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.

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