La Cuisine Creole: Love Song or Hate Crime?

La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn was the first Creole cookbook written in America and captured and compiled many Creole recipes that were popular in 1885 New Orleans. Hearn, neither Creole himself nor a cook, instead borrowed  these recipes from the collective knowledge of generations’ of Creoles to document their culinary impact on New Orleans. He later went on to start the conversation of Japanese culture to a Western audience. In doing this, did Lafcadio Hearn practice cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation? In profiting off of the cultural heritage of Creole peoples, he uses their cultural identity as a way to benefit himself and continues to do the same thing in Japan.

To answer this, one must understand the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Appreciation stems from the desire to learn about other cultures to broaden one’s understanding of the world and expand their perspective. Appropriation is taking an aspect of another culture and using it for one’s own personal gain or interest.

Hearn seeks to enlighten others of the New Orleans experience through their culinary endeavors. By starting the narrative around this population, he gives them an international platform that now knows about their contributions to the world through their food. Therefore, in this regard, his writing of this cookbook could be seen as cultural appreciation by highlighting the cultural experience of Creole cuisine.

However, the fact that he raised up the Creole culture to a global scale is not the only side of the argument that goes into the debate of whether the work itself signifies embracing the Creole heritage or stealing it for personal gain. By writing about a culture that is not his own , This puts him in the position of being a sort of white savior. Additionally, since he profited off of the sales of the cookbook, he is using it for his own career interest and subjugating their experience to be defined in terms of capital gain. By writing the first Creole cookbook, he became the voice for why Creole culture is a culture worth saving and redefined himself as a writer. In turn, he elevated his own reputation on a global scale and even inspired others to write cookbooks designated to showcase Creole cooking which includes the recipes themselves as well as the techniques they use to achieve them.

To determine whether this would be classified as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation, one must consider the historical impact that the composition of the text has. In no way did Lafcadio Hearn ever claim that any of the recipes of the cookbook were his own. In the beginning introduction of the cookbook, he states, “Cuisine Creole” (Creole cookery) partakes of the nature of its birthplace-New Orleans… In this compilation will be found many original recipes and other valuable ones heretofore unpublished,” He later goes on to state his purpose for writing the cookbook in saying, “It is the author’s endeavor to present to her a number of recipes all thoroughly tested by experience, and embracing the entire field of the “Cuisine,” He finishes the forward by stating, “[The Creole house wife] is proud of her art, and deservedly receives the compliments of her friends. This volume will be found quite different from the average cook-book in its treatment of recipes, and is the only one in print containing dishes peculiar to ‘la Cuisine Creole.’”  In this, he puts forth the notion that these recipes are not of his creating. They are a compilation of ideas that he put together as a way to share the culinary experience that he came to know so fondly.

His intention was to give the rest of the world access to Creole cooking so that they could appreciate and experience the Creole culture which fascinated him so immensely. He had such an affinity for the society of people that held this way of life that he felt that the rest of the world should have a taste of what that experience feels and tastes like. 

One of the recipes that he wrote is entitled “My own pudding.”  The recipe states 

“Let a quart of milk be set on to boil; while it is getting hot, mix a cup of maizena or corn starch with enough cold water to form it into a thick batter; add to this cup of white sugar and the yolks of four eggs; take themilk off and stir eggs, maizena, and sugar, into the milk; beat all together a few minutes then pour the mixture into a baking dish and bake it lightly about ten minutes, or long enough only to cook the eggs; the take the pudding out, and while hot put over it a layer of jelly or jam; beat up the whites of the eggs with a cup of sugar, put this over the jelly and brown.  

This recipe could be an adaptation on one of the recipes that he researched and experienced when studying Creole cooking. It also could be a recipe that he decided to brand as his own.

There are also a great deal of recipes in the cookbook that Hearn passes judgement on as if he were the one making it. He labels things such as “nice boiled custard” , or “ to make good vinegar.” While this is not necessarily a negative thing to call something “good” but does raise certain foods or recipes to a higher standard than others within the cookbook. This sets the perception of the foods that are suitable for his taste preferences above others and gives those recipes a better chance of being deemed as more valuable than others. This could indirectly affect the regions in which those food cultures come from. To this day, different regions of Louisiana have different food traditions and elevating some as better puts the others at risk of being left behind by an audience unfamiliar to them.

He showcased the ways of the Creole people and made their heritage something that the world now deemed as a valuable addition that should remain preserved for generations to come. This, in part, is a large reason why New Orleans has been preserved today in that his writings inspired others to do the same. He even wrote a second cookbook, anonymously published, to further heighten the knowledge that people possessed about this culture. 

With the disclaimer Hearn puts into his writings about the fact that the recipes were not his own, the action of writing “La Cuisine Creole” in 1885 could be deemed as cultural appreciation, not cultural appropriation. His purpose was to give people the opportunity to appreciate the food that comes from the rich history of the Creole people. This comes from so much more than just the food that is on the plate but the culmination of influences that go into these recipes. He gave the global population the tools to learn and enhance their knowledge of a part of the world that they may have never thought to consider. Because of this, he himself not only learned to appreciate Creole cuisine but almost taught aother how to as well.  

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