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Casket Girl's Oysters in New Orleans
Oysters and Wine
In my dreams, I often see a thirteen year old casket girl holding the hand of five year old orphan, both wards of the Ursuline Convent in 1729, in the mystical city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Both of them were authentic girls, the combined bloodlines of each flow through my veins. The oral myths and verifiable details of their lives, also flood in and out of my heart, as I think of what to share with you.
In visits there, my imagination has seen their footprints and small hands on the oak treads and banister at the Ursuline Convent. Imprints worn to a golden patina on wood crafted more than two hundred and eighty years ago, that are still there today, as a reminder of these young women.
The older of the two was a young "casket girl" named, Catherine Josephe Gautru. She was educated and trained in womanly arts, such as doing embroidery, playing the piano, and learning to read and write, by the Ursuline nuns, prior to her marriage to Antoine Boudrot. She wrote of her experiences in diaries -- of "living in the land of margingouins" (giant mosquitoes) and how there were so many of them, that they plugged the nostrils of cattle until they suffocated the poor animals.
By family oral tradition, she was a feisty girl, who before leaving France had worn a red ribbon tightly around her neck for all to see -- in protest of death by guillotine. She came to this country with her deceased mother's candle mold, her grandmother's teapot, two dresses, and a fine sewing basket -- all tucked inside her cassette.
The younger of the girls (Marie Carmelite Navarre) was an orphaned survivor from the Ft. Rosalie massacre, she was the daughter of the King's surgeon major, Nicholas Navarre. Both he and her mother, were lost in the Natchez raid. Like Catherine Josephe, she was given in marriage by the Catholic Church to Jean Charles Boudreaux. She came to the convent wounded in soul and in body, yet survived to raise sixteen children.
Two french girls, neither of them of Acadian descent, all mixed up in the bloodlines of Acadian, Chitimacha, Huron, and Micmac -- in one family -- my family. What I have to offer you today, are two recipes. One is for a dry red wine, the other is for a popular New Orleans oyster sandwich. Neither work well without the other.
They are a marriage of sorts -- Just like these two "unrelated biologically" sisters, ended up being related by marriage. I think of the recipes, one from each of them, as testaments to how the will to survive, can transcend generations. Tattered crumbling papers, now translated to English online, I hope you enjoy them.
Ursuline Convent New Orleans 1733
Cajun Folklore Regarding the Casket Girls
In Cajun folklore, we grew up hearing stories of Feux-folets, Madame Longfingers, Marie Laveau, the ghost of Jean LaFitte, Jean Sot, the Loup Garou, Voudu, and of vampires.
Legend has it that vampires first came to New Orleans via the cassettes of the Casket Girls. It was whispered, that instead of marriage trousseaus, the cassettes actually contained the dead earthly bodies of living vampires.
All of the girls were housed on the one of the top floors of the convent school, where a desperate priest (once he was aware of the problem) sealed the windows and the caskets with wooden screws.
Then, he blessed each and every girl -- However, one vampire escaped into the night, with the help of a wayward and naughty Casket girl, and slipped out the one remaining unsecured window -- forever to haunt New Orleans.
Massacre At Ft. Rosalie
NATCHEZ MASSACRE 1729
Known as the Ft. Rosalie Massacre, on the morning of 28th of November, 1729 -- the Natchez Indians under the guise of wanting to trade for an upcoming hunt -- attacked and killed nearly two hundred inside the fort, and made slaves of those women and children, who didn't escape or weren't killed.
The Natchez were known for being a very peace loving people. History, mostly being told from the perspective of the French, and later English tellers -- mostly fails to point out that the land French settlers were clearing, were long-time burial grounds for the Natchez, nor that the colonists regularly raided the Natchez and often enslaved their peoples.
In retaliation for the Massacre at Ft. Rosalie, the Natchez were hunted down for more than two years before the French ended their war with them and had just about wiped out their tribe and sold captives as slaves.
Casket girls or cassette girls, were women brought from France to help populate the French colony of Louisiana. With them, they carried small chests (in French called cassettes) of personal belongings and clothing.
The chests resembled small burial caskets of the time, hence the name "casket girls." Most of the girls came from orphanages and convents. They often poor and supposedly guaranteed to be marriageable virgins.
This method of recruiting marriage age young women, for male colonists had been successfully accomplished for more than sixty years by the French government. The government even provided dowries.
While stubborn legend would have it, that the girls were less than ladies, that wasn’t always the case. However, about two hundred of these young “unfortunates” were women of questionable reputation (in those days being poor or orphaned qualified you for this category) towards the end of this practice.
Ursuline Convent and Academy in New Orleans
The Sisters of Ursula (The Ursulines) were sent to New Orleans just a year before the more notorious second wave of Casket girls arrived at their Ursuline Academy (the oldest girl‘s school in the U.S.). They were greeted to by mosquitoes, yellow fever, mud, hurricanes, and other Catholic nuns who had been tending to the needs of the citizens of New Orleans for over a decade.
While a small number of orphans were being cared for by the sisters who had proceeded them, they were the actual founders of the school and the orphanage for girls. They also worked tirelessly for the needs of the poor and the ill.
In New Orleans today, from the outside you'll see an unimpressive very plain set of buildings that comprise the convent, church, museum, and school. Don't let that exterior convince you that there is nothing worth seeing on a tour of this historical place. By contrast, inside, you'll see very beautiful, ornate, old world craftsmanship and art.
The Nuns That Made New Orleans
Removing Red Wine Stains
- Pour cold water on stain as promptly as doable.
- Blot with a cloth
- Sprinkle salt on red wine stain
- Let it sit for 2-3 minutes
- Rinse with cold water while rubbing
- Repeat until no more stain can be removed
- Rub with liquid laundry detergent
- Let stand for half hour
- Rinse thoroughly with cold water
- Apply a commercial spot stain remover
- Wash according to clothing directions with liquid laundry detergent
Casket Girl's Wine Stained Oyster Sandwich (from Marie Carmelite Navarre)
In recipes, rumored to be handed down from Jean Baptiste Le Moyne (Bienville), some of the casket girl's became experts at preparing a locally very popular oyster sandwich. My Navarre family recipes refer to them simply as "Casket Girl's Oyster Sandwiches" or sometimes as "Casket Girl's Wine Stained Oyster Sandwiches."
The basic original recipe has become somewhat removed from yesteryear's oyster sandwich. I think the old recipe is better, less doctored, more authentic.
- Pistolet (french roll) 6 inch size - sliced length-wise
- Dry red home-made wine
- Fresh oysters
- 2 beaten eggs
- Cornmeal (or flour if you prefer)
- Butter (never use any butter subsitute)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Drizzle dry red wine over both sides of the cut surfaces of the roll (hard crusted rolls are better)
- Dredge fresh oysters in egg
- Dredge fresh oysters in cornmeal (or flour)
- Salt and pepper them to taste
- Fry them in butter until slightly brown
- Cover one half of roll with fried oysters, fold other side on top of oysters
Modern day additions to this recipe (they are also known as oyster loaf sandwiches) have been:
- Sliced tomatoes
- Tabasco Sauce
W'here Y' at Creole Cat? by Chamain DiPascal O'Mahony
French Raspberry Wine Variation
Makes about one gallon of a light and dry wine. Can be made sweeter by adding additional sugar after wine is finished. It is the preferred wine for making Casket Girl Oyster Sandwiches.
- 4 pounds of raspberries
- 2 1/2 pounds of sugar
- 7 pints of water
- Sherry wine yeast or all-purpose wine yeast (can use baker's yeast, but not preferred)
- Follow the basic wine making instructions already discussed
- Ferment the strained diluted juice
- Double the water amount
- Increase the amount of sugar accordingly
French Elderberry Wine Variation
This is a light and dry red wine. It makes about a gallon.
- 3 pounds of elderberries without any stems
- 2 1/2 pounds of sugar
- 7 pints of water
- Sherry wine yeast or all-purpose wine yeast or baker's yeast
- Ferment the strained diluted juice
- Double amount of water
- Increase the amount of sugar accordingly
Vintage French Wine Recipes of New Orleans (from Catherine Josephe Gautru)
I only know of two methods for making good French wines at home. For use with the Casket Girl's Oyster recipe, the second one produces the driest red wines from fresh fruits and berries. I'm going to give the basic instructions first, before listing some of the recipe variations for specific fruits.
Basic wine making instructions:
- Crush fruit into glass or plastic crock or pail
- Add one quart of boiled water that has been cooled to every gallon of crushed fruit
- Dissolve four grains of sodium metabisulphite into a half cup of water for every gallon. These are the instructions handed down for several generations -- today -- substitute more commonly known under the name of Campden tablets. (See note below).
- Let stand for twenty-four full hours
- Strain out through muslin cloth (cheesecloth).
- Squeeze but not too hard
- Throw away squeezed out fruit or berry pulp
- Put the liquid (this is the "must") in a sterilized glass container
- Test the wine with a saccharometer to decide how much sugar you need. This will depend largely on how much alcohol content you desire personally
- Boil 1/3 of the sugar for two minutes in a half gallon of water for every gallon of "must"
- Cool to lukewarm
- Add bakers yeast of wine yeast "starter"
- Let ferment for ten days
- Siphon fermenting wine into another sterilized and fermentation locked glass
- Leave as much sediment or "lees" behind as you can
- Next, boil another 1/3 of sugar and water (as above)
- Let cool to lukewarm
- Add to previous mixture
- Fit on fermentation lock
- Let ferment for fourteen days
- Boil last 1/3 of sugar, only with a half pint of water per gallon of the original "must"
- Let cool
- Add to the balance of the "must"
- Again, make sure to put fermentation lock on
- Ferment until all fermentation has stopped
- If clear, siphon into bottles or jugs and cap
- If not clear, put into another sterilized jug, filling to the top, and let sit until clear (polished). Then siphon into bottles of jugs and cap
- Fill bottles to two-thirds of the bottle neck length.
Some Things To Remember:
Campden tablets kill particular bacteria and inhibit the growth of wild yeast.
Remember that hot dry weather produces fruit and berries with more sugar than usual, and less acid than usual. A wet year produces fruit and berries with less sugar, and more acid than usual -- this is why it is important to use a saccharometer.
One batch of spoiled wine will cost you more than buying a saccharometer.
The reason for adding your sugar three separate times, during fermentation, is that it produces a higher alcohol content than other methods.
Make sure that your fruit or berries are fully ripe. Half ripe fruit will make an acid tasting wine, and it doesn't take many to spoil a batch of wine. It's better to use over-ripe fruit than unripe.
Even over-ripe grapes that are rotting, when using grapes, will make a fine wine in body and taste.
Harnett T. Kane
Perhaps one of my favorite authors, whose many first edition and autographed books are sitting on my bookshelves, were written by Harnett T. Kane. Kane was a native New Orleans newspaper columnist who prolifically wrote modern interpretations of the south. He turned historical facts into fascinating stories.
Bienville House Hotel in The French Quarter
For me, the heart of staying in the city of New Orleans begins with at least an annual visit, to the old world charm and elegance of the Bienville House Hotel.
Located at 320 Decatur Street, staying there is to step back into the times of New Orleans most glorious days.
This eighty-three room hotel, lives and breathes a history that one can only imagine. It’s humble beginnings are the stuff that fanciful dreams of the international city New Orleans once was, are made of.
Formerly the old Planter’s Rice Mill and Thompson’s Rice Mill, it evolved into the home of Southern Syrup Manufacturing Company.
Then, in 1835 it reinvented itself to being the North American Hotel, a summer home for men and women visiting New Orleans.
It didn’t last long as a summer home, just a mere two years, before it became a boarding house and the local Firehouse combined. The boarding house then made way as a prestigious address set of luxury apartments, the home of wealthy businessmen.
Finally, surviving a fire, and being re-invented no less than ten times, before it would become the Bienville House Hotel for the last thirty-six years. It has achieved it’s highest calling, as one of the finest small hotels in the world.
To sit in it's courtyard garden or on the balcony, sipping tea or wine, while munching on Pecan Pralines, while re-reading a Harnett T. Kane novel and listening to New Orleans jazz -- well, -- this would be a perfect day to be treasured and experienced at least once, before taking an evening carriage ride, after dining at Mulatte's with a loved one.
Nouvelle Orleans (New Orleans) was named for a French regent by the name of Louis Philippe duc d'Orleans. In France, he was a hated man. The name "Nouvelle" was somewhat of a verbal slap in the face, as in French it is a feminine word and not to be used with a masculine name -- short of made him out to be a complete fairy -- in his day.
Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville -- just ignored the name, and always referred to the town as "Crescent City) because it was founded on the crescent of the Mississippi River that he chose in 1717.
Now, the French speaking people preferred to call the town "Vieux Carre" (in English translates to "Old Square") because the town was laid out by the engineers in the shape of a square.
Eventually, the English translation of Nouvelle Orleans, won out and the name New Orleans stuck as the final name for this city.