Lafcadio Hearn, former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter and foodie extraordinaire.
I was walking toward Jackson Square along Chartes Street from the old Ursuline Convent and St Mary’s Church, where a brother and sister of my second great grandmother were baptized. My love for the Crescent City now had a family connection, thanks to records made available online. I wanted to see the statue of the Mother of Great Succor that my ancestors saw while they attended mass. The Ursulines carried her from France to their convent in the early 1800s and she’s billed as the protector of New Orleans. There’s a great painter in Jackson Square, Renee Perez, who paints hundreds of images of her.
My third great grandparents, Johanna Reinsen and Peter Krebs arrived here separately in the 1840s from Germany, met, married, and lived a block away from the touristy Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop on St. Phillips Street. The small shotgun house they rented is still standing. After two children they would take a steamboat up the Mississippi to the Ohio and settle in Newport, Kentucky.
I had fallen for New Orleans since my first trip in college. I discovered more to love each time after that I visited. This visit, two years ago, was my first return since Katrina.
Now I was headed to the Librairie Used Bookshop on Chartres to trace another Cincinnati connection. I was looking for a copy of Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole Cookbook, written by him in 1884, when he lived in an apartment on Cleveland Street. The book is considered one of the most significant cookbooks because it’s one of the first to identify a purely American form of cooking, specifically Creole cooking. The magazine Garden and Gun just gushed about Hearn’s cookbook in a recent article. Hearn had left Cincinnati in 1877, after writing for the Cincinnati Commercial, and was supposed to be paid by them to cover a story in New Orleans. He never received that check.
An ancient brass bell and that wonderful musty smell of old books greeted me, as did the elderly proprietor. After discussing Lafcadio, she told me she didn’t have any of his books, but recommended Arcadian Books up the street, behind the Cathedral. I thanked her and walked the four blocks to the other store, where I found maybe the last available copy of Hearn’s Creole Cookbook for sale in New Orleans.
Hearn was a total foodie. Unfortunately he didn’t write anything about food while he was in Cincinnati. Probably, he was uninspired by the spare ribs, pigs feet and other simple boarding house fare he was able to afford. He certainly would not have afforded a table at the St. Nicholas, where Cincinnati foodies at that time went for their haute cuisine.
I thought surely there would be some Cincinnati food connections embedded in his cookbook. Maybe the connection between the Cincinnati nectar soda and the New Orleans nectar soda could be found in his cocktails section. There was none. John Mullane, who brought the nectar soda to Cincinnati had just returned from his training in Acadian Quebec, where he learned the flavor, in 1876. And Hearn probably couldn’t have afforded to sit at the Mullane soda stand. There was no recipe for rye bread, but lots of biscuits and east coast brown breads. There were a few dishes he would have had in Cincinnati that made it in the cookbook, like canvasback duck, rabbit pie, and suckling pig, which the Cincinnati Germans loved and called Spanferkel, and was served at places like Mecklenburg Gardens. There was a section on German sausages, which of course he would have had while in Cincinnati. And there were a handful of recipes for real and mock turtle soup, which any tavern in Cincinnati in the 1860s and 70s would have had on their menu.
Before Hearn wrote the cookbook he fulfilled one of his foodie dreams — opening a restaurant. He called it the “5 Cent Restaurant”, and opened with $100 he saved on a sordid side street at 160 Dryades. He catered to the working classes, serving cheap biscuits and coffee, and other economical foods. This area of Dryades was in the neighborhood of Marigny, where the European Creole men set up their “placees’ or ‘left-handed/second wives’ of African American, or mixed race descent. Although not recognized as wives, they were institutionalized through contracts settling property to the woman and her children. The restaurant lasted less than a month, from March 2 to 22, 1879, during which time he renamed it “Hard Times.” His partner disappeared with the little cash they had, and their cook, leaving Hearn to shoulder the debts.
But then there were amazing Creole and southern dishes in Hearn’s cookbook. I actually made a Green Tomato Catsup from his book when I returned home. Mine turned out to be more like a chunky, vinegary jam, which was good. I had to translate some old recipe terms – like what the heck is a peck of tomatoes? New Orleans honors Lafcadio today with a Mardi Gras Crewe in his name, which chooses as it’s parade King from one of the many chefs in the city.
The great thing about the cookbook is how much Creole history and mystique is brought through the recipes. Hearn had a fascination for voodoo and Creole culture – he might have been the first American food etymologist, connecting history and food culture. After over a decade in New Orleans, Hearn spent a brief time in Martinique, and then to Japan, where he married and became a cult-hero writer of Japanese ghost stories. His great grandson, a professor of Japanese folklore, visited Cincinnati and New Orleans a few years ago to trace the trail of his foodie ancestor. Both the Cincinnati and New Orleans Public Libraries have wonderful Hearn collections, and a great exhibit of Hearn’s original work is now on display at the Main Cincinnati Library downtown.