There’s nothing like a fall visit to New Orleans to reignite my interest in Creole cuisine. I made a vinegary green tomato ketchup from Lafcadio Hearn’s 150 year old Creole Cookbook a few weekends ago. The Cresent’s City’s standards like gumbo, etouffe, and crawfish, get your taste buds firing. But in the fall, there’s an ugly greenish-yellow squash that finds its way into all sorts of New Orleans cuisine. It’s the unofficial squash of New Orleans and you’ll find it at farmer’s markets and roadside stands this time of year. You’ll also find it in restaurants pickled, deep fried, hollowed out and stuffed, and even served raw in salads and slaws. But, there’s a signature soup made with it that finds its way onto many bywater Thanksgiving tables. In New Orleans this squash is called the mirliton, but anywhere else we know it as the chayote squash, a native of Mexico.
It’s called many other things in the city– mango squash, alligator pear, and vegetable pear. In Latin American it’s known as choko, pepipnella, pepinello, xuxu, xoxo, sayote, tayota, and in Jamaica and Belize, “cho-cho,” which means pet. The only place other than New Orleans it’s called a mirliton is in Haiti. Many Haitians came to the city in the 1790s after the St. Domingue slave revolt.
Chayotes or mirlitons made their way into New Orleans when France transferred Louisianna to Spain in 1763 after their defeat in the 7 Years War. Spain sent beaurocrats from Cuba and the Caribbean Colonies to Louisianna, and after that, trade increased dramatically with the Carribean. Chayotes were a regular part of the diet of people from the Canary Islands, who when they came to New Orleans, were called “Los Islenos.”
The name mirliton (prounced mel-lee-tawn phonetically) stuck when the Haitans flooded the Crescent City. It’s actually a member of the gourd family. A tradition of growing this green, bumpy, pear shaped squash on backyard vines has been documented in New Orleans as early as 1867. A blight and the use of plank fencing over chain link fency has decreased this tradition, but many are trying to bring it back. It has a pretty orchid-like five petaled purple flower that becomes the ugly but delicious green monster. There’s even a Mirliton Festival held on the first Saturday in November at Mickey Markey Park, Piety and Royal streets in the Bywater.
A raw mirliton has the crunch of a potato and tastes like very green cucumber, and a little like zucchini. When sautéed, it tastes like starchy apples; boiled and fried, its translucent green flesh suggests what a honeydew melon would look, feel, and taste like if honeydew melon were a vegetable.
One restaurant, Sammy’s in New Orleans, makes a mirliton seafood soup that became famous in it’s feature on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. They boil the mirlitons and puree them with sauteed onions, mix with crab and shrimp and spice with white, black, and cayenne pepper, ginger, and nutmeg, cutting it with seafood stock and heavy cream. The end result is a unique and flavorful bisque that’s warmed the hearts of native New Orleaners.
Although the store bought varieties that we have access to are from Costa Rica, and grown about 3000 feet above sea level, I’m going to have to make a trip to Jungle Jims and try my version of this favorite New Orleans Thanksgiving bisque.