Photo by Regina Charboneau
It is hard to say what creates the Natchez connection to New Orleans. It could be that we are both French settlements on the Mississippi River, Natchez settled in 1716 and New Orleans in 1718, and that both were once under Spanish control. Natchez also spent periods under British rule, and then Great Britain returned it to the United States under the Treaty of Paris in 1783. New Orleans went back to the French before being sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. French and Spanish influences remain prominent in both cities—in architecture, furniture, art, and of course food.
This time of year there are two more things that bond the cities: Mardi Gras, and the Saints going to the Super Bowl. Natchez has many die-hard Saints fans. We always have and always will. Mardi Gras is in full swing, there have been festive Mardi Gras balls in both cities for a few weeks now, and invitations to Super Bowl open houses and parties are starting to appear. The good news is that the food we use to celebrate in New Orleans and Natchez, whether we are cooking for Mardi Gras parades or this year's Super Bowl, will most definitely include red beans and rice. Red beans traditionally are served on Mondays, but they seem to find their way to the table on Sundays during football season.
Everyone talks about the olive salad, which is what makes this sandwich special, but the round, seeded Italian bread is just as essential.
Although gumbo, jambalaya, and muffalettas will be in many homes during this time, I will cover gumbo another day all on its own—it needs quite a comprehensive view, as does jambalaya, because both dishes are different in each region of Louisiana. And the variations are as numerous as the state's parishes. Like many foods with complicated histories, the first time you have these dishes they become imprinted in your memory bank. Whether they were prepared correctly or not does not matter; they have been embedded as such. In any discussion about food from the South, nothing is without controversy.
I have chosen red beans and rice and muffalettas. I will give my personal views and thoughts on these dishes and share a recipe for each. Keep in mind that I have just prepared these the way I like them, not necessarily the way you first had them. There is nothing more controversial than a food dish people are familiar with.
Let's talk red beans. There are very few people with Louisiana blood running through their veins who don't know the brand Camellia red beans. Since 1923, four generations of Haywards have served as wholesale produce suppliers, leading to their modern-day status as the packagers of Camellia brand dry beans. In Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region, red beans are as popular as gumbo.