There’s nothing strictly seasonal about weinerschnitzel or bratwurst. But dine around New Orleans this month and you might think we were witnessing just a brief window of seasonal availability.
German heritage, normally an undercurrent to the tale of French Louisiana, surges to the surface during October, and that includes on the dinner table. From special German restaurant menus to the granddaddy of all local German celebrations, the ongoing Oktoberfest from Deutsches Haus, the flavors of Germany, and especially Bavaria, are presented and pursued like an annual rite of autumn in this town.
Long after the lederhosen have been folded away for another season, however, a more subtle seam of German influence persists in Louisiana food culture, running through some staples of regional cooking.
It springs from the early days of colonial immigration to Louisiana, when the turbulent Alsace-Lorraine region provided waves of settlers; and also from the 19th century when Germans made up the area’s largest population of foreign-speakers. It took root along the Côte des Allemands, or German Coast, in the River Parishes, the spiritual home for some of Louisiana’s butcher shop specialties; and it cemented certain standards during the era when directories of bakers and brewers across New Orleans were full of German names.
“Our food has never gotten the recognition it deserves here because everyone thinks German food and just thinks of one thing,” said Gunter Preuss, a chef with Dickie Brennan & Co. restaurant group. “They think heavy. They think Oktoberfest.”
A native of Breslau (now the Polish city of Wroclaw), Preuss and his wife Evelyn, a native of Berlin, ran the Creole restaurant Broussard’s for close to 20 years. They first arrived in New Orleans in 1969, and the chef recalls being amazed by the familiar German touchstones he found in the local cuisine.
Plate lunches of stuffed cabbage and the hamhocks bobbing in the red beans pot smacked of home for Preuss, as did the crawfish, though he was more accustomed to serving them with shallots and dill than with cayenne and corn on the cob.
He even tasted something familiar in the crackle and texture of the city’s famous “French” bread, the very foundation of New Orleans po-boy culture.
Old Country Crust
“That really does have more to do with Germans than the French,” said Sandy Whann, president of Leidenheimer Baking Co.
His company, producer of an iconic version of the city’s golden, brittle-crusted po-boy loaf, was started by Whann’s great grandfather George Leidenheimer.
The German immigrant opened his bakery in 1896, a time when Germans and Austrians dominated the city’s baking industry.
Whann believes today’s New Orleans-style loaf evolved over the generations, changing in size and shape to better suit the needs of po-boy makers as the sandwich grew in popularity. But he said the basic recipe likely sprang from the traditions of the old country that were still the norm when Leidenheimer got started.
“These bakers were not going to stray very far from the breads they knew from home back then; that was how they were,” Whann said. “From what we know of my great-grandfather, he kept very close to German tradition throughout his life. He ordered German products, he never drank any wine except German wine. He would have made German bread.”
Even today, the baking equipment at Leidenheimer comes from German firms.
If some German flavors endure in Louisiana food, very often their names have changed. That happened in the Louisiana smokehouse, too.
For instance, in France the sausage called andouille is stuffed with chitterlings, and is often diplomatically described as “an acquired taste.” But in the River Parishes, Louisiana’s version of andouille is chunky, peppery, deeply smoky and has become the baseline flavor for countless gumbo and jambalaya recipes.
“Andouille is the basic type of sausage we made in the River Parishes, on the German Coast, and it comes from the roots of our German heritage,” said Wayne Schnexnayder, whose company, Schnexnayder’s Acadian Foods, provides event catering and produces specialty meats for retail sale.
The modern processing plant he and Adam Tucker run near the airport in Kenner may feel a world apart from the old cypress smokehouses Schnexnayder’s family used for andouille making back in his hometown of Hahnville across the river. But the thick links are based on the same recipe, and he points to the region’s heavily German culture for its wellspring.
“We were French-speaking Germans,” said Schnexnayder, who traces his own family roots in Louisiana to the early 18th century. “We had a lot of German traditions and you can still taste that in the food.”
Not all of these German influences are from the past, nor do they all flow in the same direction.
Brewing, once a major industry in New Orleans, is seeing a revival with more small craft breweries opening shop. Michael Naquin runs one of them, 40 Arpent Brewing Co. in Old Arabi.
Naquin hails from Houma and claims French heritage, but he said the German beer making tradition inspired 40 Arpent.
He’s a longtime member of Deutsches Haus, the cultural group behind the area’s biggest annual Oktoberfest celebration, he’s made a pilgrimage to Oktoberfest in Munich and he’s lately been adding more German style beers to his line.
This year, one of the beer tents at Oktoberfest is pouring a hearty, dark amber Märzen beer from 40 Arpent next to its German imports. Naquin said it sold briskly last weekend during the Oktoberfest kickoff.
“It’s German, and it’s local, and I think people liked that combination,” he said.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.