Ethnic and Eclectic: The Cultures and Food of New Orleans

09:37 September 19, 2018
By: Burke Bischoff

There have been many terms used to describe New Orleans over the years: lively, dangerous, easy-going, degenerate, colorful, dirty, etc. While most of these are true, I personally think one term that holds the most water (like New Orleans streets) is “cultured.” Being a port city, New Orleans has seen a number of different people of different ethnic backgrounds come through and influence many aspects of the city, especially its food. The city is best-known for its French, African, and Creole (as well as Sicilian, Irish, and German) influences, but there are other cultures present in New Orleans that helped shape it to be what it is today.

The Jewish population in New Orleans dates back to the 18th century. Becoming more visible after American independence, the Jewish people helped shape New Orleans throughout its history. More and more synagogues started popping up in a predominantly Catholic city, and many well-known businesses (like Touro) were started by Jews. Other businesses, like Stein’s Market in the city and Kosher Cajun Deli in Metairie, help bring New Orleans flavors to the Jewish community and kosher-style dishes to locals who want to be adventurous.

With New Orleans’s strong French and Italian history, it only makes sense that people from other Mediterranean countries would make their way over to the city as well. Immigrants from Greece, Croatia, Lebanon, and other nearby countries started coming to New Orleans as early as the mid-18th century and continued to do so as late as the 20th century. This influx of people saw the migration of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors into New Orleans cuisine and diets (including renowned restaurants like Shaya), as well as the establishment of many different structures, like the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Robert E. Lee Boulevard (which is said to be the oldest Greek Orthodox Church in the United States).

The city has also seen a large number of people who have migrated here from a number of different Asian countries. While there are plenty of people here with ancestry from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and India, the vast majority of people in New Orleans’s Asian community are Vietnamese. Fleeing communist rule in their home country near the end of the Vietnam War, a lot of native Vietnamese immigrated to cities in South Louisiana because of the familiar climate and French/Catholic presence. Because of this, Vietnamese immigrants were able to integrate well into New Orleans, mixing their own traditions and cuisine in with the city’s. Now, New Orleans has seen a mass influx of Vietnamese restaurants and dishes like báhn mì and phở being adopted and accepted by most locals.

There are many other cultures beyond these that have been thrown into the melting pot that is New Orleans. The city is only 300 years old, so who’s to say what other cultures or countries might influence New Orleans in the next 300 years? I’ll be long past dead at that point, but it’ll be interesting to see how the city changes and adapts in the future. Maybe aliens or sentient androids will find their way to New Orleans. Weirder things have happened here. 

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