Local Cook Tries To Preserve New Orleans Food Culture

y Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

A room packed with mostly out-of-towners interested in Creole Italian cuisine listened to native New Orleanian Jyl Benson regale them with the colorful history of New Orleans cooking as they sampled olive salad and Creole red gravy at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB). 

Benson, who is director of culinary programming at SoFAB, acted as part chef/part storyteller along with Liz Williams, director of SoFAB and president of the National Food and Beverage Foundation. Benson prepared a non-traditional tomato sauce that combined Creole and Italian traditions made with a roux, onions, bell peppers, celery, garlic, Italian tomatoes, a spice mix of fennel seed, basil, parsley, cayenne, granulated garlic and pepper and Italian sausage served over pasta.

“We identify tomatoes with ltaly, but tomatoes come from the New World,” Williams said, adding how Christopher Columbus brought tomato plants to Europe, but Europeans originally feared they were poisonous. 

“The Sicilians brought the practice of using canned tomatoes,” Williams told her audience. Canned tomatoes were initially foreign to Louisianans since tomatoes were grown here, but eventually that canned tradition was adopted.

Benson’s red sauce cooked quickly. After sauteeing the seasoning, she corrected the sweetness by adding carrots 20-30 minutes before serving. She also grated into it bits of lemon and orange zest.

It was explained that Sicilians didn’t throw extra food ingredients away when cooking and started putting little bits of vegetables (cauliflower, etc.) in their olive salad.

“This is very different than what the French and Spanish were doing,” Williams said. “Have you ever heard of a muffuletta? This is what goes on it.”

Her food journey

Benson said she started cooking at age 6 in self-defense because her mother of German and Irish heritage didn’t really cook. She routinely cooked disastrous pot roasts in a pressure cooker, Benson said, so she knew she had to take action. Her father, whom Benson watched as he chopped seasonings for hours in their home, was her mentor. He was born in New Orleans but of Scandinavian heritage, so instead of rice, she grew up on a lot of potatoes.

Her Louisiana cuisine exposure came in her adult life as a journalist writing for The Times-Picayune, as a regional stringer for Time magazine, the New York Times, a book researcher and traveling to statewide festivals.

“I had always cooked but didn’t really write about food, but my work took me all over Louisiana.”

Her professional food writing has included being editor-in-chief of Louisiana Cookin’ magazine from 2009-2011, a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Louisiana Kitchen and Culture magazine, dining editor for Avenue magazine, dining columnist for Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile magazines and a feature writer and blogger for New Orleans Magazine. 

She has written: “Galatoire’s Cookbook: Recipes and Family History from the Time-Honored New Orleans Restaurant,” “Fun, Funky, Fabulous: New Orleans’ Casual Restaurant Recipes” and “Louisiana’s Tables: A Culinary Heritage Tour.” 

“I love teaching people about our culture and heritage,” she said.

She keeps busy teaching classes at SoFAB and is involved with a  family table project where people of various cultures eat together at community tables. 

“I care about food culture, and I care about the people cooking it,” she said. “I like to tell other peoples’ stories. At the end of the day, what makes me happiest is helping other people.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.