Founded in 1718 and named for the Duke of Orleans, from the start La Nouvelle-Orléans viewed itself as a city apart from, even superior to, other New World settlements. Proud of its French pedigree even after France cut the ties and sold Louisiana to America, New Orleans maintains a slew of French-influenced cultural and gastronomic traditions.
The French were Catholic, not Protestant like the founders of most other New World settlements. A world of differences separated the French from their Puritanical brethren, who tended to an unremittingly severe, sober view of life. While religious, the French Catholics also enjoyed good food and sensual pleasures. Mardi Gras, the most famous and raucous of New Orleans festivals, is a Catholic holiday after all. And in French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” – a time of indulgence before the self-imposed austerity of Lent. The tension between the sacred and profane, the joyous and the mournful (as with jazz funerals, for example), has long shaped the Crescent City’s character.
Early in New Orleans history, an order of Ursuline nuns arrived to give the colony spiritual guidance and instruction. They recruited people of all races, enslaved and free, into Catholicism and solidified New Orleans’ Catholic character. (In addition, they started a Catholic girl’s school in 1727, Ursuline Academy, the oldest one in the United States still operating.) The Catholic nature of New Orleans helped attract likeminded populations of immigrants that shaped the city, from Sicilians who transformed much of the lower French Quarter into “Little Palermo” to the Irish who built the New Basin canal important for New Orleans’ growth, to the Haitians who introduced Voodoo in the early 19th century, to the Vietnamese who arrived after the Vietnam War.
Louisiana was claimed for France in 1682, and two brothers of the surname Le Moyne, formally known as Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville, founded New Orleans 17 years later. La Nouvelle Orléans was named in honor of the Duke of Orleans, France’s ruling regent until the young Louis XV could take the throne, but the French name was also chosen to encourage French settlers who would have balked at coming to a place with an Indian name like Biloxi or Natchitoches. Two French engineers laid out the first 66 squares of a walled village, what later would be known as the French Quarter or the Vieux Carré (Old City). Streets were named after lesser royalty in the Duke’s court. Indian hunters, German farmers, and trappers traded their goods in a clearing where the French Market stands today.
Even during 40 years of Spanish rule, New Orleans remained unequivocally French. Schools taught lessons in French, newspapers published in French, and New Orleanians looked to France for culture and fashions. In 1803 when New Orleans permanently passed into American governance, the French Creoles found themselves at odds in many ways with the Americans moving in. Since then, New Orleans has become an American city, but its heart will always keep a French beat. French words such as Lagniappe (meaning something extra, a bonus) and expressions such as laissez les bon temps rouer (let the good times roll) are entrenched in our speech. Many street names are French – Bienville and Iberville streets of course, and Bourbon – and we live on French bread in our po-boys. Restaurants such as Galatoire’s and Antoine’s still thrive with traditional French menus and the French influence on our cooking is vast. We celebrate Bastille Day like natives and made Mardi Gras our own.