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Excerpted from the October 14, 2020 issue of Salt, Soil, & Supper
Gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, shrimp Creole, you know the Cajun roll call. That also means much of this newsletter revolves around Indigenous Gulf Coast cuisine, as this week's guest, Dr. Jeffery Darensbourg, a councilmember for the Alligator Band of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, tells me. Darensbourg is also the writer and publisher of the New Orleans-local zine, Bulbancha Is Still A Place: Indigenous Culture from New Orleans.
"Bulbancha," as Darensbourg explains, is actually a Choctaw word that roughly translates to "the place of many tongues." It was also the name assigned to the city we've come to know today as New Orleans by its Indigenous land stewards, prior to European colonization.
XP: How does New Orleans' Indigenous history intersect with its contemporary food culture?
JD: That's a good question. The history of all Bulbancha, which was the only name I use to refer to [New Orleans], is intimately intertwined with food culture here. People often forget aspects of what they called the Colombian Exchange–the ways that food passed across the Atlantic Ocean, both directions. We tend to think of those people as Creole, or sometimes Cajun. But then you sit back and think, well, what are Creole and Cajun people? You have Acadians, who are this mixed ethnicity, this French Maquis population from Canada. In Lafayette, where I lived for a long time, the Cajuns were white under segregation, even if they might not have been white in Canada. I recently met a Mohawk elder who was visiting here, who was near some Acadians in Canada. She's like, "How are Acadians here? Different from Canada?" I said, "Well, they're white here." And she just laughed about that several times while we were hanging out.
[Cajun] culture owes a lot to Indigenous people. Warren Perrin, who is one of the foremost Acadian activists, often says that when you look at family structure and food culture, you're looking at things that are more Native than French with Acadians. Similarly, with Creole people. Creole people are the remaining people from a mixture in Louisiana of free people of color. The free people of color in Louisiana were mixtures of Africans, French, Spanish, all the Europeans, but they were also Native. That's the result, largely, of Louisiana's ethnic classification. Especially after the Louisiana Purchase, there were many enslaved Indigenous people in the area surrounding Bulbancha at the time.
You look at these peoples and you're like, well, there's a lot of indigeneity there, but then you start looking at the ingredients. We have these hot peppers, we have corn, cornbread, we have red beans. We have all these seafoods and the methods in which the seafood are cooked. Think about the crawfish boil: If you were to mentally map, with the four most important things in a crawfish boil–you have the hot pepper, the crawfish, the potatoes, corn. Well, guess what? One-hundred percent Indigenous ingredients. So, there's a strong legacy there.
At the time of European incursions in the Americas, Indigenous populations here had the most advanced agriculture and forestry engineering in the world, which is why so many Indigenous crops are so popular–to the extent that people really forget where they come from. You can't really think of Irish cuisine without potatoes, or Italians without tomatoes, all these things like that that people take for granted, were really the results of thousands of years of really complicated genetic engineering by Indigenous populations here.
[A colleague] and I were talking the other day, and I was telling him about this thing I sometimes do where I try to make First Nations gumbo. I try to use no colonizer ingredients and keep the Colombian exchange out of it. I try to use wild onions. He said, "You know, celery," which is really similar to [the Indigenous ingredient] bull thistle in terms of texture, "wasn't as prominent in Louisiana in the 19th century as it is now, just in terms of how people could access it." He actually thought, well, maybe bull thistle was used. I have actually tried using bull thistle. It's remarkable how it fills that role of celery. It's more tasty. It's like the texture of celery, but tastes kind of like a cross between a cucumber and arugula. That's the only way I can describe it. I did a lot of foraging and things like that, thinking about this. But a lot of these Native ingredients are part of the culture here.
Even smoking meat was a big part of Indigenous culture here. There's an article I have coming out next year in the Journal of Southern Cultures about bison hunting in Louisiana. No one knows exactly when the last wild bison from Louisiana were killed. I did know that like my ancestors had hunted bison in Louisiana, [so] I did try to reincorporate it back in. I've made gumbo with Buffalo. It was good. All right. It's just hard to find bison here. It was when I lived in Colorado. Maybe that is like making the Indigenous version, but also, the regular version is the Indigenous version–except that like with many Indigenous nations in the Gulf South, you make a lot of things with pork, but those are the things that would not have been made with pork originally. So, if you make things up that have heavy fat or smoked meat, it's probably originally venison or bison or bears if it was really fatty or something like that. Pork is a magical animal that you can make into all that. But I do sometimes try to replace the pork in certain dishes. It has very happy consequences when you do it right.
There's a long tradition of smoked meat like that being emblematic in Louisiana, things like tasso or our various types of smoked sausages. But when you go into the early colonial period, a lot of the smoking, it was Indigenous in origin. One of the things that was most commonly exported at that time through the Port of New Orleans were smoked bison sides, and also bison tallo, which is also oil–so it's kind of the earliest oil extraction.
If people don't really believe that Native culture plays a significant role here, because it's often ignored, I would just suggest they try to eat any Louisiana dish and take out all of the Indigenous ingredients–no bell peppers, no cayenne pepper, none of the local seafood, no red beans, no cornbread, and no pecans–and just see how much you like it. [LAUGHS] There's not a lot left.