Back Forty: The rich, troubled history of New Orleans’ famous food culture

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Cajun Cafe at the Historic French Market in New Orleans. Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

By Douglas McCollam

New Orleans, the old joke goes, is a city of a thousand restaurants and one menu. While that jibe is way out of date these days, Theresa McCulla’s new book, Insatiable City: Food and Race In New Orleans, takes a deep dive into the history of food culture in the Crescent City and the ties — generational, racial, and political — that have made the city’s distinct cuisine one of the most acclaimed in the world.

And how did New Orleans’ cuisine and culture achieve international renown? Great salesmanship, McCulla might answer. Almost from its founding, she argues, New Orleans was relentless in promoting itself as a destination for debauchery and gluttony of one form or another, a swampy Brigadoon of sin floating far outside the stale confines of Protestant America. “New Orleans has done such a beautiful job in popularizing Creole cuisine,” the president of the National Restaurant Association told a local paper in 1950, “other sections are trying to achieve the same national and international fame for their dishes.”

But those travelers’ tales and marketing campaigns, as McCulla documents, often left out the darker history of New Orleans as a major slave market, a city whose alluring culture and cuisine rested firmly on the broken backs of enslaved Africans fed into the maw of a giant agricultural machine that produced staggering amounts of cotton, sugar, and other commodities for the world. It also produced staggering wealth for the European colonists who exploited their free labor.

If that portrait of New Orleans sits in stark contrast to your view of the Big Easy as a city of good food, good music, and good times, join the club. I was born and raised in New Orleans and chose to return to it as an adult. I’ve always found it an incredibly warm city with a vibrant culture all its own. But Insatiable City makes an undeniable case that, despite the city’s reputation as a laid-back alternative to the racially obsessed deep South, New Orleans did not escape the tide of racism and racial exploitation that courses through American history. In fact, in many ways it was one of the darker embodiments of those evils.

Founded in 1718 as a French colony, New Orleans was situated on a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi River and a large saltwater bay named Lake Pontchartrain. Prone to flooding and wracked by tropical diseases, the colony failed to thrive in its early years despite its advantageous location near the mouth of the largest river system in North America.

In 1803, the French sold the city, and the 828,000 square miles of The Louisiana Territory, to the United States for $15 million, and with the coming of the Americans, New Orleans boomed. By 1860 the port was second only to New York in tonnage of goods transported annually, and sugar was a chief component of these exports. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase the territory produced about 7,500 tons of sugar a year. By 1860 that had skyrocketed to more than 170,000 tons. “The very dust we breathe here is rich,” a local 19th-century writer observed, “it is the essence of disintegrated cotton and sugar; the gutters flow with molasses and syrup.”

The explosion of Louisiana sugar production came precisely at a time when rising anti-slavery sentiment in Europe and America had led to the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Perversely, this meant the surging demand for labor for sugar production had to be satisfied internally, creating a giant southern transfer in the existing slave population. Being “sold down the river” became a fresh terror confronting enslaved people living in other parts of the South, and the number of slaves in Louisiana rose from just under 35,000 in 1810 to 245,000 in 1850.

The influx of slave labor meant that the already active slave markets of New Orleans became major drivers of commerce in the city. McCulla pays special attention to the role of two grand hotels built in the city during this period. The St. Charles and the St. Louis were among the finest hotels in the country, their marble columns and domes inspiring awe among locals and visitors alike. Both also held regular slave auctions amid the splendor, where drunken patrons would bid on slaves in between sumptuous meals of mutton and “Calf’s Head with brain sauce.” McCulla’s detailed juxtaposition of the hotels’ grandeur with the abject misery of the slaves being sold remains nauseating even at a remove of almost two centuries.

By the eve of the civil war, New Orleans was one of America’s most economically important cities. Its population had reached 168,000, 43 percent of whom were born outside the U.S. Consequentially, the city’s enthusiasm for disrupting business to wage a war was minimal, at least initially. When war did come, New Orleans went to the sidelines fairly quickly, surrendering without a fight in May of 1862.

The years following the war were ones of promise in New Orleans and elsewhere in the South, as the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery and sought to ensure equal rights for former slaves. It did not last. Even before Union troops departed the city the white population began to roll back as many reforms as it could. In 1890, 130,000 Black citizens were registered to vote in Louisiana; by 1908 that number had fallen to fewer than 3,000.

New Orleans, however, had one resilient population that other parts of the South lacked. Going back to the founding of the colony and its French and Catholic roots, gens de couleur libre, or “free people of color,” had formed part of the backbone of New Orleans society. As McCulla details, these Orleanians of mixed European and African ancestry occupied a shifting and uncertain middle ground in the city’s racial tableau. Many were relatively wealthy business proprietors. Others were writers, artisans, or worked in key positions in the city’s hotels and restaurants. 

In those roles they also carried on their long tradition as keepers of the unwritten history of New Orleans’ cuisine. Historian Lawrence Powell says this “hybrid” culture was greater than the sum of its constituent parts: “And nowhere was this truer than in the kitchen.” From the start it was Black hands that stirred the pots, bought the groceries, and picked the ingredients. “The kitchens may have been French,” Powell observes, “but the cooks were slaves.”

McCulla notes that this long tradition of Black people nurturing New Orleans’ cuisine was largely unknown until the 1978 publication of Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets by Nathaniel Burton and Raymond Lombard. In it, Black chefs recall how knowledge of many signature dishes were handed down to them through the generations. “They say [Creole cuisine] is a mixture of Spanish and French, but the only people who seem to know all about it are neither Spanish nor French, they’re Blacks,” said Sherman Crayton, a veteran chef interviewed for the book. “They got it from their grandparents.” 

As New Orleans moved into the 20th century, its culture, which owed so much to its Black citizens, began to be exported to the world. Jazz swept the globe and Creole cuisine became a gastronomic phenomenon. Predictably, the contributions of the legions of African American cooks was downplayed or ignored. Indeed, even the term “Creole” became a matter of dispute, with many white Orleanians insisting that the term applied only to those of European descent born in Louisiana. This was plainly contradictory to the entire history of New Orleans and the ample evidence of racial mixing of European, African, and Native American blood lines.

McCulla revives one success story of this era. Lena Richard has been largely forgotten in the history of American foodways, but her 1940 New Orleans Cookbook was a publishing sensation and her tireless efforts to promote New Orleans’ cuisine, and the culture that produced it, played a major role in establishing the city as a food capital. Richard went on to open her own restaurants, launch a frozen food line, and host a television cooking show years before Julia Child hit the airwaves. Tellingly, after Richard died in 1950, at age 51, her television show was reconfigured around a stereotypical southern “mammy”-styled cook.

A year later, the Campbell Soup Company introduced a new “Creole Gumbo Soup.” Gumbo is the quintessential New Orleans dish, and Campbell’s mish-mash of chicken and vegetables generated howls of protest from Orleanians. In response, a local newspaper columnist asked readers to send in their favorite gumbo recipes. Ostensibly, a traditional gumbo is a fair representation of the city itself: First you make a roux (French); then add okra and rice (African) along with shrimp, crab, and/or oysters (Louisiana); and finish with a touch of filé (Choctaw-Native American). 

But as the recipes came in, it became obvious that variations on the traditional makeup of gumbo were many and open to debate, much like the history of New Orleans’ cuisine itself. Some swear chicken and sausage are essential. Some eschew the use of filé or the inclusion of oysters. Some even dare to exclude one or more of the “holy trinity” of diced onions, celery and bell peppers! Not long ago I ran into a friend at a local market who was born in southwestern Louisiana. Spotting a tub of something tasty-looking in his cart, I asked him what it was. He said it was potato salad … for his gumbo recipe. I recoiled.

Such disputes are the stuff of daily life in this food-crazed town, and Insatiable City is a valuable addition to that ongoing conversation. McCulla argues that the contributions of African American labor to New Orleans cuisine remains undervalued to this day, and even tells of a local chef who charged his white customers more than twice the amount he charged his African American patrons as a form of food protest of continuing inequity in the food industry.

Food protest is not a concept I see gaining much traction in New Orleans, where mottos like “laissez les bon temps rouler” and “always for pleasure” permeate the local ethos. But Insatiable City is a book all Orleanians, as well as the city’s millions of visitors, could benefit from reading, if only as a cogent reminder of the blood and tears mixed into that savory dish they’re about to enjoy.