You can’t have an honest discussion about New Orleans food history without taking a thorough inventory of its cross-cultural mix. And when you do this, you will inevitably run into a cross-linguistic mix.
New Orleans is unlike any other city in the United States. It sits at the crossroads of Native American, African, Cajun, French, Spanish, English, Caribbean, and even Irish, German and Italian heritage. This varied cultural mix brought us its distinctive local cuisine; and as it so happens, gumbo is not only a literal mix of ingredients, but also a metaphor for the linguistic mix of ingredients that gave dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and congrí their names.
According to culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, one of the biggest misconceptions people have about New Orleans food is that it’s spicy: “It’s not always spicy. It is always well-seasoned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean hot. I think that people think it’s rich, and in fact, it is. [Another misconception is] that it is largely French. If you go to France and eat the food there, it’s not very much like what you get here.”
Here’s a closer look at where the names of popular NOLA dishes came from.
It’s a common misconception that gumbo is just the Creole answer to French bouillabaisse.
In just about every French-speaking country today, gombo means “okra,” which was once a key ingredient in the stew. But according to Harris, gombo originally came from ki ngombo or a variant of this word, which means “okra” in the Bantu languages. Moreover, gumbo usually doesn’t contain fish, like bouillabaisse does. But it does have a lot in common with the okra soups and stews of West Africa.
There are other sources who believe it comes from the Choctaw word kombo, which means “sassafras.” It’s worth noting that Madame Langlois, who was deemed “the first great cook in Louisiana,” learned a lot of what she knew from Native Americans.
Jambalaya is a rice-based dish that’s similar to Spanish paella and a French Provençal dish known as jambalaia, which meant “mishmash.”
Though it seems like there’s an obvious linguistic connection there, another not very well-substantiated theory is that it comes from a mixture of the French word jambon (or “ham”) and aya or ya, a West African word for “rice.”
Still another theory posits that the word comes from the Atakapa phrase “Sham, pal ha! Ya!” which means “Be full, not skinny! Eat up!” It was likely due to Spanish influence that the pronunciation changed over time.
There’s also an old wives’ tale about a French traveler who stayed at a New Orleans inn and asked the cook, Jean, to “sweep something together” with whatever scraps she had laying around — “Jean, balayez!”
At the end of the day, no one really knows for sure.
It seems pretty obvious that “po’boy” is a shortened form of “poor boy.” But that still leaves us with some questions.
According to Harris, there are two diverging schools of thought when it comes to the etymology of “po’boy.”
The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink in America cites both versions, and both involve the brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin. According to the most oft-cited theory, the Martin brothers invented the sandwich in 1929 to give out to striking streetcar workers in a show of support (though Harris says the sandwich may have appeared before that). Whenever they saw a striking man coming their way, they would say, “Here comes another poor boy.” Another theory is that they handed out portions of these sandwiches for free to young black boys asking for sandwiches “for a po’ boy.”
There are also a couple lesser-known theories. One is that it came from the French term pourboire, or the tip you give a waiter. However, this connection seems shaky. Another is that restaurants wanted to find a way to sell their stale baguettes, so they turned them into cheap sandwiches that they could sell to “poor boys.”
Perhaps the most notable culinary contribution made by Italian immigrants was the muffuletta sandwich, which mainly consists of cold cuts, olive salad and cheese, and comes sandwiched inside a loaf of round, crusty Italian bread.
It’s this bread that likely gives the muffuletta its name. Muffuletta, or muffoletta, means “little muffin” in the Sicilian dialect of Italian.
Central Grocery, a longstanding food establishment in New Orleans, holds the claim to being the home of the original muffuletta sandwich in 1906. Then-owner Signor Lupo Salvatore started making them for the nearby workers of the wharves and produce stalls, many of whom were Sicilian. At first, they would order the ingredients separately, but it became difficult for them to balance everything on their knees while sitting on crates, so that’s how the sandwich was born.
Étouffée is a Cajun and Creole fixture and usually consists of shellfish served over rice, cooked (and by cooked, it’s also apt to say “submerged”) in a sauce made from roux.
“Étouffée means ‘to smother’ in French, and it’s smothered in the same way that you would have smothered cabbage or something like that. So, an étouffée is just that. Something that is smothered,” says Harris.
Congrí goes by the same name in New Orleans as it does in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. This beans and rice dish is a cultural staple in both regions — in New Orleans, it’s a tradition to eat red beans and rice on Mondays.
The word congrí actually comes from Haitian Creole, however. Congo refers to the beans, and riz is “rice” in French. So congrí is basically a portmanteau of those two words.
Calas are sweet fried rice fritters that have a long history in New Orleans culinary tradition, though most visitors have never heard of them. According to Harris, they were once sold by women of African descent outside of the cathedral to go with coffee after mass. Calas even played a role in helping some slaves buy their freedom.
The same word — kala — exists in Liberia and various parts of West Africa, especially where rice is grown.
One theory by scholar Sylviane A. Diouf, cited in her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, postulates that the word originally came from Arabic.