Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sugar and New Orleans

Sugar and New Orleans: Some Notes

Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, I stopped by the visitors' center just off Jackson Square. Although I already had a sweets-centric itinerary drawn up, I wanted to be sure I wasn't leaving out anything important (or delicious). I approached the perfectly coiffed matron at the information counter, explained my interests, and asked if there was anything I should be sure to try.

After a few seconds' thought, she shook her head and delivered the bad news: "In New Orleans, we don't particularly care for sweets."

Although I would never say "hogwash" to a well-meaning volunteer, I was certainly thinking it. In rebuttal, I offer my previous week's worth of posts plus the following collected notes that didn't quite fit into those posts. Taken together, they form a portrait of a city that is positively steeped in sugar. To quote a 19th century souvenir apron on display at the Cabildo Museum (in the very room where the Louisiana Purchase was signed):

"Cotton is King; Sugar is Queen; Rice, the Lady-in-Waiting."

By the late eighteenth century, Europe's appetite for sugar and rum was such that in the cane-growing colonies of Haiti and Santo Domingo, slaves outnumbered free citizens by eight to one. Even as depicted on these decorative French plates (above, right and left), cutting (with knives like the ones above, center) and processing cane was arduous and dangerous work. In 1789 the island of Santo Domingo exploded in a series of violent slave uprisings. The aftermath shifted attention to Louisiana, where the humid climate was well suited to sugarcane. Refugees from Santo Domingo included many who would shape the region's nascent sugar industry, as well as others who would leave their mark, such as Antoine Peychaud, father of the cocktail.

One particularly suitable site was a lush stretch of land beside the Mississippi River that was inhabited by Houmas Indians and grazed by bison when French explorers arrived in 1682. The
Houmas House that still stands there today was built in the 1820's by Wade Hampton, then the state's chief sugar producer and the region's largest slave holder. In 1858 the plantation and columned mansion were bought by John Burnside, "The Sugar Prince of Louisiana" and owner of more than 300,000 acres. Full of art and fine furnishings, "The Sugar Palace" draws many tourists to Darrow, an hour's drive from New Orleans.

After the Civil War, many former slaves returned to the sugar fields as employees, but the situation proved unproductive and untenable. Plantation owners began to recruit foreign workers--from China, Northern Europe, and Italy--adding to the diversity of cultural influences still felt in New Orleans today. During the same period, the block of Decatur Street that now houses the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park was almost entirely made up of confectioners' kitchens and shops; the row of candy stores was a major attraction for visitors until the block burned down in 1937.

Louisiana was home to many of the milestone innovations that contributed to the modernization of the sugar industry. The enormous Audubon Park in the Garden District, for example, was formerly the site of large plantation where the first controlled granulation of sugar was achieved in 1794. The legacy of that discovery is alive and well in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where Domino Sugar's sprawling Chalmette Refinery (above) produces 6.8 million pounds of sugar every day. The refinery is easily seen from the tour boats that travel up and down the river.

The Chalmette plant opened in 1909, replacing two obsolete refineries on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. It was such a major employer that the city built a streetcar line to deliver workers to the factory door. In the past century the Chalmette Refinery has withstood a number of challenges--WWI, the Great Depression, rationing during WWII. During Hurricane Katrina, nine feet of floodwater ruined the ground floor machines, but the refinery's sturdy buildings withstood the winds and became a refuge for stranded neighbors and a mustering station for the National Guard. The plant was renovated and running 98 days after the storm.

At Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, old parade floats are stored in a huge hangar until they can be harvested for re-purposeable parts. We were there in time to catch some still-intact floats from a sweets-themed parade a few years back : (above, from left) Mandarin Orange Cheesecake, Gooseberry Fool, Shoofly Pie. I flashed back to my elementary school glory years by calling out their names before the tourguide had even finished asking if anyone could identify them.

Even more sweet stories are featured the Southern Food and Beverage Museum's exhibition "
Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar" and Kit Wohl's cookbook, New Orleans Classic Desserts.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Wonderful! Best post yet!