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Tamales and Meat Pies

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Northwestern Louisiana traditional foodways reflect a variety of cultures converging in the 18th century to create a distinctive cuisine that crossed ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

Europeans who colonized the area found it rich in food resources. The Caddo name for their southernmost village, “Natchitoches,” means “place of the paw-paws.” Nachitoches was founded in 1714 as the first French outpost in Louisiana, just 16 miles away from Los Adaes, the easternmost fort in Spanish territory. The soldiers and their families at Los Adaes most likely brought Spanish, and Native American food traditions with them that were traded with the French settlers in Natchitoches.

Many of the soldiers who manned the Spanish capital at Los Adeas were mestizo, mixed Indian and Spanish, who came from Mexico, where Indian and Spanish foodways had long ago merged. Today, tamales and empanadas (known colloquially as meat pies), more often associated with Mexican foodways, are pervasive across northwestern Louisiana, varying slightly from community to community.

Folklorist Dayna Lee explains that “in homes in Spanish Lake, Ebarb, and Zwolle, tamales are prepared and eaten almost daily. The Spanish Lake tamales, called “tamals,” are prepared using the meat from hog’s heads. The snout and ears are removed, as is the brain, then the head boiled and the jowl meat and other muscle is picked from the bone. In Ebarb and Zwolle, pulled pork is used instead of hog’s heads. The masa, or breading, is made from hominy corn that is dried and ground.

The meat pies are also distinctive in each community. Lee notes, “The Cane River Creoles have two separate rural communities in Natchitoches Parish: one at Isle Brevelle and one at Cloutierville. While the communities are linked by tradition and family, they prepare their meat pies and tamales in slightly different ways. In Cloutierville, pork is used for both the meat pies and tamales. The meat is cooked with onion and spices, including fresh ground red pepper. When it is done, the rendered fat is used in both the masa for the tamales and in the dough for the meat pies, making the tamales and meat pies slightly pink-ish from the pepper in the rendered fat. The meat pies from Cloutierville are baked. In the Isle Brevelle community no more than 10 miles north on Cane River, shortening is used in the masa and in the meat pie dough instead of the rendered pork fat. Isle Brevelle meat pies are made of equal parts of ground beef and pork, and the pies are fried instead of baked.”

Lee observes that tamales are ubiquitous; they cross all cultural boundaries. “It’s amazing how many people make them,” she says. One quality that she feels distinguishes the Creole cuisine of northwestern Louisiana is the heavy amount of “interethnic borrowing.” Unlike New Orleans, where individual cultures, like the French or Sicilians, were more easily able to keep their identity, she feels there is more of a merging of the many cultures, because of a smaller presence of each ethnic group.

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