New Orleans is a Mecca of culinary temptations and as a native I wouldn't want it any other way. Temptation and atonement are part of our culture. With religious roots that are primarily Catholic, thanks to our French founders, the church affects our calendar in a rather unique way: we celebrate Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the final day of feasting before 40 days of Lent. The traditional abstinence from meat during this time leading up to Easter means that we have to "sacrifice" by enjoying the bounty from nearby waters: fish, shrimp and oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, crabs from Lake Pontchatrain, and crawfish from area swamplands.
New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 and named after the regent, the Duke d’Orleans. Passed to the Spanish for a while, it went back to France long enough for Napoleon to sell it to a fledgling United States of America in 1803.
In New Orleans, the French influence over local cooking was just the beginning. Throughout the years African slaves were often the cooks. Through one of the nation’s busiest ports have come new citizens from Germany, Ireland, the French Caribbean Islands, Italy, Greece, Croatia and more recently, Asia. The Choctaw Indians were already living in this swampy mosquito-infested piece of land, below sea level and shaped like a crescent on the Mississippi River. They introduced powdered sassafras or file_ which they called “kombo” to settlers as a staple for one of many styles of the indigenous soup we call gumbo – from the African word “kingumbo” meaning the vegetable okra. A gumbo usually contains either file_ or okra as a thickener. Just as gumbo is a blend of many cultures, so is the origin of the word. However, the base of most gumbos is “roux” – flour and fat with seasonings that is browned to provide an almost nutty flavor.