Food, Race, and a Flood in New Orleans

With historians from around the world set to arrive in America’s greatest eating town for the AHA’s annual meeting, I thought it appropriate to post a couple paragraphs about the history of my favorite restaurant in New Orleans.  After the days panels are done, the streetcar line down St. Charles Ave. to Commander’s Palace is a trip well worth making.

The most renowned restaurant in New Orleans’s history was never located in the French Quarter.  Commander’s Palace opened in 1880 at the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the Garden District of the greater Uptown area, and the restaurant has kept the original location ever since.  Emile Commander, the restaurant’s founder, wished to take advantage of the demands for food created by an influx of new money Americans (i.e. Anglo-Saxons) seeking a separate space from Creoles in the blocks surrounding the St. Charles railway line.  Following the fashionable architectural trends of the neighborhood, Commander’s featured a stately “Painted Lady” Victorian design complete with the signature hexagonal tower at the street-side corner.

Commander’s immediately entered into a food market both divided and inspired by race and culture.  Older Creoles had long distanced themselves from the Anglo incursions and created self-contained neighborhoods with a profusion of restaurants serving their food.  African Americans influenced food ways and culinary reputations of New Orleans by serving as cooks—with a certain culinary creative license—in the homes of wealthy city residents.  The peripatetic service-work of these African American cooks brought them into cafes, eating houses, boardinghouses, upscale restaurants, and kitchens of neighborhoods throughout turn of the century New Orleans.  The most famous cookbook of the time—really the first cookbook to proclaim a Creole culinary style that was not only dominate within New Orleans but beyond the achievements of French haute cuisine—featured an African American woman as the lone chef in the book’s only color plate. Such placement reflects the prominent influence of African Americans in the dominate cuisine of New Orleans while simultaneously hinting at a continued role that African Americans would play in the kitchens of New Orleans rising service economy.

Continue reading “Food, Race, and a Flood in New Orleans”

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The Twelve History-Books of Christmas

Tests recently graded and term projects recently submitted, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for many graduate students.  Rather than avoid reading over the break, tis’ the season to sit down with a book usually not found on course syllabi or comprehensive lists.  American historiography is saturated with incisive and anecdotal studies of Christmas.  Like the commercialization of the holiday itself, studies of Christmas have been on an upswing in recent decades.  What follows is a list of the history-books of Christmas past, present, and hopefully future.

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The Archive Blitz

Over the past few years, autumn has meant archive time for me. Notwithstanding a soft spot for falling leaves, I can’t help but be drawn to yellowing records this time of year. The chance to take on new projects, visit new repositories, and work in new collections seems a harvest festival of sorts. By far the sappiest of my seasonal rites and research analogies comes from another fall tradition—that is, American football.

I used the “archive blitz” to help me move past one of the biggest challenges historians face. The reality of limited archive time forces researchers, especially less experienced researches like me, to broach questions with not necessarily intuitive answers. What material is required to help solve my research problem? How do I prioritize the essential material when there is so much interesting but nonessential material in this collection? When is enough really enough? More completed projects and more hours in the archive give seasoned historians confidence in approaching new collections on a time crunch, research skills sharpened through steady work over many years. In the throes of a semester though, I found an aggressive approach to these questions helped me move forward when I wanted to linger over every record, folder, and box.

My game plan scheduled an unrelenting number of archival trips into several chunks. The awareness of an appointment at another archive the next day motivated me to comb a collection for the essentials. Sometimes, I visited two different archives in the same day, eating lunch in transit. With a more structured and ambitious approach to archive time, I better prioritized what was most useful for my projects before, only if time allowed, looking for stories in unexpected places. Trying to move quickly helped me attack my research question with more focus. I stopped saving the best documents for last, wasting time optimistically poking around for evidence that was seldom there. I started pursuing the real leads with more relentlessness.

This fall, I bring up this approach to once again psych myself up for time in the archive. Despite the aggressive strategy last year, I found myself making additional trips to the archives. These extra visits happened because I came across more material than anticipated and because research questions evolved as the project progressed—both good things. Having said this, I attribute these positive developments to starting fast, and only later slowing down and really digging in. Whereas in past terms my projects had their respective archives relatively close together, this time around I’m working in archives with both great distances between each other and a real trek from where I live. Time to see if the archive blitz works as well on the road as it has at home.