Coming of age in a cultural hub like New Orleans is sure to leave an impression on anyone, especially those interested in food. For Elizabeth Williams, founder of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, the rich heritage of her mother’s Sicilian family and the traditions of her father’s New Orleans roots set her on an exploration of culture and cuisine that has culminated, after 70 years, into a new New Orleans cookbook, Nana’s Creole Italian Table (LSU Press, 2022).
The book, says Williams, “gives a context for people who have any kind of heritage where their family were immigrants. They will be able to read it and feel that their experience is the same because I experienced grandparents who grew up in Sicily, but a mother who was born into New Orleans when there were so many Sicilians.”
This New Orleans cookbook traces staunchly Sicilian and classically Creole dishes as they melded through Williams’ life at her family’s table. Readers can expect gumbos juxtaposed with garlic sauce, and red beans and rice offset by risotto, all meant to celebrate arguably the South’s most storied melting pot.
Tracing Williams’ Roots with this New Orleans Cookbook
Tell me a little bit about your back- ground as a New Orleanian and as a woman of Sicilian descent.
I was born in New Orleans in 1950 and there were so many Sicilians there. I really grew up with New Orleans surroundings: Going to school in New Orleans and having the experience of being on the streets, going to Mardi Gras, and seeing Second Lines and all the things that you do. But I also was able to go to parties and family gatherings that were all Sicilians, and they still spoke Sicilian and still ate Sicilian. So, I really grew up with both of those experiences happening at the same time.
How did your Sicilian and New Orleans backgrounds merge in the kitchen?
You only had the experience of being Sicilian in certain places, whereas you had the experience of being a New Orleanian all the time. My mother married a non-Sicilian and my grandparents used to call him “the American.” Because of that, at home, we didn’t speak Sicilian or have a Sicilian food preference. He grew up eating rice for example, because he grew up in Louisiana, the rice capital, and so it was red beans and rice or gumbo and rice. He wanted rice; he didn’t want pasta every day. I always knew when my mother wanted something from my father because she would fix something that had rice in it.
What did you learn from the time you spent away from New Orleans as a lawyer in the army stationed in Germany?
When I was growing up, I thought everybody ate the way that I ate. I didn’t know how to study food because there wasn’t a food studies program or anything like that around, so I became a JAG officer. I joined the military because I wanted to live in Europe, and at that time, they were recruiting women to join the military and they would let you choose where you wanted to be. I spent three years in Germany without coming home. Every vacation and every three-day weekend, I was going somewhere and eating because I wanted to experience Switzerland and France and Italy and England and Austria. I went all over the place because I was there—I didn’t have to cross the Atlantic every time I wanted to go somewhere.
What inspired you to write the book and why did you feel now was the time to do it?
I have two grown children and I have two grandchildren and I’m in my 70s. So, I said “okay, somebody has to preserve this stuff,” and so that’s really what it is. All of that experience of not being tied to the motherland, so to speak, but only have descriptions of it and memories of it that other people tell you is something that I think all children of immigrants experience. I wanted to use my example as a way for people to think about that
You use the term “creolization” in the introduction of the book. Can you define that and talk about how you use it throughout the book?
Creole is one of those words that’s just fraught with different meanings. I think originally it meant a person who was born in some colony, so that meant anybody who was born in America but whose family was from somewhere else was Creole. We came to the point through Lafcadio Hearn’s book [Creole Cookbook (Arcadia, 1885)] of calling the food of New Orleans Creole—he named it Creole.
When you have these practices that develop within what is a former colony, you are “creolizing” it because it is mixed with whatever already exists there. It’s a cultural exchange that happens naturally because you’re exposed to the culture of where you are, but also you have some culture that you carry with you and they kind of merge.
Can you talk about the significance of the order the chapters as a New Orleans cookbook?
I really wanted the story to unfold so that people who weren’t familiar with the history of New Orleans and Sicilians could get a sense of what happened. So, I talked about how the Sicilians came going all the way back to the end of the Civil War, I talked about the resurgence that happened because of what was going on in Italy with Garibaldi so people would understand [why] the Sicilians came here, the kinds of struggles they had, and how many of them there were, and how people saw it as a threat.
Is there a favorite recipe of yours in the book, or one that just you feel like encapsulates the community that it’s about?
I really picked out the olive salad recipe that my grandmother brought, and how it changed with my mother and then me, to explain how things kind of develop.
I also think, another recipe or two that are illustrative are the red gravy and the tomato sauce recipes that you can look at side by side and see how the way people cook in New Orleans really influenced creating red gravy. I have done experiments where you make a red gravy and you make the Sicilian tomato sauce and eat them side by side and see how different they are, how there’s a different mouthfeel, a different flavor. Even though you can treat them the same way, they are different and that really shows you how New Orleans influenced Sicilian food.
Creole Red Gravy from Nana’s Creole Italian Table
1⁄4 cup bacon grease
1⁄4 cup flour
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 scallions, chopped
3 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1⁄4 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon Creole Italian seasoning mix (follows)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce (or more to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Italian cheese
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1½ teaspoons ground anise or fennel seed
2 teaspoons dried whole thyme
Creole Italian Seasoning Mix
- Prepare Italian Creole Seasoning Mix: Place all ingredients in a jar then screw on the lid and shake thoroughly. Keep in a cool, dark place and make sure to use seasoning liberally.
- Prepare the red gravy: In a large pot with a heavy bottom, heat bacon grease over medium-low heat. Slowly sauté flour, stirring constantly, until it is the color of café au lait, a medium-light brown.
- Add onion and garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add celery, bell pepper, and scallions. When vegetables are soft, add tomato sauce. Stir and simmer uncovered 1 hour.
- Add parsley, Creole Italian seasoning mix, thyme, and hot sauce. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over spaghetti and top with grated Italian cheese.