Posts tagged #Tignon

Gumbo Is the Perfect Food When Tying on Some Mardi Gras Fun

It’s Mardi Gras all over the world right now and no food says “Carnival!” quite like a bowl gumbo from a warm Louisiana kitchen. And no food better represents the diversity that is critical to the culinary world that we all enjoy each and every day.

American gumbo owes its first conception to the French settlers who colonized the southern region of the Mississippi River for King Louis XIV, hence the name "Louis-iana", in 1682. Being on a great river and near the Gulf of Mexico, they adapted their beloved bouillabaisse fish stew from the French port city of Marseille to include the local ingredients that were then available.

Home cooks who lived near the region's various waterways enriched their sea stew with crawfish, catfish, oysters, crab and shrimp. Those cooks who lived further inland added instead wild birds, deer, duck, squirrel, goose and boar instead – all flowing with the season’s availability.

The resulting hunting trips and journeys along the area’s many bayous and streams, led to the French colonists encountering the region’s first inhabitants, members of the Choctaw Indian nation. The tribe’s resourceful cooks shared their knowledge of file’ - a unique flavorful powder created from ground sassafras tree leaves, with the newly arrived Europeans. Everyone agreed the resulting difference in the stew was simply amazing.

As Louisiana expanded and grew in wealth, its cuisine continued to develope, embracing in a unique way all the influences that made it then and now one of America’s truly great cities.  

Spanish influences added the tomato, still considered a poisonous fruit in the northern English colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as bell peppers, celery and onions.

Black slaves were soon brought from Africa to work in the vast landed cotton plantations and rice fields of the South in one of the darkest periods of American history. And though enslaved, many still remembered their homeland and added okra to flavor and thicken the stew. In fact, it is the Africa word for okra that gives gumbo its present name.   

Many of the freed black slaves of New Orleans (yes, there were freed black slaves in the city and many ran very successful businesses) were known as outstanding cooks. Many spoke French and ran restaurants, bakeries and taverns  – all adding to the elegance and flare that is still the hallmark of Mardi Gras today.

That unique style can be seen in how the freed black women of New Orleans worked around a restrictive and oppressive law that required all freed female slaves to wear a scarf or fabric tie around their head instead of the fashionable hats worn daily by the elegant white ladies of the City.

Working again with the ingredients at hand and their rich African heritage, these remarkable women created wrapped head turbans, called tignon, that were works of art and far more stunning than any milliner’s creation.

Today those head wraps form the basis of many of the much more elaborate head pieces worn in Mardi Gras parades in Rio de Janeiro and around the world. 

Similarly when file’ and okra were not available, these cooks reread their vaulued French cookbooks and created a roux of flour browned in pork lard that added color, texture and taste to the now legendary gumbo of Louisiana.

Later additions would include cayenne peppers, Tabasco and other hot seasonings, but to this day, the purist among southern cooks adds NO additional spices and depend on the essence of the base ingredients (along with the mandatory roux, okra or file’) to do the job.

Perhaps that simplicity is a lesson to us all as well as a reminder to do the simple with such flair and style that our efforts become as unique and as unforgettable as la belle New Orleans herself.

Laissez le Bon Temp Rouler! Longue vie Carnival!

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2012

Mardi Gras, the Chef’s Toque and the Court of the Two Sisters

There is no destination in America that offers more elaborate costumes (or cuisine) then New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Whether enjoying the grand parade of the customed “Indian” clubs in the streets of the old French Quarter or glazing at the elegant attire at the private krewe balls while enjoying chilled champagne, there is no simply no other place like grand New Orleans.

Yet none of this is new to the Big N.O. Whether it’s the classical white towering toques that New Orleans’ famed chefs wear or the stylish tignon head wraps still worn with pride by many of the city's most beautiful women, New Orleans has always been a city of flavor and fashion flare.

When New Orleans’ first professional chefs arrived they were French and they brought with them the culinary traditions of their homeland – including the wearing of the venerated toque or tall white chef's hat. First wore in the 16th century, this hallmark hat began as a simple European tradesman’s hat, enabling the harried venders to quickly identify the chief cook among the many other tired kitchen servants.

As cooking developed into a profession and random cooks became trained chefs, the toque rose in height and importance. The legendary French Chef Marie-Antoine Careme designed the now universal chef attire of the white jacket and, of course, tall starched toque. Tradition says the 100 folds of the classic toque honor the fact that Chef Careme knew 100 different ways to cook an egg. Amazing!

When New Orleans' early chefs walked to market they often nodded their heads to the free black women of the city who also wore their own distinctive headwear.  In 1785 the then Spanish governor of Louisiana passed a law requiring free women of color to cover their hair and avoid any use of feathers or jewelry. When the French retook possession of the Mississippi colony, they continued the ruling.

Not to be denied their identity, these remarkable women developed elaborate scarf wrapping techniques, known as making a tignon, to make an art of what was supposed to be a restricting limitation. Free and creative, these women held a unique position in post-Civil War New Orleans, often acting as culinary suppliers to the chefs.

Two individuals who were heirs to this world between worlds were the two Camors sisters, Emma and Bertha. Together they designed and created gowns for many of the city’s finest ladies (and quietly for some of their husband’s special ‘friends” as well). At their workshop the treasured fabrics and ribbons moved through their skilled fingers as they also savored the drifting nearby smells of rich creole cooking. Year after year the sisters stitched gown after gown in the courtyard of their elite establishment on Governor’s Row.

Each year they traveled to Paris, the home of fashion, then and now, to study the latest Worth designs and purchase the rare laces and rich fabrics available only there. Once back at home, they skillfully blended the legacy of Europe's style with the cross-cultural influences of New Orleans to create gowns as memorable as the city itself.

The flavor and flare of their creativity is captured today by two brothers, Joseph and Jerome Fein, owners and directors of the restaurant - The Court of the Two Sisters.  Located in the exact location of the sisters’ workshop, this esteemed destination offers one of the city’s best brunches, all to the sounds of New Orleans jazz, just behind a wrought iron gate of promised grace near a softly flowing fountain.

If it seems another world, well, it is – especially at Madri Gras where fans and feathers, beads and bubbles mingle with cuisine and chefs in tall toques smile at the end of the day and say as only a southern chef can say, “Ah, New Orleans!”   

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011