The new settlers foundered initially, failing to recognize or locate enough of anything good to eat. Finally, as much out of desperation as brotherly love, they asked the native Americans who’d lived off this land a lot longer. And they, known as ”Indians” since the geographically challenged Columbus called them such, pointed them to the nearest ears of corn.
That’s when they had something to be thankful for, probably even inviting some of their saviors over to share the feast.
Except… these settlers weren’t the tirelessly pictured Pilgrims in Massachusetts, or even the people of Jamestown who inspire Virginians to boast of the “first Thanksgiving.” No, these were the Cajun of southwest Louisiana, recently relocated by British soldiers from their beloved Acadia (we call it Nova Scotia) to the bayous and prairies of a terrain that seemed none too friendly. Longfellow’s famous poem “Evangeline” gives us a romanticized version of their story. A bowl of the Cajun corn dish known as maque choux gives us the real thing.
No matter what other dishes are spread across our annual Thanksgiving table, almost certainly alongside a roasted turkey that really is a Pilgrim legacy, maque choux is likely to be my favorite.
First, because it’s really delicious: whole kernel corn slowly braised with Louisiana’s “holy trinity” of onion, bell pepper and celery,” traditionally starting with bacon fat though I use a blend of milk and butter instead, and (in my case) just the right amount of chunky salsa instead of chopped tomatoes. Add a dash of Creole/Cajun seasoning and you might have your favorite dish on your Thanksgiving table as well.
There is evidence of some Spanish influence on the “French” recipe – some say the name maque choux traveled a million miles from some weird Spanish root word, “maigrchou.” And after all, we know the very word “creole” in French started out as “criollo” in Spanish. Yet most believe maque choux took its name, like the river Mississippi and a whole bunch of other things, from Europeans trying to write down what native Americans were telling them. These folks were, of necessity, hooked on phonics.
As with all home-cooked recipes, there is considerable difference from home to home – green bell peppers or red or both, tomatoes or no tomatoes (the Creoles of New Orleans put tomatoes in a lot more classic dishes than the Cajuns in the southwest Louisiana countryside, starting with gumbo), bacon fat or no bacon fat. Each recipe is holy in our own home, until we march next door. Nothing grandma did in the kitchen really adds up to a court of law, though it might feel like it sometimes. We take from the tastes we treasure, but still do it our way once we are grown up enough to cook.
Years and years ago, publishing a magazine article on this Cajun-native American fusion, I credited some dish that might have been maque choux to the Choctaw Indians – who often were in the neighborhood. That only got me an angry letter from the Attakapas Nation, claiming I was overlooking their essential contribution to Louisiana cuisine.
Not every journalist gets hate mail from the Attakapas, so I really wish I’d saved that letter. The smile it slapped on my face was another thing I am forever thankful for.
In the past decade or so, in New Orleans and the rest of south Louisiana, chefs have taken to making this traditional creamed corn or “corn pudding” more substantial – as in Crawfish Maque Choux or Blackened Chicken Maque Choux, or whatever. I prefer the more-or-less original notion as a side dish. It works especially well for family gatherings like Thanksgiving or Christmas, since it’s easy to make a larger batch without much measuring – home cooking at its finest..
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 stalk celery finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
4 cups frozen whole kernel corn, thawed
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Salsa a la Charra
1 cup whole milk or half and half
Chopped green onions
In a large, heavy-bottom pot, lightly caramelize the onion, bell pepper and celery in the olive oil and butter, seasoning to taste with Creole/Cajun blend, lemon pepper and paprika. Add the corn, tomatoes, salsa and milk. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook until corn is soft and sauce is thickened, about 20 minutes. Season to taste. Garnish with chopped green onions. Serves 8-10 as a side dish.
NOTE: I use whole milk, not reduced fat and certainly not skim, for this dish. If you want it lusher, you can use half and half or even heavy cream. And you can use more than this is you want the dish to be creamier.