When people think of Easter traditions, they likely envision baskets of candy and decorated eggs. But predictably, in South Louisiana, entire meals are part of the tradition. Easter Sunday here is celebrated with crawfish boils, barbeques, and feasts centered around an Easter ham, but the meals leading up to Easter Sunday are just as significant to our food culture. In fact, our customary Holy Week cuisine actually may be more special—and is undeniably equally delicious.
Holy Thursday - Gumbo Z'herbes
Meat-free Fridays during Lent are a common practice among the region's Catholics. Eating on Good Friday is even more complicated by church mandates to fast and to abstain from work—so all of the cooking for Good Friday has to take place on Holy Thursday. Thus enters gumbo z'herbes, or green gumbo, into the mix of New Orleans's Easter traditions.
Gumbo z'herbes is commonly considered the culinary offspring of the West African callaloo and the French potage aux herbes, though it also resembles the German gründonnerstagsuppe, or Green Thursday Soup, another Holy Week tradition. In keeping with its diverse Creole heritage, gumbo z'herbes has many manifestations, with one obvious common denominator: lots of winter greens.
Some believe the odd number of greens prescribed for the soup has religious significance, being symbolically related to the Stations of the Cross, but gumbo z'herbes has become quite secular. The Picayune's Creole Cook Book (1901) says that for every green put in this gumbo, "a new friend would be made during the year. Be creative and use any kind of greens that are available." Truly, any and every green added to the pot adds a new layer of flavor.
Start with a roux. When it reaches the right color (medium brown, like caramel), sauté some trinity (onion, celery, and bell pepper). Add the stock of your choice and all the greens you've got. Recipes include collard, mustard, turnip, and dandelion greens; cabbage, kale, and Swiss chard; lettuce, sorrel, and spinach; beet, radish, and carrot tops; chicory, arugula, and watercress; tarragon, parsley, and
Season with a couple of bay leaves and thyme (oregano and basil are also good options), as well as salt and black and cayenne peppers to taste. You might also add a pinch of cloves and allspice. Let the soup simmer for an hour. Serve over boiled rice with filé or red wine vinegar for topping.
Although originally vegetarian, intended for consumption on Good Friday, gumbo z'herbes may be prepared with the addition of a ham hock or pickled meat (i.e. pickled pork), andouille sausage, and brisket. In fact, nowadays, this hearty stew is most often eaten on Holy Thursday thanks to Chef Leah Chase, who established a meaty gumbo z'herbes as one of her specialties generations ago.
So if gathering and prepping 3 pounds of greens isn't your jam, plan to join the line of folks flocking to Dooky Chase's (2301 Orleans Ave.) this year to get its traditional Holy Thursday meal of fried chicken, cornbread, and gumbo z'herbes.
Good Friday - Pie Day
South Louisiana's Cajun Catholics have their own answer to Good Friday's church-mandated restrictions: Pie Day, a contemporary iteration of Tarte de Jour, a French tradition dating back to the 12th century. Since only one meal is allowed on Good Friday, Cajuns turn this meal into a communal feast, lasting six to eight hours.
While the rule still stands that no pie may include meat, the variety of pies prepared in the Acadiana parishes on Holy Thursday, to enjoy on Good Friday, is limitless. Savory pies are more often like tarts, made with a cornmeal crust, and might include ingredients such as crawfish, oysters, mushrooms, spinach, eggplant, or tomato. Sweet pies may also incorporate local ingredients: sweet potato, pecan, strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, and even lemon merengue.
If making a pie crust seems daunting, buy one ready-made from your grocery's freezer section. Pre-bake the crust, then fill it with your favorite ingredients and bake according to recipe. Or you may want to try making an "impossible pie." Blend milk, flaked coconut, eggs, vanilla, flour, butter, and sugar (and lemon juice and zest for a bright, citrusy version). Pour into a buttered dish and bake until the custard sets. Of course, there are quite a few bakeries and restaurants throughout New Orleans that will sell you all kinds of whole pies, mini-pies, and pie by-the-slice for Pie Day.
La Boulangerie (4600 Magazine St.) is a long-established stand-by for a handcrafted slice of pie or a small tart. Windowsill Pies (4714 Freret St.) is every pie-lover's dream with daily offerings, including delectable hand pies, ready for pick-up in 15 minutes. Fry and Pie (7007 St. Claude Ave., Arabi) also has an extensive menu of individual pies ready for pick-up or delivery. Full-sized pies can be ordered 48 hours in advance from any of the three listed bakeries.
Casual restaurants famous around town for their slices of pie include The Joint (701 Mazant St.) and Camellia Grill (626 S. Carrollton Ave.). There are black-owned establishments slinging delicious pies too: crawfish pies from Orleans Brothers (firstname.lastname@example.org); hand pies from Confectionary Queen (email@example.com); and sweet potato pecan pies, cream cheese pecan pies, and deep-dish crawfish pies from Tee Eva's Pralines (firstname.lastname@example.org).
So no matter how you like it—meaty or veggie, sweet or savory, homecooked or handmade—our Cajun and Creole culture delivers many tasty ways to celebrate the coming of spring this year.