USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Louisiana’
Foodways
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Creole Foodways: Gumbo

Main Piece: “So culturally my family is Creole and… um… both sides of my family, my mom and dad, are all from Louisiana. So a big traditional food that we eat is gumbo, which is kind of like a soup… um… and it’s filled with seafood, sausage, and it’s served over rice. Um… my family eats it every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s the main meal at Thanksgiving versus traditional turkey and stuff. We have both.. but gumbo is like our big thing.”

Background: The informant says that this tradition has been around her entire life. The meals involves her entire family, immediate and extended. For the informant and her family, gumbo is a traditional Creole dish only eaten on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The meal is important to the informant because it involves her grandparents, who speak broken French and English, as well as her parents and brothers, who only speak English. She understands this meal as a unification of different parts of Creole heritage- being black, being white, and/or being French.

Performance Context: I sat across the informant at a table outside.

My Thoughts: It is interesting that the informant describes her family as “culturally Creole”. The informant’s identification with Creole heritage seems to be indicated by her parent’s Louisiana lineage. The informant and her family only eat gumbo on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The context, however, is not religious or patriotic, but rather a special occassion where the entire family eats together. The choice of making and eating this dish on Thanksgiving and Christmas is an interesting time to celebrate a traditional Creole dish. Both holidays seem to be a way to gather the entire family in one setting while incorporating individual tradition and ethnic foodways. The unification of different domains of being Creole (black, white, French) are understandably significant to the informant, whose family has different backgrounds contributing to their identity.

Foodways
general
Material

Smothered Steak Recipe

Recipe:

“Basically, you take a piece of meat that’s probably pretty tough, but thinly sliced, you salt and pepper it, coat it with flour, brown it in a little bit of oil in the skillet. Um, you do this with as much meat as you’re going to cook. You put all the meat back in the skillet, barely cover it with water, and simmer it for as long as you have, an hour or two, ideally. Um, and the long simmering helps tenderize the meat and the flour forms its own gravy around the meat without any other extra work. And in Southern cooking gravy is always required. So, the classic recipe is kind of a hand-sized steak that, you know, is a serving for, you know, for each person. Um, by the time I knew about it, um, my mom had taken that recipe and changed it quite a bit. Uh, or in subtle ways, I guess. Uh, the salt and pepper became a classic, a family recipe of seasoned salt. So a special mix of, you know, herbs and spices, um, and the beef that was traditionally used for this, uh, we were hunters in our family and, uh, we started to use venison instead. And the deer in Texas are white-tailed deer that are smaller and so it’s hard to actually get many, um, large even hand-sized steaks out of a deer. Uh, so the pieces of meat became much smaller. Often bite-size pieces of meat. And often we would use the tenderest of the deer, what we call the backstrap which is the tenderloin of the deer, um, to, uh, make this recipe. Uh, and it was always one of the favorite recipes that my mom would cook for anyone, so, um, as I grew up and got married and started trying to cook this for myself, S and I would make our own modifications to it and the seasoned salt didn’t set well so we went back to salt and pepper and added some thyme in. Um, we didn’t have as much access to venison, being in California, so we moved back to either beef or lamb or, you know, that was pretty much it, but it works with just about anything. Um, and, uh, I guess that’s, that’s about the changes we’ve made. The other, you know, so that’s the basic recipe and evolution of it.”

Analysis:

The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. He is extremely interested in grilling and cooking and often cooks for large groups of people recreationally. His parents have owned various pieces of rural Texas land over the years, ending with a cattle ranch an hour outside of Austin. His mother grew up in Louisiana and East Texas, meaning “there’s a lot of both Southern and Cajun roots in what I learned from my parents.” The informant calls this a “class Southern recipe” that he used to make when he would help his mother in the kitchen. This is a recipe the informant learned from his mother and that he thinks she learned from her mother. He describes it as “an any-meal dish,” that he often has for dinner now. One of the biggest “three or four holidays” for his family growing up was “opening day of hunting season,” when they would go out hunting early in the morning. When they returned to the house, his mother would have smothered steak, biscuits, and eggs cooked for everyone. He describes this as a “traditional, kind of, fancy winter breakfast” for them. Of this experience, he says, “You just can’t imagine coming in out of the extreme cold, being out for several hours in 25 degree weather and coming in and having this meal.” He makes it because “it tastes really good” and it’s a dish that he has never seen anyone else cook the way his mom taught him to cook it, and when he cooks it for other people they are impressed by it. It “typically gets eaten until it’s gone.”

 

This recipe was collected while I was home for Spring Break and was told to me while I was having a drink with my father in our living room. I have had this dish many times throughout my life and it is one that is often requested by other families when my father is cooking a meal for them. I think one of the main reasons it is such a hit is that it really is amazingly tasty when it is done right, but it also appears startlingly simple to the casual observer. This is especially true in Northern California, where the emphasis in cuisine is on bright, fresh, and organic meals that are presented beautifully. Placing a large skillet of smothered steak next to these things can provide quite a contrast. I think all aspects of it appeal to people’s “rustic sensibilities,” by which I mean they feel they can indulge themselves and be Southern for a meal. I think the informant cooks it so much because it is fairly simple and because it reminds him of the ranch where most of his family still lives, 1700 miles away.

Customs
Festival
Holidays

King Cake

King Cake

            “We in Louisiana have a big celebration right before lent which we call Mardi Gras. A big part of the celebration is to eat king cake. The king cake is in the shape of a crown and it has a little plastic baby which essentially represents baby Jesus. The cool thing about it is that back in school, if you got the baby Jesus, you were celebrity for the day. In lunch everyone would hover around you. Back at home though, who ever got the baby Jesus, was in charge of bringing the next king cake, but it also mean that they would gain good luck… I don’t really know how this originated I just remember that we celebrated this all the time back at home. Everyone in the city celebrated this, in schools, at home, and even on the streets. I just know that I grew up with this tradition and that’s why I had king cake when Mardi Gras was happening back at home. I guess I’ve just grown accustomed to it.”

My informant was born and raised in Louisiana, New Orleans. She recently moved to Los Angeles, California to attend USC. Therefore, since tis move was fairly recent, she still shows signs of high attachment to her former place of birth. Most of the traditions she is accustomed to have not necessarily been directly taught, but more so been a part of her daily life that she considers them as something normal in an everyday situation. Furthermore, she does not really know about the exact root of the traditions she’s been brought up onto, all she knows is that they are there, they have been there for quite some time now and they will continue to be practiced.

I found this tradition quite interesting especially when analyzing it with my own recollections. This is because my culture also practices this tradition but during different times. In other words, the same king cake used in Louisiana, is also used in Mexico, except it’s called a rosca; in Louisiana, this is celebrated right before lent and in Mexico, this is celebrated in the first week of January. The concept is all the same; there are a couple of plastic babies put into the bread which represent baby Jesus, and in both traditions, whoever gets the piece of bread with the baby Jesus is in charge of bringing then next bread to the gathering. Also, in both traditions, the person who gets the baby Jesus is then said to gain good luck. This similarity is interesting because it serves to explain how there is multiplicity for certain traditions who one may think are very original to one specific location when in actuality, many cultures practice the same thing but perhaps at different times as was in this case. Overall, knowing this can bring people of different backgrounds together. Personally speaking I now feel like I have more in common with my informant than I did before.

Customs
Foodways
Material

King Cake

My informant moved around quite a bit when he was younger; he spent a couple years in Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi. In his adolescence, his family moved to Louisiana. Because that is where he went to high school and is therefore the last place he lived before coming to college, it is the place he considers his home. He is proud of being “from” the area near New Orleans. Here is his description of a traditional cake he ate around Mardi Gras:

“A King Cake is a circular cinnamon-roll like cake with green, purple, and yellow icing, the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. It’s named after the three kings from the Bible. Growing up, I consumed King Cake at school with my classmates as well as at home with my family. The cake is consumed during the season of Lent and contains a small plastic baby, which represents baby Jesus. The person who gets the baby in their slice of cake is obligated to bring the King Cake for the following week. So we had King Cake every Friday at school during Lent, since on Fridays you’re allowed some reprieves from the strict Lent rules. The King Cake is very symbolic of one of the most festive times for Louisianans, and it brings all of the community together in celebration of the season. However, while delicious, the cake also serves as a reminder of the obligations one has during the season of Lent.”

This cake became such a significant tradition for my informant that when he went away to college, his grandma mailed him one. Mardi Gras is not nearly as big of a deal in Los Angeles—where my informant attends university—as it is in New Orleans, so he greatly appreciated the gesture. It reminded him of his home and the traditions he spent years celebrating, so it does make sense for him to be sentimental about a cake. What may seem like a simple dessert to an outsider actually has quite a bit of symbolism. As my informant said, even the colors of the frosting have meaning: they are the festive Mardi Gras colors. Food is often intrinsic to special celebrations, and Mardi Gras is the biggest celebration of the region my informant lives in. It is comparable to a birthday cake in that it is a cake eaten at a special time with family and friends, but the King Cake has an added community-building element. The fact the person who eats the piece with the little plastic baby in it has to bring the next cake means that the King Cake itself perpetuates the gatherings of those people. It provides a kind of assurance that they will all come together again in a short time to share the same food and celebrate the season. Therefore, one of the functions of this folklore is the guarantee that those people will meet again.

Legends
Narrative

Rougarou

My informant moved around quite a bit when he was younger; he spent a couple years in Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi. In his adolescence, his family moved to Louisiana. Because that is where he went to high school and is therefore the last place he lived before coming to college, it is the place he considers his home. He is proud of being “from” the area near New Orleans. Here is his description of a legend he picked up while living in Louisiana:

“The Rougarou is a legendary creature in Cajun folklore similar to a werewolf. It is said to have the head of a wolf with the body of a human. Supposedly it spends its time prowling the swamps of Acadiana and the greater New Orleans area. The legend of the Rougarou has often been used a scare tactic to inspire obedience amongst Cajun children. It’s a pretty scary monster. Variations of the legend hold that the Rougarou will hunt down and kill Catholics who do not follow the rules of Lent. As a child, my parents told me the about the Rougarou to keep me from wandering far into swampy areas, which can be very dangerous.”

My informant’s retelling of the basics of the Rougarou legend is an explanation of one way his parents tried to scare him into being safe. This kind of strategy must be quite common in parenting, for I know my parents told me stories to prevent me from doing risky things. I remember other friends of mine saying similar things. One widespread example is when fathers or mothers tell their children that if they make a silly face for too long, their face might get stuck like that forever. The difference is that the Rougarou is more deeply rooted in Louisianan traditions. My informant says that anyone who has lived in the greater New Orleans area for enough time should be familiar with this legend. Another difference is the religious aspect; my informant says that sometimes the story is told to warn people about breaking the rules of Lent. It is interesting how one story can take on different meanings with only slight variations in content and context; this story went from a Catholic cautionary tale to a disciplinary method meant for keeping kids away from the deep swamp.

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