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Is gumbo Mexican? Are tacos Cajun?

9 July 2007

Nezua, the Unapologetic Mexican, takes on Jefferson Parish (Louisiana) where

…there has been a rise of mobile taco vendors. And they have been thriving, their clientele apparently mostly “Hispanic” customers, according to this particular news report. Nevertheless, Jefferson Parish Councilman Louis Congemi has introduced a law (since passed) that will surely put the smackdown on that particular growing market.

After excoriating various Jefferson Parish officials for their not-so-subtle suggestions that it’s the CUSTOMERS of said taco stands that the Parish officials objects to (though not their low wage labor), he quotes New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas who is of the same mindset:

‘How are we helping our restaurants that are trying to recover by having more food trucks from Texas open up?’ he asked. ‘How do tacos help gumbo?’

Lolis Eric Elie answers that question in this morning’s Times Picayune:

 

Gumbo and tacos, while emblematic dishes of Louisiana and Mexico, also serve as shorthand for broader cultural and economic references.

A detailed answer to the New Orleans council member’s question might surprise him. It seems the taco people helped the gumbo people during an especially desperate period.

Writing in the winter 2001-02 issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Mary Gehman notes that in the 1850s, the American interlopers who moved here after the Louisiana Purchase increased their persecution and oppression of the native Creole-of-color population.

“Free blacks with young families and long futures ahead of them saw greater opportunity beyond the borders of Louisiana and prepared to leave,” Gehman wrote.

What happened to these people? Many found refuge in Veracruz, Mexico.

Considering the number of Louisiana chefs who have forgotten that okra is the key ingredient in gumbo, the Creole cooks of Veracruz might well be able to help reinvigorate the local version of the dish.

Anyone who had been to pre-Katrina New Orleans AND Veracruz is struck by the similarities. One travel writer describes the people of Veracruz this way:

 

The city’s 1.2 million inhabitants, known as jaroches (from Jara, the Spanish word for a type of arrow), once derogatory but now respectable, are fun-loving, lively and more ethnically mixed than other Mexican cities. Totonaca, Spanish, African and Caribbean blend into a warm and hospitable people. Giving color to this mixture are sailors from the four corners of the world, strolling the downtown streets and enjoying the city’s all-inclusive festive atmosphere.

Substitute “Cajan” for “Spanish” and that sounds like the “old” New Orleans. For that matter, Tampico and Galveston and New Orleans and Veracruz have more in common with each other than any of them do with Toluca or Tulsa.

In the Gulf cities, regardless of what country they happen to fall in, you find a significant African influence, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic culture, and a tolerance for decadence. I’ve always said Veracruz is Mexico’s New Orleans (with a touch of San Francisco). Or New Orleans is the U.S. Veracruz… a good place to be bad.. or to grow old disgracefully.

Both are THE place to go for Carnival, even if the New Orleans version goes by the French name and was Disneyfied the last few years (even moved to a more convenient date than the Church calendar specifies). And great seafood.

So, Louisiana hot sauce ain’t quite the same as salsa… Creole, Cajun, Veracruzano, Tampaqueño… the great Gulf cuisines — and cultures — have been fertilizing and repopulating each other for centuries. They’ve survived each other’s pirate attacks (Jean Lafitte is remembered as a local businessman in all four cities), political intrigues (Benito Juarez did some of his best plotting against the conservatives in New Orleans and Veracruz cafes), bombardments, storms (the ONLY official Mexican military operation in the United States was disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina) and crooked politicos like Huey Long and Maximilio Avilla Camacho.

They’ll survive bureacratic attacks on taco vendors and maybe — with some luck — the unconscionable neglect of the Bush administration too.

The photo is Veracruz, but I cheated slightly. The dancers are from Veracruz’ sizable Cuban community

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike D. permalink
    9 July 2007 8:46 am

    Hi. Yours is a very interesting website I’ve bookmarked. I came upon it when searching for information about popular books in Mexico. Can you tell me anything, in general, about what Mexicans like to read about? Harry Potter, non-fiction, mysteries–what?
    Thanks for your consideration,
    UNM grad student

  2. 9 July 2007 11:23 am

    Carnaval in Veracruz is the bomb! It’s highly recommended.

  3. 9 July 2007 8:36 pm

    Great post, Richard. Always learning something over here.

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