Crawfish Boils – Jazz Brunches – Reveillon Dinners

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Cajun/Creole    Crawfish    Mardi Gras    South Central   

 

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The role of tradition and change in three ritual meals from Louisiana

By Mark W. Huntsman

 

Learn how to prepare and serve a Crawfish Boil.  Includes a crawfish boil recipe, how to eat crawfish, and much more.

The cuisine of Louisiana has been analyzed and praised for centuries, although it has only recently become a topic of academic study.  Most of the work that has been done is of a historical, even etymological nature, and has concentrated on individual dishes and food items.  Few people have asked “If eating as a modern New Orleanian eats every day would be a special occasion to most Americans, then what constitutes a special meal for a modern New Orleanian?”   In fact, the city is home to several gastronomic phenomena known to culinary historians as “ritual meals,” i.e., meals that are accompanied by behaviors or events that carry meaning beyond the food its self, meals that are seen as a break from everyday eating habits, typically eaten in celebration of something (usually a holiday or a significant life event).

A closer examination of three such meals practiced in New Orleans – the once exclusively rural crawfish boils, the unique jazz brunches, and the adaptations of the French concept of the reveillon dinners – reveals that these meals represent to local individuals both a link to the past and a connection with a current sense of place.

In adhering to an implicit set of cultural rules, maintaining markers of authenticity, and attaching a personal and cultural symbolism to the meals, New Orleanians have succeeded in preserving these traditions despite impending commercialization in all three cases.

 

Crawfish Boils:

 

Pouring Crawfish
Much has been made of the rise of the crawfish from its once lowly status in Cajun communities.  The practice of crawfish boils seems to have begun to be popularized around the era in which the crawfish themselves began to be embraced.  Indeed, Todd, a native of Reserve (mere miles from the outskirts of the city, he considers the town a part of the New Orleans “sphere of influence”), who learned the art of the crawfish boil from his family, has family lore that reinforces this idea:

My dad told me when he was a boy, crawfish boils were something that wasn’t really done much.  You boiled them, you would scald them to kill them, but you would make stews, etouffees, and things like that out of them.  Boils, as we know them today, evidently wasn’t [sic] very common when he was growing up in the 40s.

Although the practice is only decades old, crawfish boils are well entrenched in the realm of cultural tradition.  Like many gastronomic traditions, the cooking technique, recipes, and protocol are often passed from generation to generation.  In lieu of being taught by a father with a crawfish allergy, Todd learned the tradition from his uncle.  When he became old enough (late high school), Todd began to host the events at which he had previously assisted.  Because they appear to be able happen at almost any time within the six month crawfish season, crawfish boils tend to be perceived differently than many American ritual meals that are associated with a specific, annually observed holiday; however, a closer look reveals that these boils reveals that they are closely tied to what Carl Brasseaux describes as Cajun culture’s “culinary calendar” not only because of their seasonality, but because of their role as a rite of passage.  The ritual is frequently a ritual of celebration, and fathers often fete a child’s first crawfish boil either to celebrate Mardi Gras or to honor a milestone in the child’s life.

Generally, if it is some big occasion, I mean, if there’s–In Louisiana, we find any reason to have a party.  The carnival season is generally like a marker.  Generally for me, I have this party at my house, for–we there’s this parade that passes right by my house, or my parents house anyway.  For years now, I mean that’s usually the very first time every season that I boil the crawfish, that I have a crawfish boil.   For many people, I think, events such as that carnival season, I think, if anyone lives in or around or near a town that has a parade, that seems to be in New Orlea–or anywhere in South Louisiana, really–I think that kind of is sort of this rite of passage, this marker of when one begins having crawfish boils.   I mean, even within that, any kind of, I mean, a birthday party, a high school graduation, a college graduation, any kind of thing like that.  Usually it’s, I mean–But it could be just, whatever, but generally speaking it will be on a weekend.  You’re rarely going to see anybody on a Thursday afternoon.  I mean, it can happen, it does happen, but generally speaking its going to be on a weekend when it happens, either a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon (Todd).

This association with “big occasions” gives not only a particular cultural significance to the ritual, but also gives people a reason to practice and pass on the tradition rather than let it slip into the realm of archaism.  Boucheries began declining in popularity and frequency when they ceased to have a functional reason to exist.  As long as crawfish boils mark important events in the lives of the citizenry, they should continue to be celebrated.

Cajun culture has also left its stamp on the event by creating an implicit, culturally understood set of rules for both the cooking and the ritual structure of the meal.  To have a “crawfish boil” in the regional sense of the term means more than simply boiling crawfish; the entire event follows an order that reflects regional values (such as patriarchal leadership and sense of community) and maintains a continuity to the tradition.  While participants and hosts may not always be conscious of them (at first Todd could not think of any), it is this set of “unwritten” rules which define the ritual as a ritual and a tradition, and which mark authenticity in the eyes of many experienced hosts and participants in wake of modifications made by younger generations and those who cater to tourists.  Todd gives an example of a modification which to some might be seen as a regionalization of the tradition, but to him, being from a different region, is a clear violation of these rules:

Well, one thing that’s always struck me as kind of weird, I mean, is this new sort of method that has kind of developed, which I think to me is, you know, um, is tantamount to sacrilege.  You know, it’s the method and the way some people cook it, and it’s basically almost, um, they’ll boil it and/or almost steam it, basically, and boil it with the traditional method, just like, boil it in water, and they will take it, drain it, you know, drain the basket like you do.  You cook it, you boil it, pull out the basket, you let the basket drain out, and then they’ll take some, like, Tony Cachere’s and throw it, I mean, on it, and throw them all back into, like, an ice chest somewhere, and the idea is that sprinkling the seasoning on top, you know, you layer it with seasoning and you let it sit there and it takes the seasoning in.  And to me that is, like, just not–that’s something that’s not done, but see, in some parts of Acadiana, you know like in Lafayette, uh, there are some, you know, enclaves, where this method has seemed to come in…So to me, that is something that I just, well–we grew up doing it the way I think most people did it.  It’s just something that was never done

The last two sentences further reveal that, despite its recency, the crawfish boil is respected as being “time-honored,”–a tradition to be preserved because of the role it has played in the formative years of peoples’ lives.

Another implicit rule, tied to the notion of fathers passing on the tradition to sons as a rite of passage, is that the cook is always a male.  That the patriarch of the family hosts the event is of the utmost importance to many Cajuns.  For example, if Todd is critical of “rich people” who hire chefs to cook their crawfish, it is not because he feels this is an elitist action, but simply because it denies the patriarch the right to cook and run the event.  One might view this as a sort of emasculation–symbolically, the alpha male is no longer providing for his family, and is stripped of his position of power.  According to the “rules,” a woman’s role at a crawfish boil is similar to the domestic role women have historically played in Cajun society.

I mean, I can never in my life remember a woman, a female, cooking, boiling, and hosting it. I mean, she will help…The woman would be the one who brings out the paper towels and helps get the tables set up, you know, brings out the knives, and a lot of times crawfish people have, uh, trays of butter sometimes, or if there’s any kind of side–generally there is no side dish at a crawfish boil, but if there is some sort of a side, she’s going to do some subsidiary roles… (Todd)

Although rules governing ingredients are less strict in theory, most hosts will follow the same template when it comes to the seasoning, thus preserving a certain continuity to the tradition, providing people of different ages, backgrounds, and geographic areas with a common concept of the meal.  The most common variable is the selection of vegetables.  Traditionally corn cobs and new potatoes are the staples, but this tradition has begun to change in recent years.

You’re starting to see more and more people throwing cauliflower, and throwing – I’ve seen people throw artichokes in there.  That’s fine, cause that doesn’t, I mean, none of this is changing the essential, you know.  It’s just throwing something in if you want to nibble on something (Todd)

The essential, to Todd, is the cooking method and the seasoning, which seem to be fairly universal.

I don’t think [people really attempt to individualize their crawfish boils].  I think more, I mean, you’ll hear someone say, you know, oh, Todd really can cook, but I think most people that can cook it, can cook it pretty well…It’s a pretty standard sort of thing, I kind of do my own little – I mean, you know, a lot of people just buy, like, the pre-made mix, and they dump it, and they call it a day.  Some people such as myself will do a compilation of things, you know, like salt and red pepper, and different things or whatever, but at the end, you know at the end they all more or less have the same general flavor.  I mean, some may be a little more spicy than others, a little hotter, but no one – don’t think anyone has any one, like, particular to making this, you know, like “This is Todd’s crawfish” versus so and so.  It’s all pretty–You know some people are, you know, already acclaimed as being “Oh, you know he cooks it quite well,” you know, or “This guy is kind of bland.”  You know, some people get more excited about somebody cooking it versus another, but there’s nothing, I’d say, special that anyone does.

Thus the chef is viewed as simply a vessel for tradition, rather than an innovator; being skilled does not mean being creative, it means doing it “right,” making any modifications within the spirit of the law.  Often, an inherent knowledge of these unwritten rules is what distinguishes local participants from guests of other statehoods or nationalities.  Growing up exposed to the ritual, one gains an inherent understanding of the protocol involved.  Behaviors that are exotic to non-Louisianans are not even noteworthy to locals; it often takes an out-of-state guest for a local host to become aware of the saliency of these behaviors that have become so engrained.

A Louisianan would generally know almost instinctively, you know, what to do and what to bring.  It’s like, you know, I mean, I call a friend from Louisiana, “Hey we’re having a crawfish boil,” you know, it’s a given, you know, I don’t even have to say to this person, okay, you know, I’d like five dollars to help pay for the crawfish. I mean, it’s just a given. An outsider…they would be the ones to ask, you know, “Should I bring a potato salad?  Should I bring a dessert?”  That kind of strikes me as odd, you know, cause you don’t bring potato salad.  It’s just that, uh, they will offer to bring things out of their naivety, you know. They want to offer something for the table.  They’re thinking of a typical, like, barbecue type situation where someone would bring a dessert, and someone would bring this…They may even ask “How should I dress?” or something like that, which is, which strikes me as funny.  Or they may even show up too well dressed for a crawfish boil…I hosted one where these guys showed up in ties!

The fact that locals would perceive such rules as normal despite their saliency on a national level is a large part of the ritual’s strong ties to place.  “Outsiders,” as Todd puts it, falsely assume that their own concepts of the role of a guest invited to a ritual or “special occasion” meal are universal.  Each feels the guest should contribute something, but the local and the outsider differ on what is culturally appropriate to bring.  Likewise, it is not surprising that the national idea of extraordinary culinary rituals requiring extraordinary dress does not apply in Cajun culture, where elitism and condescension are historically viewed as some of the worst cultural sins. Yet, the fact that people may come “too well dressed” means that a dress code does indeed exist at crawfish boils–it is simply a case of mandating informality rather than formality.

Thus, issues of authenticity seem to surround the cooking methods, the ritual, and the role of the guest. Surprisingly, the commercialism and touristic promotion which has accompanied the meal in recent years is not viewed as a threat to the integrity or authenticity of the ritual.  Perhaps it is because most tourists and Louisianans still maintain separate spheres when celebrating the meal; for locals, it is still typically a friends-and-family affair while for tourists it remains an exotic, often one-time-only experience.  Or perhaps, as Todd suggests, it is because the restaurants and organizations that cater to tourists do little to change the nature or significance of the ritual, save some superficial modifications such as neatly arranged platters with limited quantities of crawfish.  In contrast to most restaurant food, it remains a messy, informal meal that leaves a pile of shells at the end to be disposed of.  Most importantly, it is still functionally and symbolically a community meal.  As Todd points out, the food is “just an excuse to get together socially,” and even in restaurants, everyone symbolically expresses their sense of community by eating from the same central pile of crawfish. If at home crawfish boils demand a large gathering, then typically it is a group rather than an individual who places a communal order of crawfish for an appetizer or a meal.

Although tourists do increasingly partake in the ritual, locals have kept it their own not only through the rules they have set and the community they invite, but also through maintaining a deep symbolism with meaning unique to the community.  Just as the patriarch’s role at the boil is symbolic of his family role (as least his historic one), and just as the bringing of beer and the communal pile of seafood symbolize community, so is the crawfish its self symbolic of the Cajun revival, a fact that would seem to be reflected in the degree to which crawfish boils are more popular than their counterparts using crab or shrimp.  The sucking of the fatty thorax from the “head” is a practice that mortifies many outsiders, and so has become a sort of litmus test for community belonging at some crawfish boils.  Of course, some Louisianans refuse to partake in this stage of the ritual, and some outsiders do so willingly, so the “insider’s” community is actually a community of the initiated, rather than one that corresponds strictly to Louisianan/non-Louisianans delineations.  The many T-shirts which play on the obvious sexual double entendres (such as those which read “Suck my head, pinch my tail”) are, in fact, jokes which determine one’s “insider” status; they are not explained on the shirt (although there are sometimes pictures of crawfish to give visual clues), and so the only ones who understand the punch line are those familiar with the ritual.

 

 

Jazz Brunches

In contrast with the informal, relatively simple crawfish boil, meals in New Orleans reflect the elegance, formality, and tendency towards elaboration of the city’s native Creole cultures. Many authors (eg, Folse, 167; Danforth et al, 398) have posited that brunch, an international culinary phenomenon likely inspired by European ideas of “second breakfasts,” originated in its modern form in 19th century New Orleans.  Wherever its origins, New Orleans has certainly put its own definitive stamp on the meal and corresponding ritual.  Perhaps the most important incarnation of brunch, culturally speaking, is the “jazz” brunch: despite a relatively recent date (the 1980s) and well-established place (Commander’s Palace) of origin, the practice of jazz brunch has exploded such that today one easily finds over 30 jazz brunches advertised in the city.  Although the staff at the office of tourism did not know the exact or approximate number of jazz brunches offered, the overwhelmed look on their faces upon being asked the question (followed by a timid response of  “So many…”) revealed a perceived ubiquity that reinforces the notion of the jazz brunch as an essential part of the city’s cultural identity.

Like crawfish boils, jazz brunches are not perceived in the same manner as holiday meals or other annually celebrated gastronomic rituals; they are thought of as a quotidian event with flexible structure as opposed to hard, fast cultural rules.  One senior member at the office of tourism felt that “almost anything” could be served at a jazz brunch, while Alex (a manager at the Court of Two Sisters) did not see any trends in the types of jazz music or musicians found at these events.  However, in observing several jazz brunches around the French Quarter, it is clear that the meal is highly ritualized, and that by adhering to rules of which they may not be cognizant, Louisianans have left a local stamp on a concept (brunch) currently put into practice all throughout the nation and the world.

The first of these unwritten structural rules are the meal’s ties to the region’s culinary calendar.  While participants don’t tend to celebrate jazz brunches hebdomadally, hosts do.  Except for the Court of Two Sisters (an exception because the jazz brunch, along with the famous courtyard it is typically held in, is the signature piece of the restaurant’s public identity), all jazz brunches I have encountered are held every Sunday morning.  This choice of days would not seem to be haphazard, but rather a (perhaps unwitting) form of historic preservation that links the modern meal to its own past.  According to John Folse (167), the Catholicism that dominated the Creole areas of the city in the early produced citizens who followed the tradition of fasting before mass, and then “emerged from church Sunday morning too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, but ravenous nonetheless.  The origins of brunch in Louisiana are often traced to those Catholic cravings and the many vendors that catered to them.”  Less evident are the reasons behind the consistent time of day at which the restaurants cease to serve the brunch–although various restaurateurs may choose to begin serving jazz brunch any time between 8 and 11 a.m. to a “T” every jazz brunch I encountered ended at 2 p.m.  The fact that the precision of this time is so omnipresent suggests that it does have some sort of non-gastronomic meaning to either the hosts or the participants.  While having this early afternoon period available for an event typically described as a “morning” meal would allow attendees of even the latest morning church services to enjoy the ritual, the meal has become a secular one in its current form, and the significance of this time is more likely related to a secular idea.  As a former member of the restaurant and catering industries, I can assert that this is the time around which many restaurants shift their focus from lunch to dinner preparation, even though dinner may not yet be served for several hours.  In a sense, pushing the meal beyond normal breakfast hours to the “limit” of acceptable times for pre-dinner meals, restaurateurs may well be reinforcing the notion of leisureliness and relaxation that several of my interviewees expressed as being important to the idea of a jazz brunch.  To be able to either extend one’s breakfast into the afternoon or to sleep late and still catch breakfast mark this meal as a celebratory ritual rather than a quotidian practice, distinguishing it from the “hustle-bustle” breakfast associated with the American work week.

If calendar associations serve as the base of the implicit ritual structure, then ambience is the structure’s most defining characteristic.  Although individual hosts strive to leave their unique mark on the experience, there is quite clearly a shared cultural image of what a jazz brunch looks, sounds, smells, and feels like.  When asked to describe an experience at a jazz brunch at Mr. B’s restaurant, Jerry, a logistics coordinator at LSU, replied “It’s about what you’d expect it to be.”  Similarly, Caleb, a waiter at a French Quarter Italian restaurant, noted:

It is what you think it’s going to be.  You know, lots of tourists, certain kinds of food, holiday music now [December 9th].  Everywhere is pretty much the same in that sense.

Several people mentioned how jazz brunches were “relaxing,” as well as implying themes of social gathering like we have seen with crawfish boils.  Additionally, this cultural image focuses on characteristics of the clientele.  “It’s kind of perceived as being for tourists” says Caleb, an idea reinforced by Alex’s estimate that 75% of his clientele were from out of state.  In most cases, there is also an emphasis on elegance.  Jerry mentioned “rich people” regularly attending jazz brunches; indeed, in the five restaurants that I visited, all required dress codes, all charged at least $25 for a prix fixe option (in addition to whatever a la carte items were on a given menu), and all seemed to have a clientele that was largely middle-aged-to-elderly Caucasians who appeared to be at least middle class (all fitting the profile of your typical American domestic tourist).

The centerpiece behind the characteristic ambience is that for which the event is named: jazz.  Few of the restaurateurs I talked to believed there was such a thing as an archetypical jazz-brunch musician or an archetypical style of jazz, but some musicians obviously feel differently. “It’s pretty much the same stuff everywhere,” according to one of the musicians at the Court of Two Sisters.  Earlier, I had been offered a song request after putting some money in the musicians’ tip jar, yet my suggestions seemed to irk one of the members.  Clearly, I was unaware of some unwritten rules that dictated what type of song was appropriate for this jazz brunch.  Another member, friendlier and more patient, noted that Miles’ Davis’ “so what” was not standard jazz brunch repertoire, and upon my suggestion for “a song in a funky time signature”, noted

It’s…um…that’s not usually the type of music for this crowd.  They like a different…you know, the old, kind of, uh…I guess there are certain things that they’re in to.

Though he didn’t specify which songs he meant, after visiting other establishments, it became clear to me what he was trying to say:  in a one of the most varied genres on earth, boasting everything from ragtime to lounge to brass bands and funk, there is a certain style of jazz–one that is softer, sometimes romantic, perkier and lighter when it is upbeat; one that seems clearly tied to a certain era and that contains standards familiar to some of the participants of the feast–which is used to create a mood, and to violate this mood would in some sense ruin the ritual.  Likewise, there are certain characteristics that tend to define the groups who play this music.  For example, while some have other gigs and solo recordings, few are high-level successes even on the local scene, let alone the national scene.  A jazz brunch places the musician in the background while people focus on food and conversation, and is often seen as simply a way to get paid.  The trumpeter at the Court of Two Sisters noted with a twinge of admiration in his voice that the bassist, who was playing with them for the first time, had a “full-time evening gig.”  Then, there are issues of arrangement and instrumentation necessary to create the characteristic “New Orleans Jazz Brunch sound” responsible for this desired ambience.  All five of the restaurants I visited featured trios, all of which lacked percussion and utilized a stand-up bass, either a keyboard or a guitar, and either a trumpet or a saxophone.  One imagines that an electric bass or a quintet might be called upon in certain cases and may even excel at their task from a musical standpoint, but that there is a sense amongst those who hire the musicians that this will disrupt an implicit authenticity to the experience and so should be avoided if possible.  Familiarity with the style and the songs are key to the experience with most of the frequent guests.  As Alex said of the Court of Two Sisters’ selection of music:

Everyone is pretty happy with it, no one ever really complains, you know?  It’s kind of, like, the same all the time.

As much as the time, the ambience, and the music people tend to agree that the apparition of certain food items are a crucial part of a truly authentic jazz brunch.  When asked about the quintessential jazz brunch food, Janice (who works at Muriel’s) responded “Egg dishes.  You have to have egg dishes.”   A waiter at Antoine’s had similar sentiments, noting also that Antoine’s was famous for one of its own creations, Eggs Sardou, that is now popular at brunches all over the city.  It seems, in fact, that while not all restaurants have created their own signature egg dish for the jazz brunch, many of the oldest, chicest, and most famous places such as Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace, and Brennan’s, have done so.

Alex describes his idea of the quintessential as follows:

Well, I think you have to, especially in New Orleans, you have to have the Eggs Benedict and the omelettes.  I think everyone comes, actually, for those things, and then the bacon and the sausage is always very important, and one of our big draws are grits and grillades.  Grits and grillades are very, very important here, so, you know, that’s one of the things that people always come here for.  You gotta have your balance of breakfast and lunch items

“Everyone always comes” for a variety of items, showing that it is not simply a tourist’s meal, but rather it is locals who show tourists what is authentic for the occasion.  Certainly tourists have demands as well that may be different from those of locals–Court of Two Sisters serves king cake “all-year round” (Alex), for example – but locals are responsible for incorporating existing gastronomic traditions into the tradition of jazz brunch.  For example, grits and grillades are often thought of as one of the quintessential Creole breakfast foods (as well as a staple of Mardi Gras), a cultural tradition so strong that it overrides other sentiments such as class division: this very humble dish, once eaten primarily by the lowest classes, is even part of the jazz brunch menu at Antoine’s, available with premium veal cutlets and extra-buttery grits for $19.75.  Antoine’s has bought into this tradition because its patrons have requested it–the same reason that Muriel’s began serving jazz brunch in the first place.  One of the first restaurants to open after Katrina, the patrons requested music, and the restaurant saw the jazz brunch as a cultural tradition that could satisfy this request (Janice).

To have so many markers of authenticity may seem strange in light of the commercial nature of the tradition.  Despite being an activity designed for tourists and still largely dominated by tourists, it is nevertheless embraced by the New Orleans community, and is not generally ridiculed the way blackened fish, daiquiris, and other perceived culinary tourist traps have been.  This is likely for several reasons.  First, it is not a case of a meal that started in people’s homes before becoming commercialized, but rather brunch in general has always been a commercial activity, from the vendors who catered to churchgoers to the very first restaurants to offer jazz brunch.  Second, the fact that it is pricey, elegant, and concentrated in the tourist areas of town marks the event as distinctly un-quotidian for most New Orleanians; hence, when they do partake in jazz brunch it is seen as a special occasion, an extraordinary occurrence.  It is something Jerry and his friends had wanted to do “for a while” before going, just as it is something that Caleb “enjoy[s] even if it is for tourists.”  Finally, it is seen as promoting the city’s cultural—specifically culinary, and musical–heritage.  Gastronomically speaking, although crawfish with remoulade at 10 a.m. or king cake in December may seem strange to a native, it gives the tourist an occasion, albeit out of natural context, to experience authentic culinary items that might not have been available to him or her otherwise.  As Alex explains,

I think a lot of tourists get to try a little of everything when they come here, you know.  We try to give people a little bit of a taste of New Orleans when they come.

Musically speaking, jazz is often as foreign to young natives of the city as it is to tourists.  As more and more venues for “authentic” jazz disappear, there become fewer opportunities for young people to understand this part of their history.  Although the limited style might be considered “cheesy” by some (Caleb), and despite the fact that some participants see the music as little more than background and ambience, the music is nevertheless present for those who will listen, and played by musicians who often were relatively well-known, at least locally speaking, in their heydays.  As Caleb puts it,

You don’t often get that kind of opportunity to, uh, to hear something like this, you know?  It shows you what the city is all about, what your culture is all about.  It gives you a chance to connect with that side of it.

 

 

Reveillon Dinner

 

In contrast with the previous two traditions, which are recent inventions entirely unique to Louisiana, the reveillon dinner is much older (dating back several centuries), and is still more common in its home country of France than it is in Louisiana.  However, by adopting a practice unknown in the rest of the United States, New Orleanians have transformed it from a foreign ritual into a regional one.  While some French dishes were mainstays, Folse shows how by the 19th century creoles had modified the reveillon table to include local specialties:  “[The tables and sideboards] consisted of a multitude of foods including daube glac chicken and oyster gumbo, salmis or game pies, soups, grillades and grits, breads, fruitcakes and cream puff pyramids called croquembouche.”  Daube glachad a special significance as the “party” dish of wealthy Creole society, and was thus likely at one time considered necessary for an authentic experience.  The presence of grillades and grits is understandable, as the reveillon, which means “awakening” in French, was originally more of a breakfast than a dinner, being eaten in the wee hours of the morning to break the fast after midnight mass on Christmas and New Year’s eves.

The true regionalization of the meal did not occur, however, until the ritual went through a re-awakening of its own.  As the cultural and religious mosaic of the city continued to expand and diversify after Reconstruction, the Creole society lost its political and religious stranglehold, and soon even the enclaves of remaining Creoles were disappearing.  “Through the 19th century, American holiday conventions…began gradually to establish themselves in New Orleans and supplant many of the Creole traditions.  By the turn of the century, reveillon dinners could be found only in traditional homes, and by the 1940s the custom was all but extinct” (McNulty, “Reveillon Dinners”).  Ironically, it was commercialism that saved this feast.  The first reformulated reveillon dinners took place in the 1990s as a publicity stunt to attract tourists to a few of the city’s higher class restaurants, but they became an instant success with locals as well as tourists.  One can truly call it a tradition again, as it has become custom for the several dozen restaurants who offer it to spend months preparing their menus and meals.  The office of tourism keeps a consolidated list of the various menus, and each of the establishments I visited for jazz brunch was able to furnish me with a take-home reveillon menu, despite the fact that the dinner would not take place for several weeks yet.  This is done to allow ample (and necessary) time for reservations, a sure sign that the ritual has been popularly embraced.

The meal in its current form is heavily embedded with a sense of place; it reflects the needs of modern Louisianans rather than their European ancestors.  For example, even though it was once a religious holiday tied to midnight mass, the current ritual is a secular one to reflect a less religiously homogenous populace, and is eaten during standard dinner hours, as few modern New Orleanians have reason to stay up past midnight simply to eat.  According to Vicki at the Office of Tourism, it is no longer practiced in people’s homes, but has become the exclusive domain of high-end restaurants; for most Louisianans, making the dozens of dishes required is inconvenient and sometimes even impossible in the wake of modern work and personal schedules, and dining out with one’s family in a fancy restaurant has become for many the “special occasion” that the large, home-cooked meal used to be.

As it was not yet Christmas or New Year’s at the time of writing, I did not get a chance to interview participants at a reveillon dinner.  To do future studies, one may wish to examine how the oldest patrons – those who would have participated in the post-mass ritual—feel about the feast’s current incarnation.  None of the individuals I spoke to under the age of 40 had ever experienced this ritual, but Vicki remembers her grandmother insisting on a family reveillon every Christmas eve.  Even at that time, she says, it was becoming archaic. It had also changed in nature from its original form:  her family went to an early evening vigil, and thus the meal was eaten in the late evening instead of after midnight.

Crawfish boils, jazz brunches, and reveillon dinners are all rituals that are deeply embedded in tradition, despite heavy commercialization and structural modifications over the course of recent decades.  People continue to practice them because they have significance on a cultural level, and because they offer a structured way of breaking routine and celebrating important events.  These three meals represent three of the most unique culinary rituals in the state, and those which give the strongest sense of place.  Still, they are only three amidst a culinary calendar full of community gatherings (such as boucheries and culinary festivals) and holidays with regional aspects embedded in the culinary ritual (such as Mardi Gras and Thanksgiving).  Time may produce new rituals, but in the meantime, there is much work left to be done on those already in existence.


 

Sources:
Bienvenu, Marcelle, Carl Brasseaux, and Ryan Brasseaux. Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine.  New York: Hippocrene Books, 2005
Danforth, Randi et al.  Culinaria The United States:  A Culinary Discovery.  Cologne: Konemann, 1998
Folse, John.  The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine.  Gonzales:  Chef John Folse & Co, 2004.
Gutierrez, C. Paige.  Cajun Foodways.  Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
McNulty, Ian. “Reveillon Dinners: Awakening the Holiday Spirit One Feast at a Time” accessed Dec 12, 2006
Paddleford, Clementine.  How America Eats.  New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.

 


Mark Huntsman
Mark Huntsman grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and has lived in France and South Korea.  He received Bachelor of Arts degrees in French and linguistics from the University of Wisconsin in 2002, and a Master of Arts degree in French from Louisiana State University in 2007.  A former national merit scholar, he is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including most recently a Board of Regents fellowship from Louisiana State University.  An avid traveler who has visited 42 countries and 45 American states, he also enjoys cooking and sports journalism.

 

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