Aubin-Edmond Arsenault, the ultimate Acadian foodie, Part 3 of 4: Looking for Southern cousins, finding oysters, coffee and gumbo
Louisiana left a great impression on me. Nowhere have I found more hospitable people. Wherever one goes, the coffee pot is always on the stove and ready for the visitor. [p. 140]
Aubin-Edmond Arsenault was the Société Nationale l'Assomption's first official envoy to Louisiana in 1924. At the time, he was the president of this association, which acted as the official representative of the Acadian people and organized a series of National Conventions in the Maritime provinces from 1881 to 1937.
Arriving in New Orleans, Arsenault met his host Judge Joseph Breaux at the world-renowned restaurant Antoine's.
Judge Breaux had been the first Louisiana delegate to a National Convention in 1905. He was the Maritime Acadian elite's go-to "Southern cousin" and corresponded with many important actors of the Acadian Renaissance.
He had, however, upset some - including leader Pierre-Amand Landry - when upon his return to New Orleans after his first visit to Evangeline's birthplace, gave a paper to the Société historique de la Louisiane revealing that many of the descendants of Acadians in Louisiana preferred being identified as Americans and that discussions of nationality or race should not substitute efforts of becoming good American citizens.
Hurt by these comments, Landry would write in the Évangéline newspaper:
Je puis comprendre qu'ils soient fiers d'être citoyens et bons citoyens américains; mais je ne puis croire qu'ils rougissent d'être reconnus comme descendants de ces braves Acadiens dont l'histoire est si touchante, si héroïque et si intéressante.["Les Acadiens de la Louisiane", Évangéline, 4 December 1902, p. 2]In fact, leaders of the Acadian Renaissance in the Maritime provinces were beginning to define Acadian identity by kinship ties and included Louisiana descendants in their definition. However, they did not quite understand or recognize the century and a half of history separating them since the Grand Dérangement, as well as the different socio-economic contexts of the regions they now inhabited. Arsenault's visit was a first step by Northern Acadians to try to understand and discover how Acadian culture survived and evolved in the South.
They met at Antoine's which is considered the oldest restaurant in New Orleans' French Quarter. Opening its doors in 1874, it is also famous for creating Oyster Rockefeller which is, according to Susan Tucket, et al., "thought to be the single greatest contribution of the United States to haute cuisine." [p. 63]
Like the secret ingredients in the recipe itself, we'll never know if Arsenault - an oyster connoisseur - would dare taste the rich and complex dish. He did though consider Breaux an excellent host as they ate oysters "in one form or another" almost every night. [p. 139]
Check out this collection of archival footage showcasing New Orleans in the 1920s.
As he moved about New Orleans and outside of the city, Arsenault often seemed overwhelmed by the food and company. In St. Martinville, he took part in an impromptu banquet with the town's mayor and parish priest, Monseigneur Pitre:
Ten of us sat down at 12:30 and at 3:30 we were still at table. It was one course after another with one of the last being nothing else but a boar's head. This was neatly dissected by a Belgian priest who took out the brains to which he added several other ingredients. The mixture proved to be a delicious sauce which was served with the head. I began to wonder if this was just an ordinary meal for Monseigneur Pitre to serve or it was a banquet, the most elaborate of any I had ever been invited to attend. [p. 130]
In Franklin, he had a funny mishap with the County Attorney who did not address him appropriately as he mistook him for another "Arceneaux" in the state. As to regain the Canadian judge's favour and in honour of his visit, he would bring him to a secret barroom in St. Martinville for a glass or two of Canadian rye. "Prohibition?" Arsenault wrote, "There was no sign of it here."
Arsenault was welcomed in many homes, and drank several cups of "the inevitable coffee." He warned other travellers that Acadians are great hosts and excellent cooks, but will insist that you stay for dinner if you visit them close to that time of day. If you do, bring your appetite as a family meal could "consist of gumbo, cochon au lait (suckling pig), fricasse champignon (stewed mushrooms), or canard farci (roast duck)".
What he identified as bay leaves, was most likely filé, ground sassafras leaves used to thicken the broth. Other thickening options include a dark roux and okra.
Gumbo is a difficult dish to write about -- each element has a cultural significance. Whether it started as a Native American stew or found its inspiration in the French bouillabaisse, or derived its name from African slaves' word for okra, gumbo has been abundantly used as symbolism for the cultural interchanges between the several groups inhabiting the state. Historians are still debating its origins and home cooks are still debating what makes their gumbo the best.
To be honest, I'm a little disappointed that Arsenault doesn't write more about crawfish. Don't get me wrong, gumbo is amazing, coffee is fantastic, and a boar's head dressed by a Belgian priest is ... well, uhm, I guess I've never had the pleasure. But, CRAWFISH! I've now been to Louisiana twice, and as you can see, both times I was equally excited about crawfish:
Next Thursday, I'll write my final post in this series about what Arsenault was often way too excited about: booze.
Susan Tucker, New Orleans cuisine: fourteen signature dishes and their histories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.