Antebellum Louisiana ca. 1840 Goes Locavore in Chicago

Grit Pound Cake with Grape Sorbet, Salted Sorghum Bohemian Cream, and Brandied Peaches

A Louisiana Plantation Supper, ca. 1840

  • Amuse of Venison Daube Glace, Fried Corn Pone and Beet Marmalade

  • Corn Soup with Whitefish Panna Cotta, Roasted Pimientos, Peppered Bacon, and Summer Savory

  • Salad of Young Lettuces, Pears, Preserved Blackberries, Cornbread Croutons, and Fried Sage

  • House Chaurice with Cider, Cabbage, and Apples, Butterball Potato Dumplings

  • Grit Pound Cake with Brandied Peaches, Concord Grape Sorbet, and Salted Sorghum Bohemian Cream

45 per person, optional beverage pairings available for 25 dollars

First off, here are the farms: Three Sisters Garden: white cornmeal and white field corn we use to make hominy * Hawk’s Hill Elk Ranch: venison for the daube glace * New Century Farm: certified organic eggs * Kilgus Farmstead: skim milk (used to make buttermilk) and cream * Green Acres: Pimientos * Mick Klug Farm: concord grapes * Paul Friday: blackberries and peaches * Genesis Growers: beets, lettuce, cabbage, and sweet corn * Seedling: bacon smoking wood, pears, apples, and apple cider * Nichols Farm: butterball potatoes * Gunthorp Farm: pork for the chaurice and bacon * Smits Farm: savory and sage * Burton’s Maplewood Farm: sorghum.

The obvious question is why do we prepare a Louisiana Plantation Supper when this is the Locavore Challenge? Honestly, I selected this menu because it would allow me to answer that question! It’s a perfect metaphor for our cooking at Big Jones. Simply put, we cook in much the same way as they did on plantations back in Antebellum Louisiana, but for different reasons.

Back then, cooking was necessarily seasonal, and most food was grown and processed at home or very nearby, as it is at Big Jones. That’s not to say we won’t trade in certain staples or luxury items such as olive oil or wine, but we try to do as much locally and in-house as we can. The old plantation kitchens did it because they had to. We do it because we want to. We think food grown nearby is more honest, you know the grower and can be certain of the food’s integrity, a huge issue in our food system where industrial agriculture results in constant recalls of foods that sicken or worse. We want to serve foods that nourish and satisfy.

Louisiana Plantation cooking serves as the inspiration when looking for flavor combinations, recipes for individual components, and the spirit of the kitchen. True, I do take liberties with the techniques and ingredients, such as making a panna cotta with the whitefish to serve with the corn soup, where the shrimp in the original recipe would have been poached and added whole. I also use a pure corn puree rather than a roux-based soup in order to lighten the recipe and make it gluten-free in addition. I do this to update the cuisine to more current tastes while I think the end result is every bit as satisfying and true to the spirit of the Antebellum Louisiana plantation kitchen. It’s an evolution, something cooking is always doing. And alas, we don’t grow muscadines this far north, so I’ve substituted the widely available and super delicious concord grape.

I also hope that this menu appeals to you by illustrating the universality of cooking, especially with the ingredients and tools we have available today – you can create so many cuisines here in Chicago using local ingredients. To me, this isn’t really about “food miles” or saving the planet, there are more important things we can be doing to reduce carbon emissions. It’s about heart and soul, feeling the connection to the earth that every generation of humanity has throughout history. Today, we can invite the world into our home through plants and the power of food to help us understand one another is profound. But, for that connection to be made, it must be real food as it always used to be.

Your body knows good nutrition and satisfying food when you smell and taste it. You’re wired to want real food that is grown or gathered for taste and nutritional value. It’s not about gigantic LLC’s or publicly traded companies, their profits, marketing, or even public policy. It’s about people – the farmer you know and trust, your favorite baker, your neighbor with the prolific herb garden or cousin with too many tomatoes.

There was a lot wrong with the old plantation economies and the way they devalued people in search of wealth for their families. Still, the food traditions and cooking they left in their wake are a wealth upon which we can all draw inspiration as we search for ways to cook locally, use every part of the animal, and eat well. The greatest irony in this is that the knowledge and culture of these plantation kitchens was seeded, sprouted, and grew upon the traditions and intellects of the slaves and indentured servants who ran the fields, gardens, and kitchens.

So, the greatest living legacy of the plantations is in their larders and receipts, and the debt we owe is to the lowly cooks and gardeners. How far we have come, and how far we have to go. Farmers and people who can cook (not just chefs) are gaining deserved respect amidst the Locavore movement. That’s progress. Sadly, nearly all of our food calories in this country are still industrially-produced, low-nutrient/high calorie concoctions of industry. Here’s to doing our part, and hoping that in the future, more and more food is grown, produced, and cooked by people in local communities where people know each other, work together, and stick together.

Whether you care about any of the underlying philosophy, I hope you can join us, because the food will be delicious, and you can look forward to a new tasting menu every week which will offer a different taste of the South, always with our gracious hospitality and artisan beverage program. Bon Appetit!