Sunday, April 17, 2016

History and Heritage

Last week for Spring Break we took the family to New Orleans to visit B's family.  You'd never know from talking to him, but B grew up about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge (the linguistics major in me is fascinated by the fact that he has virtually no dialect).  We hadn't been to Louisiana since Peach was 4 months old so it has been about 6 and a half years since we our last visit. 

When friends heard I was going to New Orleans I was surprised at how many people commented about the food down there.  New Orleans is known for their Cajun and Creole cuisine, but many people just think spicy cayenne pepper when they think of Louisiana food.  Not true!  While most Cajun and Creole cuisine (yes, there is a difference) features red, white, and black pepper the spice is not supposed to overpower the taste, a fact that has eluded many chain restaurants in the North (I'm looking at you, Applebees). 

Since we were going to be spending some time in the French Quarter I thought it might be nice to try a local cooking class so I signed up for a Demo class at the New Orleans School of Cooking.  B took the girls to explore the French Quarter Festival while I had two and a half hours to learn all about the history of New Orleans cuisine. 

First, the menu.  We learned how to make corn and crab bisque, shrimp creole, bananas foster, and pralines.  We also got some yummy homemade biscuits with cane syrup.  The food was great and the instructor was engaging and explained technique very well.  The most interesting part of the class, however; was the history lesson that went along with it.  While he was cooking, the chef taught us the history of Louisiana, immigration, and how it directly impacted the food. 

Chef taught us about how Napolian Law, the French Catholics and Spanish Catholics, and the emigration of people from Africa and the Canary Islands impacted the way people made food.  It made so much sense and showed how New Orleans was a true melting pot of cultures in the 1800s.  I enjoyed the lessons so much and it made me reflect on how cooking is more than just making food to eat.

Cooking is how we tell our story.  Every year around Passover I see posts from my friends on social media talking about how they are making their Bubbe's recipe for matzah ball soup.  Or in December the traditional Christmas cookies their mom made when they were little.  Last February a friend of mine from Poland taught me how to make paczki, a small jelly filled donut traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday.  While we were cooking she told me the story of how she came to the United States alone when she was twenty years old without knowing any English and cleaned houses to earn money.  Before that day I only knew that her as my kind neighbor with three kids and family in Chicago. 

One of the most important stories I learned while cooking was when I was in sixth grade.  I went to a private school and one of our teachers was a Holocaust survivor.   One day we were making challah (egg bread) as a class project and our teacher told us a story of how as a child in the work camp she befriended an older woman who told her how she would shape challah bread into roses instead of the traditional braid.  One day while working in the fields my teacher noticed the ground was like clay and begged the woman "show me".  The woman quickly showed her how to roll challah into a rose. There we were, decades later and our teacher was showing us the same thing.  Now when I make challah with my daughters I teach them how to make roses along with braids.  It may not have come directly from my family, but it is a story from my culture.  While the old woman in the camp may not have survived to tell her story, I can pass on a piece of it. 

Cooking is so much more than food.  It reflects who we are, where we came from, and outside influences on our lives.  What's your story?

**3 months until Culinary School begins!

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