A Thalassic Classic About Foodways, Immigration, and the Ingredients That Converged in Louisiana

The strange 400 year voyage of the shrimp cocktail.

By all accounts, life aboard a Spanish galleon in the early 16th Century was brutal. Sailing west in the Gulf of Mexico on the last leg of a conquistador’s voyage halfway around the globe would have left any crew surly.

Forget the close quarters onboard or the fact that the ship’s surgeon was likely a barber or that bathing was considered to cause disease and sickness, more importantly, the food onboard was horrific. With most meals consisting of rancid salted meat, stale biscuits and some moldering horse beans, it’s perhaps not surprising that the conquistadors arrived in the New World in a sour mood.

Rampaging through indigenous cultures up and down the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea for gold and silver led to the holds of these galleons filled with plunder, but unknown to these men at the time were the real treasures hidden below decks – the seeds to grow tomatoes, paprika and cayenne peppers.

Chefs and well heeled foodies often list devices such as ovens or refrigeration or the fishing net as crucial culinary innovations, but there is scant mention of the boat. Recreational boating didn’t come into existence until the 19th century. Before then, boats were strictly utilized for mobility, commerce and warfare. In these roles, they were also the first manmade mechanism that opened up the world and started to blend and mix it together. 

History books nebulously mention “spices” when describing the age of sail and European exploration, but what’s missed is that the boat was likely the most important culinary device ever engineered.

As the French explorers Bienville and his younger brother Iberville bounced like water on hot oil along the Northern Gulf Coast in 1699, frigates had replaced galleons; there still wasn’t a practical solution to determine longitude at sea, and it would take another 66 years before the creation of the world’s first restaurant in Paris. 

Taught by indigenous Americans to throw reed castnets for shrimp or to wade out in the shallows for oysters, the bountiful seafood on the Gulf Coast was already known to Bienville as he founded New Orleans on a less damp portion of ground along the Mississippi River in 1718. 

As he and his men staked out what is now known as the French Quarter, Bienville likely left his footprints in the mud where the second-oldest restaurant in the United States would eventually rise.

Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans.

The primary ingredients for a shrimp cocktail had already wound their way in the holds of ships from far flung corners and gardens of the world to Europe, but the ingredients would still have to simmer together over time and then make the long voyage back to the New World. 

The Aztecs were the first culture to concoct a version of tomato sauce utilizing their native fruit, known as the “tomatl,” but the tomato seeds Cortés and others returned to Spain were only grown ornamentally in Europe for nearly two centuries. With their similarity to the deadly nightshade plant, tomatoes were initially considered poisonous.

It wasn’t until New Orleans was founded that the royal kitchens and houses of Spain, France and Italy were stirring up their own nascent versions of tomato sauce.

The seeds and the recipes percolated outwards in Europe, and by the time the sextant was invented in 1759, Italians had discovered their soils and climate were ideal for growing delicious tomatoes and that they paired well with pasta. 

With the dirt of the Mediterranean island of Sardinia still lodged in his boots, a teenaged Francis Vigo joined the Spanish army as a private and sailed to Havana seeking adventure and fortune. In 1775, Vigo transferred from Cuba to the now Spanish held colony of Louisiana and carried with him one of the first rudimentary recipes for ketchup onto the wooden docks and piers on the river in New Orleans. 

A statue of Francis Vigo. Courtesy: National Parks Service.

Vigo’s ketchup was simple, consisting of a reduction of crushed tomato juice and beef “gravy”, but new culinary smells and notions were already mixing in the New Orleans air and changing with every immigrant and slave’s first step off of the gangplanks.

Forcibly ejected from Nova Scotia by the British and seeking new homes and lives in the former French colony, the French Acadians settled in the swamps and prairies to the west of New Orleans. More commonly known today as Cajuns, they brought with them a rustic culinary experience from the colder latitudes of Nova Scotia but quickly adopted the native Indian’s flat bottomed canoes known as pirogues to access the seafood bounty of Louisiana.

They were followed by refugees from the slave revolution in the French colony of Haiti who brought with them foodways that had already stewed African and French influences together. The first appearances of traditional French sauces modified with local ingredients likely appeared with these two groups of arrivals in South Louisiana.

Mayonnaise came first in the early European cookbooks and then Antonine Carême defined the first iteration of the “mother sauces” in Paris in 1854, known today as béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato sauce. 

Antonine Carême’s cookbook.

Perhaps the oldest ancestor to a modern cocktail sauce was remoulade that descended from mayonnaise spiced up by the French with anchovies, gherkins, capers, tarragon, chopped parsley and scallions, but would be unrecognizable to most today with its white coloring, mayonnaise consistency and used primarily as a dressing for salads or cold meats.

As the United States pushed westward, steamboats and paddlewheelers became more common sights on the rivers, while on the Gulf Coast, luggers took on the yeoman’s work of hauling in shrimp and oysters.

Shrimp drying out in the sun. Courtesy: Louisiana Digital Media Archive.

New Orleans drew the eye of two invasion forces arriving by sea – the United States Navy succeeding where the British Navy failed some 50 years earlier and a banker devastated by the Civil War retreated to his wife’s family’s island in the vast swamps to the west of the city to grow hot peppers.

Family lore of the McIlhenny family is that Edmund McIlhenny acquired the seeds to grow these Mexican peppers from a soldier or traveler returning from Vera Cruz around the time of the Mexican-American War. 

Edmund McIlhenny

Tabasco hot sauce was first bottled in 1868.

Waves of Italian immigrants were descending into New Orleans at this time, primarily from Sicily, on what were known as the citrus boats delivering lemons. As they trundled off the steamships bringing a robust cuisine that was now heavily infused with tomatoes and tomato sauces, it was shortly afterward that the earliest Creole New Orleans cookbooks had traditional French remoulade sauces suddenly turning red with the introduction of the tomato and its derivations, which eventually included cayenne pepper, paprika, horseradish and Tabasco hot sauce, all served with a wedge of lemon.

What is considered a remoulade sauce, or what’s known as a comeback sauce throughout much of the rest of the Deep South, is attributed by many to Arnaud Cazenave, a French wine purveyor who opened up his namesake restaurant, Arnaud’s in the French Quarter in 1918, which is still serving patrons today. However, remoulade sauces would have been common in the kitchens of many home cooks, and a cocktail sauce is simply a less complex version of a remoulade. 

April 1946: Count Arnaud Cazenave posing for a picture at a bar. (Photo by Jerry Cooke/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Like the nautical charts of old with here there be dragons along the edges of the known world, digging into the origination of a recipe is fraught with many unknowns. However what is not unknown is that boats of all stripes carried ingredients, recipes and people from their native lands and introduced them into new cultures and foodways where they bubbled and simmered for centuries. In many cases, these recipes became the indigenous foods of their adopted regions and have become inseparable from them. 

This process continues today and can be clearly seen with the fusion of Cajun and Vietnamese foodways brought about by the large population of refugees from the Vietnam War that settled in southern Louisiana. With the similarities to their native Southeast Asia, many of these native Vietnamese and their American-born children have taken to the water to ply the estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico alongside Cajuns for Louisiana shrimp, best served with a delicious cocktail sauce.