Cincinnati’s Native Son Lafcadio Hearn and his Culinary Influence on New Orleans

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I found another interesting connection between Cincinnati and New Orleans cuisine.   It has to do with one of their most fun krewes – the Krewe of Lafcadio.     While setting up a backstage tour of Mardi Gras floats on my trip, I saw a description of this Krewe and instantly recognized the unusual name.   Could it be this was named after our own short-lived local son, journalist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), who wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer about the seedy side of Cincinnati in Over-the-Rhine and Bucktown?   And, it absolutely was.

The Krewe of Lafcadio represents culinary New Orleans. Krewe members dress up in chef garb and as lobsters, shrimp and crawfish, while parading during Mardi Gras.   They satirize New Orleans culture, much like Lafcadio did while writing about New Orleans’ melting pot of a culture.   Their king each year is a local chef who is pulled in a traditional mule-draw float. And, their duke is usually a longtime restaurant worker.

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Chef Michael Regua of Antoine’s was the King of 2015. Antoine’s, founded in 1840 by Antoine Alciatore, is considered America’s oldest family-run restaurant. Antoine’s son, Jules took over the helm, after his mother sent him back to France to apprentice in the kitchens of Paris, Strassburg, and Marseiles. When he returned, he invented the American iconic dish, Oysters Rockefeller.   That original secret recipe is still closely guarded by the family.   Jules’ son Roy took over and ran the business until 1970.   Today the business is run by the founder’s three times great grandson – making it a sixth generation family owned restaurant.

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2014’s King was Alon Shaya, an Israeli-born chef who spent a year studying cuisine in Italy, before opening the Italian Domenica restaurant inside New Orleans’ Roosevelt hotel.

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Back to Lafcadio.   After marrying a mullato woman in Cincinnati and creating scandal, he was sent to New Orleans in 1876 by the Cincinnati Commercial to cover the election of that year.   While there he wrote the Creole Cookbook, and great stories about cultural New Orleans for a variety of publications.     He chronicled Mardi Gras, wrote about political corruption, and wrote about the city’s voodoo culture with relish.   He created the image of new Orleans as sensual, frivolous, and intriguing, personifying the Crescent City as a woman.

Shortly after moving to New Orleans, he wrote to a friend about the city back in Cincinnati:

Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.

As a great conniseur of food, Lafcadio’s Creole cookbook gives a great historical view of New Orleans cuisine with long forgotten methods from recipes he collected from noted chefs of the day and creole housewives.

The cookbook is filled with recipes like  “Orange Croquante,” “Maigre Shrimp Gombo for Lent,” “Mushroom Catsup,” and other noted New Orleans dishes amidist now forgotten housekeeping directions like how to make yeast, boil soap, and prepare whitewash for the walls.    Other interesting recipes from the time for ‘Grenouilles frites’ or fried frog legs, fried pigs feet, Carolina rice birds, and roast pigeons point to the variety of game and meat Americans used to eat.    He even has three different recipes for mock turtle soup that may have actually come with from Cincinnati.  One includes both walnut and mushroom ketchup, along with lemon, vinegar and hard boiled eggs.  Huckleberry and whortleberry pie round out some of the interesting desserts.

Unfortunately for us food etymologists, Lafacadio did not comment on food while writing in Cincinnati or write a cookbook, but certainly sampled and drank some of our local culinary treats before heading to the Crescent City.

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