My love for Gumbo and a simple search on Amazon for “Creole cooking” threw up an unexpected delight in the form of an Irish-Greek writer who travelled the world and wrote one of the first (if not the first) books on Creole cooking. He seems to have been forgotten somewhat by the western world and the aim of this blogpost is to re-introduce Patrick Lafcadio Hearn and La Cuisine Creole to the culinary world.
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn is one of the very first food writers to write about Creole cooking. Starting life in Greece, he travelled far and wide from Ireland to New Orleans and then on to Japan where he settled down, married and became a writer of Japanese ghost stories and a lecturer. He is, of course more well known for these stories but it is his book on Creole cooking that first drew me to find out more about him and his fascinating life.
According to the editor’s preface of La Cuisine Creole – A Collection of Culinary Recipes From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine, he was born on June 27, 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkada (which he is named after) to an Irish father and a Greek mother. His father, believed to be a Sergeant Major in the British Army, may have been stationed on the island during the British occupation of the islands. It is not clear whether they were married and, at the age of two, he was taken to Ireland to live with his father’s relatives after his parents parted ways. He stayed in Ireland until he was 19 when he, along with many others, emigrated to New York and a few years later he moved to Cincinnati where he worked as a journalist apparently “specialising in lurid murder stories”. It was during this time that he married his first wife (an African-American), although this marriage, it transpired, was illegal and they divorced soon after.
In 1877, he moved to New Orleans and it was at this time that his love for Creole cooking began. During the ten years of his stay in New Orleans, he put together La Cuisine Creole for his publisher in New York, whom he had also written a travel guide for around the time of the 1884-5 World Industrial Exposition in New Orleans.
In 1887, he moved to the West Indies and from there, he moved to Japan in 1890. He eventually settled in a town called Matsue in Western Japan and married a local woman with whom he had four children. He took a Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo and became “the leading Western authority on Japanese culture” and taught at several Japanese universities.
His story is fascinating but he seems to have been forgotten about in this part of the world while he is celebrated in his adopted home town of Matsue with a Memorial Museum.
The book itself is a guide for “young housekeepers” in Creole cuisine and as Hearn puts it, “much domestic contentment depends upon the successful preparation of the meal; and as food rendered indigestible through ignorance in cooking often creates discord and unhappiness, it behoves the young housekeeper to learn the art of cooking”.
The book is fascinating for anyone with an interest in food or in history. It gives a glimpse into the world of the late nineteenth century New Orleans kitchen. Hearn explains Creole cookery as being a reflection of the nature of New Orleans itself “blending the characteristics of the American, French, Spanish, Italian, West Indian and Mexican”. The Creole recipes that we are so familiar with today such as Gumbo or Jambalaya are also featured which shows the immense longevity of these great dishes. Over a hundred years later, these dishes are still being enjoyed in both New Orleans and, increasingly, the rest of the world.
It contains well over 500 recipes for soups, sauces, seafood, meat of all shapes, sizes and origins and although you may never cook any of them (the measurements may be slightly confusing to 21st century cooks), they make interesting reading and provide an insight into 19th century Creole cuisine.
The recipes take a simple form and do not list the ingredients at the top as we are used to but instead, integrates them into the method. Some methods are impossibly short and to the point. One of my favourites being “RYE AND INDIAN BREAD FOR DYSPEPTICS. Take a pint of rye flour and a pint of Indian meal [corn meal], scald the meal with a cup of boiling water, and when lukewarm, mix in the flour and a cup of yeast; add a little salt, and knead it as for other bread. Bake for two hours”. Simple as that!
If you are interested in learning more about La Cuisine Creole and Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, his book is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback editions.
Stay tuned to this blog in the coming months where I will be trying out some of the recipes from the book.