I’ve celebrated a 1976 bicentennial, a 1986 sesquicentennial, a 2013 quincentennial, but the “tennial” that really excites me is this year’s tricentennial of the City of New Orleans – 300 years of delicious food. Well, 296 years if the legend of the Frying Pan Revolt of 1722 is true. Since that year, gumbo, a dish mirroring the culture of the city – blending Spanish, French, Native American and African – has ruled the menu of the Crescent City.
Plenty of culinary events are scheduled for the tricentennial, though that’s not unusual for a city with scores of festivals based on food and restaurants numbering over a 1000. Some food writers estimate more than 1400 restaurants are operating today, and The Times-Picayune reports more restaurants opened in 2017 than closed. Best of all, neighborhood restaurants still thrive.
The city’s contribution to the international kitchen is remarkable. New Orleanians invented their own cocktail, the Sazarac; dessert, bananas Foster; sandwiches, the muffuletta and po’boy; and a signature appetizer, oysters Rockefeller. I always associate Doberge Cake, pralines, King Cake, beignets and chicory coffee with New Orleans. Though those didn’t originate there, they are best produced there. It’s no surprise many believe gumbo was invented there. Historical documents support the belief and cite 24 varieties of gumbo on an official menu in 1803.
For the city’s Big 300, I’m collecting 300 gumbo recipes in a year. You’ll recognize them with this art, inspired by La Flamme, a 1970 sorority cookbook from New Orleans. The first two recipes come from the newly published The Fonville Winans Cookbook (LSU Press 2017). Winans was the internationally famous Louisiana photographer who preserved the culture of the state through black and white images, from the bayous to boulevards to brides.
Winans once said if he hadn’t been a photographer he would have become a chef. His love for cooking led to a noonday cooking segment on a Baton Rouge TV station. Co-written by his daughter-in-law Melinda Risch Winans with Cynthia LeJeune Nobles, the book features previously unpublished photos and recipes, culled from over 250 handwritten ones he collected while traveling the state.
Just reading the recipes, you can see how personal these gumbos were to Fonville Winans as a cook. He perfected them, right down to the necessary cooking utensils. These two are unique in that they both include “dry shrimp” — and one surprised me with the addition of bitters.
Collecting 300 recipes seems a bit daunting, now that I think of it. I’ve collected a baker’s dozen so far from fellow writers, friends and neighbors and each is somewhat unique, whether it’s an ingredient, a cooking tip or an anecdote. I suspect the gumbo world is waiting on your recipe, so here’s my plea to followers, visitors and readers – please share your favorite gumbo recipe and the memories that go with it.