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.
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.
The biggest issue when people discuss red beans is thick versus soupy. I am on the side of thick. Then there is the question of the smoky flavor, another point of division. I like smoky. I use a good bit of heavily smoked andouille sausage and smoked ham hocks. Then there are the degrees of heat (as in hot sauce, or hot pepper). I don't make my red beans too peppery because I love to drizzle Louisiana hot sauce over the top before I eat them. It gives them heat and also a little vinegary-salty taste, which is a welcome addition to the smoke-flavored beans. Although I compare Natchez and New Orleans, on the side of the bowl, no matter how the red beans are prepared, you will likely find cornbread in Natchez and French bread in New Orleans.
When you say "muffaletta," you are saying "Central Grocery." Salvatore Lupo invented the muffaletta sandwich in the early 1920s to feed the Sicilian truck farmers who sold their produce at the market on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Everyone talks about the olive salad, which is what makes this sandwich special, but the round, seeded Italian bread is just as essential. Traditionally the sandwich has mortadella and salami with Emmentaler cheese (a variety of Swiss) topped with giardiniera, a pickled Italian salad of celery, cauliflower, and peppers with olives.
I have brought many a muffaletta home from the Central Grocery and am a big fan of them as they are, but I have always had this thing about cold sandwiches. I would not eat a cold sandwich for most of my life; a cold tuna sandwich and a cold muffaletta were the only exceptions. So, when I missed the Central Grocery muffaletta and wanted to create a version of it, I took the taste I liked and made my own hot version. I toned down the vinegar in the olive salad and added more of an olive oil base, and I could not always find mortadella, so I added ham, which I prefer. Many places in New Orleans use provolone cheese and I have adjusted for that as well. I use both Swiss and provolone. Occasionally I have muffaletta bread in my freezer, but I often have to resort to French bread, which still does the trick. I bake it so the cheese is melted and the bread is crusty.
It is always questionable whether you should call something by its known name if it is not exactly that. I am writing on this topic next week for any of you that ponder this question as I do. In this case, I think my muffalettas have enough of the same ingredients to make them valid. For the purists, just keep in mind that I am acknowledging my changes, and hopefully you will enjoy the end result.