Louisiana’s Oldest Jambalaya Recipe, Would You Make it?
Quick, sing me the first song that comes to your mind when I say “Louisiana”. Chances are the first word you sang was the word “Jambalaya”. I guess we have the legendary Hank Williams to thank for that. Okay, you dang overachievers didn't skip directly to the chorus like us regular folks.
Not only did he create a hit for himself, but he also created an iconic song that everyone from Grand Isle, Louisiana to Zylks, Louisiana knows. And yes, Zylks is a real place, it’s one of the most northwestern communities in the state and despite the fact they think they’re Texas, they still know jambalaya.
After gumbo and maybe crawfish I’d say that jambalaya is one of the most recognized dishes ever created and embraced by the residents of The Bayou State. Jambalaya appears to be, when you break it down to basics, a combination of pig, bird, rice, the Cajun Holy Trinity, and selected other seasonings cooked and simmered to a tasty rib sticking finish.
But how did this recipe that even Louisiana babies fresh from the womb seem to know earn their place in our culinary landscape? Was jambalaya invented in Louisiana? What was the first jambalaya recipe? How did they make it before Tony Chachere was even born?
Jambalaya earned its Louisiana legacy by being what most Cajun meals are known for, delicious and inexpensive. Even the poorest of families could spare a chicken and chances are there was pork in the form of hams or sausage left over from the boucherie. Rice grew wild along the bayous and was a great way to stretch a little food into a lot of food.
In fact, it may have been the original Louisiana residents, the native Americans who created the dish decades before their French brothers and sisters arrived in the swamps from Novia Scotia. The Attakapas Tribe had a phrase they’d use before meals that was pronounced “Sham, pal ha, Ya!”. That phrase translates into “Be full, not skinny, Eat Up”. It was the Spanish who modified the pronunciation to the word jambalaya that we know today.
What is Louisiana’s Oldest Jambalaya Recipe?
As you might imagine we don’t know the answer to that because back in the day, folks didn’t write down recipes, they passed them down word of mouth. So, what we’ve really been able to discover is Louisiana’s oldest “published” jambalaya recipe. And it’s not for the faint of heart. Vegans, you might want to stop reading here because there is a lot of carnivore activity about to be described.
James Karst published a story on NOLA.com in 2019 that described a jambalaya recipe from 1844. It should also be noted that there were recipes for jambalaya published in New Orleans cookbooks from 1853 but the one from 1844 is the one we’ll focus on to see if you’d be willing to cook it.
The recipe starts with a half-gallon of washed rice to which some pickled pork is added. The cook then adds half fried pieces of bear meat, venison, and ham. Added next to the pot is a loggerhead turtle and one by one two or three owls. The cook finished the meat portion of the dish by adding squirrel, duck, and some catfish too. To that mix of rice and meat was added garlic, onions, red and black pepper, and some bay leaves.
In the article by Karst the individual who was describing the meal from 1844 noted that some alligator meat was offered for the dish but was “indignantly rejected”. Which seems strange considering the ingredients that we have previously listed.
The dish was prepared in the evening and allowed to sit on the campfire all night long. In the morning at sunrise, it was served to those assembled and was described as a delightful way to begin the day. So, the idea of taking your time to create a great jambalaya isn’t just an old wife's tale. It’s that time over the heat that allows the meat to get tender and the flavors to blend.
In today’s world there are a lot of Louisiana companies that make a DIY jambalaya mix. Tony Chachere's does, Zatarain's does, and there are some others that are out there, and they do a pretty good job for the home cook who doesn’t mind being judged harshly by his or her family. Unless you’re going to be adding bear meat to the mix, then I think most people will give you a hall pass for taking the short cut.
You users of roux in a jar know what I’m talking about don’t you?
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