Volunteers recreate historic Creole Lenten meal in New Orleans

A meal of richly seasoned gumbo aux herbes, trout amandine and potatoes au gratin doesn’t seem austere to 21st-century sensibilities. In 1830s New Orleans, however, the absence of meat and rich sauces to which those of means were accustomed clearly indicates that this dinner is “maigre” or “thin,” and suitable for Lent.

The city’s predominantly Roman Catholic population strictly observed Lent. Observant families served only one small meal a day, except on Sundays, and those meals were simple and totally without meat or animal fat, even in stocks.

During Lent, teams of volunteer cooks at the Hermann-Grima House museum follow the old rules to prove it was possible to eat well despite those restrictions.

Martha Irwin, who began volunteering at the house in the 1980s, said: “We have to wash the greens even more thoroughly than today, because they came direct from the garden.” According to tradition, the cook would make one new friend in the following year for each “green” in the gumbo.

For a recent Lenten dish, the women gathered cabbage, beet leaves, turnip greens, spinach, green bell pepper, green onions, parsley, mustard greens and watercress. The aroma of the soup simmering in a large iron pot over the wood fire whetted the appetite of every visitor.

“The first thing we do is light the fire,” Irwin said. She explained that it was important to start early on anything that needed to simmer a long time, “plus we need the embers to fire up the potager, or stew holes.”

Then, using a long-handled shovel, she scooped some embers and dropped them into one of the openings in the device that resembles a modern outdoor grill.

She added pinecones, “excellent tinder,” she said, and fanned the combination to a full flame, creating lots of smoke. Finally she added charcoal for a long-lasting fire, and replaced the gridiron.

Ninette Edmiston, another volunteer, said the stew holes are convenient, as they are at waist height, aptly demonstrating as she prepared the gratin sauce.

Indeed, as she stirred cheese into hot cream, she resembled any modern cook at work.

“We can do anything in this 1830s kitchen that we can at home,” she said. “Except that it takes a lot longer and a lot more work.”

The fireplace is equipped with a swinging crane, so cooks can pull it out with a hook to reach hanging pots.

Some dishes are cooked over embers in Dutch ovens or spider pots, which have legs to raise them above the coals and rimmed lids that can hold more coals for even cooking.

A hinged waffle iron on a long handle could be heated in the fire long enough for the batter poured into the device to “bake” quickly. There also is a baking oven, a luxury at a time when most everyone patronized the city’s numerous bakeries, but Samuel Hermann, who commissioned the house, was a wealthy man and wanted the best of everything in his kitchen as well as the house.

“Besides dining, Lent affected most aspects of life in New Orleans,” said Carolyn Bercier, deputy director and curator of the house. “Children were supposed to play quietly. There was no opera or even piano music at home. Shutters were closed. It was a time of penitence and reflection.”

Ann Bruce, whose parents, Anna May and Willie Maylie, operated their popular namesake restaurant on Poydras Street, said the cooking program was developed around 1960 by avid volunteers Avery Bassich, Claire Carruth and Helen Shaw primarily by studying old cookbooks. Bruce joined the team in 1985, and widened the research to home remedies and cosmetics.

The Woman’s Exchange, established in 1881 to help women in need, owns the house, and Gallier House on Royal Street, another grand house, built in 1859 and also open to visitors.

The organization published the cookbook “Creole Cookery” in 1885, and a facsimile volume in 2005, complete with back-of-the book ads.

The house is appropriately decorated for seasons and events throughout the year, including covering chandeliers with netting to prevent insect damage in hot weather, mourning clothes sometimes laid out, and a lavish Christmas feast, the Réveillon, on the dining table.