Friday, July 08, 2011

Unique Culinary History

St. Francisville Noted For Its Unique Culinary History

by Anne Butler

enjoying a normal lunch
Louisiana is famous around the globe for its food, and justifiably so. Visitors come from far and wide to enjoy culinary offerings prepared by our well-known professional chefs, and the locals, as the saying goes, don’t eat to live, they live to eat. The whole world salivates for our Creole and Cajun cooking.
The elaborate multi-coursed Creole meals with their aristocratic European antecedents spread from New Orleans up the Mississippi River through the fabulous antebellum plantation estates, their formal dining tables often graced by visiting royalty impressed that such rural kitchens could produce rich and elegant fare equal to anything found in the Old Country. But when the penniless Acadian exiles arrived in Louisiana later in 1700s, struggling to rebuild lives shattered when authorities expelled them from Nova Scotia farmlands, they had to learn a whole different way of cooking, of necessity making do with whatever they could harvest in the swamplands and prairies, the preparation involving lengthy slow-cooking and plenty of seasonings to make less-than-prime ingredients palatable, with providential rice added to many a dish to stretch a little meat or seafood to feed dozens of stair-step children.
But St. Francisville is not Creole. St. Francisville is not Cajun. Did the residents of St. Francisville, therefore, starve? Not by the looks of us. In English Louisiana, settled by mostly Anglos, there was a whole different type of food preparation, and it is only recently being recognized as at least comparable to, if not equal to, the Creole and Cajun cooking for which Louisiana is known.
cooking demonstration at rosedown plantation
Louisiana’s beloved Chef John Folse has always recognized that the history of our foodways is just as important as other aspects of our heritage, and in his Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University he makes sure the students understand the provenance of all the dishes they prepare. Each semester he invites guest lecturers to describe different types of cooking that make up Louisiana’s wonderful culinary and cultural gumbo---Creole, Cajun, Italian, German, Spanish, Native American, African and other ethnic influences.
The St. Francisville resident who is always summoned by Chef Folse to discuss the English cooking brought to the area by its earliest Anglo settlers used to joke with the culinary classes about crossing the river to eat French cooking. English cooking, she would tell the students, was basic and perhaps a bit bland, maybe even, dare we say, boring. But upon further thought, she realized that the English cooking for which St. Francisville was noted was really a perfectly wonderful heritage, building upon indigenous ingredients and a unique sense of place. Starting with prime meats and vegetables fresh from home gardens meant that the dishes did not need to be overly seasoned or stewed for hours or smothered in sauces to make them edible, and consequently basic was not necessarily a bad thing. And when she put out a plea on Facebook for locals to recall favorite foods most closely associated with the St. Francisville area, the mountains of responses were mouth-watering.
The early Anglo plantations were self-sufficient communities where most of the foodstuffs were grown or raised right on the place, with enormous vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, cold-frames for winter production, herds of cattle and sheep and pigs, flocks of poultry. The incredibly talented cooks in the outside kitchens, working over open hearths or later wood stoves, added a little spice from Africa, introducing such staples as okra and yams while greatly improving the basic English dishes.
community market days
Selling greens at Community Park Days
Its location right on the Mississippi River provided St. Francisville with access to fresh seafood from the coast and citrus crops from lower Louisiana; early merchants often had sacks of oysters and blood oranges shipped up the river as Christmas gifts for favored patrons, so that every Christmas dinner table was graced with oyster gumbo, and oyster stew for New Year’s, with a fat juicy orange in every child’s Christmas stocking.
The Feliciana woodlands were teeming with wild game. The English, don’t you know, have always considered themselves very sporting, with hunting dogs so plentiful it was hard to ascend entrance steps without stepping on some. Small game birds, venison, squirrel and wild turkey were popular foods, and some families even maintained river steamers for fishing excursions. There were prime roasts and pork loins and lamb chops, all such good cuts that they needed little seasoning.
Stirring the cracklin.
Farm crops influenced the diet here as elsewhere. Bountiful crops of sweet corn provided corn pudding, roasting ears, macque choux learned from the Indians, and plenty of cornbread made from home-ground meal. During St. Francisville’s spring Audubon Pilgrimage, the re-created Rural Homestead demonstrates grinding cornmeal and cooking cornbread on a wood stove, and there’s even a working still used to produce moonshine (the corn likker was supplanted by muscadine wine, cherry bounce and all manner of other stimulants---those English, need we say, were rarely known to be teetotalers.
Sweet potatoes did exceptionally well in the Feliciana soils and a local canning plant provided the livelihood for many residents through the latter 1900s. It was said without exaggeration that St. Francisville ladies knew hundreds of ways to cook sweet potatoes, from pies to fries and puddings to the basic baked potato that provided many a child’s lunch on school days, besides warming pants pockets on brisk walks to school during chilly winter mornings. This being a small town, the ladies, especially the church ladies, were so skilled at whipping up sweet potato casseroles topped with marshmallows and praline crunches that hardly a catastrophe could befall a family in town before a squadron of neighbors and relatives were marching up the front steps loaded down with consoling casseroles.
So what delectable dishes do St. Francisville residents most closely associate with their area over the years? A Facebook request elicited dozens of mouth-watering responses.
“Fried chicken,” says one, “back when the recipe began with ‘get the axe!’” Homemade biscuits with pure cane syrup. That old southern staple dessert, chess pie, favorite of pilgrimage luncheons and church suppers both black and white. Tomato aspic, colorful staple of ladies’ luncheons back when ladies wore hats and white gloves and had manners; even better, fried green tomatoes. Bourbon pie, so much better the next day after it had aged overnight in the icebox; pecan pie; South of the Border milk punch, served, rumor had it, to whet the whistle during cut-throat hands of poker. Teacakes and little girl’s fancy-dress tea parties under the live oaks dripping with moss. Holiday plum pudding slathered in hard sauce made of real butter and sugar and plenty of bourbon, and eggnog at Christmas, especially at Catalpa Plantation where Miss Mamie used an egg shell as a jigger and made sure it was “the bigger half.” Homemade mayonnaise on tomato sandwiches, and sweet tea.
table setting at rosedown
Dewberry jelly, back when every briar patch along the river hid plenty of berries (and plenty of snakes as well), and cobblers and jam cakes with six or seven thin layers. Field peas and butter beans, mustard greens and collards seasoned with slabs of salt meat, tender young snap beans with new potatoes. Cornbread sticks cooked in cast-iron molds greased with lots of lard. Watermelon rind pickles. Big ol’ striped crookneck cushaws, looking like overgrown squash and practically requiring a chainsaw to cut open, baked with butter and cinnamon or put in pies or bread.
Pralines, especially those made by Miss Emily who hawked them from a little red wagon to drivers waiting to cross the Mississippi on the ferry.  Grits and grillades. Okra gumbo; stewed tomatoes. Fried catfish Fridays in Lent at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church.  Fig wine; fig ice cream; fig anything. Barbecue, and not just pig or calf but goat as well, cooked on spits over pits in the yard.
Grinding Corn
Grinding corn at Rural Homestead
 The old memories, fading but still fragrant, are augmented by more contemporary creations like the iconic Spinach Madeline, and sensation salad and shrimp/eggplant casserole at the Oxbow or shrimp po-boys at Magnolia CafĂ© done scampi-style with pepper jack cheese instead of breaded and fried. And then there are those gigantic Mag cookies, and the pita BLTs with sprouts and avocado…and the list could go on and on, with a nice variety of restaurants in St. Francisville carrying on the local culinary traditions with a little extra oomph and maybe, we might as well confess, a little dash of Creole and Cajun seasoning, too.
So yes, Virginia, just as there is life in Louisiana beyond New Orleans and Cajun Country, which comes as a big surprise to a lot of people, so there is food in Louisiana beyond Creole and Cajun cooking, and some of it is fabulous. Maybe it’s time to put St. Francisville and English Louisiana on Louisiana’s Culinary Trails map.

About West Feliciana Parish & St. Francisville, La.

kayaking cat island
Large Bald-cypress tree at Cat Island NWR
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park, a Farmers’ Market every Thursday and Saturday morning, and Hummingbird Festival the last weekend of July) or