On December 19, 1896, Herbert Barnum Seeley hosted a raucous bachelor party for his brother Clinton; an affair that came to be known as “the awful Seeley dinner.” The ensuing scandal, set at Sherry’s, a fashionable Gilded Age restaurant, would make the brothers as famous as their grandfather, showman P.T. Barnum.
The players in the affair included a police captain dubbed “Whiskers” Chapman and a belly dancer called “Little Egypt,” who reportedly leapt naked out of a whipped cream pie and was known for performing in her “altogether.”
In 1896 New York City was in the grips of social reform, and it was not unusual for the police to be informed if an event suspected to fuel “immoral behavior” was in the works. Such a tip spurred the raid on Sherry’s, setting the controversy in motion.
Whiskers Chapman confused the door to the banquet room with that of a dressing room, and when his crew burst in on a fleet of dancers disrobing, mayhem ensued. There was no sign of the legendary Little Egypt, no apparent evidence of licentious behavior, and the police soon left.
The Seeleys protested this invasion of a private function, and so began an enormous hullabaloo that embodied two popular opposing sentiments of the era: the high-mindedness of an administration built on the ideal of staunch morality at odds with public outcry for privacy and accusations of police and governmental hypocrisy.
Soon courtrooms overflowed with exotic dancers, restaurant staff, and dinner guests, all called to give testimony. The public delighted in the mingling of members of high and low society, seemingly aligned in their outrage over the intrusive tactics of the authorities. Never mind that Little Egypt had been stowed in a closet, and when the police left, she danced her signature “couche couchee” number on top of a table. The Seeleys, nonetheless, took the line that their honor had been wounded. Showgirls and waiters, called as witnesses, sat in a packed courtroom next to starchy society members. This “mixing” of classes was a media spectacle, and mirrored the changing dining habits of an increasingly egalitarian Gilded Age New York.
Dining Out in Late Nineteenth-Century New York
Sherry’s was an expensive and exclusive catering venue, and was known for discretion at a time when the act of dining outside private homes was a relatively new practice. In the mid-1800s, the opulent mansions of New York’s privileged teemed with debutante balls and society weddings, all catered by in-house chefs, often fresh from royal European estates. For the elite, who possessed vast drawing rooms and sumptuous ballrooms of their own, there was little allure in dining in public venues. Yet society by the end of the nineteenth century was in the midst of an enormous social and economic shift, and appearing in “public” was becoming increasingly normalized for the privileged class.
One new notable cultural development was that of women socializing outside the home, which corresponded with the rise of “commercialized” entertainment. The newly built Central Park, with its promenades and vistas, coupled with an expanding transit system, served to invite women into the street. Luxury hotels, too, entreated women to dine in their tearooms, adding yet another factor that pulled women out of their homes, something formerly not prudent for respectable females. As women pushed out into the public, men found refuge in their newly formed male-only private clubs (Dunlop 169). These clubs, bastions of old money and educated privilege, would soon be at the center of debate.
Another seismic change in the United States, with especial effect on New York City, was the steady influx of immigrants. In 1865, 43 percent of New Yorkers were foreign-born, rising from an already high 36 percent in 1845 (Homberger 182). These immigrants quickly set about climbing the ladder of opportunity. In a new country, with no one to say otherwise, money, in place of “breeding,” was enough to allow entry into formerly restricted social domains. For the members of the old guard, intent on closing ranks and preserving their superiority, there was fear that these so-called undesirables would gain admittance to their alliance.
It was believed that young wealthy women in particular needed to be protected from fortune hunters, and unverified newcomers with no ties to established society were a threat to the social order. Previously, social habit kept diners at home, where there was little threat that a gullible heiress, for instance, could come in contact with an imposter or someone of lesser social rank. Dining quietly in private homes with a select and standardized roster of players was a far cry from cavorting in rented public ballrooms (Montgomery 2).
More and more mansions and luxury hotels were being put up as the number of freshly made millionaires swelled. This infusion of new wealth stemmed from railroads, mining, and construction, and New York City was a hub of commerce. There were fewer than twenty millionaires in the entire U.S. in 1840, yet over 4,000 millionaires by1890 (Root 321). These scores of newly rich were eager to display their prosperity, and being seen at high-priced restaurants was one way to achieve social mobility. Yet, opulent dining and ballrooms had become central to the identity of the old rich, and their members were not keen on integration. There needed to be ways to “sort” the old money from the new, and food was a method through which to do that.
For one thing, gourmet menus could be difficult to navigate, and negotiating them could perhaps embarrass a person unsure of a menu’s wording, pronunciations, or meanings. Menus written entirely in French especially served to make those outside the old social circles “uncomfortable” (Smith 238). So too did nonsensical names of dishes, named in ode to foreign locations or as tribute to opera singers or other cultural icons. Understanding what exactly was Sauce Veronique, Angels on Horseback, Oeufs Georgette, and Chartreuse was a challenge for the uninitiated.
In Where and How to Dine in New York (1903) the reader is reminded that Delmonico’s was “the home of politeness and reserve—a place where the initiated alone are at ease” (Lewis, Scribner 121). The same text notes that Sherry’s is “in reality a private club with membership limited by refinement and wealth” (Lewis, Scribner126). The socially ambitious were intimidated by complicated menus and equally unsure of which fork to use. Yet they were also resolute, and ready to be educated. Enter a raft of instruction manuals, many bestsellers, which covered every aspect of dining and social interaction.
These etiquette guides stressed the appearance of good breeding, and taught how dangerous it was to be considered “vulgar.” They also warned that table manners could reveal social rank. In 1866 etiquette expert Arthur Martine wrote, “A man may pass muster by dressing well and may sustain himself tolerably in conversation” but “dinner will betray him” (Martine 67). In addition to incomprehensible menus, a dizzying array of silverware and complicated table settings could flummox all but the most schooled in haute cuisine and its corresponding etiquette. Etiquette guides took care to advise the ambitious of how they could break into a new social class, how to marry “up,” and most importantly, how to not betray one’s origins by behaving improperly at the dining table. Yet for figures like the Seeleys, secure in their social rank, moneyed, and unaffected by pesky reform measures, dining in New York’s posh restaurants was mundane.
Prior to the infamous Seeley dinner party, the luxurious Delmonico’s restaurant had long been hosting soirees for the affluent of New York. This trend was fueled in 1870, when Archibald Gracie King hosted his eldest daughter’s coming out ball at Delmonico’s. All 800 guests fit within its tony walls, a feat which would have strained even the largest of Fifth Avenue mansions. As William Grimes noted, Delmonico’s was a “social gatekeeper” for the “best” of society (Grimes 102). Yet Louis Sherry, a young crafty restaurateur, knew there was plenty enough capital to go around, and he built Sherry’s, a swanky new competitor to Delmonico’s. It soon became the “it” place for the younger crowd in the late 1890s.
The staid Delmonico’s held fast to the ways of an earlier, more stratified society. Even with doors wide open, married couples could not eat together in their private dining room without a chaperone. This “prudishness” allowed newer, more flexible restaurant managers to fill the void, and stag dinners for the elite were a profitable revenue stream. Delmonico’s predictably refused to book the Seeley party. So the Seeleys went to Sherry’s, which was already in vogue with the younger set (Root 340).
Meanwhile, lobster palaces had arrived; those boisterous, opulent dining halls that seemed to embrace everyone, even the elite intent on “slumming” for the night. Compared to the stolid society dining institutions, lobster palaces had an air of being relaxed and nonjudgmental. The gaudy new dining halls featured all manner of live entertainment and late-night meals, with floor shows and plenty of spectacle (Smith 348). At Delmonico’s, one “dined with heiresses.” Lobster palaces, considered vulgar to the establishment, were a place where it was acceptable to “dine with chorus girls” (Root 340).
In the 1890s there was a growing sense that moral decay was settling on the city, a metropolis seething with immigrants and newly arrived rural transplants. Alcohol consumption obliged as an easy scapegoat, and gave reformers a tangible target on which to concentrate their efforts. Existing legislation from 1857 was revamped repeatedly, and by 1895 “Sober Sunday” laws were in effect. Hotels were still permitted to sell drinks to guests in their dining rooms, and private clubs were excluded. Thus, prosperous out-of-towners and club-going gentlemen could drink all they wanted on Sundays. For many New Yorkers, however, Sunday was their only day off work, and they were furious to be denied their due (Zacks 111).
And so, as ever, inventive entrepreneurs found loopholes. Saloons were swiftly converted to “hotels,” as teeny makeshift bedrooms arose from the backrooms of bars, and bartenders hastily threw tablecloths over pool tables to create “dining rooms” (Zacks 257). Now they could serve liquor on Sundays!
A fleet of newly rich social climbers clamored to be admitted into high society, and in turn were followed by those of lesser means who emulated them. This time of great new social mobility played out across the public dining rooms of the city, yet was complicated by an increasing fervor for social reform.
The spirit of reform served as a way to address the lingering unease of the establishment. This unease was fed by several factors, most especially the effect of massive immigration and the influx of “new” money. The arrival of women in the public sphere was monumental too. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the norm for luxury hotels to provide separate dining areas for men and women. Respectable women indeed now appeared in public fine dining rooms, but when and how they dined was regulated by social mores. And food, something related to the baser needs of humans, occupied a peculiar place in the psyche of Victorian Americans.
Vegetables, like meat, were regarded as particularly alarming, and needed to be manipulated in order to be insulated from their earthiness. 1876’s Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving cookbook, for example, advised that carrots be cooked for an hour and a half. The same recipe recommended carrots be cut into the shape of a ball or a pear, and perhaps shaped into more elaborate designs with a tin cutter. Turnips, the guide tells us, were best cut into “parallelograms” (Henderson 197).
The new fashion for dining “à la Russe” (rather than à la Française) also lent itself to tender Victorian sensibilities. Rather than the previous method of placing all the courses on the table at once, now fussy individual courses emerged from the kitchen at intervals. Hence, no sensitive diner could be assaulted by the indignity of an ungainly platter or cut of meat. As Modern Etiquette in Public and Private (1887) stated, eyes were no longer “disgusted by the sight of large joints, the attention not distracted by the troubles of carving; all the disagreeable elements of a meal spirited away, and only the ethereal ones left” (Warne 25).
The Awful Seeley Dinner
Dining venues of this era featured enormous floral arrangements, ornate themed rooms, mind-boggling decor, expensive party favors, and costumed waitstaff. Spectacle was everywhere, and if dispensed correctly, an indicator of status. Under these conditions, Herbert Seeley set about planning a memorable bachelor party for his brother Clinton.
Yet apparently, attention to décor was not all that was demanded at the dinner parties of some gentlemen of the Gilded Age. An oppressive and tightly controlled social code led to an inevitable desire to break loose, and certain personalities of 1896 were up for any manner of illicit entertainment. For their private parties, brandy and cigars after dinner did not suffice. For these parties, ever-titillating professional performers were employed, hailing from legitimate theater companies, from vaudeville, and from the “nether world” (Dunlop 170). The cruder entertainments were outrageous, and included human sex shows, animals copulating, and staged fights between baited caged animals (Dunlop 171).
It was in this vein that Herbert Seeley set about procuring an eighteen-year-old dancer and “arranged it so her tights would fall off while dancing” (Dunlop 171). In testimony, Seeley would later state that he was indeed looking to book amusement, not going to “Sunday school.” And yes, he had wanted to book an act “with some ginger in it.” (Dunlop 179). This “ginger” would arrive in the form of multiple dancers, whose dress straps would be literally snipped off with scissors (presumably provided by the host) by the pawing party guests.
That a raid of Sherry’s was called at all can be traced to the testimony of a theatrical agent representing a young dancer who had been interviewed in order to perform at the stag party. The agent, upon learning what exactly was being requested that night, was so scandalized that he went directly to police headquarters to lodge a complaint. And yet this agent was also the dancer’s stepfather, and it would seem for $10 more he would have not been at all scandalized.
In statements, the manager of Sherry’s was “highly indignant” that his venerable workplace was under suspicion, and declared that there had never been a “breath of scandal” associated with the restaurant (New York Times, Dec 22, 1896). This was true, but seemingly not because Sherry’s customers were of high morality, but because of the secrecy of this particular social sphere, as well as the discretion demanded of staff.
Following the raid, Herbert Barnum Seeley was summoned to police headquarters to give his account of the evening, and despite assuring the authorities that nothing untoward had occurred, proceeded to reel off the names and addresses of his twenty prominent guests. Prior to this confession, police were unable to divine who exactly was at the affair and had not interviewed any attendees at all, only staff. It was here that Seeley violated the unwritten code of the era. As one researcher wrote, “bachelor life had but two rules; wear evening dress and keep mum.” Chatter of the Seeley dinner, splashed on the cover of newspapers for weeks, violated this code, and brought “the bachelor world of the late 1890s into public view for the very first time” (Dunlop 171). The act of making private life “public,” especially for the cossetted elite, signified a new assertiveness in the way the media portrayed the privileged. Public sentiment, initially sympathetic to the Seeleys’ violation of privacy, soon shifted to disapproval. Yet the public was also titillated by the tale, eager for details of exotic dancers and a ten-course meal served in a very expensive Fifth Avenue palace in which most readers could only dream of dining.
The trial was unique in that all levels of society mingled together at a time when the wealthy and the so-called lower classes were rarely attendant at the same occasions. This standard was changing, however, and the Seeley trial presented a perfect storm of an era in flux. Court proceedings featured a “motley crowd” of onlookers. As the New York Times noted, they included the “fashionable man about town and the man who goes to court to keep warm” (January 8, 1897). One newspaper called the courthouse inhabitants “dandies, degenerates, and patrons of the ballet” (Dunlop 177).
Not one member of the Seeley dinner party ever spoke publically about what really happened at what was to become labeled the “Awful Seeley Dinner” (Dunlop 191). Herbert Seeley may have blabbed about who his guests were, but not a single one of those guests spoke publically about what transpired.
Little Egypt died of gas asphyxiation alone in her apartment in 1908, twelve years after the Seeley dinner. Little Egypt (called Ashea Wabe but born Catherine Devine) invested in real estate, owned a dance troupe, and was a shrewd businesswoman. She owned a “fine summer home” in Nova Scotia, numerous real estate holdings, and at her death had a bank balance of $30,000 (New York Times January 2, 1908). Her celebrity (and salary) skyrocketed after the dinner. She died a woman of means, yet one with a secret Yale-educated banker husband who never publically acknowledged their marriage (he did swoop in, however, when her estate was revealed). It is telling that the story of Little Egypt further serves as an example of the duality of the shifting class system at play at the turn of the century. Little Egypt was wealthy in her own right, but not considered marriage material for a cultured gentleman.
Reporters told various conflicting versions of the dinner at Sherry’s and their newspaper accounts offer a dizzying array of contradictions. Researcher M.H. Dunlop notes that this disparity has to do with a cultural inability to use specific language that could have accurately described the dinner. Language in 1896 was meant to be delicate, and it was a special challenge for writers to recount graphic court testimony. Euphemisms, such as “in the altogether” would have to do. Women were ultimately banned from the courtroom, but nonetheless, a lack of “publically usable language” strained the imaginations of witnesses who were “unable to even name body parts” when asked to describe the movement of the dancers accused of obscenity (Dunlop 178).
Not one member of the Seeley dinner party ever spoke publically about what really happened at what was to become labeled the 'Awful Seeley Dinner.'
Further confusion lies with the lineage of the Seeley brothers. Some newspaper accounts claimed the men were nephews, not grandsons, of the circus man P.T. Barnum. Their mother, Pauline, was in fact P.T. Barnum’s daughter. P.T. had four daughters, and frustrated with the lack of a male heir, left an extra enticement in his will should Clinton forever use the Barnum name (Herbert had long been recognized as a goodtime guy not to be trusted with a fortune).
Another cause of confusion was that there were several dancers who used the moniker Little Egypt, and it became a sort of shorthand for “exotic dancer” in this era. According to newspaper accounts and a later obituary, it seems Ashea Wabe was indeed the Little Egypt of Seeley fame. But other personalities, too, would claim the distinction, muddying the details.
Clinton Barnum Seeley, guest of honor at his stag party, married Florence Tuttle just a week later and lived a long life as a respectable Connecticut banker and “city benefactor.” The couple were married for sixty-one years until Florence’s death a year before Clinton’s.
Herbert Seeley had a less industrious life and spent years trying to get out from under a trust established in order to protect the fortune left him by his grandfather. He had a fondness for gambling, and when he died at forty-three, his obituary stated he had an “alert mind and lack of self-control” (barnum.org/nti04117.htm).
Sherry’s would serve as a go-to for New York’s affluent until the threat of Prohibition, along with changing fashion, caused the doors to close in 1919. Just prior to Prohibition taking effect, Louis Sherry’s $250,000 stockpile of vintage wines was transferred to the vaults of the Waldorf Astoria. Sherry showed his appreciation to select loyal customers by providing them with private keys to the wine vault. Sherry would go on to run a high-end chocolate shop, cater in conjunction with the Waldorf Astoria, and negotiate a corporate merger that would eventually see that his name was included in the designation of the opulent Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Louis Sherry died in 1926.
The controversy over the Seeley bachelor dinner party was rooted in the fact that New York culture was undergoing tremendous change. Unspoken tensions concerning a great wave of immigration, an influx of wealth, and new patterns of living and dining all lay beneath the exaggerated response to a party that got out of hand. The dinner party at Sherry’s, and its repercussions, can serve as a mirror for what was occurring in greater society in 1896.
“Barnum Family Genealogy” http://www.barnum.org/nti04117.htm
Bridgeport Post, “Obituary: Barnum Seeley.” March 17, 1958, 1.
Curtain, Michael. “A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy.” The Journal of Modern History, 57.3, Sep. 1985, 395–423.
Dunlop, M.H. Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn of the Century New York. William Morro, 2000.
Grimes, William. Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York. North Point Press, 2009.
Hartley, Florence. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. G.W. Cottrell, 1860.
Henderson, Mrs. Mary F. Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving. Harper & Bros. New York, 1876.
Homberger, Eric. Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age. Yale University Press, 2002.
Lewis, Scribner & Co., Where and How to Dine in New York, 1903.
Martine, Arthur. Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness. Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866.
Montgomery, Maureen E. “The Fruit that Hangs Highest: The Courtship and Chaperonage in New York High Society, 1880-1920.” Journal of Family History, 21.1 April 1996, 172.
New York Times, “Captain Chapman’s Raid.” December 22, 1896, 7.
New York Times, “Sherry Writes to Conlin.” December 27, 1896, 13.
New York Times, “A Day’s Wedding: Seeley-Tuttle.” Dec 31, 1896. 5.
New York Times, “Editorial.” January 1, 1897, 4.
New York Times, “Chapman Hearing Begins.” January 8, 1897, 12.
New York Times “Capt. Chapman on Trial.” January 9, 1897, 8.
New York Times, “Chapman on the Stand.” January 13, 1897, 11.
New York Times, “Chapman Hearing Ended.” January 14, 1897, 7.
New York Times, “William S. Moore Dead.” January 18, 1897, 3.
New York Times, “Chapman is Exonerated.” February 4, 1897, 3.
New York Times, “Little Egypt Dead.” January 6, 1908, 12.
New York Times, “Little Egypt worth $30,000 at Death.” January 21, 1908, 2.
New York Times, “Obituary: Louis Sherry Dies, Famous Caterer.” June 10, 1926.
New York Times, “Obituary: Little Egypt. “April 6, 1937, 23.
Root, Waverly and Richard de Rochemont. Eating in America: A History. Echo Press, 1976.
Smith, Andrew F. (ed). “Lobster Palaces” by Andrew F. Smith and “ Gilded Age” by Lauren C. Santangelo in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, Oxford University Press, 2015.
Warne, Frederick & Co., Modern Etiquette in Public and Private, circa 1887.
Zacks, Richard. Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. Doubleday, 2012.
Hopping John is not thought of as a typical New York dish and, to be sure, its origins are to be sought in the South of the United States where, as discussed at length by CHNY co-founder Karen Hess, in her book, The Carolina Rice Kitchen, it is a dish with especially deep roots in the Low Country of the Carolinas and neighboring Georgia, where rice production flourished by dint not only of the slave labor of Africans but also thanks to their deep knowledge of rice cultivation. The rice cookery that developed in that region also drew heavily on traditional knowledge brought to America by Africans and undoubtedly benefited further from local invention by black cooks in various settings.
New York has had an African/African-American presence since its earliest days as a town under Dutch rule, when it was Nieuw-Amsterdam, but, as in the case of so many northern cities, New York’s black population increased dramatically after the Civil War and the Great Migration from the South; since that time, African-Americans have always formed one of the city’s largest ethnic groups. Though blacks from South Carolina headed to many northern cities, a particularly large number from the old rice country chose New York as their northern destination and, just as Neapolitans brought their pizza and eastern European Jews their bagels to New York, African Americans of the South brought, among other dishes, their Hopping John, which remains a beloved dish in the community and for many families an integral part of their New Year’s celebrations. Like so many of the best things to eat, Hopping John has very humble origins and a long history; it also has a name which has defied historical explanation.
The first recipes attested for two of America’s most iconic regional dishes appeared at almost the same time in the mid-nineteenth century.1 In 1847, Sarah Rutledge, a member of South Carolina’s social elite, included a recipe for ‘Hopping John’ featuring bacon, ‘red peas’, and rice in her cookbook The Carolina Housewife. Just two years later, Solon Robinson of Alabama, a regular contributor to the journal American Agriculturist, published a short article entitled “Recipes for the Ladies,” which includes the earliest known mention of jambalaya, the Gulf Coast stew of chicken to which rice is added and cooked; Robinson calls the dish “jambalaya”, but does so only parenthetically, following the recipe’s main title, “Hopping Johnny”. This puzzling equivalence of the names Hopping John(ny) and jambalaya begs explanation and holds the key to finally giving the name “Hopping John” a plausible etymology. In this paper I argue that Hopping John arose in a bilingual context, most likely in coastal Alabama, in the contact zone between black speakers of both Louisiana French Creole and English and is, in fact, a calque in English of a folk-etymological interpretation of the word “jambalaya” in French Creole. The full etymology of “Hopping John” necessarily begins with the etymology of “jambalaya”.
While a great many of the traditional dishes of the Creole and Cajun cuisines of Louisiana bear names that are clearly French in origin, two of the most emblematic dishes of southern Louisianan cookery do not.2 Gumbo bears a name that is without question of African origin. The Bantu word, ki-ngombo, designates one of the principal and characteristic ingredients of the dish, okra. The process by which this dish was developed is, unsurprisingly, obscure, but we can at least say with certainty that it represents a coalescence of influences within the colonial setting and that the role Africans played was central. In the case of jambalaya, most food writers have been inclined to see in the dish and its name the product of a similarly complex development within the colonial setting but, in particular, also to reject the idea that the dish is in any meaningful sense French in origin. There are two principal reasons for this: first, the name “jambalaya” is clearly not a word belonging natively to standard French or to its regional and social variants in the north of France; second, rice is a principal ingredient in jambalaya, and rice is generally not believed to have been a common element in the traditional cookery of France in the time leading up to the establishment of her American colonies.
Current Views on the Origins of Jambalaya
Given these two reasons not to look to France for the origins of jambalaya, food writers have almost all championed either of two theories that invoke other possible influences present in colonial Louisiana. According to one of these theories, the dish is Spanish in origin, a claim based on its general similarity to Spain’s famous paella: both are preparations which include a base of aromatics and a variable set of proteins (meats and/or seafood) to which rice and liquid are added to finish the dish. “Jambalaya” is not a Spanish (Castilian) word, nor is there evidence for it being a Catalan word 3 but a (pseudo-)etymology, now commonly cited, was proposed to fit the theory: it claims that “jambalaya” is a compound of the French word for ham, jambon, with paella. Unfortunately, this explanation fails on several points, the most important of which are that: a) the syntax of the compound is wrong for Spanish and French (one should expect paella de/au jambon) and b) the proposed etymology presupposes a dish in which ham is the principal ingredient, which is not the case in the overwhelming majority of recorded early recipes for jambalaya. From a sociohistorical standpoint too, the support for this theory is weak: though Spain owned Louisiana for more than thirty years, Spanish settlement in the colony was very limited and comprised largely of Canary Islanders, not Valencians.
A second, somewhat more compelling scenario for the origins of jambalaya is that it represents an element of culinary continuity for the enslaved West Africans in Louisiana, many of whom came from regions where rice was a staple food and were engaged in the cultivation of rice in the colony. From a culinary standpoint, we know from later times that dishes similar to jambalaya are widely known and much loved in large swaths of West Africa, and there is every reason to believe that such preparations were enjoyed by West Africans in the colonial period. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that a number of writers have attempted to find the source of the name “jambalaya” in some West African language. None of the proposed etymologies are, however, at all convincing, including the most widely cited, which posits again a compound formed in Louisianan French of jambon with a West African word for rice, either yaya or ya. 4 Thus jambon à la yais claimed to have yielded ultimately “jambalaya”. Here too, however, one of the same objections raised against the putative compound jambon + paella must be raised: early recipes for jambalaya show it to be normally a dish in which ham is a common, but not universal, flavoring, while the principal ingredient is almost always chicken or some other fowl. In addition, there is no evidence for the word “ya” having been borrowed into Louisiana’s French colonial dialect nor into the related Louisiana French Creole language.
None of the proposed etymologies are, however, at all convincing, including the most widely cited, which posits again a compound formed in Louisianan French of jambon with a West African word for rice, either yaya or ya.
While the great majority of food writers see jambalaya as deriving either from Spain’s paella or now most commonly from West African traditions of composed rice dishes, two have given consideration to the possibility of the dish being of French (in the broader sense) origin and more specifically of Provençal origin. Karen Hess (1992:64ff.), in her book on Carolina Low Country cooking, briefly discusses jambalaya in the context of the history of the pelaus, or pilafs, of bourgeois and elite cookery in Provence, but ultimately arrives at no convincing conclusions regarding the origins of either the dish or its name. More recently, Andrew Sigal (2007) has offered an excellent though ultimately inconclusive discussion of the history of jambalaya. In his view, the name “jambalaya” should be considered Provençal, though his analysis of the name itself, despite going well beyond previous analyses, is limited, and with regard specifically to the origins of the dish he is cautiously noncommittal, given the shortcomings of the evidence at his disposal and his reluctance to engage in the sort of speculation that so often mars food history (p.115).
The Southern French Origins of Jambalaya and Its Name
Hess and Sigal were correct in suggesting that the Gulf Coast’s jambalaya is most likely of Provençal origin, but neither was able to demonstrate that to be the case. Of course, were there some clear and direct evidence one could uncover—a recipe or overt textual reference from France before the colonization of Louisiana—it would most likely have been found by now. Instead, one must look for circumstantial evidence that justifies continued research and ultimately forms a sufficiently convincing case. My case for the southern French origins of jambalaya and its name is indeed circumstantial but built on a large body of linguistic, culinary, and sociohistorical evidence that renders speculative theories relying on bogus etymologies untenable. The central arguments are laid out in detail in Buccini 2017, and a central part of the overall etymology relies further on arguments presented in Buccini 2006. In this context, we will briefly highlight the main points.
The very first attestation of a form of “jambalaya” from southern France is in a poetic text by Chailan published in 1837, just ten years before its appearance in the recipe by Robinson, but in a figurative, rather than culinary, sense of ‘disorderly crowd, rabble’ (cf. Sigal 2007:104–105). It next appears some thirty years later in a poem by Peise (1973 :178) where it is glossed in the text itself with the French word macédoine, meaning a ‘dish of mixed vegetables’ but here figuratively employed to mean ‘hotchpotch’. Soon thereafter, Mistral (1878/2003:152), in his magnificent and massive dictionary of Provençal (and other varieties of Occitan), includes an entry for the word under the heading “jambalaia, jabalaia, jambaraia” with citations from the aforementioned poems by Chailan and Peise. In defining the word, however, he gives first a meaning that clearly corresponds to the use of “jambalaya” in the American Gulf Coast region, followed by others: Ragoût de riz avec une volaille, macédoine, méli-mélo, cohue, that is, ‘stew of rice with a fowl’; macédoine: ‘(a dish of) mixed vegetables (figuratively also jumble or hotchpotch)’; méli-mélo: ‘hotchpotch’; cohue: ‘disorderly crowd’. Though Sigal translates macédoine here as I do, he does not explore the significance of this further culinary sense of “jambalaia”, which is of central importance.
Forms of “jambalaya” are also marginally attested in Provençal dialects in the twentieth century (Buccini 2017:111). Interestingly, of the two culinary senses mentioned by Mistral, it is the “macédoine”, or ‘vegetable stew’ sense which is best attested. In the dialects of Toulon and Menton, that is the sense, and as was surely the meaning Mistral had in mind, the reference is to summer vegetable stews of the sort best known in the Anglophone world from the version of Nice, ratatouille in French, or ratatouia in Nissart dialect. 5 No less interesting is the fact that jambalaia is also attested from Nice (Compan 1967:125), appearing in a dialect lexicon in the section on food, and within that, it appears toward the end of a list of dishes which are all based on various forms of offal with the parenthetical gloss “la ratatouille frite”, clearly invoking the old sense (rather than the modern sense of ‘summer vegetable stew’) of the word “ratatouille”, which was used as a pejorative (real or jocular) of a stew involving offal or leftovers and ultimately also vegetable stews. Twentieth-century references to “jambalaia” in the sense of Mistral’s first meaning, clearly related to the dish of Gulf Coast fame, are more problematic, as they may be based just on Mistral’s reference with recourse to non-traditional knowledge deriving from Louisiana. The most likely of such recent references to reflect a traditional use of the name “jambalaya” in connection with a recipe of the Louisiana ilk is Jouveau 1990:140. In summary, between Mistral and other reliable sources, we have attested for Provence in the last two centuries uses of forms of cognates of Louisiana’s “jambalaya” in reference to: 1) a dish resembling the Gulf Coast dish; 2) a vegetable stew probably consistently of the ratatouille-type; 3) some manner of ‘bad stew’, likely involving offal. Nonetheless, the word was marginal in this period.
It has been suggested by some that the nineteenth-century Provençal references to jambalaya are all to be explained as diffusion from the Gulf Coast back to southern France, and as interesting as that question is, it has no real bearing on the origins of “jambalaya” in light of the following evidence.6 Though no form of “jambalaya” is attested in southern France before Chailan, there are attested two culinary terms that are clearly related and likely secondary to “‘jambalaia”; that is, their existence strongly suggests that “jambalaia” had existed before them.
The first and most important of these is jambineto, attested in Mistral and two further dictionaries—Achard 1785 (jambinetto) and Honnorat 1846–1847 (jambineta)—which lack entries for jambalaia. 7 All three give a definition of a stew composed of very small birds, with Achard offering that the birds are “taken from the nest and cooked in a pot with lard [i.e. bacon].” The definitions also seem to allow for the name being applied to other stews, with the small bird version being the best known or most typical.
The second is a word first attested in a dictionary of the Languedocian dialect of Occitan, spoken just to the west of Provençal (de Sauvages 1756:256): jhimbëlôto, defined as a kind of stew made with “blanquetes d’Agneau” and also the leftovers of a gigot of lamb, thus, with leftovers included potentially a ‘bad stew’, a sort of ‘ratatouille’ in the old sense of the word and thus semantically not far from one application of the term “jambalaia”. This same word under different spelling appears in the ‘South French’ dictionary of Azais (1876:337) as gimbeloto, described as a stew of hare or rabbit pieces. It is very likely that these forms are reformations of an original jambeloto.8
These two words appear then to share a root, jamb-, to which have been added different complex suffixes with a first, semantically neutral element and a second, diminutive element, namely, -in-eto and -el-oto. The existence of such diminutives implies the preexistence of a base form and, analyzing the word “jambalaya” from this perspective, we have an excellent candidate, namely jamb-+-al-+-alha, again with a neutral suffix followed by, in this case, a very well attested collective suffix with a pejorative connotation. But what then is this root jamb-?
While the Neapolitan word almost certainly bore the sense of ‘a peasant stew of offal’ at the time of its diffusion, both the Neapolitan word and the Catalan dialect derivatives later made a semantic shift to indicating summer vegetable stews of the ratatouille-type.
In Buccini 2017:112ff. I argue that the root jamb- is not a native Occitan one but rather enters the language first as part of a word borrowed from the Neapolitan dialect of southern Italy, namely, ciambotta, presumably during the late Middle Ages. The same word was also borrowed into the Catalan of the Balearic Islands, yielding tombet, and a variant of the Neapolitan word, cianfotta, was in parallel fashion borrowed into the mainland dialects of Catalan, yielding xamfaina/samfaina. In all these cases of borrowing, we see phonological adaptation of the initial consonant and also substitution of the Neapolitan form’s suffix with native suffixes. In addition, while the Neapolitan word almost certainly bore the sense of ‘a peasant stew of offal’ at the time of its diffusion, both the Neapolitan word and the Catalan dialect derivatives later made a semantic shift to indicating summer vegetable stews of the ratatouille-type. The family of Occitan words just discussed fits perfectly into this scenario, with parallel phonological and morphological adaptations, and regarding the semantics, we see the same pejorative connotation of the Neapolitan source-word, a tie to offal, and in at least some places in coastal Provence, ultimately a shift of the word to denote summer vegetable stews.
We see then that although jambalaia is not attested in Occitan before or during the period when the French Louisiana colony was founded, there is strong evidence that it had existed and that the word finds in Occitan a proper etymology with wide links around the western Mediterranean.
More on ‘Jambalaia’ in Southern France and a Clue to Its Link to Hopping John
It is striking that in the early (pre-Mistral) Occitan dialect dictionaries where we find entries for “jambineta” and “jimbeloto”, there is none for any form resembling “jambalaia”. In part this gap in the record could be the result of chance, that the authors simply did not know the word, which existed in some local dialects outside their ken. There is, however, mention in some of these dictionaries of a term which, I believe, had replaced “jambalaia” in a good part of Occitan territory, to wit, soupo courto, literally ‘short soup’. The term still exists in Occitan and, despite the name, refers not really to a soup but to a stew which, once cooked, is finished by adding enough water to allow for the cooking of a starch—typically pasta or rice—in the pot with the stew; the same cooking method is attested with other stew-like preparations known under other names, such as rougnounado and carbounado, as far back as the early seventeenth century. Nowadays in Provence, the term is used most often in reference to lamb stews stretched with pasta.
In three of the pre-Mistral Provençal dictionaries and in Mistral as well, soupo courto is consistently described as a soup of abatis as the primary sense, “abatis” meaning the trimmings of a butchered fowl—wings, tail, feet, giblets.9 The question arises: was the cryptic listing of “jambalaia” among offal dishes in Compan’s Nissart lexicon a reference to a stew of abatis? And a second question: is the version of jambalaya featuring abatis from Mobile in 1878 (“jam bolaya”), one of the earliest recorded Gulf Coast recipes, an archaic, poor man’s version harkening back to the southern French original (GCCB, p. 57)? In other words, can it be that the original “jambalaia” came to be so often made as a “soupo courto”, stretched with pasta or rice, that the latter name started to replace the former, but not before, in the first decades of the eighteenth century, some southern French colonist on the Gulf Coast who still used the older name introduced the dish to his fellow colonists? 10 If so, that colonist must have been happy to find rice (though not pasta) available in Louisiana to stretch his dish. We call attention to the important fact that in this period, rice was a common food among the non-elite social classes of southern France, produced locally in both coastal Languedoc and Provence (Buccini 2017:114–115).
While the name “jambalaia” was apparently almost completely replaced in Provence with the name “soupo courto” (with the dish subsequently perhaps becoming less popular), in neighboring Languedoc I believe people took a different path. 11 There we find today a still very popular stew of abatis of various birds (chicken, goose, duck), made with pork products and stretched with turnips or potatoes, which bears the name ragoût d’escoubilles. Escoubilles is the Frenchified form of the Occitan word escoubilho/escoubiho meaning ‘sweepings, garbage’, a collective derived from the verb escouba ‘to sweep’ and corresponds to the actual French word with the same meanings, balayures, derived from the verb balayer ‘to sweep’. I believe this name came about as a folk-etymological reinterpretation of the older, opaque name “jambalaya” in the bilingual context (Occitan/French) of southern France in the nineteenth century. It seems one or more bilingual speakers in Languedoc reanalysed “jambalaya” as jam(b) + balaya through association of the sound of the latter part with the French verb balayer ‘to sweep’ and its derivative balayures ‘sweepings’; translated into Occitan, one arrives at a colorful, jocularly deprecating, and very local name for a humble food associated with local identity and the new name resonated with ever-wider circles of people in the region (Buccini 2017:116-117). That such a folk-etymological interpretation of “jambalaya” by French-speakers potentially exists is confirmed by a commonly cited and obviously untrue just-so story that purports to explain the creation of jambalaya, both the name and the dish, in Louisiana: a guest arriving at an inn in New Orleans late in the evening was informed that the kitchen’s offerings were all sold out, so the guest said to the chef ‘John, sweep something together!’—in French Jean, balayez!—and the satisfied guest then bestowed this phrase on the improvised stew of chicken stretched with rice that Chef Jean had made him.
2. From “Jambalaya” to “Hopping John”
Bearing in mind this just-so story for the name “jambalaya”, let us turn to the name of the other iconic regional dish of the American South under consideration here, that of Hopping John. Originally a supremely simple preparation of field or cow peas, cured pork, and rice, modern versions are typically elaborated with various aromatics and seasonings, and black-eyed peas are the legume most widely used today; in the Low Country there remain those who prefer local legume varieties and relatively simple recipes which strongly resemble the first one recorded, namely the aforementioned recipe from Sarah Rutledge (1847:83) which includes only bacon, ‘red peas’, and rice, and for seasoning, salt, pepper, and (optionally) fresh mint (cf. Thorne 1996:283ff.; Taylor 2011).
“Hopping John” first enters the written record in the 1830s and appears in only a handful of texts until well after the Civil War, when it then becomes regularly mentioned in descriptions of southern life, described in cookbooks, and included in dictionaries of Americanisms, but already in the early references to the dish, it is clear that it was widespread and very popular.
West African Tastes Filtered through Plantation-Imposed Privation
Our very first recipe attested for Hopping John mentioned above was written by a member of South Carolina’s social and economic elite, of course a white person, and from this we must presume that to some degree at least this dish was consumed with pleasure by other people of her station. The one earlier textual reference to the dish that we know of comes from a fictional scene in a novel, written by a New Englander who had moved to South Carolina with her clergyman husband a decade or so before publishing the book in the late 1830s. What we can ascertain from this passage is that, again, the dish was well known to well-off whites and probably consumed by them, but it was a dish regarded as being too humble to be appropriately served to unfamiliar guests (Gilman 1838:124). Another early reference to Hopping John sheds some light on why the dish, aside from its extreme simplicity and commonplace ingredients, may have been at once enjoyed by all classes but also bore a certain stigma; Olmsted (1861:506–507), in describing landless whites mired in poverty and held in lowest esteem by well-off whites, says: “Their chief sustenance is a porridge of cow-peas, and the greatest luxury with which they are acquainted is a stew of bacon and peas, with red pepper, which they call ‘Hopping John’.”
Clearly, already in the first half of the nineteenth century, white people in South Carolina—rich and poor—ate Hopping John. For various reasons we lack direct textual evidence from this period of its consumption by African Americans, but there is a lot of material, including later texts, to show that the dish was beloved by the enslaved population of at least part of the South and also by enslaved and freed blacks in other colonial settings. A well-known and striking reference to Hopping John is found in the memoirs of ex-slave Jacob Stroyer (1885:10–11). Recalling his childhood on a plantation in central South Carolina during the 1850s, he observed that during the summer, when the very young slaves were living together away from the main part of the plantation, they were fed routinely with just boiled corn mush served with sour milk or molasses, but on Sundays their parents would visit: “Among the many desirable things our parents brought us, the most delightful was cow pease, rice and a piece of bacon, cooked together; the mixture was called by the slaves ‘hopping John’.”
Living conditions for slaves varied considerably in different places and over time. Under the best of conditions, slaves were able to live as family units with certain staple foods allotted them by their owners but also had plots of land on which to grow supplementary food and raise some animals (chicken, rabbits, pigs) for consumption or sale. Some had enough time free from plantation work to tend to their own land and also to hunt, fish, and forage for further food items (Otto & Burns 1983:189ff.).
Unfortunately, for a great many slaves, especially on large plantations, their alimentation was not so varied, and they were forced to rely to a high degree on a limited set of foods produced communally or supplied by the owners. Since the overriding goal of slave-ownership was profit, cutting corners with regard to both the quality and quantity of food distributed to slaves was common; having slaves supplement their own diets was one cost-cutting strategy, though it could also diminish the time slaves were working directly for the owners’ profit. But owners did also have to take into account the health of the slaves with regard to their ability to do the work for which they had been enslaved. Both slavers and owners observed that the people they exploited generally fared better when they were fed foods with which they had been familiar in their African homelands, and in this way, a number of edible plants native to Africa were imported to the New World and became staples on the plantations of the Americas (Buccini 2016:6). Among the African foods brought to the Americas and regularly served on slave ships and plantations were the cow and field peas central to Hopping John (Twitty 2012:26). Slavers and plantation managers spent little effort to make these foods any more than edible, but enslaved Africans did, and once they had any control over their own cooking, they surely soon found ways, even with the most limited ingredients and seasonings, to make them delicious, drawing on their remembered knowledge of their own African culinary cultures and incorporating new foods encountered in the colonies.
Hopping John exemplifies this process, having as its base the combination of legume and rice that was widely enjoyed in the Old World, as well as hot pepper as principal seasoning, an item that, though originally a New World food, had long been nativized in large swaths of Africa after the Portuguese had introduced it there in the earliest stages of the creation of the “Atlantic World” (Osseo-Asare 2005:25). Bacon, as well as other forms of salted meats and fish, was one of the staples of plantation life in North America and elsewhere, supplied regularly, though meagerly, by slave owners as a source of protein to keep their workforce productive, but its role in Hopping John undoubtedly has long had analogues in rice-and-pea dishes of West African cookery (Hess citing J.Harris, 1992:101).
Hopping John Analogues in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana
While the African heritage of Hopping John seems indisputable, the origins of its name are obscure; it is, in fact, the sort of name that usually resists etymologizing, bearing no discernible connection to its presumable West African origins, nor to the ingredients or cooking method. In other words, it appears to have been the product of the linguistic imagination and folksy poetics of some anonymous person in a long forgotten situation. Naturally, some have been inspired to fill in the gap and invent possible but unconvincing post-factum just-so stories, and the most widely circulated etymologies are of this sort. For example, one asserts that there was a crippled African American who sold the dish on the streets of Charleston, and it was his name that was transferred to the dish; another claims the name derives from the behavior of children who would hop around the dinner table in anticipation of the beloved dish. More formal attempts to provide an etymology have been no less unconvincing. A widely cited theory asserts that ‘Hopping John’ is somehow a “corruption” of the French pois pigeons (‘pigeon peas’). A particularly infelicitous attempt at an etymology for “Hopping John” was proffered by Hess in her otherwise outstanding book on the Carolina rice kitchen (1992:98ff.): through pseudo-linguistic legerdemain she derives ‘Hopping John’ from a fanciful Hindi-Malay compound bahaṭṭa kāchang of her own invention.
One of the close analogues of the Anglophone South’s “Hopping John” belongs to the cookery of the Gulf Coast and is called in Louisiana French jambalaya au congri(s), that is, ‘jambalaya with congri(s)’; the dish is also called in Louisiana French Creole jambalaya defèv (‘bean jambalaya’) and simply kongri (Valdman 1998), conceivably made with any kind of bean but traditionally made specifically with field peas. This term congri is nowadays best known from Cuban Spanish, where it is the name of the staple rice-and-bean dish of the eastern part of the island (congrí), but it is also a dialect word in Haitian Creole, where it is an adjective meaning ‘with beans’ (Buccini 2016:3–4). Various unsatisfactory African etymologies for this word have been proposed, but in 2014 I presented in a conference paper a new French etymology that better fits the linguistic and historical facts:12 it is in origin simply the Haitian Creole form of the French adjective congru (with regular un-rounding of the French front-rounded vowel), extracted from the phrase la portion congrue, meaning ‘the minimum appropriate portion’ and by extension an ‘unfairly meager portion’. The Haitian use must have arisen in the context of plantation kitchens, where the usual ration of a basic starch (corn, millet, cassava, rice) was occasionally augmented with boiled legumes. The presence of the word in Cuba is then surely the result of the diaspora of white landowners and their slaves from Saint-Domingue in the wake of the first wave of the Haitian Revolution (early 1790s), many of whom settled for a time in eastern Cuba before moving elsewhere, including to Louisiana. The Haitian Creole word congri may have been introduced to the Gulf Coast in this manner, though it may have spread there earlier, as the two French colonies were in regular contact. In any event, the Gulf Coast use of jambalaya au congri and jambalaya defèv perhaps indicates that the term “jambalaya” had shifted conceptually in Louisiana from its original southern French sense of a specific kind of stew made of abatis (or with a fowl), which was commonly stretched with a starch, to the new colonial sense of the combination of a seasoned stew of fowl or other principal ingredients necessarily with rice added, before the name “jambalaya au congri” for the rice and field pea dish was coined, and so could take on the name “jambalaya” with qualification.
Early references to jambalaya au congri are far fewer than those to jambalaya tout court, but a recipe appears in one of the first regional cookbooks of southern Louisiana, namely the Picayune’s publication (1901:182), a recipe composed only of rice, cowpeas, salted meat and a little ham. Also noteworthy here is the entry for “jumballaya a la Creole” in Eustis’ recipe collection (1903:13), to which the following comment is added: “Hopping John is made in the same way with small pieces of fried ham, fried sausages, to which you add some cow peas that have been partially boiled. The St. Domingo Congris is like the Hopping John.” Eustis, though born in France, was raised in New Orleans and her mother was a native French Louisianan; later in life, she moved to South Carolina and perhaps there first encountered Hopping John, which for her was essentially the same dish as the “congris” she knew, perhaps through contacts with refugees in the US from Saint-Domingue. It is also clear that for her, congri/Hopping John was conceptually related to jambalaya, presumably on account of the fact that these dishes involved the cooking of rice in the same pot with the stew involved.
‘La Mobille’ and the Alabaman Connection
We began this paper calling attention to the strange fact that the very first attested recipe for jambalaya bears that name only as a parenthetical alternate to the name “Hopping Johnny”, which is in fact also one of the earliest attestations of that name in a culinary context. Robinson’s recipe is a fairly simple version of jambalaya, a stew of just onions and chicken browned with butter, seasoned with hot pepper and parsley, and stretched with rice; conspicuously absent is any mention of field peas or any other legume that we would expect in a dish called Hopping Johnny.
It is of central significance that Robinson was writing from Alabama. 13 Throughout colonial times and on into the nineteenth century, Alabama was a region of contact between the Francophone community of the Gulf Coast and the ever-expanding southern Anglophone community from the Carolinas and Georgia. In this regard, we should remember that Mobile was the original capital of French Louisiana and, though the French population was never large, its presence in the south of Alabama was long-lived, where a black French Creole-speaking community survived as late as the first half of the twentieth century (Marshall 1991:74). There are strong reasons to believe that dishes of field or cow peas with rice (and cured pork) were known among African Americans on both sides of the French(-Creole)/English linguistic divide, as was the case elsewhere in the former English colonies (Jamaica, Bahamas), where this dish is known simply as “rice and peas”. We might then conjecture that in the Anglophone South, the dish also originally had no distinctive name. 14 Thus, when French Creole and English-speaking blacks encountered one another in Alabama and recognized the essential identity of their rice and pea dishes, the Creole-speakers’ jambalaya au congri stood out. Under such circumstances, a typical outcome would be that the English-speakers would simply borrow the more colorful French Creole name of the dish, perhaps simplifying it by using either just “jambalaya” or “congri” but, of course, the Southern English name for rice and peas is neither of those, but rather “Hopping John”.
Given the above background, we can now present an explanation for the name “Hopping John”. If we recall the just-so story for the invention of the dish and the name “jambalaya” from the phrase Jean, balayez! I believe we can see a similar, intentionally humorous, folk etymology at work but one which involves both reanalysis and then translation, much as we suggested for the replacement of “jambalaia” by (ragoût d’) escoubilles in Languedoc. I suggest that “Hopping John” is derived from a jocular reanalysis of “jambalaya” as the Louisiana French Creole phrase Jan bale, pronounced jãmbalé (accent on the final vowel /e/), which we gloss as ‘John the dancer’ or ‘John who dances’. We might also gloss this phrase as ‘dancing John’ or, to use an archaic synonym of ‘dance’, as ‘Hopping John’, as in the phrase “Let’s go to the hop!”
Both slavers and owners observed that the people they exploited generally fared better when they were fed foods with which they had been familiar in their African homelands, and in this way, a number of edible plants native to Africa were imported to the New World and became staples on the plantations of the Americas.
What then do we make of Solon Robinson’s puzzling use of “Hopping Johnny” to refer to what is obviously a dish of chicken jambalaya? It would seem that in Alabama, for some stretch of time in the early to mid-nineteenth century, the reinterpretation and translation of “jambalaya” to Jan bale to “Hopping John(ny)” had been taken up and generalized, and for at least some English-speakers, the way to render in their language any use of “jambalaya” would be as “Hopping John(ny)”.
‘Jean Petit qui danse’, Hopping John, and the Jamboree
This conjecture would not be a very strong explanation of “Hopping John” unless there were some motivation for Alabaman French Creole speakers and their Anglophone neighbors to associate the dish of peas, pork, and rice with dancing; fortunately, there are excellent reasons to do so. To begin, one recalls that while whites also ate jambalaya au congri and Hopping John, there is clear evidence that this sort of rice and pea dish was particularly associated with, and popular among, the slave communities of Louisiana, Saint-Domingue and parts of the American South. Slave narratives from the southeast attest to the popularity of Hopping John and to its common association with social events such as “cornshuckings” and Sunday evening gatherings where music and dance were central activities. In the New Orleans area, dancing by slaves was by law restricted to Sundays (Fearon 1819:277) when, in addition to more purely social gatherings, there were also Voodoo services, most famously at Congo Square but surely realized similarly elsewhere, including in all likelihood Mobile. 15 Music and dancing were central in the practice of Voodoo, as were ritual offerings of food, including specifically jambalaya au congri, to various gods.16 In very general terms, there were noteworthy similarities in the expression of African cultural elements—both profane and sacred—through music, dance, and food at Sunday gatherings of slaves (and freed blacks) in the Anglophone South and in the French colonies of Louisiana and Saint-Domingue.
But were that not enough, there was also a direct motivation for speakers of Gulf Coast French Creole to associate the specific name “jambalaya” with dancing, a reason to come up with the aforementioned reanalysis to Jan bale ‘dancing or hopping John’. Throughout French colonial America, there was an extremely widely known and popular character of folktales whose name was “Petit Jean”, and stories featuring this figure have been recorded from the northwest of Canada to the Caribbean. In addition, there was during the colonial period a song that was associated with the hero of the folktales, which was widely known in the American French colonies, especially where there were significant influences from the south of France, as was the case in both Saint-Domingue and Louisiana.17 The name of this song in French is Jean Petit qui danse, that is literally, ‘Little John who dances’ or, put another way, ‘Hopping Johnny’.
Yet further support for my claim is my etymology of the word “jamboree”,, which according to all standard dictionaries is of “unknown origin.” Indeed, in my view, both “Hopping John” and “jamboree” were likely coined in roughly the same place and period, namely in southern Alabama near the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a context of increasing Anglo-French Creole contact and at a time which would allow for the prior creation of the name “jambalaia au congri” after the influx of Saint-Domingue refugees to Louisiana and also leave ample time for the term “Hopping John” to diffuse through the southeast before its first attestations. “Jamboree” is then the word “jambalaya” borrowed and phonologically adapted into the English of Anglophone African-American communities of the southeast, clearly akin to some variants of “jambalaya” attested from areas peripheral to the French-speaking Gulf Coast or from non-French-speakers, most notably “jumberlie” and “jambolin” (from Alabama and Mississippi/Missouri; Buccini 2017:110), which are phonologically very close to “jamboree”, still with the original culinary sense but closely related to the form(s) which coalesced as “jamboree”. In support of this claim, we note that some of the earliest attestations of the word “jamboree”, generally extremely racist in nature, render it clear that the word was in origin associated with African-American social gatherings where music, dance, and revelry were noteworthy, e.g. (McKee 1873:6)18
Massa told us to-day,
There was no work, so we might play,
So with the bones and the tambo we,
Hoop up the dance and jambaree.
In origin, a jamboree was a festive gathering of African Americans where music and dance were featured and jambalaya (au congri), a.k.a Hopping John, was enjoyed.
Much of the focus of food history has been on the culinary behavior of the elites of literate societies. That focus has been natural, in that the easiest and most direct way to study the foodways of the past is through texts, which have usually been produced by the elite class. The study of non-elite foodways, until fairly recently so underrepresented in texts, requires to a far greater degree reconstruction based on indirect evidence. Central to such reconstruction is the often limited linguistic material we have to work with: properly researched, linguistically informed etymologies are especially crucial to advancing our understanding of non-elite foodways of the past, as I hope to have demonstrated above.
In this paper, we have traced the origins of two iconic American regional dishes, and in the course of doing so, we have shown how one goes back clearly to a southern French peasant dish and the other to an African dish developed by enslaved people under the harshest of circumstances. It seems most appropriate that the histories of these two dishes and their names became intertwined, bringing together not just culinary items but also music and dance. It also seems quite natural that the dishes discussed here have become regional culinary icons; as Karen Hess (1992:103) said, “earthier dishes of the rural poor —or of fishermen in coastal areas—would occasionally be adopted by the local aristocracy and become a genuine regional dish, transcending lines of class, and even race, to a point where it came to typify the region in a way that its more elegant dishes could not.”
Achard, Claude-François. 1785. Dictionnaire de la Provence et du Comté-Vanaissin. Marseille: Mossy.
Angelo. 1880. The Adventures of an Atom. New York: Hurst.
Arnoux, Carle. 1940. Breviàri dóu gènt parla prouvençau. Toulon. Online: http://www.cieldoc.com/libre/integral/libr0347.pdf
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No event more clearly marked the disaster for fine dining that Prohibition wrought than the closing of Louis Sherry’s namesake restaurant in Manhattan in 1919. Realizing that the financial footing upon which haute cuisine rested had been undermined—the revenue of the sale of wines and liquors—this greatest of early twentieth-century restaurateurs abandoned the hospitality sector and became a commercial confectioner. He turned to sugar as his mainstay, manufacturing and distributing for retail sale chocolates and high-end ice creams. Sherry’s exit from the restaurant world resembled in certain particulars his entrance into
After serving as busboy at Wendell House, waiter and headwaiter at the Hotel Brunswick, and steward of the Hotel Elberon (a resort at the summer gambling mecca of Long Branch, New Jersey), Sherry became in 1883 a purveyor, offering “fancy cakes of every name and nature, of ice cream of every imaginable flavor, and ices of every possible kind” at a shop at 662 Sixth Avenue. These confections were the sine qua non of society parties and receptions. Yet other things were also needful for catering, particularly banquet staples such as “sweetbread, lobster, salmon, dried oysters, deviled crab, chicken salad,” and terrapin. From the first, Sherry’s ambition was to be a caterer. He had identified a weakness in Delmonico’s domination of the high-end banquet trade in New York: the restaurant empire wished all of the revelry to take place in one of the branches of their chain only. Yet many wealthy clients wished to stage events at their own town mansions and estates. Charley Delmonico was reluctant to send staff out to do private catering—only chef Antonio Sivori did this service. Sherry put himself forward to serve the desires of those who fancied home-based parties and receptions. Sherry’s success in the home hospitality business forced Delmonico’s to develop a party chef division, under the command of chef Prosper Grevillot.
From an early age, Sherry possessed three qualities that made him a preeminent caterer and, later, restaurateur: ambition, a love of the ritual dimensions of dining and celebrating, and an exquisite aesthetic sensibility. During the 1880s, when Sherry first established himself as a rival to Charley and Charles C. Delmonico, most of his clients thought him French. While his father was a French- Canadian who emigrated to Vermont and set up as a carpenter in St. Albans, his mother was a daughter of an old Vermont family; Louis Sherry was a native- born American. He formed his ambition to become a caterer at the age of fourteen. Sometime in the 1890s, he floated a story that his initial experiences in the hotel business were as a busboy in a Montreal Hotel—the story appears to have been a fabrication to explain his fluency of his French. The truth of the matter appears in another interview he gave in 1902 concerning his early days on the wait staff of the Hotel Brunswick in New York. In order to become a successful waiter, he realized, he must learn French. “I made the French waiters give me practice. I got it down pretty well and almost everybody believes that I am a born Frenchman. If I say I am a Vermont Yankee, they are sure that it is a joke.” Sherry should have added that his father spoke Canadian French around the house when he was a boy.
Securing employment at the Hotel Brunswick was a stroke of good fortune—or perhaps a surprisingly astute youthful calculation. It was, in the later 1870s, one of the temples of French cuisine in North America, under the command of chef Francis Kinzler. Sherry “went into the kitchen whenever he could get away from his duties” and learned to cook. He helped the cooks free of charge and, he says, “took my pay out by asking questions. I kept that up for the seven years while I was at the Brunswick.” While securing an on-the-job culinary education, he was also schooled in taste by listening to the conversation of the epicures and bon vivants who flocked to Kinzler’s dining room to experience the cuisine.
From an early age, Sherry possessed three qualities that made him a preeminent caterer and, later, restaurateur: ambition, a love of the ritual dimensions of dining and celebrating, and an exquisite aesthetic sensibility.
Sherry’s stint as steward at the Long Branch resort supplied him with a $1,300 nest egg and the backers to enable him to open his shop and catering office in 1883. In 1884 he hired A. Armand, a talented assistant chef from Delmonico’s convinced that the new proprietor Charles C. Delmonico was casting a cold eye at him. To ensure that he had income during the summer, when Manhattan’s social scene shut down, Sherry contracted to run the casino and restaurant at Narragansett Pier in Rhode Island. He would spend every summer developing the scene at Narragansett until the great fire of 1900 destroyed the resort. (Sherry’s chef J. Keller would invent the dish “Clams Casino” at his resort in the 1890s.) The question remains—how did an ambitious, largely self-educated young man from Vermont in a sweet shop on Sixth Street and his culinary sidekick, a disgruntled castoff of Delmonico’s, successfully challenge the most established, celebrated house of haute cuisine in America? Ambition only counts for so much.
Sherry levered himself into importance with fashionability—modishness at a time when Delmonico’s became hide-bound by traditionalism. The death of both Lorenzo and Siro Delmonico in 1881, the financial debacles of Charley Delmonico in 1883 and his death in 1884, forced their heir, Lorenzo’s grandnephew Charles Crist, to adopt the Delmonico name and protect the legacy by embracing Delmonico’s traditionalism. Every ball and reception occurred in one of the Delmonico’s venues, causing a growing crush in the company. In September 1883, Sherry went to Paris to learn the state of cuisine and service there firsthand. What struck him was the ancillary decoration at banquets—the flowers, hand-painted menus, sculptures, exhibition dishes, and linens. He determined that he would only provide the best—and would charge top dollar—and that he would personally attend to every job. At first he did not get major commissions. “Delmonico and Pinard were old and proved, while I was an experiment. I must establish a reputation with the small orders. They were slow in coming but they came. A small breakfast here, a lunch there, and so on. Nothing could be better than what I sent out, nor served better, nor on daintier table service, and, I may add, no bills could be stiffer.”
Sherry’s uncompromising pursuit of tastefulness, beauty, and bonhomie in his catered events earned him word of mouth. His willingness to work in the client’s home proved one of the determinative dimensions of his success. If one wished superb cuisine, Sherry would provide it. If one desired an extravagant gesture, he would provide that as well. A description of the Rhinelander/Kipp engagement dinner of spring 1888 suggests how much he learned about festive décor from his Parisian sojourn:
In the center of the polished table a miniature lake was arranged, above which ferns and lilies nodded and swayed and in which fishes of varied colors darted, the whole surrounded by tropical plants and glowing parterres of flowers. Small electric lights were arranged about the lake and in the center a fountain tossed its spray, while a colored glass ball lighted by electricity rose and fell in the crystal jet. A wealth of tropical foliage and bloom transformed the banqueting hall into a bower of beauty in which tiny colored electric lights flashed and flowed, and each of the twenty courses Manhattan enabled the lighting effects. Sherry’s showed characteristic foresight in making the acquaintance of a pioneer New York electrician.
By summer 1889, Sherry’s client book had grown to such an extent that he ventured an expansion that, according to a contemporary observer, “astonishes every hotel man and café manager in the city. He has rented one of the largest houses on Fifth avenue, standing on the corner of Thirty-seventh street, and is now having it completely rebuilt inside so as to provide it with a large public dining room, a ball room and several private dining rooms.” Sherry could not have undertaken such a costly enterprise if he did not have some substantial champions in the world of New York society, old-line tastemakers who had grown tired of the scene at Delmonico’s. After opening Sherry’s Restaurant in late 1889, the champions made themselves visible. Mrs. William Astor gave a New Year’s Eve ball and supper at Sherry’s, and her daughters staged two further events. By the second week in February, Sherry’s had been installed as the new thing in the bon ton. Mrs. Astor’s “endorsement is of more actual value to Sherry than would be the name of an Astor at the bottom of a note for a quarter of a million.” Sherry’s restaurant gained the favor of the younger set of the moneyed class.
The décor—pastels, mirrors, tropical plants—stood distinct from any place in the city. Sherry’s greatest anxiety was the cuisine. Delmonico’s had the most talented chef in the western hemisphere, Charles Ranhofer. Sherry hired a sequence of talented collaborators: chef Xavier Wertz, at the first Sherry’s at Thirty-Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue; the youthful prodigy chef Pasquale Grand, at the second Sherry’s, the distinguished 1898 Sanford White–designed building on Fifth Avenue at Forty-Fourth facing the last Delmonico’s building; and, finally, the ex-Delmonico’s chef Jean Boileau.
Sherry’s greatest contribution to the history of American restaurant cuisine was his revolution in marketing the image of the good life. He projected an exuberant yet elegant youthfulness in his restaurants, repeatedly suggesting that the best qualities of Continental cooking and style were found at Sherry’s, combined with the technological innovation, showmanship, and love of the new typical of America. His rivalry with Charles C. Delmonico gave high society a cultural drama that drew national interest. He made himself a brand—an arbiter of taste—and an advocate of new modes of eating and socializing. Though trained in cuisine, the only widely published recipe linked to his name is a treatment of strawberries.
STRAWBERRIES À LA LOUIS SHERRY
Louis Sherry, the caterer, believes that sugar and cream destroy the natural flavor of the strawberry. Instead of cream Mr. Sherry use lemon juice. For each quart of strawberries he used the juice of one lemon and five or six tablespoons of powdered sugar. The strawberries, the sugar and the lemon juice are stirred up together a few minutes before being served. “It is much better to serve the berries at as near as possible the temperature at which they are packed.
One of Sherry’s ambitions was to assimilate to his dining rooms and ballrooms the theatrical permissions of Broadway. Music was an accompaniment of dining at various times. Sometimes this stirred up controversy, as in the infamous Little Egypt performance at a bachelors’ dinner held by H. B. Seeley on December 19, 1896, that led to a police raid. Sherry turned this rather infamous episode into a grand occasion for publicity, suggesting the edginess of entertainment at Sherry’s. The key to success for Sherry was that he managed to escape censure, to burnish his reputation for cultural innovation, and to avoid the impression that he was engaged in the sort of nouveau riche lobster-palace sensationalism that attached to new rivals like Rector’s.
After Sherry left off his summertime involvement at the Narragansett Pier at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was periodically rumored to be involved in any number of major hospitality projects—hotels in London and San Francisco, a restaurant in Paris. An ugly divorce proceeding in 1908 heated these rumors. Sherry’s great reward in his work lay in his personal engagement in the event. Having nominal control of simultaneous events (the Lorenzo Delmonico model) had little to no attraction for Sherry. When Prohibition came in 1919 and the merriness and revelry of the social world evaporated overnight, Sherry shuttered his Broadway palace. It became a bank. He secured backing from the owners of the Waldorf Astoria to develop a line of confections for retail. Louis Sherry Ice Creams and Louis Sherry Chocolates with its distinctive lavender box became the Häagen-Dazs of the 1920s through the ’50s.
National advertising commenced in November 1919. For someone who delighted so wholeheartedly in the caterer’s craft, retirement for Sherry was difficult. Periodically in the early 1920s, he continued to cater events in New York. He died in his apartment in the New Amsterdam Hotel, leaving his fortune as an endowment for the Presbyterian Hospital.
SOURCES: “A Dinner at the Gramercy,” New York Tribune (October 24, 1883): 5; “Island Resort,” New York Herald 195 (July 13, 1884): 17; Richard Edwards, “Louis Sherry,” in New York’s Great Industries (Chicago: Historical Publishing Company, 1884), 171; “Lucullan Feasts,” Denver Rocky Mountain News (July 6, 1888): 2; “Midsummer in New York,” Boston Herald (July 21, 1889): 24; “Astor Ladies Countenance Sherry Against Delmonico,” Boston Herald (February 9, 1890): 24; “Your Winter Breakfast,” Boston Herald (October 30, 1892): 31; “Sherry’s Spring Delicacies,” Kansas City Star 17, no. 237 (May 13, 1897): 4; “New York Daily Letter—the Rise of Louis Sherry,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (August 11, 1902): 4; Associated Press, “Sherry’s, Epicure’s Mecca, Will Close,” Daily Illinois State Register (May 6, 1919): 1; “Louis Sherry, Noted Café Man, Born Here 71 Years Ago,” St. Albans Daily Messenger (June 11, 1926): 2.
Reprinted with permission from The Culinarians, by David S. Shields. © 2017 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.