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Silver Threads: The French have a flair for entertaining in any place, any time

Thanksgiving_Dinner

The first Thanksgiving feast in New Orleans was held in in the late 1600s, with French explorers, fur trappers, traders and Native Americans as invited guests, turning up early on a sunny November morning among an array of thatched huts along Bayou St. John.

Several French ships had arrived on the river near the settlement, having lingered long in the lush wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, collecting enough oysters, crabs and shrimp to promise their crews, passengers and guests a gourmet meal at journey’s end. Before he’d left home to see the world, one of the ship’s cooks had been a chef at a pricey Paris bistro run by the Galatoire family. So his menu was sure to tickle even the sophisticated palate of the expedition’s leader, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

The feast wasn’t to be a duplicate of previous Thanksgiving meals in the New World, mais non! Venison, corn and greens probably had been served by the Pilgrims and Puritans at feasts in the Virginia colony earlier in the century. Sacre bleu! Those English cooks. Didn’t those people have tastebuds? It was to be hoped that at what may have been the earliest Thanksgiving celebration — by the Spanish on September 8, 1565, in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. — that some decent paella was offered.

As to the dinner provided by by Spanish explorers in Texas in 1598, what could have been the fare? Tamales and tacos?

Here in the place that was to be New Orleans, Monsieur le Cook planned on using corn, but in a delicious crab and shrimp bisque he would prepare with milk from the goats owned by the French traders. It would hit the spot, he figured, especially when made exquisitely and subtly spicy by a secret ingredient brought from home by a Basque crew member — Zatarain the sail rigger and sometime galley help. Other assistance would be provided by more of the cook’s favorite galley hands — Arnaud, Tujaque and even an Irishman called Brennan. They would man the cooking kettles.

There would be “native New World fare” of gumbo and jambalaya and even pommes frites from the potatoes provided by the Native Americans, and plenty of courtbuillon featuring the redfish and flounder caught by the crew. Dishes of something called “mirlitons” for which the cook would invent a recipe. He’d find some greens for salads and sprinkle them with goat cheese, wishing he had some of the rochefort for which la belle France was famous. After the salad, the meal would finish with glasses of some of the ship’s stores of sauternes and chardonnays.

The only thing missing would be the haricots verdes aux champignons; there were no green beans left over here from the summer’s harvest although there were plenty of mushrooms and wild onions with which to have garnished them.

Monsieur le Cook had an original recipe that he’d often used to prepare the green bean casserole, and Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without that dish. He may have felt better had he known that more than 300 years later it would become a staple on Thanksgiving dinner tables throughout the New World. But he wouldn’t get the credit.

The green bean casserole — topped with French-fried onion rings — is now said to have been created in 1955 by the Campbell Soup Company. Dorcas Reilly led the team that created the recipe while working as a staff member in the home economics department. The inspiration for the dish was "to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup." In 2002, Reilly presented the original recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of fame in Akron, Ohio.

The man who first created the dish would remain unknown, but his 1690 Thanksgiving feast would live long in the minds of those who were there.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]