Rooted in history: Haitian influence on NOLA cuisine

Todd A. Price/USA TODAY | 1/17/2020, 6 a.m.
Ricardo Jean-Baptiste was born in Haiti. In the United States, he became a chef. He moved to New Orleans in ...

NEW ORLEANS - Ricardo Jean-Baptiste was born in Haiti. In the United States, he became a chef. He moved to New Orleans in 2015 for a job at a large hotel that caters to tourists and conventioneers.

“When I came here the first day, I’m almost crying because everything looks similar,” Mr. Jean-Baptiste said. “It was like memories, memories running through my head.”

The shotgun houses, the narrow blocks that form many New Orleans neighborhoods, were just like houses in Haiti, down to the exact dimensions. The bright colors on buildings edged with Victorian frills were reminiscent of the vivid hues that decorate Caribbean homes. The second line parades through New Orleans streets were like the rara in Haiti. And the food of New Orleans took Mr. Jean-Baptiste back to his childhood in Haiti.

“The gumbo, so flavorful. Reminds me of home,” he said. “We do something similar to gumbo, except we don’t use roux.”

Before he first ate in the city, Mr. Jean-Baptiste was already familiar with the taste of New Orleans’ Monday staple of red beans and rice, the starchy but bland mirlitons, also called chayotes, and the many ways Louisianans cook okra — except for pickled okra, which was new for him. Each dish had an analog in his native Haiti.

The city of New Orleans, citing the latest census data, puts the local Haitian population at 1,500. Members of that community, however, think it might be as large as 6,000 or 7,000, having grown since the massive earthquake in 2010 that devastated Haiti.

Since New Orleans was founded three centuries ago, many people have added layers to its culture. But the wave of immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, fleeing the revolution that created Haiti, transformed New Orleans from a minor outpost to a major city. That influence has not always been recognized.

Those refugees doubled New Orleans’ population. They found a place where French was spoken, and as Americans poured in after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, they bolstered the city’s French identity. They came to a land that, like the colony they left, had free people of color. In the United States, they also found a place, like Haiti before its revolution, where enslaved black people still worked the land.

They brought their experience and skills farming lucrative sugarcane to Louisiana and “helped reduce the risk of failure in a nascent industry that required large capital outlays and production on a massive scale,” according to Alfred N. Hunt’s “Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean.”

Here, white people and free black people from the colony the French called Saint-Dominique succeeded as bakers, shop owners, musicians, cabinet makers and engineers. They added sidewalks and installed streetlights in New Orleans. They founded newspapers, opened schools and created theaters.

The flavors they introduced to New Orleans are harder to trace than their businesses that left behind buildings and logs of taxes paid and profits made. And cooking, in the time before global transportation, was forced to adapt to different ingredients when the cooks moved to new lands. Two centuries later, though, the familiar flavors that Mr. Jean-Baptiste and other recent Haitian immigrants taste in New Orleans prove the depth of that influence.