Every region and every culture has some variation on the one-pot stew. Born of necessity, what goes into the pot is whatever is readily available on-hand. A few scraps of meat and some vegetables, simmered slowly for several hours and you can feed a crowd relatively inexpensively and make foods stretch.
New England has the chowder. The midwest and upper south have burgoo. The west has a multitude of variations on stews.
The deep south has jambalaya, with it’s unmistakable flavor of Creole culture.
Don’t be fooled by that stuff you get in a box at the grocery store, or that dish on a restaurant menu that costs an absurd $20+ a bowl. Jambalaya is classic Creole family food, and it couldn’t be easier to make.
Today when you come across jambalaya, it’s usually a spicy mixture of rice, celery, peppers, onions, tomatoes, chicken, shrimp or crayfish, and Andouille sausage.
This recipe comes from the 1885 La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes, from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine, by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn came to Louisiana via Greece, Ireland and Cincinnati, Ohio and would become a noted scholar of Japanese and Creole culture. After moving to New Orleans in 1877 as a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, he wrote on ghost stories, folklore, languages, Louisiana voodoo, French Opera, and of course, Creole cuisine.
The cookbook is notable because of Hearn’s gathering of source material. This is not the typical recipe book of the time – produced by famous restaurant chefs or the servant cooks of the wealthy classes. Hearn’s offering surveys a variety of methods and styles at a time when Creole culture was continuing to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of modern New Orleans.
This jambalaya is not as spicy as what you’d likely find in a restaurant today, and the absence of seafood and sausage, though it could certainly be added, suggests this recipe comes from a lower or middle-class household where it was essential to make do with what you had. Rice in jambalaya is not only a local crop – the wetlands of Louisiana providing the perfect growing conditions – it helps to inexpensively extend the meal. This jambalaya is immensely satisfying, particularly when served with a sweet corn bread.
Hearn notes that the recipe is likely Indian in origin. It is very likely the local Atakapa tribes had a one-pot dish similar to this. However, the Spanish, French and African influences can’t be mistaken – think of jambalaya as a relative of paella.
My notes are in brackets. I used a ham shank instead of ham slices, and cooked it along with the chicken.
Cut up and stew a fowl [a smaller bird is preferable – 2 or 3 pounds. Water added to the pot to stew the chicken should just cover the meat. After stewing the chicken, remove from pot and pull meat off the bones, returning the meat to the broth. There should be at least two cups of broth in the pot before proceeding. If not, add pre-made stock or water.];… add a cup of raw rice, a slice of ham minced, and pepper and salt; let all cook together until the rice swells and absorbs all the gravy of the stewed chicken, but it must not be allowed to get hard or dry. [Stir regularly to prevent rice from burning at the bottom of the pot.] Serve in a deep dish. Southern children are very fond of this; it is said to be an Indian dish, and very wholesome as well as palatable; it can be made of many things.