During this past Mardi Gras season, I came upon a realization of what should be obvious – the whole point of Carnival is to live it up before the lean times of Lent. It’s easy to get caught up in the revelry without thinking about the cultural context and why these traditions evolved the way they did. It also led me to realize that New Orleans was unique amongst Southern cities in that it was heavily Catholic, and in my own experience growing up Catholic you learn that Catholics like to drink, be they French, Irish, Italian or German, the primary Catholic ethnicities to settle New Orleans and the parishes upriver. Given the ancient Carnival traditions in French, Portugese, and Spanish port cities, traditions that seemed to follow their sailors and traders into the Caribbean and eventually New World port cities such as Rio and New Orleans (Mobile also had quite a Mardi Gras tradition for years in addition to New Orleans, well into the 20th century before the demographics changed with the settlement of more pro-temperance protestants,) it occurred to me that there were surely Lenten traditions that followed. Naturally the Creole Lenten traditions hold far less appeal to tourists and other party seekers so we’ve never really heard much about them.
Fasting days were often called by the Catholic church and Lent was especially significant when it came to fasting, and in ancient and medieval times the fasting was quite severe. By the dawn of the 20th century however, much of fasting was restricted to Fridays though people were encouraged to “give up” something meaningful for the full forty days as a penance. In Creole New New Orleans, however, fasting took on a much more liberal definition, with such a ubiquitous Lenten fasting dish as Gumbo z’Herbes that was ostensibly meat-free being nonetheless flavored with a ham bone. As funny as that naturally is, it speaks volumes about Creole life in New Orleans, where even during a time of fasting they found ways for extra relish.
Every year as Lent approaches, we naturally get lots of calls and other inquiries as to our offerings for folks who want to keep their diet to fish on Fridays. I thought this would be a perfect time to explore a new side of Creole cooking we never hear about, specifically the kinds of foods that have made their mark on Creole culinary history. Drawing on three essential books – Creole Cookery by the Christian Women’s Exchange of New Orleans (1885,) La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn (1885,) and the Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1904) – I’ve put together a Family Meal that is deeply reflective of a meal you might have enjoyed during a Lent around the year 1900 in someone’s private home in the French Quarter, or perhaps upriver in a stately old home, with one variant – at the turn of the century, dinner was still most often eaten mid day, with a smaller, simpler supper in the evening. More on that in another post.
This Family Meal will be offered from February 29 through April 10, and is available nightly from 5-9 p.m. The price is $25 per person, it is served family-style, and we naturally request that your entire table participate. Children pay $1 per year up to age 12.
A Creole Lenten Dinner, ca 1900
$25 per person, family style * Children up to age 12, $1 per year * Available 5-9 p.m. February 29-April 10
Winter Fast Day Soup, with croutons
Sally Lunn with honey marmalade
Clam fritters sauce flamande
Trout courtbouillon with boiled rice and butter beans
The dinner is naturally pescetarian, in honor of the Lenten traditions of Creole cooks, the ham bone in Gumbo z’Herbes excepted. Winter Fast Day Soup is a concoction that was apparently a common enough during Lent to be named for the winter fast; this version comes from the Picayune’s Creole cookbook and includes green split peas, turnip, carrot, onion, and spinach, and will be served with Sally Lunn, which is a long-time Big Jones standard and comes from La Cuisine Creole. Clam fritters appear in Creole Cookery, and Sauce Flamande, resembling a hollandaise but with cooked egg yolks, is an old Creole standby. The trout courtbouillon is based upon the Picayune’s book, and we return to Creole Cookery for the cream puffs. This will be a fun dinner, and true to the great culinary traditions of the Creole people of south Louisiana with a window on the Lenten season.
An added note – the demand for these family dinners has at times exceeded our expectations. We’re continuing to adjust our volumes, but if you’re coming for dinner and definitely want to have the Family Meal, it’s a good idea to make a reservation and let us know you want the Family Meal, and we’ll be happy to hold one for you. Please join us for a great dinner.