Bourbon, Barbecue, and Spanish Conquest: New Orleans History

Where “Beale Street meets Bourbon Street,” touts the official website for the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival. The festival, held annually, proudly exhibits New Orleans barbeque culture through a diverse range of smoked, seared and smothered meats, a beloved palette of blues musicians, and a specially curated arts market. As the sole benefactor for the event, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation allows for free admission into a plethora of cultural enrichment and education development programs in accordance with their mission statement, in which they vow “to promote, preserve, perpetuate and encourage the music, arts, culture and heritage of communities in Louisiana.” Yet, what may strike some as odd is the idea that such a festival could exist in New Orleans, given the city’s colonial history. Then again, there’s a festival for everything in the Crescent City.

The French were the first colonial superpower to inhabit the New Orleans region, and they did a poor job when developing the land for commercial use, which eventually led to the Spanish acquisition of the “La Nouvelle-Orleans.” Unfortunately for King Charles III, the Spanish only ruled the city for a short period of time; after a terribly devastating fire and a British naval blockade that was particularly damaging for Spain’s economy, New Orleans fell back into the hands of the French. Although these events aren’t directly related to barbeque in the region (i.e., the great fire wasn’t caused by an erratic smoke pit), what also needs to be considered is the origin of barbeque in North America. The word barbecue comes from the Spanish barbacoa, whose entomology can be traced back to define a “framework of sticks set upon posts.” When Spanish explorers found themselves in the Caribbean and along the northeastern coast of South America, the indigenous peoples there (mainly the Taino Indians) were said to have practiced cooking meat using said framework of sticks set upon posts in such a way that the smoke and the flames rose to meet the meat, producing a unique flavor and tenderness in the pork. It’s also said that they were shooting guns into the air, launching fireworks, and screaming “Make the Antilles Great Again!” but that account is markedly less credible.

From there, the Spanish and the Caribbean people brought the practice with them as they expanded to parts of the American South, and barbecue indirectly reached the regions which are said to indulge in the classic Americana style: Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas, and so on. But given that Spain only had control over New Orleans for less than forty years, and given the traditionally seafood-based preferences of the city, the cooking style never found a true home there; barbecued bananas, catfish ribs, or pulled oyster aren’t all that appealing to many people. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t barbecue traditions in New Orleans, as evidenced by the Blues and BBQ Festival and the popular barbecue shrimp, whose origin and uprising is another incredulous feat altogether.

COVER PHOTO: Rachel Wine

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