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Old New Orleans' Quest for Cool

August 05, 1993|DALE CURRY | Curry is food editor of the Times-Picayune, in which this article first appeared. and

Savage summers bore down on 19th Century New Orleans with a vengeance. Many years before the advent of air conditioning and pest control, women fainted in piles of petticoats, and mosquitoes were so thick that their swarms often looked like fog. Smudge pots burned to fight yellow fever and French Quarter streets steamed under heaps of debris.

There were few alternatives to the extreme discomforts of summer in New Orleans. Some Creoles escaped to the country, though others were forced to stay in the city. Making the best of it, they transformed their houses with "summer dress," covering their furnishings in white fabric and net, and storing the heavy velvet draperies and other winter items. A scaling-down of menus was accompanied mercifully by daily shipments of ice from the north; thus came the salvation of cooling summer drinks.

Cherry bounce, iced lemonade, strawberry ratafia and milk punch were typical in the lineup of refreshing liquids the Creoles enjoyed from dawn to dark.

At Houmas House, it is recorded, mint juleps were served in the mornings before breakfast for sipping during the bath. Often, the bath as well as the drink contained ice cubes. And at Gallier House, a typical 19th-Century French Quarter home on Royal Street, the famous architect's family sipped different drinks all day long, from ice water to fruit ades to iced cordials and wine punches.

Tons of ice were unloaded daily from barges on the Mississippi River and sold in the streets. At Gallier House, the ice box was located far away from the kitchen to prevent the heat generated there from melting the precious commodity.

"There were lots of recipes for cold dishes that used leftovers," says Ann M. Masson, executive director of Gallier House. In the heat of summer, whatever means necessary to avoid firing up the open hearth were taken, and drink and food preparation changed complexion along with the scenery.

Wild cherries, elderberry bushes and strawberries were the sources of many great drinks. But while New Orleanians suffered mightily from the heat, they had access to imports of all kinds.

"New Orleans was an extremely cosmopolitan place at the time," Masson says. Since it was a port city, residents had access to European imports of food and wine as well as commodities from other American cities.

Citrus was readily available, having been shipped as a major preventive of scurvy. Cookbook authors of the time "wrote lots of lemon recipes," Masson says. And lemons and limes traveled well, compared to softer fruits such as bananas and peaches.

Alcoholic drinks, especially wines and cordials, were popular at meals and throughout the day. Very strong cordials were consumed as a digestive aid before or after dinner.

While men frequented restaurants and bars, women were more prone to visit ice cream parlors, and some primitive ice cream freezers were used for making sherbets and ice creams at home.

Ratafias were beverages loved by the Creoles. More easily prepared than cordials, they were usually made of Louisiana fruits and a good French brandy; sometimes they contained nuts and flowers.

Fruit waters were served to visitors in the evenings and at summer receptions and reunions. Made of fruit juices and syrups, these waters sometimes included coffee and were usually swirled on ice until frozen. Unlike the ratafias , they were served soon after concoction. Granites were slushy frozen fruit drinks, favorites in France and New Orleans.

Milk punch was a breakfast drink, and like many of the old favorites, it has carried over and remains popular in New Orleans restaurants today.

At Gallier House, now a museum open to the public, many of the old utensils used to make special drinks occupy shelves in the kitchen and dining room. A cypress ice box appears in its proper place on the gallery, away from the kitchen and from the fine flooring that drips could have ruined.

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The cherry bounce has been popular in New Orleans for two centuries. From a 19th-Century cookbook ("Directions for Cookery," by Miss Leslie, 1844) comes this description, followed by a more modernized version that is used today.

"Mix together 6 pounds of ripe morellos and 6 pounds of large black - heart cherries. Put them into a wooden bowl or tub, and with a pestle or mallet, mash them so as to crack all the stones. Mix with the cherries 3 pounds of loaf sugar, or of sugar candy broken up, and put them into a demijohn, or into a large stone jar. Pour on 2 gallons of best double - rectified whiskey. Stop the vessel closely and let it stand 3 months, shaking it every day during the first month. At the end of the 3 months you may strain the liquor and bottle it off. It improves by age."

SEN. ALLEN J. ELLENDER'S CHERRY BOUNCE 3 quarts wild cherries Grain alcohol or bourbon 3 pounds sugar

Wash and stem cherries and place in 1-gallon container. Fill with grain alcohol. Let stand 14 days, shaking jar occasionally. Strain off.

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