This is the dish that drew from Thackeray the famous tribute to Creole Cookery: “In New Orleans you can eat a Bouillabaisse, the like of which was never eaten in Marseilles or Paris.”
The reason is clear, for in these old French cities the Bouillabaisse is made from the Fish of the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, notably the Sturgeon and the Perch combined, while in New Orleans it is made from those matchless Fish of the Gulf of Mexico, the Red Snapper and the Redfish (Poisson Rouge). It will be noticed that it takes two kinds of Fish to make a Bouillabaisse. The first Bouillabaisse was made in Marseilles, and the old Creole tradition runs that it was the discovery of two sailor-fishermen, who were disputing as they sat in a schooner as to the proper way of cooking a Sturgeon and Perch combined. Both essayed: one succeeded in making a delightful dish that would have gladdened the heart of any old French bon vivant. The other failed. The successful one enthusiastically offered to teach his friend, and as the latter was following the directions implicitly, and the finishing touches were being given to the dish, the teacher, seeing that the critical and important moment had come when the Fish must be taken from the fire, or it would be spoiled if it cooked a moment longer, cried out, bringing down his hand emphatically: Et quand ca commence a bouillir — Baisse! (And when it begins to boil, take it off the fire!) Hence the name Bouillabaisse, which was given to the dish from that moment. From all portions of Europe people go to Marseilles to eat a Bouillabaisse on the seashore.
The taste of the Bouillabaisse, still lingered in the mouths of the old French Creole settlers of New Orleans. The famous old chefs sought two Fish from the water of the Mexican Gulf that might be used in the making of the dish with a reasonable hope of success. They chose the Red Snapper and the Redfish. The result is told in Thackeray’s tribute. The Creole Bouillabaisse, with the modifications and improvements that early ingenuity suggested, is a dish that was the standing offering in ante-bellum days to every distinguished Parisian or foreigner that visited New Orleans. Its reputation is sustained by the Creole cuisinieres of our own day. It is made as follows:
First cut off the head of the Red Snapper and boil it in about one and a half quarts of water, so as to make a Fish stock. Put one sliced onion and a bouquet garni consisting of thyme, bay leaf and parsley, into the water. When reduced to one pint, take out the head of the Fish and the bouquet garni and strain the water and set it aside for use later on.
Take six slices of Redfish and six slices of Red Snapper of equal sizes and rub well with salt and pepper. Mince three sprigs of thyme, three sprigs of parsley, three bay leaves and three cloves of garlic, very, very fine, and take six allspice and grind them very fine, and mix thoroughly with the minced herbs and garlic. Then take each slice of Fish and rub well with this mixture till every portion is permeated by the herbs, spice and garlic. They must be, as it were, soaked into the flesh, if you would achieve the success of this dish. Take two tablespoonfuls of fine olive oil and put into a very large pan, so large that each slice of the Fish may be put in without one piece overlapping the other. Chop two onions very fine and add them to the heating oil. Lay the Fish slice by slice in the pan and cover, and let them etouffe, or smother, for about ten minutes, turning once over so that each side may cook partly. Then take the Fish out of the pan and set the slices in a dish. Pour a half a bottle of White Wine into the pan and stir well. Add six large, fresh tomatoes sliced fine, and let them boil well. Then add half a lemon, cut in very thin slices, and pour over a pint of the liquor in which the head of the Snapper was boiled. Season well to taste with salt, pepper and a dash of Cayenne. Let it boil until very strong and till reduced almost one-half; then lay the Fish slice by slice, apart one from the other, in the pan, and let boil five minutes. In the meantime have prepared one good pinch of Saffron, chopped very fine. Set it in a small deep dish and add a little of the sauce in which the Fish is boiling to dissolve well. When well melted, and when the Fish has been just five minutes in the pan, spread the Saffron over the top of the Fish. Take out of the pan, lay each slice on toast, which has been fried in butter; pour the sauce over and serve hot immediately. You will have a dish that Lucullus would have envied.