Chroniclers of Southern Food Traditions


William Snyder

First, a point of clarification on the origin of the word "jambalaya," Liz Williams says. "There are a lot of apocryphal stories around it." In the mixing pot of New Orleans eating, this rice and sausage standard is meant to blend the three largest influences on Creole cooking: French, Spanish, and African. "The 'jamb' was seen as a nod to the French 'jambon' and 'a la' was clearly Spanish while the 'ya' was thought to be African word meaning rice."

Except that's all wrong. "Jambalaya was just a made up slang word to describe a jumble," she says.

This is the perfect example of why Williams's mission is necessary. That mission is embodied by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB), which she started in late 2008 after working as CEO for the University of New Orleans Foundation. The museum includes a growing collection of 6,000 cookbooks, antebellum kitchen supplies, and countless menus meant to trace and document recipe evolution not only in the geographic South but also in restaurants around the world purporting to whip up Southern standards. And if ever a cuisine needed record keeping and clarification of origin, it's the delights from Dixie.

"Creole and Cajun weren't their own categories until the turn of last century," Liz Williams says. And the down-home greasy plates owe as much to the Depression as to culinary legacy of slaves.

Her collection is an unbelievable resource for food enthusiasts, and it's not a singular phenomenon. L.S.U. has a special collection archive dedicated to New Orleans restaurant items. The Newcomb Library, part of the Tulane system, is spearheading an oral history of cuisine for the city, while Leon Miller heads another culinary special collections archive at Tulane.

Williams's own museum has teamed up with the public library system in New Orleans to build a reading room dedicated to antique cookbooks. "We consider gravy stains on a page to be empirical evidence that it was a good recipe," she says.

And the vast collection of family cookbooks, published mainstays and scribbled-on index cards has attracted researchers from Harvard, Duke and Boston University. Spurred by the interest in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, even the city's oldest eateries, places like Antoine's and Tujagues, are making detailed records of their kitchens available.

Organizations like SOFAB are the gatekeepers at the intersection of food and history in the South, compiling menus, family recipes, dinners from Krewe balls, food diaries, and recipe cards. (One of Leon Miller's prized items in the Tulane collection is a menu from 1786.) They've turned New Orleans into the modern (and culinary) equivalent of ancient Alexandria, with grand libraries archiving the world of antiquity.

Aside from the academic novelty, though, the collections are becoming part of a living history, as archivists like Miller encourage chefs to find the origins of dishes and then modernize them (or, if not modernize and personalize a recipe, use the originals to re-introduce diners to historical eating). "There are some great foods that have fallen out of favor as tastes change," Miller says. "I'd like to see them return to the plate." He's hoping these various archives will facilitate that, promoting interactive culinary archaeology.

Second point of clarification about Southern food: "What we think of as Southern cuisine is actually quite new," Liz Williams says.

The relative youth was the biggest surprise when she started accumulating items for SOFAB. "Creole and Cajun weren't their own categories until the turn of last century," she says. And the down-home greasy plates owe as much to the Depression as to culinary legacy of slaves (which is the more romanticized tale of how items like fried chicken came to be icons of the Southern kitchen).

In fact, for the first two hundred years, from early colonial times to the end of the 1800s, chefs up and down the East Coast saw French cooking as the pinnacle of cuisine. A menu at a white-tablecloth restaurant in New Orleans in the 19th century would have been nearly indistinguishable from one in New York.

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William Snyder lives in an old house in Richmond, but spends plenty of time on a horse farm. He’s a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and created the Specialist column for its magazine. He also writes for Outdoor Life.

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