During the early days of the city’s nearly 300-year existence, cooking ingredients were a challenge. Beef was expensive and shrimp was pricey and seasonal — plus without modern refrigeration, seafood was only fresh for a short time. Everyone wanted to enjoy these delicacies, but it wasn’t realistic to put a beef or pork roast on the table every night. So, home cooks “stretched” the protein by putting it in gumbo, a pot of seasoned rice for jambalaya, or stuffing it into peppers.
The original goal of all of these dishes was to stretch a small quantity of one expensive ingredient to make a meal for the whole family, and it’s still a technique modern local cooks use to this day. In fact, some of the best dishes that come from Creole-French kitchens in New Orleans are what would have been described in earlier times as “peasant food.”
Creole cooks still love to “stuff” things, a habit that harks back to much earlier days. One of the containers for stuffing that became very popular in Louisiana was the chayote, a squash-like gourd about the size of a pear known locally as the mirliton. The mirliton originated in Mexico, Central, and South America. When the Spanish began to occupy those regions, they exported mirlitons to other parts of their empire. The gourd was easily transplanted to other parts of the world and became a common staple in the diets of many cultures — including ours.
How Did Mirlitons Get to New Orleans?
Chayotes are specifically Spanish, so they came to New Orleans in a roundabout way. New Orleans, being a French colony, picked up Spanish cultural influences because it was a port city, but the agriculture and cuisine was predominantly French (hence the French name change to “mirliton” later on).
Chayotes made their way to New Orleans in the mid-1700s, around the same time that France transferred Louisiana to Spain in 1763 as a result of their defeat in the Seven Years War. Spain sent bureaucrats from Cuba and the other Caribbean colonies to New Orleans, and trade between the Caribbean cities and New Orleans increased dramatically.
Some of the best dishes that come from Creole-French kitchens in New Orleans are what would have been described in earlier times as ‘peasant food.’
Although Spain controlled the city, folks from the Canary Islands also began to immigrate to New Orleans. They became known as “Los Isleños”, and chayotes were a regular part of their diet. New Orleanians likely called the gourd, which tastes sort of like a cucumber when uncooked, “chayote,” until the 1790s, when a huge influx of white immigrants came to the city from Haiti, on the heels of the slave uprising on that island. Those French-speakers would have called it “mirlitons.” The Creole-French name stuck from then on.
Mirlitons in Creole Cooking
Creole cooks took one look at the mirliton and saw another potential container for stuffing. Slice the gourd in half, scoop out the meat of the fruit, and mix it with bread crumbs or rice. Add shrimp, tasso, or ground meat, and you get a fantastic “stretched” meal.
The mirlitons used by present-day New Orleans cooks and restaurants usually come from Costa Rica. The gourds were a popular backyard crop for generations, but local mirliton enthusiast Lance Hill says folks don’t grow them like they used to, mainly because houses now have large, wooden fences, rather than the chain link fences of years past. The chain link fence was a natural trellis that would support crops like tomatoes or mirlitons. Working with the Crescent City Farmers Market, Hill encourages the local growing of mirlitons, but that’s not the only way to try ’em.
Bywater Mirliton Festival
One of the best ways to discover the wonders of the mirliton is to stop by the annual Bywater Mirliton Festival, an annual fall festival that showcases the gourd in all its delicious stuffed and stretched forms. Try mirliton stewed over grits, filled with meats, as a bread pudding, or in a casserole at this food-focused fest.