Sunday, August 2, 2009

New Orleans Culture 101: Dialect and Food

(top photo: pralines like my mama be making, oh yeah and Ayankha's recipe)

I am the daughter of a Louisiana woman, and grew up with much of the culture. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was ridiculed because of my mother's accent and the fact that we could not cut our hair, or sometimes wore tigons (colorful headscarves) to cover our heads; but now, everyone is intrigued. Funny how times change, but I am glad that they did.

Louisiana is very culturally distinct (just like all areas of the country), and is known mostly for it being the trading hub of the United States for many years. New Orleans being at the opening of the Mississippi river, hosted many peoples and nations. As a result, good music, good food, and other rich aspects of a profound cultural milieu resulted.

Though many people trek to NOLA during the Essence Festival, there are so many other things that happen during the year that one might consider attending when hotels are not that expensive and when it is not a sweltering 100 degree weather.

Great times to visit are in the Fall and during Christmas holiday. It does not get cold until January/February, so the time there is perfect for you not only to explore New Orleans, but the surrounding parishes that are as rich in culture.

For those of you who are stuck on NO, let me give you some New Orleans 101 lessons. Three of the most profound cultural wonderments that visitors adore about NO is the food, music, and the dialect. Since I am not too keen on the music, I will write about the dialect and food to give you some understanding of its complexities.

Now, for those of you who watch reality television and are fans of "Tiny and Toya" show, the speech from Toya is a representation of New Orleans speech structure, but it is only a small sample of the dialogue. Personally, I think she and Tiny, who hails from Atlanta (a place I have lived), just put too much extras on their accents for TV drama emphasis.

Anyway, that's my bone to pick. However, today's tips are is mostly on food, but there are some language tidbits that might be helpful. Oh yeah, and for all the people who come from cities where they look at you funny if you say "Hello" please note that, that greeting someone is a social staple in New Orleans, so be nice...for once.

Dialect Lesson
#1. "Hey Baby" (pronounced BayB): A usual greeting that is a term of endearment.

#2. How ya doin' Chez (pronounced Sheah): This is an old, school term of endearment that many use who live in smaller towns outside of Louisiana, but it is still used.

#3. Lagniappe (pronounced LAEN-yap): This means "something extra," that usually pertains to an extra helping of something like food, liquor, or an extra item when purchasing. You will often get lagniappe in a restaurant or a gracious vendor.

#4. The Causeway (KAWZ-wey): Refers in particular to the bridge running from Metairie to Mandeville across Lake Pontchartrain. This was actually the longest bridge in the world up until a few years ago, at 24 miles.

#5. Canjun (Cay-juhn): Refers to French whites who were foreced to relocate from Nova Scotia and Acadia Canada back in the day by the British and resettled in Southwestern Louisiana. NOTE: Black people are NOT Cajun, they are CREOLE (look at next definition).

#6. Creole (Kree-ole): This term started out as the racial, ethnic, and cultural mixture that occured first when French and Spanish and other European ethnicities would mix in New Orleans. This term became the mainstay description for Africans were brought to the Louisiana region as enslaved Africans and intermingled with the other populations (most by force, some by consensus). The mixture is mostly African, French, Spanish, Italian (some Irish) and Native American racial and culture mixes, though there is also West Indian. Mind you, there were black Frenchmen and Spaniards in the 1700s, so a Creole with a French/Spanish mix most likely had an African bloodline.

Anyway, this culture melange was a survival strategy which helped Africans retain their homeland identity in the New World. As well, in the rural and smaller towns of Louisiana, Creole was a demarcation from who was black and who was white (Cajun). As time went one, the political term of Creole meant very-fair or light-bright, near white colored communities who deemed themselves "not black," but something different and better. This was especially emphasized in New Orleans.

Southern Louisiana food is a saucy, spicy, and flavorful experience; but let me note, everyone down there does not know how to cook. I gotta warn you, there are a lot of nasty perpetrators, so I suggest you go to the New Orleans Visitors Bureau African-American Guide to start your venture. Let me stress, the key word is "start" because there is so much to do, you gotta ask and you gotta look.

Gumbo: The soup or stew of all soups. It comes in different flavors and colors. Gumbo can be meat heavy, all seafood, or a combination of meat, pork and seafood. In New Orleans the emphasis is seafood since they sit right on the Gulf of Mexico. The seafood that is put in there is usually crustacean like crawfish, shrimp, crab. If you have food specifities or allergic ask in detail what the ingredients are, because baby, they will leave out some things. Sometimes it is because what you consider as being in there they don't. For example, I only eat seafood and when I asked someone about the ingredients they said it was all seafood with no other meat, but did not tell me they put a sausage in there to give it flavor. As well, the color of gumbo ranges from dark brown, to various shades of red, to light brown. It all depends on the roux, or base that is put in there. The brown colors are from the cooking of the roux (flour, oil, onions & garlic)to a deep or almost black color. Red is a result of tomatoes.

Jambalaya: This dish is like a gumbo, but dry. It is mixed in a large pot with sausage, fish, celery, bell peppers and other goods. What makes it dry is that it is cooked like the Cuban dish paella, with the rice. However, do not get it twisted, Jambalaya has its own swagger.

Crawfish Boil: Crawfish is the main local seafood. It looks like a large shrimp or prawn, but has a very dank taste. Traditionally, in group gathering crawfish is boiled in a large cast iron pot with seasoning and corn-on-the cob. You put your helpings on a paper bag and go to work. Crawfish is also good in etouffe.

Etouffe (Crawfish or Shrimp): This scrumptious sauce is made with butter, celery, and usually crawfish, shrimp, crab, and/or chicken. It is a spicy mixture that is put over rice. It is either a light/dark brown or red color.

Boudin: When I ate pork, I could not stay away from this delicious sausage. This is local delicacy that is made with pork, ground beef, rice, onions, garlic and a host of seasonings. Boudin is boiled or grilled. You can get it at the local bakery, but it is also served in the local sandwich called, Po'Boys.

Po'Boys: A gutbusting sandwich that puts Subways out of business. It is a long flatbread that is cut in half, then stuffed with your favorite meats such as sausage, shrimp, crawfish, and then topped with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, special creole sauces, mayo, you name it.

Red Beans & Rice: OMG, this is a poor family's staple that has turned into a great gourmet cuisine on a cold, lonely night. Mixed with local spices, this dish usually has sausage. Think of Popeye's beans and rice, but knocked outta de park.

Fried Alligator Tail: The thought of eating alligator scares the hell outta people. But don't trip, you are not entering into a "Bizarre Foods" episode. If seasoned well, it tastes like a more tender version of chicken.

Beignet: My grandma would make these fried donuts when we would visit her in Lafayette. These donuts are sweet dough that are fried then sprinkled with powdered sugar. Most eat with coffee or hot chocolate.

Snoballs: It gets hot as Hades in NOLA, so a snow cone with diabetic sweet flavors is a great way to cool off.

Popcorn Balls: This is a local sleeper that many do not know about. It is popcorn that is meshed in a ball using the local molasses. Since Louisiana had many sugar cane plantations, molasses is a regular commodity.

Pecan Pie: If you can find the right person to flip a pecan pie and put a rum sauce over it, I swear you would be two steps from heaven.

Praline: This ain't the hard, nasty peanut stuff you get in other parts. This praline is cooked to perfection with condensed sweet milk and butter. It is usually soft to a medium-firm texture and is laced with Louisiana pecans. Oh, I miss my grandma's pecan tree.

Hurricane Drinks: For all the sassy drinkers, you cannot leave without this sweet, rum-inspired concoction that will get you drunk in about 10 minutes. The syrupy taste fools drinkers, but this mixed beverage packs a punch.

*This is something I submitted to another blogger that I wanted to share with y'all.

2 ish talking intellectuals holla at a sista:

Reggie said...

I lived in a suburb of New Orleans, Metairie, for around ten years right after I graduated from college. I've lived all over the country; and yet, that area is unlike any other that I've ever lived in.

I learned to make a mean jambalaya and whenever I've gone back for a quick visit, I always stop and grab some pralines. The best poboy I ever had came from "We never close" in New Orleans East and the fried alligator at Mulates and the alligator sausage and seafood gumbo at The Redfish Grill on Bourbon are outstanding!!!

For a long while, I started off every one of my workdays at Cafe Dumonde and as I type this I am drinking CDM coffee. While we may leave New Orleans, a part of New Orleans always stays with us.

Ecosoulintellectual said...

Reggie, I luv, luv, luv some good food, and have travelled the world eating delicacies. But hands down, some of the best has come outta this region, no doubt.