Photo: Bucket of crawfish and potatoes.

One of New Orleans' signature dishes is the crawfish boil. New Orleans cooks boil ingredients like potatoes (pictured), sausage, corn, and lemons along with crawfish, also known as crayfish or crawdads.

Photograph by Ben Bingham, MyShot

Stuart Thornton

National Geographic Education

When Dr. Charles Chamberlain III, a historian, thinks about immigration trends in the city of New Orleans, his mind turns to mouthwatering Louisiana dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.

According to Chamberlain, gumbo originated when early New Orleans residents from France, Africa, and Spain combined their cooking techniques to create the hearty stew. Jambalaya, a rice-based dish with chicken and sausage, recalls both Spanish paella and West African Jollof rice.

“I think food is the ultimate metaphor for describing how these cultures blended,” says Chamberlain, of the Louisiana State Museum.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, a new wave of immigrants flooded Louisiana’s largest city. Chamberlain says the city’s reconstruction efforts after Katrina relied on Latino laborers from Mexico and Central America. According to 2008 Census Bureau figures, the Latino population in New Orleans has grown from 3.1 percent to 4.5 percent since 2000.

As Chamberlain ponders the latest wave of immigration, his thoughts once again turn to his stomach. “I grew up [in California] eating Mexican food, and when I moved here 20 years ago, I was pretty disappointed,” he says. “After the storm, I was like ‘thank god’ to the first taqueria truck I came to. Sure enough, taqueria trucks popped up all over the place with awesome, authentic Mexican food. So that was the symbol of the new post-Katrina population.”

History of Immigration

Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University who writes about the physical and human geography of New Orleans, says he, too, has noticed the growing influence of Latinos in the city since Hurricane Katrina.

It’s an assumption supported by the fact that the New Orleans Police Department recently made one of its officers an official Spanish translator and liaison to the city’s growing Latino populace.

“The streetscape is replete with evidence” of a growing Latino population, Campanella says. “That is to say, there are mom-and-pop Latino grocery stores appearing throughout the city and the suburbs, because many of these folks are settling in suburban areas. You are also more likely to see bilingual signage.”

Since New Orleans was founded in 1718 (by the French, who initially claimed the region), there have been several waves of immigrants to the city. Early in its history, the French colony became a mix of French, Spanish, and African settlers.

Campanella says the current Latino influence recalls the region’s Spanish colonial period, from 1762 to 1800, when Spain was in possession of Louisiana. During that time, Spaniards constructed the Cabildo, a building of distinctly Spanish architecture that housed the municipal government. The Cabildo, surrounded by the wrought-iron porches of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is now home to the Louisiana State Museum.

The current influx of Latino immigrants “is replicating some of the patterns we saw two centuries ago,” Campanella says. “This was once a part of the Spanish colonial empire.”

Following Spanish rule, the French again took over Louisiana before selling the region to the United States as part of the massive Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Before the Louisiana Purchase, French-speaking Catholics known as Creoles dominated the region’s culture, though African and Spanish influences were quite prominent. Later, French-speaking immigrants from the Acadia region of eastern Canada moved to the rural areas outside of New Orleans. This group became known as the Cajuns.

When the United States took over Louisiana, Anglo-Americans, U.S. citizens of English heritage, poured into New Orleans and intermingled with the Creoles.

“The two groups had very different views in just about everything that relates to the notion of culture—from law, to language, to religion, to architecture, to surveying, to views on race and slavery,” Campanella says. “Much of the 19th century is the history of these two groups kind of coming to terms with each other, oftentimes uncomfortably, and eventually hybridizing.”

In 1809, as New Orleans was becoming more Americanized, about 9,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue, a French colony that eventually became the nation of Haiti, moved to the city and virtually doubled its population overnight.

“Anglo-Americans are starting to come down and you are starting to hear English more and more on the streets, and then here comes this fresh new dose of French Caribbean culture,” Campanella says. “This implants more linguistic and cultural diversity in the city.”

Though one rarely thinks of their influence on New Orleans, German and Irish laborers were lured to New Orleans between 1837 and the Civil War. New Orleans was one of the largest, busiest ports in the United States, and immigrants were drawn by the promise of good jobs.

Chamberlain says most of the Irish residents wanted to blend in with the prevailing culture, while the German immigrants stuck to their traditions and made their own imprint on the city. “New Orleans was the beer capital of the South . . . and one of the beer capitals of America, rivaling Milwaukee before Prohibition,” he says. “That comes from our German heritage.”

Another important event that increased immigration to New Orleans was the emancipation of slaves from nearby plantations after the Civil War. According to Campanella, sugar cane and cotton plantations recruited Sicilians and Chinese to replace their work force of slaves.

“Emancipation had this curious effect of increasing the diversity of New Orleans by encouraging many African Americans to move to the city as well as these two other groups,” he says.

Legacy of Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the low-lying city in 2005, the resulting flooding of neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward caused some of New Orleans’ residents to flee the city. Chamberlain says two groups have been unable to return.

“The people who have left and have a hard time coming back are the people who lived in neighborhoods that got flooded and generally lacked the resources to rebuild or return,” he says. “So that could be old people or poor people.”

But throughout its nearly 300-year history, New Orleans has always been refreshed by waves of immigrants. The recent influx of Latinos is sure to contribute to the city’s rich cultural legacy—including its unique cuisine.

“We haven’t had crawfish tacos yet,” Chamberlain says. “It’s inevitably coming.”

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