By: Jaela Nixon
We eat many different things throughout our lives and eventually develop our favorite dish. Our favorite dishes oftentimes have many emotions and reasons attached to why it is our favorite. My favorite food is spinach dip, it reminds me so much of New Orleans which has been my home my whole life. Spinach dip recipes have changed over the decades and are even made differently within the community. I have managed to use this as a staple dish for my small business which allows me to share foods that are famous in my hometown with others. Like all things in life, everything has a history even down to the ingredients of the dish.
Throughout history, America’s culture has been influenced by immigration. One of the biggest influences early in history was our agriculture. Two of the main ingredients in spinach dip are spinach and artichoke. Contrary to what many may believe these two vegetables have not always been in America. It is assumed that spinach originally came from Persia which is modern-day Iran. Spinach then was brought over to India and China and the first documented use in China was believed to be approximately 650 AD “Spinach”. Sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries spinach was given to Europe as a gift. Spinach became popular in North America around the 19th century. It was so popular that it was marketed by the famous character Popeye.
An artichoke heart is one of the other vegetables you will find in spinach dip. Often the dip will be called “spinach and artichoke dip.” The dip is not always made with artichoke, it is optional because it does not make the taste different. Legend has it that artichoke is considered one of the oldest foods in the world “Artichoke”. They are members of the sunflower family. It is indigenous to areas like France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. It became popular in Rome and Greece around 70 A.D. After reaching other areas of the west, it started to become popular all over France in the 1500s “Artichoke”. In the 1800s North America received its first dose of artichoke when immigrants began growing it in Louisiana. Many people did not gravitate toward it in the U.S. until about a century later. Both artichokes and spinach are versatile vegetables. Many use them in soups and salads. They are even canned or dehydrated to assist with ready-to-make meals.
During the early portion of the 20th century, society was starting to gravitate toward convenience in the kitchen. One of the main inventions was dehydrated food. These packets consisted of ingredients that could be used as a soup or dip. Some of the most popular brands for these packets are Knorrs and Lipton. Knorr was established in 1838. Lipton followed a few decades later establishing itself in 1890. Throughout history, these brands are mentioned to have assisted in things as fun as dinner parties and other situations like war. A piece of media mentions that in January 1962 in the house of representatives, Knorr’s soup was used to serve fellow members while discussing important business regarding the United States. If these soup packets were being used to serve the higher members of society, then it would be something that normal members of society would want to get their hands on. In a 1943 issue of LIFE magazine, Lipton’s soup has an advertisement for their packets of chicken noodle soup. The advertisement describes how easy it is to have a homecooked meal in just minutes instead of hours. It also states that it is only 10 cents a package. Making the soup is as simple as boiling some water, adding the soup and you will have dinner in 7 minutes. It even claims that your grandmother will be saying that it tastes home-cooked. With this level of advertisement and popularity, everyone was able to have soups and dips at the drop of a hat. These packets were just as convenient and popular as everything being canned. There is also documentation stating that this type of preservation of food was also used for the military. It was convenient and easy to ship because the packaging was so light. These new types of food helped to stop the food from being raided by insects and rodents and made some of the soldiers feel close to home. Even though many were cooking at home, restaurants were still booming, and many chefs were beginning to make a name for themselves in various ways.
Lena Richard was one of the earliest well-known African American chefs in New Orleans. She was able to dominate almost all aspects of the food industry. She owned a restaurant, cooking school, catering business, eateries, and even an international frozen food business. Her story is so amazing because she was able to accomplish all this even though the South was still segregated during this time. Lena was born in September 1892. This was almost 30 years after slavery was abolished in Louisiana. Her culinary education began in New Orleans and later she also received further education in Boston. A few years after graduation (1937), she returned to New Orleans and began her catering business and restaurants. In 1939 she published her cookbook titled New Orleans Cookbook. She traveled to New York to advertise her book which allowed her to sell hundreds of copies and she even became the head chef of a restaurant there for a little over a year. In 1943 she was given another opportunity to cook for military leaders and others of the same status for about 2 years. Even though this is a lot to have accomplished over 10 years she still accomplished more leading up to her death. She created a frozen food business (1946), opened another restaurant (1949), and had a weekly cooking show (1949-1950). Some sources state that her audience on the cooking show was mainly Caucasian upper-class women who tuned in to follow her expertise.
Someone like Lena Richard is someone whom I aspire to be like. Even though many of the sources don’t disclose why she started cooking I would assume it is because it was something she loved to do. In all my years of watching “Food Network”, I have never heard of Lena Richard, a culinary pioneer. My reasoning for cooking has many layers. One of the first reasons is that it is like a stress relief for me. Many dishes come naturally to me but for others, I must use trial and error. Another reason I love to cook is because of my mom. When I was in middle school my mom’s health started to restrict her ability to cook because it required her to stand for long periods and use the strength that she didn’t always have. She has many original recipes, and because I love her cooking, I started to try and recreate them myself. I did not always get it correct on the first try and she helps as a taste tester to tell
me what I am missing or things to do differently the next time. One dish of hers that I loved was her spinach dip. At first, I would try and get her to just make it for me, but she said she would tell me the ingredients and had faith that I would perfect it myself. It took me about two times to perfect her recipe which became one of the signature dishes for my snack shack. My small business “ Mj’s Snack Shack” came to be during the summer of 2020. I was led to start a business because all my sisters had one and I wanted to start generating income for myself. Spinach dip became a staple for my company because everyone enjoys the fact that I add crawfish to it. I have also developed many different variations which include shrimp, crabmeat, and even a vegan option. The differences between my dip and those that are advertised on Knorr’s packet. I cannot give away my whole recipe, but I do prefer to use fresh spinach and not frozen. I do add artichokes instead of chestnuts. I also do not use Mayonnaise or sour cream. Those two ingredients have a strong flavor and normally cannot be warmed up which means the dip will be cold. After I graduate, I plan to attend culinary school and further the aspects of my business. It is comforting to know that I am continuing history like Lena Richards.