It was a fine April in 2003, the Bicentennial year commemorating the Louisiana Purchase. Floating along the mighty Mississippi, the River Explorer was coming out of Ft. Jackson, heading up to New Orleans. Chef Eric and his galley crew fired up a giant crawfish boil on the top deck, literally a hotel on a barge bringing guests to a big party. Historically, many things had to fall into place before this day could happen.
Drop back, if you will, 200 years, when the United States amounted to only 17 states, total. Thomas Jefferson, through skillful negotiations, managed to corner the noble Napoleon Bonaparte in a severe cash squeeze. This shortage of funds left the mighty warrior no choice but to give in to a remarkable bargain for the incomplete United States. He parted with over 800,000 square miles of territory for a mere $15 million, or $.04 cents an acre. This parcel had been transferred from Spain to France on Nov. 30 1803, and transferred again from France to the United States on December 20, only 20 days later. The formal signing took place in the Cabildo in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
This “windfall” of inexpensive land became all or parts of the states of Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming — 13 new or resized states. The United States doubled in size.
The prize jewel of the Purchase was the mighty Mississippi River, a commercial boon for the young country’s economic health. With its 37 locks and dams, the river then stretched 2,350 miles from her small beginnings in northern Minnesota at Lake Itasca, to the tips of her toes which touch the Gulf of Mexico at Head of Passes, Louisiana. The river is the linchpin for this land of teaming bayous and swamps. One of her bustling crowns is New Orleans, through which countless silent, seamlessly-connected barges and massive worldwide vessels course her teaming waters day and night. More than 6,000 ocean vessels move through New Orleans on the Mississippi River each year. It is the largest waterway for bulk freight in North America.
With the increase in U.S. land mass came a new, rich blend of peoples and their foodways. The Creole people are a mix of French, Spanish, African and Native Americans. French Arcadians added to the mix around 1755. Dubbed “Cajuns,” they were driven out of Nova Scotia by the English eventually settling in Louisiana.
For the most part, the Creoles were rich planters, and their kitchens aspired to rich, fancy cuisine. Their recipes came from France or Spain as did their chefs. In contrast, the Cajuns were a tough people used to hard, meager living. They tended to serve pungent country food usually prepared in one pot.
Each group, while applying their own foodways, created a whole new cuisine. Both groups used rice extensively and based dishes on a roux of oil and flour. Some of the geographically common, locally available ingredients were crab, river shrimp, lake shrimp, oysters, crawfish (crayfish, crawdads), freshwater and saltwater fish, plus squirrels, wild turkeys, ducks, nutria, muskrats, frogs, turtles, pork, beans, tomatoes, hot peppers, okra, corn, potatoes, soybeans, citrus fruits, yams, pecans, strawberries, pecans and sugar.
Latter-day Louisiana “festival foods” are an ethnic blend and combine to become: Cochon de Lait (pork sandwiches), Shrimp & Crabmeat Stuffed Mirliton, Chipolte Ribs, Crawfish & Goat Cheese Crepes, Eggplant Funky Butt, Crawfish Pie, Gumbo, Corn & Crawfish Bisque, Crabmeat Cheesecake Caribbean Fish, Sweet Potato Praline Pie, White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Creoles, Po-Boys, Jambalaya, Etouffe and Remoulade. Celebration is big time and food no small part.
When it comes to a Crayfish Boil, Louisianans start the meal with local raw oysters. The fine science of oyster eating on the River Explorer was simple: doctor each oyster, on its lower shell resting in your hand with combinations of red sauce, lemon juice, horseradish and hot sauce. “Slurp” the oyster from the shell in one or two bites, check yourself for “mudmouth,” then pitch the shell back to its Mississippi River origins.
Chef Eric’s food notes for a Big Time Crawfish Boil aboard the River Explorer were something like this: Gather whole mushrooms, red spuds, corn on the cob, hot dogs, garlic, alligator sausage, barbecued ribs, potato salad, coleslaw, beans, hamburgers, fried chicken, freshly-opened 3 – 7-inch oysters and generous bowls of oyster condiments served up on newspaper tablecloths. Add cold beer, iced tea and a hot zydeco band.