Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gumbo and Cajuns: An Odd Coincidence

As part of a series of pieces for Serious Eats, I've been digging into the history of gumbo. One of the earliest written descriptions can be found in a 1784 issue of a French journal called Observations sur la Physique, which includes an article about the American sassafras plant. In my Serious Eats piece, I discuss that article and what it tells us about gumbo, and I make the point that it establishes that gumbo antedates the arrival of the Cajuns (that is, the French Acadians who were exiled from Acadia in Canada by the British).

There's something quite peculiar about the article, though: its author. He was none other than Henri Peyroux de la Coudrenière. Peyroux was a French politician and author who had spent seven years as a soldier of fortune in Louisiana before returning home to France. He's less known for his writings on American botany than for the ambitious scheme he under took when he got back to France in 1783.

The Acadians were the descendants of the French colonists who who settled in Acadia in Eastern Canada in the 17th century. The British seized the territory in 1710, but the Acadians were allowed to remain there until the Seven Years War (a.k.a, in North America, the French and Indian War) when the British, suspecting the Acadians of aiding the French, booted them out and seized their land and property. Several thousand Acadians were deported to France, and the rest ended up scattered throughout the eastern seaboard of North America. That's where the opportunistic Peyroux comes into the story.  
Angling for a commission and a pension, Peyroux teamed up with Olivier Terrio, an Acadian exile, to coordinate a project to take the Acadians exiled in France and resettle them in  Louisiana. As a result of their efforts, 1,600 Acadians ended up sailing for Louisiana between May and October 1785. Peyroux went to Louisiana along with them, where he profited from his commission as a captain in the Spanish army and promptly screwed over his partner Terrio, refusing to pay him for his services.

Interestingly, Peyroux's article on gumbo was written in 1784, one year before the big wave of Acadians arrived in Louisiana. As it makes clear,gumbo was already being eaten in Louisiana well before they arrived (as my Serious Eats piece documents, gumbo was originally an okra dish of African origins). But, Peyroux, the first to document the dish gumbo in Louisiana, was also largely responsible for bringing the Cajuns to gumbo, and it soon evolved into one of the signature dishes of their culinary culture.    


NMissC said...

Nice pieces. The first time I heard the boullabaise theory, I thought it humorous. New Orleans cookbooks make clear the difference was known, early.

There are some funny moments in Mrs. Fisher Knows resulting from her illiteracy.

For instance, there's the recipe for Circuit Hash.

It's got tomatoes, butterbeans, corn cut off cob, lean and fat pork cut small, cooked as a stew with the corn added at the end. Leave off the tomatoes and say Circuit Hash really fast.

Robert said...

"Circuit Hash." Love it.

I think that explains why her gumbo recipes calls for adding a spoonful of "gumbo" at the end. I'm sure she said "gumbo powder" or something like that, referring to "file." Or maybe she said, "Add a spoonful of filé." "Fee-lay? What's that?" "You know, gumbo powder!"

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