barrels of seed rice as well as Africans who knew how to grow it, the new colony gained access to a food source that would become essential to the survival of the region.

In his book Bouki Fait Gombo, Ibrahima Seck, director of the Whitney/Haydel Plantation in Louisiana, links the cultivation of rice in Louisiana to the economic hardships endured by French and German Settlers to the region during the French and Spanish war for Pensacola (1719-1721):

In March 1721, supplies were totally exhausted at a time when the Indians could not provide the customary help. The Illinois Country was then well established and produced wheat in the colony in addition to husbandry of horses, cattle, and pigs. Since transportation was extremely difficult on the Mississippi River, the [French] Company exhorted the colonists to think above all about food crops. Rice was the most suitable crop because it could stand the heavy rainfalls, but none of the colonists had any knowledge of its cultivation. The solution came from the rice growing areas of West Africa.

The first two slave ships sent to Louisiana, L’Aurore and le Duc du Maine, had specific instructions to “purchase several blacks who knew how to cultivate rice and three or four barrels of rice for seeding,” intended to be given directly to company leaders in Louisiana. Settlers spent years begging the French government for slaves. But until the food crisis of 1719-1721, the French saw no need to expand the slave trade to Louisiana. In contrast to other parts of the United States, where rice was largely considered a by-product of the slave trade, the slave trade in Louisiana existed primarily because of rice.

Okra had a somewhat different and less documented journey to Louisiana. Culinary historian, Jessica B. Harris speculates, “Okra probably was first introduced into the continental United States in the early 1700s, most likely from the Caribbean, where it has a long history.” By the time the slave trade came to Louisiana, okra had become a regular slave crop in many of the English colonies in North America. It was often cultivated in small garden plots slaves kept in order to provide food for themselves. It is possible that okra predates the French slave trade in Louisiana. Before the French government granted Louisiana settlers access to slaves, officials like Bienville were known to have smuggled a few slaves from St. Domingue as early as 1708. As slaves were rarely transported without foods that were native to their diets, it is probable that okra was brought to Louisiana from St. Domingue along with these slaves. While it is difficult to say exactly how or when okra was introduced to Louisiana, it is safe to say that as the slave trade grew in the region, so did the cultivation of okra as a source of food for enslaved Africans. Louisiana’s tropical climate was extremely hospitable for growing okra and it was customary for slaves during the eighteenth century to keep small gardens from which they fed themselves and their families.

African slaves were invaluable to the building of the Louisiana territory. Their resilience through the Middle Passage, as well as their knowledge of agriculture, metalworking, construction, medicine, and food preparation kept French and German settlers alive, and allowed the construction of New Orleans as well as Louisiana’s economic infrastructure. The strength and knowledge of African slaves would also lead the people of Louisiana to develop a distinct cultural identity that was firmly grounded in African customs and language.

 

 

I have some stories to tell you…

Things have been pretty quiet around here for almost a year now. I’ve had a lot going on personally—mostly trying to survive my senior year of college—and I sort of let things slip away. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t cooking, eating, sleeping, thinking, and breathing food every second of the past year. On the contrary, I’ve made it my main focus. I decided to devote my last year of college to exploring the culinary history of my family. When I set out to write my senior thesis, I wanted to basically write a history of Louisiana’s foodways—the eating habits and culinary practices that distinguish a people, region or historic period. It only took me about five minutes to realize that a complete, or even semi-complete history of my home state’s food would be impossible to put on paper over the course of one school year. Clearly, I had to narrow things down. I decided to focus on gumbo, the “national dish” of Louisiana.

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My thesis presentation. Source https://www.instagram.com/renaencns/

 

The more I read, the more discouraged I felt about uncovering the origins of this dish. When I was a kid, my uncle Bradley, a professor of African American history would constantly remind me that “gumbo” was an African word for okra. And while I hated those slimy green pods that my grandmother would sometimes slip into her gumbo, I loved the stew. So I took in his words, but promptly forgot them until 27-year-old me was trying to figure out where the heck a dish like gumbo comes from. I figured gumbo was an African dish, but all the books about Cajun and Creole cuisine kept saying the origins of the dish were “murky” or “shrouded in mystery.” I couldn’t help but call BS. I know when a southerner is trying to avoid a touchy subject and it seemed like all of my books were politely screaming “THERE IS SOMETHING RACIAL GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES HERE AND WE ARE NOT GOING TO DISCUSS IT!”

 

So, naturally, that’s the only thing I wanted to find out and discuss.

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Statue at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, a museum devoted to slavery in the US south.

I did a lot more reading and thinking and came to the conclusion that the missing link in the gumbo story was slavery—that peculiar institution that nobody wants to talk about. Slavery had to be the reason a stew with a clearly African name could become the most beloved dish in Louisiana. Enslaved Africans and Native Americans were essential in making Louisiana and everything it’s known for.

Then I did even more thinking and even more reading and I developed a very pronounced ache in my stomach and in my heart. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re dying to say something, but can’t for whatever reason? Like, say you’re in class and the teacher asks a question that you know the answer to but she just won’t call on you. You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach? I had that for like a year. Everywhere I turned for information on gumbo, Louisiana history, and American slavery, there were pieces missing. Every time I looked at contemporary food writing about the South and about Louisiana I got the same feeling. Finally, that ache became a question: where are all the black women? When do I get to hear their voices, their stories? My thesis advisor gave me a very simple, very challenging answer: you might have to uncover and tell those stories yourself.

I’m a mixed race black woman from Lafayette, Louisiana. Talking about the ways in which black women made and shaped gumbo and the rest of Louisiana’s iconic cuisine means talking about my own history. It means talking about the arguments between my mother, my grandmother and my aunties over what to put in the Christmas gumbo. It means talking about the Creole women of color in the French Quarter, raising families on small empires of food and voudou. It means talking about a lot of things. When I started, I had no idea how or if I could talk about any of that.

I turned to people like Michael Twitty, Toni Tipton-Martin, and Psyche Williams-Forson, who have spent years writing down the stories that are painful to tell, the stories that most people of color (especially women of color) in America have been told nobody wants to hear. Since I couldn’t find anyone writing specifically about black women’s foodways in Louisiana, I did it myself. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share some of what I’ve been uncovering. I’d like to tell some of those stories here.

 

Sound good?

It’s Been A While… Anyone Still Out There?

Geez, it’s been a long time since I posted anything!

As I promised back at the beginning of the year, there are big changes coming to The Filthy Kitchen Blog. I’m still going to be posting my recipes and tasty treats, but I’m also going to start adding more food for thought.

The main reason I haven’t been writing here is that I’m in my last year of college (finally!) and working on my senior thesis. Food means so, so much to me. It’s a huge part of the communities I come from. I plan on going to culinary school after I graduate, but for now, I want to use the academic skills I’ve been learning to focus on where I come from and the food I love. I’m using my senior thesis to focus on the history of gumbo. In doing so, I hope to tell the story of countless black women who, through resilience and ingenuity, created Louisiana’s most well-loved dish. I’m calling it “Darkening the Roux:Black Women and the Rise of Gumbo.”

“Darken the Roux” is an exploration of the impact of black women on Cajun and Creole foodways in America. By tracing the history of gumbo’s many components and incarnations, we are able to place black women firmly at the conception of Louisiana’s most iconic dish. I originally set out to write a history of Cajun foodways throughout southwestern Louisiana. In the course of my research, I noticed many very conspicuous gaps in information. While (predominantly white) authors writing about Louisiana’s culinary history are willing to pay lips service to the fact that blacks have had an influence on the creation of many Cajun and Creole dishes, they are reluctant to elaborate. For instance, we know that okra was brought to the United States from Africa as part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but food writers refuse to pinpoint gumbo itself as an African dish. While Louisiana gumbo is evidence of the myriad ways in which cultures have come together and interacted throughout history, its origins and its variations are African and black by nature. In researching black foodways of the American south, I found that nearly all texts exclude Louisiana’s cuisine and its history of black home cooks and chefs. “Darken the Roux” aims to fill in the gaps, and give voice to the black women who have been left out of Louisiana’s rich and colorful culinary story.

Each time I make some progress in writing it, you all will be the first to see it!

Thanks for sticking with me, folks. Here’s to culinary discovery!