Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Louisiana produce, fresh to the table

This article was printed in the Louisiana Restaurant Association's Spring A La Carte magazine and writtin by Liz Williams, President and Founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Part of a four part series, Louisiana produce, fresh to the table, examines Louisiana's cultural connectivity to our unique cuisine and written to commemorate the Bicentennial of our beloved state.

When the Europeans came to Louisiana they found incredible abundance, but they did not find conventional agriculture.  The orderly rows of plants, which marked European agriculture, did not exist here.  The Europeans thought that what the Native Americans did was merely hunting and gathering.  But the Native Americans were great stewards of the land.  They had planted peach trees on the levees - peaches having been brought here by the early Spanish explorers - to encourage good drainage.  They cleared areas to encourage blackberries and dewberries.  They ground file and picked greens.  And they engaged in the practice of growing the 3 sisters:  corn, squash (like cushaw, which provided the fruit and seeds), and beans.  

The soil was fertile, and the early Europeans were able to create farms that supported the first settlers.  Around the Cote des Allemandes Alsatian farmers began to grow the food that was needed to support early Louisiana. They were not engaged in monoculture to raise money for France in the early days.  They were trying to feed themselves when shipments from France were infrequent at best. 
Native Americans were great stewards of the land and
they cleared areas to encourage blackberries and dewberries.
By the time that Louisiana became a state things had changed.  The 19th century brought prosperity to the port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, which served the entire state as a water highway.  Citrus, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and rice were important crops in the state.  Louisiana strawberries, the state fruit, are among the sweetest in the country, giving rise to the Strawberry Festival in Pontchatoula.  It seems that every product has its festival, because we here in Louisiana do not seem to be able to stop celebrating the bounty of the state, while having a good time.  But less than 400 acres are dedicated to the production of strawberries today, which while locally important, is not a major export to other states. And there is concern that the Louisiana strawberry is giving way to hardier and prettier cultivars from Florida and California.

Today the state is third in the US in the production of rice.  Rice is the daily starch of most of the state.  Whether eaten with gumbo or red beans, an etouffee, a shrimp Creole, or a jambalaya, Louisianians eat a daily portion of rice. It is certainly important enough that there are many recipes that have been created simply to use leftover rice.  Besides the traditional calas, there is also rice pudding.  And on the savory side, many a stuffed tomato, mirliton or pepper began with a bowl of leftover rice.  Besides its great production of rice, the state produces $230 million in soybeans, according to the LSU Ag Center.  And about 350,000 acres of the state are planted in corn.
The Tabasco pepper grown in Avery Island, Louisiana
has gained world-renowned status and can be found on
nearly every restaurant and home tables.
The Tabasco pepper and the famous Tabasco pepper sauce represent the state of Louisiana all over the world.  And other local pepper sauces can be found on the tables of many Cajun, Creole and northern Louisiana cooks, depending on the local tastes.  Restaurant tables often sport several different sauces to allow the customer a bit of choice.
Satsumas are grown in orchards in Southeast Louisiana and
are sweet and have a loose skin, making them easy to peel.
But being high in production for export is not the only important aspect of the state’s agriculture.  Sometimes the food is celebrated for just plain tasting good, even if it never leaves the state.  Creole tomatoes, for example, are a prime example of local terroir.  Those same tomatoes grown in a different environment would not taste quite so good.  While the tomato is a New World fruit, the satsuma, a very popular citrus fruit in Louisiana, is originally from Japan and brought to Louisiana by the Jesuits.  The satsuma has caught on in the backyards and tables of the state even though it is rarely seen in grocery stores outside of the Louisiana drive radius. 
Only the Louisiana yam, which is really an aged sweet potato, has the texture and sweetness to hold up to baking.  This New World tuber is a favorite in Louisiana, not only gracing the Thanksgiving table, but finding its way into pies and casseroles. Most recently sweet potato fries have been a popular alternative to pommes frites. 
Matt Murphy of the Irish House is one of many
Louisiana chefs who use locally-grown produce to
add rich flavor and bright colors to their menus.
Another New World food is the pecan.  This nut is found all over the state.  It is the highest in antioxidants of all of the tree nuts.  They made wonderful desserts like pecan pie and pralines, but also are fine additions to savory dishes and salads. Louisiana orchards produce about 15 million pounds of pecans each year. 
Besides large farms many restaurants are enhancing their own tables with fresh produce from restaurant farms and gardens.  It is a good way to monitor quality and demonstrate a dedication to the freshest ingredients.  Not all restaurants have the land to create their own gardens, and these restaurateurs sometimes have direct contacts with small farmers who sell directly to the restaurants.

Louisiana produce comes from the rich and fertile soil of the state.  Whether it is the product of monoculture like soybeans, rice and corn, which makes enormous contributions to the state’s economy, or is an heirloom fruit like a Louisiana strawberry, Louisiana produce is some of the finest to grace the table.

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