Legends, Local Identity, and a New Orleans Cookbook

By Frank de Caro


Folklorists share a working definition of the term legend which might be informally phrased something like this: a legend is an oral story that is believed to be true by or which has some claims on the belief of its tellers and hearers and which recounts events set in the recent or historical past. That is, however, very much a working definition, and the precise parameters of the term legend have been subject to vigorous challenge and discussion. In the 1960s scholars such as Lutz Röhrich, Robert Georges, and Linda Dégh and Andrew Vászonyi were questioning various aspects of this definition, for example. It is not surprising, then, that in 1971 Heda Jason asserted that the field of folklore had not succeeded in "producing an exact definition" of legend (1971: 134). Or that more recently Jan Harold Brunvand should note "the continuing struggle with definition" (1991:106).

It is not my intention here to propose any revised definition of legend or even to directly comment further on the scholarly discussion, but in looking at a New Orleans cookbook1 called The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook (Ainbinder 1987), I do seek to touch upon the possible relevance of popular, non-scholarly conceptions of the term against the background of the more academic dialogue. Folklorists are not, of course, the sole proprietors of the term legend, which has related, popular uses. We hear the term used in connection with certain people, as in "she's a legend in her own time" or "he's a sports legend." In such cases the term does not refer at all to narrative, oral or otherwise, but to a type of fame. Additionally the word may appear in the titles of works of popular culture, as in the film The Legend of Boggy Creek, where it does appear to relate to narrative but not necessarily oral narrative. Contemporary actions and even objects may be referred to as legendary.

Such uses of the term may simply be at variance with folklorists' usages but as a folklorist I would like to suggest that considerations of the various ways in which the word legend is used may be of value to students of culture – whether folk, mass, or even elite. I want to address this issue in a limited way, however, confining my consideration to a single text, The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook. By looking not at a literary text such as folklorists have commonly studied but rather at a local, popular cookbook, I hope to not only consider briefly an aspect of how legend is widely understood, but also the relationship folklore has to local identity, and the importance of food as an indicator of local identity in the context of the New Orleans and Louisiana self-images.

The genesis of this particular cookbook—as part of the creation of a new shopping mall—is significant to all of these issues. In August of 1986 the Rouse Company, well-known developers of shopping complexes, opened in New Orleans the mall called Riverwalk, which stretches along the Mississippi not far from the foot of Canal Street, historically the main shopping street in the city, as well as traditionally the old dividing line between downtown Creole and uptown American sectors of the city. Its national notoriety came in 1996 when it was rammed by an out-of-control grain carrying vessel which, coming down river, lost power and barely missed a cruise ship and a gambling boat before seriously damaging the mall itself. From its inception the mall, now reopened, has been a major development in a downtown which had not lost its vitality but which increasingly had been challenged as a shopping district by suburban merchandising. It was also located in the heart of a major center of American tourism.

Attuned to local culture as a theme for the mall, the developers fixed upon the river itself and Louisiana as a place for decorative motifs and promotional possibilities (ironic, perhaps, especially in that the mall was placed in an area partially abandoned by local residents and given over to outsider tourists, but local culture is frequently commodified in just such situations). One mall public relations campaign involved a "Legends of Louisiana" collecting project, through which the developers placed newspaper advertisements asking the public to submit in writing local "legends" which they knew. Materials which were submitted have been put in a large volume which may be flipped through in front of the Legends of Mississippi wall near one entrance, where blue neon creates the outline of the Mississippi River system on a map of the American heartland and which also includes pictures of people associated with the history of the river. In 1987, after the mall had opened to considerable success, Sheila Ainbinder, who had been associated with the development but no longer was, produced The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook, drawing upon the Rouse-assembled materials but also soliciting additional materials from other people (Sheila Ainbinder, personal communication). The "Legends of Louisiana" project, then, produced examples of what a relatively large number of people regarded as legends, giving us a broad sampling to consider in trying to understand popular conceptions of the term. In addition to providing insight into this question, the book also provides an interesting example of the pairing of foodways with other folk materials, the combination used as a statement of regional identity.

The cookbook, of course, includes recipes, which are interspersed with the "legend" texts (over 90 in number) in such a way as to create ties between text and particular recipe, although the connection is sometimes a loose one. For example, a narrative about the steamboat "Creole Queen" is followed by "‘Creole Queen’ Seafood Okra Gumbo."

The "legends," however, include a very broad range of materials. On the one hand there are texts of narratives folklorists would certainly classify as legends. For example, there is a variant of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" in its characteristically New Orleans form which includes one of the city's prominent above-ground cemeteries—in this instance St. Louis number 1 on the fringe of the French Quarter. Also recounted is the story of the origin of the locally popular apocryphal saint—in fact, probably a surviving voodou deity—St. Expedite, whose statue is said to have arrived in a box marked "Expedite"—or in the current version "Espedito" because the statue came from Italy—the name and the saint's very existence supposedly coming about as a result of mistaking shipping instructions for an appellation.

The book also includes what I would term pseudo-legends, a term I use to characterize narratives which are legend-like but probably subliterary, which may exist in written/printed variants, and which may be whimsical stories created for a particular publication or for postcards. The cookbook includes a version of "The Legend of Spanish Moss" (sold on postcards throughout the Gulf South, sometimes with a plastic bag of moss attached), as well as such material as the tales made up about Annie Christmas, a figure probably invented in the 1930s by writer Lyle Saxon and a colleague to provide a Louisiana counterpart to the likes of Paul Bunyan and Joe Magarac.

Other folk and folk-like narratives in the cookbook include humorous anecdotes (such as a version of the locally well-known story about a mayor of New Orleans' asking President Roosevelt "How do you like them ‘ersters’ [oysters]?"); a text with a tall-tale element about a Cajun so tall and thin he was used as a pirogue pole; accounts of the origin of Louisiana food items, such as the po-boy sandwich; and personal recollections (such as an account of shipping French bread from New Orleans to Shreveport and baking it on the way by using heat from the engines of the delivery trucks).

Additionally, however, the "legend" texts present a variety of other kinds of folklore, bits of cultural data, and pieces of social history. There are street cries along with information on street vendors; folk etymologies, including several explanations of how the po-boy sandwich got its name; customs and beliefs, such as the serving of black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck, the tradition of serving red beans and rice on Mondays, and the existence and use of a local madstone; festival occasions, such as Mardi Gras and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival (the latter represented by an excerpt from an essay by Calvin Trillin); dialect terms, such as explanations of creole, lagniappe, and the local phrase "making groceries"; music, notably an account written by Luderin Darbonne of the Hackberry Ramblers on how this group was the first to bring amplified music to southwestern Louisiana; and an assortment of information on such topics as the use of chicory in Louisiana coffee, the French Market, steamboat races, a river-borne circus, Creole cream cheese, a flood of molasses, hot sauce, voodou, local characters, the development of herb gardens, and ethnic contributions to Louisiana cuisine.

What is included, then, in this book said to be offering legends is a considerable miscellany of materials, certainly much of which would not fit any scholarly definition of legend. But such a miscellany offers clues to popular understandings of legend. Perhaps the most obvious observation that can be made is that the public—not surprisingly—does not draw clear genre distinctions at all between "legend" and "folklore" in general or specific kinds of folklore.

One thing which the materials used in the cookbook do seem to give us, however, is anecdotal, "disconnected" history. That is, the information provided does not present a history of Louisiana or even of food in Louisiana but does provide bits and pieces of the past, "interesting" bits and pieces, which may inform but which are easily assimilated and thus entertaining. This may be the nature of the cookbook, but I rather think it is the nature of one popular understanding of legend which the book is merely picking up on. Legend is seen as a kind of alternative history, more fragmented (and hence more easily come to terms with) and more fun than conventional history. Its oral nature is essentially though perhaps vaguely recognized. For example, in the Annie Christmas accounts we read of Annie's various protean deeds and characteristics – she can carry a huge barrel under each arm, once "towed a keelboat to Natchez on a dead run and never lost her breath" (Ainbinder 1987: 134), could project her voice for a mile across the river, and could outdrink anybody in New Orleans, woman or man. But throughout the text we keep getting "Or so they say" and "That's what they say" to remind us that all this supposedly came from oral sources, the hallowed voices of tradition.

Though recognizing the oral basis for "legend" gives such stories a sort of cultural pedigree, it also takes us toward assigning a sort of "maybe" quality to the "history." These events may have happened, but there are not the verifications of "real" history and we are freed by "legend" to enjoy an easier, preferable version of the past which emphasizes local color and the romantic and gives us a history perhaps not unrelated to some forms of historical fiction. Thus we are free to "believe"—if in part on the level of the imagination—that the local excursion boat "Creole Queen" is haunted by the ghost of a woman murdered by her Creole lover when she favored a mysterious adventurer, in the exploits of Annie Christmas, or that a statue in the French Market area is that of a young woman unable to consummate her love with a man because of a family feud.

One aspect of the popular conception of legend, then, is that legend is an alternative way of talking about the past, one which may require not belief but willing suspension of disbelief, so that the past can, in part, be imagined. Though the essence of legend may be narrative—history, after all, involves stories—this conception allows for the incorporation of non-narrative materials insofar as they add to the alternative historical record, to the romance and local color. Hence other kinds of folklore fit, as do all sorts of odds and ends of social history, which historians might be willing to accept as within their realm of knowledge but which has been disconnected from a larger historical context. Perhaps the folklore is particularly appropriate here—after all, this is unofficial history and folklore is sometimes described as unofficial culture—but the entire agglomeration of "data" builds a cultural historical structure which fills a need to connect to the past in a particular, local way.

The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook helps us to see this one aspect of the popular conception of legend, though certainly there are others. Additionally, it calls attention to popularly drawn relationships between folklore and place and identity and the centrality of food to notions of identity. Scholars speak of local legends as one form of the legend genre, and legends may be popularly thought of as highly localized forms of information, certainly when they are connected to particular sites such as a haunted house or a lovers' leap. However, the fact that the cookbook does deal with a local, regional context also calls our attention to the fact that the contributors to the volume have drawn upon what I have elsewhere termed the lore of place (de Caro 1992). That is, they have brought together a body of material—some of it folkloric, some not, though all conveniently subsumed under the legend heading—which they see as typifying and perhaps defining place. Even if we limit ourselves to the folkloric, we see the book calling attention to various traditions which New Orleanians and Louisianians do see as unique to themselves: voodou, Mardi Gras, St. Joseph's Day altars, the loup-garou, the king cake custom, designation of a traditional day for moving to a new house, and of course an array of other traditional foods and the customs associated with those foods.

The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook provides an interesting example of how food may be used to symbolize identity. Louisiana cuisine has been perceived as a unique and important regional cuisine both by people in the state and by outsiders, and Louisianians are especially proud of their culinary accomplishments, the more so since the food, and especially its Cajun branch, has received intense attention in the last two decades. Ainbinder has capitalized on this by pulling together the cuisine with other aspects of Louisiana lore of place to suggest how an array of traditions, culinary and otherwise, help to shape a sense of regional identity. Several contributors to the book express a conscious awareness of how food expresses regional identity. One, for example, contributed a piece titled "Cajun Cuisine – A Living Symbol of the People Who Prepare It," which tells us that:

Cajun food reflects a way of life . . . a toast to the good life and the land that Cajuns have come to love in South Louisiana. . . .

The land that welcomed the Acadians is Bayou country. Swamp and bayou have played important roles in shaping the Louisiana Cajun's unique identity and culinary tradition. Through bountiful gifts of seafood and wildlife, the land encourages the creation of a cuisine unlike any other in the world.

Cajun cooking reflects both the affluence of the geographic locale and its French flavored legacy. . . .

When the Acadians first began settling the area, there was no social contact. They were tied to the land and had to be rugged and adaptable. For them, life was a day to day, season to season struggle to sustain their families and their culture. Their meals more than likely came out of one pot, one dish which combined all the blessings of life in South Louisiana such as fish, rice, spices, shellfish and abundant vegetables. Jambalaya, gumbo, sauce piquant, and crawfish etouffee stand as delicious examples of Cajun onepot meals.

Cajun cuisine is a living thing. It is part of the people who prepare it. (Ainbinder 1987: 42-43)

Paige Gutierrez has of course written extensively on food and Cajun identity (1984, 1992), giving particular attention to the cultural meaning of crawfish (a Louisiana food item which both allows for a particular group dynamic in its preparation and a certain insider competence in its consumption), noting (1992: 137) that "Cajun food is a source of meaning and value in the lives of people, a medium that helps them express what it means to be Cajun." And food as what Gutierrez calls "a pragmatic symbol" (1992: 132) of group identity and pride has been the focus of other commentators. But it would be hard to find another statement which more pointedly asserts an individual's conception of how his own culinary traditions connect almost spiritually to his region, his regional group, and the land itself than that just quoted from The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook.

In discussing sense of place, Kent Ryden (1993) has suggested that "place"—as opposed to mere landscape—is brought into existence through a developing human consciousness of a part of the landscape. A knowledge of the past and the communicating of oral stories—both stories which convey the communal past and others—are, he notes, key elements in creating and expressing consciousness of place. The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook is, of course, primarily a cookbook and hence intended primarily to fulfill a practical function, but in the apparatus it adopts for backgrounding the mundane task of delivering recipes, it touches upon a discourse about local identity and sense of place. Many of the "legends" included in the book may not be literally such. But by using that term with its perceived connection both to the past and to locality, the participants in the "Legends of Louisiana" project were intuitively able to draw upon the power attributed to oral storytelling and its presentation of collective past and self to suggest a sense of their own place, as the mall developers wanted. The cookbook's author, perhaps also intuitively, was able to recognize that potential, link it to food with its own centrality in the local consciousness, and produce a book which does make a statement about consciousness of place and geographical identity. Of course it is hardly the only Louisiana text which does so, but its partially collective creation makes it a particularly interesting one. The fact that it is a popular, mundanely how-to and not a literary text—so often the vehicles we look to for establishing "spirit of place"—suggests also the importance of looking at a great variety of sources for understanding identity and sense of locality.


1. Although the book was published in a Washington, D.C., suburb (and later reprinted by Simon and Schuster of New York), and although it covers Louisiana as a whole, I refer to it as a New Orleans cookbook because of its genesis in the Riverwalk development and the predominance of New Orleans recipes and lore in its pages.


Ainbinder, Sheila. 1987. The Legends of Louisiana Cookbook. Silver Spring, MD: American Cooking Guild.

--------. n.d. Personal communication. Telephone conversation.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1991. Response to Heda Jason on Urban Legend Studies. Folklore 102: 106-107.

de Caro, Frank. 1992. New Orleans, Folk Ideas, and the Lore of Place. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 7: 68-80.

Gutierrez, C. Paige. 1984. The Social and Symbolic Uses of Ethnic and Regional Foodways: Cajuns and Crawfish in South Louisiana. In Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, ed. Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, 169-182. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

--------. 1992. Cajun Foodways. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi.

Jason, Heda. 1971. Concerning the "Historical" and the "Local" Legend and Their Relations. Journal of American Folklore 84:134-144.

Ryden, Kent. 1993. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

This article was first published in the 2009 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Frank de Caro is a folklorist who taught folklore at Louisiana State University who is now retired and living in New Orleans.