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From Senegal to New Orleans: How rice shaped a city

Rice

Rice filed in Senegal (Photo provided by: Africa Rice Center)

No one, in the history of the world, has ever carried on a conversation about New Orleans without the topic of its unique cuisine arising. From gumbo, to king cake, to crawfish: food is something New Orleans does well; so well in fact, that it is an integral part of the city’s famous identity. The food in New Orleans is a smorgasbord of cultures, eras, and tradition all thrown together into one huge gumbo pot of deliciousness. There is one ingredient that rules supreme over all others when it comes to the cuisine being offered up around The Big Easy: rice. Rice has a special place in the heart and history of New Orleans: rice is everywhere. You can take almost any dish made in New Orleans--or really Louisiana in general--put it over a bed of rice and you’ll be hard pressed to find any complaints. Gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish etouffee, all the other etouffees, I mean the list is endless. If it falls under the “sauce piquant” banner--it has rice in it. The people of New Orleans love rice so much they even put it in a dessert: enter rice pudding.  

Although rice has become an integral part of New Orleans cuisine, it was not actually born here. It was a product of migration--a tradition that found a new home in the city. Aboard French slave ships that transported  slaves from west Africa to the city, also came the knowledge and skills of rice cultivation, gained from the Senegambia region of west Africa.

The first two French ships that brought African slaves from West Africa to Louisiana in 1719 were given instructions from the French Superior Council to bring back rice as well as slaves equipped with the knowledge of how to grow this rice to Louisiana and to immediately take those individuals to the directors of the French trading company in Louisiana.

The following year, rice was being produced throughout the Mississippi River and was soon integrated into the French Louisiana economy and exported from Louisiana to the French West Indies. Rice also proved to be more fit for the Louisiana and New Orleans climate than other crops (Hall 121-22). In times of heavy rain and flooding, which New Orleanians know is common to the New Orleans weather cycle, other crops, like corn, would be destroyed while rice continued to thrive in these conditions. That would be impossible without the knowledge possessed by these Senegambian slaves about how to grow rice in such a similar climate of southern Senegambia.

Add that to the similarities between Senegalese rice dishes and New Orleans rice dishes, and the homage to Senegal for our rice becomes even more apparent. There’s Senegal’s national dish, ceebu jën (also spelt thieboudienne), which consists of rice and fish. They have a Senegalese jambalaya, consisting of rice, seafood and vegetables, and there is also Chiep, a fish that is usually stuffed with a mixture of spices including parsley, peppers, and garlic. Take our gumbo. The word gumbo, although not entirely rice-related, actually originates from the Wolof word gombo, meaning okra. The Senegambian gombo was already integrated into a Senegalese dish also called gombo, and although it tastes different from the gumbo found in New Orleans due to the presence of different oils and spices, both rely on a key ingredient- the okra vegetable.

So on this Monday, the honorary red beans and rice day, take a look at your bowl or rice and realize that there’s a whole lot of history in it.

 

Citations:
Barry, Boubacar. Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge, U.K.:
Cambridge University Press, 1998. 10-20.
Carney, Judith Ann. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the
Americas. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2001.
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. "French New Orleans: Technology, Skills, Labor, Escape, Treatment." Africans in Colonial Lousiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, Louisiana State UP, 1992, pp. 120-22.

 

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.