The Creation Myth of Creole Cuisine
In the 1700s, young French women were sent to New Orleans carrying their belongings in small wooden boxes, or “caskets.” These casket girls were placed with nuns at the Ursuline Convent until they could become married to colonists.
Without the skills to employ the ingredients of their new home, the exasperated casket girls walked the “streets” of the nascent city, pounding their pots and pans with wooden spoons, creating a noisy, yet cohesive chaos. They demanded that Governor Bienville teach them how to cook the foods of this wild new place, New Orleans.
Bienville bravely faced the women and offered his talented housekeeper, Madame Langlois, to teach the women what she had learned from the local Choctaw Indians. This class in cooking left the women satisfied in their new knowledge of the secrets of Creole cuisine. The uprising became known as the Petticoat Rebellion and Madame Langlois became known as the mother of Creole cuisine.
A romance writer once emailed me, asking for help finding information about Madame Langlois for a novel she was writing. She had had a difficult time finding any mention of Madame Langlois in academic histories of the early city. The only references to the story were found in introductions to cookbooks. The pivotal story of the Petticoat Rebellion, the casket girls, and Madame Langlois would make an intriguing basis for a romance and the writer wanted details—exactly when this had happened, how Madame Langlois had learned from the American Indians, and how this first American cooking school had been established.
Her inability to find more information had a logical explanation: the Petticoat Rebellion never happened. There really are no records of a Madame Langlois or any housekeeper of Bienville. And the casket girls arrived in New Orleans in 1728, when Bienville was no longer governing the city. No letters or reports from the time reflect this story.
Looking for a factual explanation for the origin of Creole cuisine is a messy search. Cuisine is truly a social invention; that is, it is developed communally by the group and not by individual invention. Its invention is not something that we can pin down with a definitive date of origin.
We know that the native peoples helped the early explorers find food and that their knowledge of what was edible, where it could be found, and how it could be prepared was fundamental to the settlement of the area. The provisions and seeds that were brought with the Europeans, as well as the European practices and tastes, also began to shape eating practices. And the enslaved Africans brought their own technology, customs, and tastes to bear.
The gradual development of what we eat today or what we might mark as Creole food is difficult to document. Documentation is mostly limited to a written record that was kept primarily by the Europeans and the descendants of Europeans. This lack of written record in our documentation-based society allows those who keep the written record to own the story. And since we have no easily documented story in this society that values its food as a part of its identity, a story must be invented. Origin myths abound in all societies. Madame Langlois and the Petticoat Rebellion is our origin story.
As with all origin stories, this story reveals a lot about the people who tell it—and may even believe it—despite the inability to document it. At its heart, the myth of the Petticoat Rebellion is inaccurate, but it tells a different truth about New Orleans and its origins. This story is European-centric and reveals that the Europeans were dependent when they came to New Orleans and needed help to survive.
It also reveals that the Europeans wished not only to “tame” the new world in which they found themselves, but also to recast it in the artful way that they valued, based on the assets at hand. That is, they were willing to accept that a new way had to be forged. They did not want to simply accept what was here, nor did they try to cling completely to what they had left behind.
Ultimately the myth is controlled by the culture that tells it, but it also provides a rationale for a phenomenon that has no simple explanation. There is no reason for us not to continue to dig for more historical information about the origins of our cuisine from recipes, old documents, old laws, court cases and proclamations, historical illustrations, songs and poems, traditional stories, and wherever else we can find information. But we should also appreciate the unifying Truth that can be gleaned from myth: that the cuisine is so important to our identity that we need myth to express its importance to us.
We love our cuisine, so we romanticize it. We tell a lovely tale of women who wanted to create delicious food in the wild new city. We still want to create and eat delicious food and the story of Madame Langlois connects us to that past desire, which reflects that same desire today.