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.
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.
|Selling greens at Community Park Days|
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.
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.
“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.
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 at Rural Homestead|
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.
|Large Bald-cypress tree at Cat Island NWR|
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 www.stfrancisville.us (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 www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.