I met Cheftavist Shawanda Marie at a recent presentation at Virginia Tech. Chef is a living archive of Afri-Creole culture, embodying the values of The Cooking Gene. During this Lenten time, I wanted you to make a traditional of red beans and rice sans meat and bite into her story!
What does Creole mean to you?
Ahhh, the contentious “C” word; one that evokes a broad spectrum of emotion – ranging from pride, visceral disdain, warm adulation, confusion, avoidance, to absolute indifference. The word, for many New Orleans natives, can have a triggering effect. My early life experience with the word Creole was shaped by its charged conjecture. The general assumption among New Orleans residents is that Creole simply implies someone of mixed race as evidenced solely by their outward appearance: skin complexion, facial features, hair texture or the non-physical indicator of one’s family name. Even today, within certain circles, Creolité is presented as a social or class institution of exclusivity which can be off-putting. All hell broke loose when Beyoncé dared to utter “You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma”. The blogging community exploded with an avalanche of volatile interrogation: “Here she goes again with all that Creole foolishness”, “How dare this heffa’ make a distinction between Negro and Creole—girl bye!”, “Yeah, we know you’re light-skinned, Beyoncé. Enough with the Creole talk.”, “She must not think she’s black!” The pushback was nonstop for weeks. These responses represent a rather limited and narrow understanding of what it means to identify as Creole. I am Black. My skin tone is rich dark brown. I am a descendant of Senegambian, Mandinka and Congo people. I was born in the United States and am a natural citizen of this country. My nationality is American, however my ethnicity is Louisiana-Creole.
This past Christmas I nearly had my black card SNATCHED! I was invited to dine with a wonderful African-American family here in Virginia. I asked if I could bring a dish to the feast and knowing I am from New Orleans, they gleefully agreed. The hosts prepared a lovely spread and I could not wait to eat. They announced that all dishes were seasoned without the use of pork and I was elated. Usually I can’t eat as freely as I’d like because of my dietary limitations, but it was on that day! As I went to plate my food, in my excitement I shared with everyone that this would be my first time trying pinto beans and collard greens. *RECORD SCREECH and silence* The whole house turned to me in complete shock. “What do you mean your first time eating pintos and collards?!” I was asked how something like that could even happen and why? My Blackness was questioned and my card was about to be revoked on the spot! We all laughed at the humor of the moment and I explained that growing up in New Orleans, we never ate pinto beans, we ate red beans and rice (kidney beans). Then I shared that the only greens I was given as a child were mustards and cabbage. We didn’t eat collards in my family. Later I had to check in with other native New Orleanians to see if it was just me, but they confirmed the same culinary upbringing as mine. The following week I brought in the New Year with the same group of friends and we had smothered cabbage. They all thought it strange that I added rice to the plate to accompany my cabbage and I exclaimed that’s the only way I know to eat it! LOL! They were enlightening cultural exchange moments. Oh, the dish I brought was mirlitons (pronounced mil-ee-tawn). They’d never heard of them, but mirlitons are quite common in New Orleans.
Everyone in that house was black. Everyone in that house was born in the United States and hold natural citizenship. However we did not all share the same ethnicity. The cultural and culinary experience that informed my friends identity was African-American, rooted in the traditions of Southern American cuisine. My cultural and culinary experience was informed by my Louisiana-Creole identity, rooted in the food traditions of Latin Louisiana and Caribbean influences. Being black and from the south is multi-dimensional. And being Creole is broader than the color of one’s skin, or DNA profile. My great grandmother, Léontine, was jet black and very Creole in every sense of the word. Louisiana Creole was her first language and primarily what was spoken in her and my great grandfather Gustave’s home. Through the years there have been various interpretations of the word Creole’s meaning, the most current definition being ‘a person of non-American ancestry, whether African or European, who was born in the Americas.’ After Louisiana was purchased by the United States in 1803, people began using the word Creole to identify that which was native to Louisiana from that which was not. This is why we have Creole cottages, Creole tomatoes, Creole mustard, Creole language, Creole cuisine, Creole music, and thusly, Creole people – all with an origin in South Louisiana. Much of this informs what Creole signifies to me, but it also means ‘shoo-shooing’ on the porch with my Mama and Madea (my grandmother) while they peeled shrimp, “door poppin”, walking in a house full of family – twenty or more – and kissing every one of them upon arrival and departure, dancing with abandon anywhere you hear music that moves the soul, having your “personal space” invaded by a touch from a stranger and them calling you baby, love, “hawt” or dawlin’ — and it’s completely okay. I can go on. Creole is culture and culture is life.
The flags of Spain, France, Mali and Senegal make up the Afri-Creole banner.
As someone from New Orleans how do you feel about the current state of Black New Orleans cooking, especially after Katrina and her Diaspora?
In New Orleans you’ll find the best food in people’s home kitchens. We natives cook from pretty much the same cultural repertoire of dishes, with slight differences in taste based on how ‘mama’ or ‘maw mawn’ made it. There’s no one exact way to make gumbo, each cook adds their own flair to the pot but doesn’t deviate too far from the family flavor. We are a people steeped in tradition and family is everything. I am concerned that so many younger cooks and families who’ve left the city, post Katrina, rarely make the time to prepare familiar dishes that we grew up eating due of this fast paced, quick ‘food’ lifestyle. A good satisfying Creole meal takes time, patience and love to make. Those are three ingredients which profoundly influence the taste of the food. And then there’s the presentation.
My grandmother told me that you absolutely must make your food pretty because we eat with our eyes first, then our mouths. I grew up right next to her in the kitchen and she was keenly particular about how she wanted her food prepped. Several times my grandmother made me start over again and do a task in a way that met her approval. There were many life lessons learned in my grandmother’s kitchen. She was extremely meticulous and instilled the same quality in me. For example, in New Orleans we put hot sausage in our gumbo. Some people cut the links in small bite-sized pieces, add them to the pot and they’re done. When the sausage cooks, it swells bursting out of the casing, and looks like a tight corset around the sausage’s waist. My grandmother didn’t like that look in her pot. She preferred her hot sausage squeezed from the casing and rolled into neat little balls. They had to be just the right size and ‘pretty’, not all lopsided. LOL! This was tedious and always took time because she didn’t skimp on the sausage in her gumbo. There was plenty to roll. Valuable family stories were shared in those moments and I didn’t realize but my character was being shaped right along with those close to perfectly round lil’ hot sausage balls. I wish people today would make the time to feed their bodies and souls in that way.
Another thing I’ve noticed, post Katrina, is that the food quality in some local New Orleans restaurants has changed. I went to one of my favorite spots last time I was home and left highly disappointed. I believe this is happening because many of the native New Orleans cooks no longer prepare the dishes and also recipes are being altered to appease the palettes of residents moving to the city from places with blander sensibilities. Creole cuisine is known for being well seasoned. Honestly, I must admit reluctance to even venture into some places that advertise serving New Orleans cuisine outside of the city. I’ve been let down too many times. Everyone is jumping on the Creole food trend, but appear to have done little research on how the dishes should taste. I went to an establishment that has the word ‘Creole’ in their business name. I ordered a shrimp po-boy and a bowl of seafood gumbo. The po-boy was on a hoagie roll with sesame seeds on top and about five shrimp total on the sandwich. SIGH. And the gumbo…all I’ll say about that is there was corn, greens beans and brussel sprouts in it. I was insulted! I asked if anyone at the place was from Louisiana and they answered in a heavy twang, “Naw, we’re from ‘round here.” I was done.
You have an amazing family history, I’d love for you to tell us more about your 18th and 19th century roots.
Thank you very much. My documented family history dates back to 1724 during the early settlement of the Louisiana Territory, six years after the founding of New Orleans. This is on my mother’s paternal side. In South Louisiana, after talking with someone long enough, you’ll learn that almost everyone is related in some way, whether black, white, or indigenous native. We have family of every shade and everybody’s called “cousin”. My 5th great grandfather, Christophe Heidel (Haydel), was a first generation Creole of German descent. He was married and had several children with his wife, however also fathered four children with an enslaved woman on his plantation in the German Coast, forty-five minutes outside of New Orleans. Her name was Angélique and she was a twenty-eight year old “native of the colony”, simply stated — Creole. In the year 1795, seventy years before the Emancipation Proclamation and Christophe granted Angélique and their four babies’ manumission. Because of the way laws regarding manumission were stated at the time, he had to go about freeing them in a rather crafty manner. He sold all four children to a free woman of color from New Orleans, named Charlotte, under the absolute condition of granting their freedom. He further stated that the children must live with their mother and never be separated. There was one stipulation, however. The manumission stated that Angélique would only be granted freedom at the time of his and his wife’s deaths. I’m assuming she worked closely with them both.
Christophe died five years later in the year 1800 and his wife followed, shortly after. Angélique and her children went on to live as gens de couleur libres (free people of color). One of her daughters, Cèleste, met an enslaved Congo man and fell in love with him. His name was Édouard Favarotte. He worked on a small plantation not far from where she grew up. Édouard and Cèleste weren’t permitted to marry because of laws governing their status in society, but that all changed once he risked his life fighting in the War of 1812 Battle of New Orleans. He fought for his freedom, promised to enslaved soldiers, and for her hand in marriage. I am a result of their love and union six generations later.
This is only one branch of my family tree. We’ve discovered equally intriguing history of ancestors’ lives on both sides of my family with many incredibly amazing stories. I share my mother’s paternal family lineage with the legendary Antoine “Fats” Domino, a close cousin to my grandfather. On my father’s maternal side, New Orleans Jazz trumpeter George “Kid Sheik” Colar is my great uncle. There’s rich musical talent and artists of various disciplines in my family, as with many New Orleans families. Knowing this family history is a blessing and a gift that I do not take for granted. It anchors me.
What makes a great Creole cook?
A great Creole cook knows how to improvise and make something scrumptious of what’s available. Most Creole cooks born into the culinary tradition cook instinctually–no recipes. The recipe is in the heart and comes from years of watching mama, daddy and/or grandma prepare meals. My granddaddy made the best lost bread (pain perdu) I’ve ever eaten. I use to watch him make it from a distance when I was little. The steps are burned into my memory. We own measuring spoons and cups, but they’re in the kitchen for show. We never really use them. I can’t recall ever seeing anyone in my family cook using a measuring apparatus. We tend to taste as we go and gauge the dish by its look and smell to guide the process along. A great Creole cook genuinely loves to cook…I mean really enjoys the ritual of preparing a work of art to be appreciated by all. And that’s the reward, watching family and guests savor every bite. It gets no better than that! Creole cooks put lots of pride into their culinary creations, striving to be the best at whatever dish they’re preparing. Great Creole cooks realize there is no separation between Creole food and its people. The food didn’t pop up in a vacuum. It was created generation after generation by a people just as colorful, spicy and rich as the cuisine itself. That’s why there’s so much passion and pride around gumbo among Creole people. Gumbo is the culinary embodiment of all we are, which is why we don’t take too kindly to untraditional revisions of our sacred dish; especially from those having no lived experience within the culture. Ask Disney how remixing one of South Louisiana’s most revered dishes worked out for them! LOL!
What are your favorite foods to make?
I thoroughly enjoy cooking foods which connect me to my grandmother, family and my childhood in New Orleans. Today I live hundreds of miles from my immediate family and the place where I have so many fond memories. These memories continue to forge me into the woman I’m becoming. My grandmother was the rock of our family – we were all very close. Cooking is my communion. It is a sacred act that deeply connects me to those who came before me. I find pleasure in cooking a wide variety of cuisines, but none brings me home like Creole food. When I want to feel the presence of my grandmother I make a big pot of filé gumbo and try to get it as close to hers as possible. Certain foods have that magical ability to surpass time and space, transporting you to particular chapters of your life’s journey. When I cook Creole food, I’m paying homage to the ancestors and showing my respect by keeping the flavor of the culture alive as sustenance for the spirit and a gift to the palette. Some of my favorites to make are New Orleans-style hot tamales, crawfish bisque, stuffed bell peppers, bread pudding with rum sauce and court bouillon (we say coo-be-yon). Now I’m hungry! 😉
Black food ways are very diverse, how do you see the role of Louisiana food ways in the bigger picture?
Food is a great unifier. Much of our culture in South Louisiana revolves around good food, good times and good conversation. People travel from all over the world to indulge in the distinct flavor of Louisiana cuisine. Food brings joy to people’s lives. You ever taste something so good that it makes you dance? That’s real! Now add a compatible bottle of wine and a table full of folks from all walks of life looking for an authentic human experience and you’ve got a solid formula to begin building community locally and abroad. Food is a master transformer.
On another front, so many children, post Katrina, are disconnected from the culture due to lack of exposure. Sometimes all it takes is assigning one day a week to prepare an authentic Creole dish and allow the children to experience their culture through food. Practicing this consistently will go a long way to enrich a generation captivated by virtual this, artificial that and rooted in a culture of instant gratification. Let’s teach them about our traditions. Let’s impart on them experiences that will cultivate an appetite for authenticity and deeper human connection. Food has the power to make this happen.
Why did you start the Creole Story Pot? What are you trying to do with your work?
New Orleans Creole Story Pot developed from a place of love, service and passion. I believe this is part of my soul purpose and mission. It is ever evolving as I grow. I love to cook, I love seeing people smile because they’ve enjoyed something I’ve prepared for them. I carry the city of New Orleans and her people in my heart wherever I go. I love sharing this vibrant culture with people who embrace the beauty of life. I know how infectious it is, that’s why so many people visit New Orleans and never want to leave. It has an enchanting quality that just draws you in, never judges, but allows you to be exactly who you are unapologetically. That’s a freedom I’ve not experienced in many places, but I also carry that with me as a daughter of New Orleans. I embrace living in service to others by doing my best at sharing quality human interactions with everyone I come in contact with. Teaching clients to make a fine roux or perfect their meal presentation is service which can be empowering for all involved.
And lastly, I’m just plain passionate. I’m an artist at heart and receive satisfaction working creatively. I’m a passionate teacher and learner. I live everyday with the thought of cultural reclamation and celebration at the forefront of my consciousness. During the Americanization of Creole spaces, mine and millions of other families lost the ability and freedom to speak our mother tongue, Louisiana Creole. It’s referred to as kouri vini in Southwest Louisiana, however in historic New Orleans and its surrounding parishes locals called it kréyol. This is our ancestral language and it’s endangered. I am part of a growing number of learners moving to revitalize Louisiana Creole and begin using it in a broader capacity.
On this journey I’ve been afforded the ability to gain a deeper understanding of specific cultural folkways that I’ve seen practiced all my life. Grasping the language revealed the whys of what we do and say. It’s been completely life altering for me. I want audiences to hear the beauty of spoken Creole because there’s so much richness and information encoded in the words. These are the special gems I desire to share with audiences through interactive learning, poetry, song, food and culinary storytelling to enhance the lens by which they view New Orleans Creole culture. Someday I’d like to visit other countries with Creole cultures and explore our similarities drawing parallels in language, food ways, and traditions. Experiencing the cultures of Seychelles, Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Brazil, Senegal and many others would significantly enrich my research and expand my ability to provide greater educational opportunities through my work. I want to help bring awareness of how Creole culture and cuisine have added value to the tapestry of the American cultural landscape. There is so little known about our history, culture and traditions beyond Bourbon Street. There’s so much confusion around these words Creole and Cajun. The word Cajun is being used to market all things Louisiana and cultural foods, practices and traditions that are distinctly Creole. I can’t count the number of times someone has called me a Cajun when they learned I’m from New Orleans because that’s all they’ve heard in relation to Louisiana. I’m concerned that Creole people and our contributions are being erased and replaced. Most people really are just unaware, so I created New Orleans Creole Story Pot to bring awareness to these and other issues around Creole identity and our place in this country. Like many cities across America, New Orleans is undergoing a massive wave of gentrification. It seems every month there is a new assault on the fabric of our city’s cultural traditions and identity by those moving in from other places. They appear to be trying to find their place in the pot of gumbo, and while New Orleanians have historically been inclusive, we hold our culture and tradition close to our hearts. We prefer not to add corn and brussel sprouts to our gumbo. It throws the flavor completely off and turns it into something that it’s never been. Vegetable and seafood soup maybe, but definitely not gumbo. Therein lies the conundrum. My work is rooted in cultural preservation, education, reclamation and celebration.
How can we keep in touch with you and follow your work?
I would enjoy hearing from you all. Please visit my website at http://www.creolestorypot.com . You can ‘Like’ and follow me on Facebook and Instagram by searching New Orleans Creole Story Pot.
Care to share a recipe?
Between the years 1791 and 1804 the kidney bean made its way to New Orleans with Creole planters from St. Domingue (now Haiti) when they fled the island during the Haitian Revolution. Since tomorrow’s Monday I think red beans and rice is befitting. A staple dish in New Orleans Creole cuisine, we traditionally cook red beans every Monday. This started many years ago as Mondays were wash days and putting a big pot of kidney beans on the stove to cook for hours permitted women to freely tend to their laundry without too much worry. I’ve seen my share home cooks and restaurants outside of New Orleans attempt this dish and the result is hard, dry beans sitting on a mountain of rice, no gravy in sight.
A good pot of beans should be creamy, not watery or dry, but soft. When plating your beans make sure to cover your rice with a significant amount of gravy, if that’s your preference. Some people like their beans with more rice than gravy and that’s yummy, too. But here’s the KEY…you have to get some Camellia brand kidney beans. If you’re able, this is a must have! You may be able to find them outside of New Orleans, but if not they’re certainly worth ordering online. Camellia beans are from New Orleans and cook just right. They cook down tender and have a wonderful flavor. They’re the favorite brand for generations of native New Orleanians. If you absolutely cannot order them online, you may purchase any brand of light red kidney beans at your local supermarket. Traditionally red beans are made with various meats, however, in honor of the observance of Lent I will share this recipe without meat. You may pair this with some delicious golden fried trout with a lemon wedge sprinkled over the fish.
Shawanda Marie’s Lenten Laundry Red Beans and Rice
You will need:
1 pound dry red kidney beans
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
4 ribs celery, chopped
Minced garlic to taste (your preference)
1/2 to 1 tsp. dried thyme leaves, crushed
1 or 2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Chicken Flavored stock (for flavor)
You may soak the beans overnight if you’d like, which is recommended, but not mandatory if you don’t have the time. If you do, drain the water and cover the beans with a double volume of stock in the pot. Bring the beans to a rolling boil. Make sure beans are always covered by water or they will discolor and get hard. Boil the beans for about an hour, until they’re tender but not falling apart.
While the beans are boiling, sauté your seasonings, the onions, celery, and bell pepper, until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally. After the beans are boiled and drained, add the sautéed vegetables to the beans, Add just enough stock or water to cover.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for 2 hours at least, preferably 3, until the whole thing gets soft and creamy. Taste and adjust seasonings as you go along. Stir occasionally, making sure that it doesn’t burn and/or stick to the bottom of the pot. (If the beans are too old or not Camellia’s they may not get creamy. Be sure to check the expiration and see how fresh they are. If they still don’t cream, take 1 or 2 cups of beans out and mash them, then return them to the pot and stir.
When done turn the fired off and ladle the beans over a plate of hot long grained rice. Get you some French bread, hot sauce and pickled okra (if you like okra—I love it, me) and enjoy!