Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Emergence of New Orleans Cuisine

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and 
New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” 
– Tennessee Williams 

In the late nineteenth century, the burgeoning wealth of the upper classes fueled a social revolution in eating well when away from home. Culinary tourism got a jump-start in New Orleans during the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884-85. Visitors were introduced to Creole dishes that blended French, Spanish, West African, and Choctaw influences, among others. Seemingly overnight, the unique cuisine and signature cocktails of New Orleans became major tourist draws, marking a pivotal moment in the city’s gastronomic history. The first Creole cookbooks were published the year the fair ended; and eventually one of the finest French restaurants in New Orleans would create new French-Creole dishes to lure the well-heeled visitors back.1,2 Eighteen menus between 1905 and 1917 reveal the extent to which regionalism was expressed in public dining spaces at various levels of society in the years leading up to Prohibition. 

St. Charles Hotel 
201 St. Charles Avenue 
The genteel social life of antebellum New Orleans revolved around its grand hotels like the St. Charles, which opened in 1837 and was the grandest of them all. The St. Charles harkened back to an era when regional influences were muted on table d’hôte menus. This à la carte menu from 1905 offers a few Creole dishes such as gumbo, then the most prevalent Creole dish. 

The St. Charles overlooked one of the principal Mardi Gras parade routes. The set menu below from Carnival in 1907 reflects the type of French-American cuisine served at upper-class establishments in other cities. The recipe for red snapper à la Havanaise called for the fish to be baked in a tomato-based sauce made with sweet peppers, onions, mushrooms, fish broth, and espagnole sauce, one of the mother sauces of classic French cooking. (The dish was also in Delmonico’s repertoire in New York, where it was made with a locally-available species, becoming bluefish à la Havanaise.3


Victoria Hotel 
422 St. Charles Avenue 
Even though the Victoria Hotel rented rooms for as little as 50 cents per day, its cuisine was “unexcelled” according to this menu from the mid- to late-aughts. In addition to bouillabaisse, the bill of fare offers sweetbreads and steaks in the Bordelaise style or in the Creole style, where a mirepoix of celery, onions, and bell peppers provides the essential flavor base. Creole cuisine is also known for its extensive use of tomatoes and seafood. 

1008 Canal Street 
The main shopping district was concentrated on Canal Street, a wide avenue stretching from the riverfront to the aboveground tombs at Metairie Cemetery. Everyday eateries like Bruno’s offered a few Creole dishes, but the region was best represented by the local seafood. Mark Twain described sheepshead and croakers as fish “from New Orleans” on his list of sixty American foods he missed when travelling abroad.4 

Frank & Charlie’s 
1010 Canal Street 
Frank & Charlie’s was a Chinese restaurant next door to Bruno’s. The menu below is organized into sections for Chinese and Western cuisine. The “American style” dishes include German fried potatoes, potatoes Lyonnaise, a Spanish omelet, and redfish court bouillonthe only overtly Creole contribution. However, it is an enhanced noodle dish within the Chinese section that makes this menu noteworthy, adding to our knowledge of a culinary fixture in New Orleans. 

This is the only known New Orleans menu from this period that has yet-ca mein, a wheat noodle that infrequently appeared on Chinese-American menus in the early twentieth century. During the chop suey craze, Cantonese dishes underwent innumerable changes as traditional recipes were modified for the dominant American palate. In New Orleans, yet-ca mein evolved into yak-a-mein, a beef noodle soup containing a sliced hard-boiled egg and Creole seasonings. It is entirely possible that the 25-cent noodle dish called extra yet-ca mein was yak-a-mein, or an early version of it, and that the colloquial term “yak-a-mein” came into general use much later.5 

Today, yak-a-mein is commonly found at corner groceries, takeout spots, and jazz festivals in New Orleans and has spread to other cities. It is also called “Old Sober” in keeping with its reputation as a hangover cure.

Hong Kong 
1108 Canal Street 
Despite the name of this restaurant, the menu below has mostly Anglo-American fare, offering only three generic types of chop suey. The Hong Kong restaurant was established in 1902 when Chinese restaurateurs across the country were opening locations outside their traditional ethnic enclaves, although the Chinatown in New Orleans was then a mere block away from Hong Kong (and Frank & Charlie’s) on Canal Street.6 

Madame Begue’s 
Decatur and Madison Streets 
Madame Begue’s served a set meal at 11:00 a.m. for butchers in the French Quarter and workers from the nearby docks. It was called a “second breakfast,” even though it resembled a large, midday dinner served an hour early for the men coming off work.  The restaurant could accommodate up to thirty guests at its two communal tables. Considering its small size, working-class patrons, and convivial atmosphere, Madame Begue’s was an American version of the bouchons in Lyon, France. Visitors to the Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884 discovered Madame Begue’s, and before long the dockworkers and butchers were gone. By 1898, the New York Sun reported “nine people out of ten that visit New Orleans have heard of Begue’s.” Two years later, Madame Begue’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Creole Cookery was published. It was the first cookbook by a professional chef in New Orleans and was sold at the restaurant. When German-born Elizabeth Begue (née Kettenring) died in 1906, it was reported in newspapers across the country. Her Creole husband, Hippolyte Begue, married his former wife’s assistant and the restaurant remained in operation for another eleven years. The postcard below attests to its status as a picturesque tourist attraction. 

While Begue’s did not have a menu, a guest wrote down the bill of fare for May 10, 1911 on the back of the above postcard. It happened to be a Wednesday when liver was typically served. The liver was sautéed in butter and served with fried onions and bacon, eliciting rapturous praise. “Madame, your liver touches my heart!” wrote author William Sydney Porter in the guest book. (It was in New Orleans where Porter picked up the pen name, O. Henry.) Another specialty were the immense omelets that Hippolyte Begue presented to the guests before cutting. On this occasion, the omelet was filled with sweetbreads. After about three hours, the meal ritually ended with a cup of strong coffee that was sweetened with two lumps of sugar and flambéed with Cognac. The prix fixe was $1.25, or about $40 today, including wine.

The Gem 
127 Royal Street 
The Gem was established in an old mansion in 1847. Situated a half block below Canal Street, the Gem operated variously as an oyster house, coffeehouse, and restaurant. This menu from 1913 recounts its history as a “quaint eating house,” attempting to replicate the tourist appeal of Madam Beque’s. The Gem closed in 1919 following the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. It would prove to be a momentous turning point in the American hospitality industry, even in cities like New Orleans that didn't take the Prohibition laws too seriously. 

713 St. Louis Street 
“After the death of Mme. Begue, Antoine’s became the best-known restaurant in New Orleans,” writes historian Paul Freedman in Ten Restaurants that Changed America. Marseilles-born Antoine Alciatore founded Antoine’s in 1840. Like Delmonico’s in New York, it was an upper-class restaurant that invented new dishes by using native ingredients and French cooking techniques. However, the creative focus at Antoine’s was distinctly regional. By transforming the multiethnic ingredients used in Creole cooking, Antoine’s defined the haute cuisine of the New Orleans style. 

The card below calls attention to dozens of its specialties, among them bisque d’ecrevisses à la Cardinal (crawfish bisque) and huîtres en coquille Rockefeller (oysters Rockefeller), its most famous creation. Gumbo is identified by the French word “gombo” which is closer to the West African term for okra, one of the ingredients that thickens the stew. French cuisine is represented by such dishes as côtelettes de agneau maison d’or, which combined lamb chops with foie gras and truffles, akin to tournedos Rossini. The card can be roughly dated by two dishes with topical names—huîtres à la Taft and canapé Roosevelt

Although Antoine’s is now known for its high-end French-Creole cuisine, it presented itself as a French restaurant for most of its history, reflecting the long-standing dominance of French culinary prestige. This set menu comes from a retirement dinner for a banker in 1911. 

La Louisiane 
717 Iberville Street 
Established in 1881, La Louisiane began as a fine French restaurant. The heading of this menu is positioned over the wine and beverage list, directing the guest’s eyes there first. The 20-cent house drink was the Louisiane cocktail. Sometimes called De La Louisiane, it was made with rye whiskey, Bénédictine, sweet vermouth, Peychaud’s Bitters, and absinthe. Peychaud’s Bitters was invented by Antoine Peychaud, a Creole apothecary who arrived from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in the late eighteenth century. 

The highlighted dishes at the top of the bill of fare include oysters Rockefeller, which were adopted by other restaurants after the dish was invented in the late nineteenth century, although it required a little guesswork since Antoine's never shared the recipe. According to lore, La Louisiane was the first restaurant in New Orleans to serve bouillabaisse, although it does not appear on the menu below from February 1913. The section titled “Game and Poultry, when in season” recalls a time when chicken was a relatively-expensive seasonal product.7 The game and chicken dishes are not priced, indicating they were not available. 

209 Bourbon Street 
Frenchman Jean Galatoire opened his eponymous restaurant on Dauphine Street in 1903, moving into Victor Bero’s restaurant on Bourbon Street two years later when the ailing Belgian chef retired. By 1909 Galatoire’s was regarded as one of best restaurants in town. Chicken dishes are the most expensive items on this menu, which happens to come from the same week in February 1913 as the above chicken-less menu from La Louisiane. Like Antoine’s, Galatoire’s was a fine French restaurant that would increasingly specialize in French-Creole cuisine. The number of items on its menu doubled by the late 1930s. 

The Original Fabacher’s 
137 Royal Stree
Established in 1880 by German-born Franz Fabacher, this restaurant was renamed “The Original Fabacher’s” in 1905 when a German beer hall and restaurant named Fabacher’s Rathskeller opened on St. Charles Avenue. The menu below from Independence Day in 1909 offers summer foods like new corn, soft shell crabs, and fresh crawfish on ice. 

In November of that year, the game dishes included broiled squirrels and upland sandpipers, which are identified by the Cajun word “papabottes.” Closely related to curlews, these rich-fleshed game birds were “the joy of gourmets,” according to the Picayune Creole Cook Book (1900). 

The menu below highlights a few cocktails as “appetizers,” some of which were closely associated with New Orleans. The Sazerac cocktail is made with rye whiskey, Peychaud’s Bitters, absinthe, and sugar. When absinthe was declared illegal in 1912, a sweet, anise-flavored liqueur named Ojens was often used as a substitute. The Ojens cocktail simply comprises Ojens, Peychaud’s Bitters, and seltzer. New Orleans was also a beer-drinking town boasting several breweries, such as the nearby Jackson Brewing Company, popularly known as the Jax Brewery throughout the South. When Fabacher’s closed in 1915, the Times-Picayune reported that it had been “a landmark in New Orleans for so long that the thought of it passing out of existence struck people with something of a shock.” 


125 St. Charles Avenue 
Kolb’s opened in 1899 when German restaurants were becoming very popular, particularly in cities like New Orleans with sizeable German populations.8 Like other restaurants of its kind, Kolb’s served a variety of cuisines in a Teutonic setting decorated with beer steins and symbols of heraldry. The dining room was cooled by leather-belt-driven ceiling fans originally used at the Cotton Centennial Exhibition of 1884. The beverage list on this menu from 1917 offers two draught beers from the Dixie Brewing Company founded in New Orleans ten years earlier. 

Grunewald Hotel 
Baronne Street 
German-born Louis Grunewald opened his hostelry just in time for the 1894 Mardi Gras season. After a huge expansion in 1908, the hotel depended on the tourist trade more than ever, causing it to tout its “New Orleans cuisine” and “celebrated New Orleans dishes.” Many items on the menu below from 1915 are described in terms of place, such as New Orleans gumbo, Louisiana crab meat, and fresh caught sheepshead “from Lake Pontchartrain.” The tourist orientation is also reflected by the format of the menu, which is a mailer with a postcard of the hotel’s Forrest Grill attached to the cover. 

The act of presenting the local cuisine to outsiders was a positive force in shaping how New Orleanians perceived their distinctive food heritage, which would become ever more tightly bound with their collective sense of identity over time. In January 1915, the Louisiana Historical Society hosted a banquet at the hotel to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, the last military engagement of the War of 1812.9 Unlike the set menu at the St. Charles Hotel eight years earlier, this bill of fare emphasizes regional dishes as a matter of civic pride. The Grunewald was renamed the Roosevelt Hotel in 1923, the Fairmont Hotel in 1965, and the Roosevelt Hotel again in 2007. 

The contemporary foodscape in New Orleans is much more regional than it was a hundred years ago, a transformation brought about by the growth of localist movements, the democratization of travel, and specifically, the inclusion of Cajun cuisine on urban restaurant menus.10 Many dishes now synonymous with New Orleans, such as jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, were once considered domestic fare, deemed unsuitable for the affluent visitors of the past. The same goes for red beans and rice. New food items like po’boy sandwiches have also entered the scene, becoming staples of the tourist experience. 

City boosters also get credit. “New Orleans has done such a beautiful job in popularizing Creole cuisine,” the president of the National Restaurant Association told a newspaper in 1950. And while the old-line establishments have adopted a more casual approach, few fine restaurants in the United States have survived as long as Antoine’s and Galatoire’s, a remarkable feat in a city the size of Cleveland. 

1. Lafcadio Hearn. La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes, From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine. New York: Will H. Coleman, 1885. 
2. The Creole Cookery Book. New Orleans: The Woman’s Christian Exchange, 1885. 
3. Many restaurants in the country were once named Delmonico’s, reflecting its universal fame. The one in New Orleans was located at 1300 St. Charles Avenue. Opened in 1895 by Anthony Commander, brother of founder of Commander’s Palace, the restaurant was last purchased by Chef Emile Lagasse in 1997 and is now permanently closed.
4. Mark Twain. A Tramp Abroad, 1880.
5. A 1927 article in Maclean’s magazine used the term “yet-ca mein” to describe noodles boiled in rich stock, garnished with a sliced hard-boiled egg and chopped cooked meats. By then, the word “extra” had been dropped from the enhanced dish. Estelle Carter MacPherson, “Secrets of Chinese Cookery,” May 15, 1927.
6. Established in the early 1870s, the original Chinatown, comprising about fifteen businesses and institutions at its peak, was located around 1100 Tulane Avenue. After it was demolished in 1937, an even smaller Chinatown formed on or near the 500-block of Bourbon Street, where it remained for several decades.
7. Although farmers sold chickens in the summer for added income, chickens were primarily raised for egg production until the 1920s when the broiler chicken was developed in Delaware.
8. German immigration into the port of New Orleans, the nation’s second-leading antebellum port of entry, crested in the mid-nineteenth century. By the early 1900s, more than 250 German-American societies existed in Louisiana, primarily in New Orleans. Many of these organizations disbanded during the First World War when German culture was suppressed. 
9. The reference to “a hundred years of peace” on the title page is odd, especially given that 1915 was the fiftieth-anniversary year of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, an event still in living memory. The United Confederate Veterans held a large reunion in New Orleans in 1903. 
10. Cajun cuisine was developed along the bayous of Louisiana and is known for its meat-heavy, one-pot dishes that blend French and Southern food customs. Tomatoes are not typically used in Cajun cooking. By comparison, Creole cuisine originated in New Orleans and reflects a cosmopolitan fusion of culinary influences, with French being the most prominent.

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

Wow, quite a tour of New Orleans eating places! Wonderful collection. And I love that handwritten record of a meal at Madame Begue's, what a find!