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This Isn't Philly
In 19th century New Orleans, vendors and handymen walked the narrow cobblestone streets of the city every weekday, hawking their wares and services, often in a kind of rhythmic chant. One might be a chimney sweep or a knife sharpener, another a fishmonger, yet another a woman selling her rice fritters or pecan praline candies.
According to The Picayune Creole Cook Book, first published in 1901, a regular member of that fabled group was the "cream cheese woman." "[She] is still a common sight on our New Orleans streets," the book says. "She carries a covered basket in which are a number of small perforated tins in which the cheeses are. In her other hand she carries a can of fresh cream."
Creole cream cheese was a diet staple for many generations in New Orleans and other places just north of Louisiana's coastline. A bowl of it, lavished with a few spoonfuls of cream and maybe fresh fruit was a favorite breakfast dish.
The cheese has very little in common with the familiar Philadelphia-style spread sold in American supermarkets. The Creole kind has its very own flavor and texture. Essentially curdled milk, it has a shelf life of less than two weeks and the silky-smooth consistency of a baked custard, but just enough density to be spread on a cracker and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Its flavor can trigger taste memories of sour cream, crème fraîche, and yogurt.
Like cottage or hoop cheese, Creole cream cheese is a "farmer's cheese"; that is, it's fresh rather than aged or ripened. Fresh cheeses can take many forms. Mexico has its queso blanco. The most familiar in Italy are ricotta and mascarpone. France is home to fromage frais, fromage blanc, and petit suisse. Bonnyclabber, a thickly curdled sour milk, is found in Ireland and in some Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as some parts of New England the Middle Atlantic.
Fifty years ago small local dairies in New Orleans regularly supplied grocery stores and markets with Creole cream cheese. In the Cajun farming communities of southwest Louisiana, many a housewife, on a temperate day, would make it at home. A large pot of fresh, skimmed cow's milk would be set out to curdle for a day or so. Then most of the water would be drained off, and the remaining curd would be wrapped in cheesecloth and hung from a tree branch to allow the remaining water (the whey) to drip off.
Sometime before the 1970s the cheese gradually became an endangered species. In the city, the smaller-volume, family-owned dairies that had sold it couldn't compete with big dairy companies. In Cajun country, possible causes of the scarcity were the steep decline in the farming population and changing eating habits.
Creole cream cheese then became largely confined to restaurant menus. Commander's Palace and its several spin-off restaurants in New Orleans have long offered both savory and dessert cheesecakes. Commander's chef Tory McPhail also uses his house-made version of it to toss with partly mashed potatoes and green onion. He adds a dollop of the cheese to a grilled brioche slice topped with tropical fruit and cane syrup, and includes it in his version of gnocchi, Italy's poached nuggets of wheat and potato flours. It even shows up in one of the restaurant's palate cleansers, the "peach cheesecake shooter."
For many years Dorignac's Food Center, a supermarket just outside the New Orleans city limits in Metairie, has been making and selling it almost exclusively. Finding other sources takes a special effort. But Creole cream cheese's recognition factor is on the rise. Confectionery shops in New Orleans are bringing back old-fashioned Creole cream cheese ice cream. Farther up the Mississippi, in Gonzales, Louisiana, Chef John Folse recently began selling the cheese on his company's Web site (www.jfolse.com).
The renaissance can be traced to the summer of 2001, when Kenny Mauthé started selling his own version of Creole cream cheese at the Crescent City Farmer's Market in New Orleans. Mauthé is a McComb, Mississippi dairy farmer whose father and grandfather once sold the product door-to-door from their old Mauthé Family Dairy, also in New Orleans. "The recipe that we used," Mauthé says, "was almost the same as the one they used over at the Gold Seal Creamery." Gold Seal, which closed some time around 1970, was the last family-owned supplier of Creole cream cheese to the New Orleans market. Its recipe is widely considered the definitive one, and versions of it show up in numerous cookbooks and Web sites.
Mauthé learned of the Gold Seal recipe from Poppy Tooker, a New Orleans cooking teacher and a fervid advocate of preserving the city's Creole foodways. Tooker worked with Mauthé in producing a natural, authentic version of the cheese. She contends that pre-heating the milk, a step found in some recipes, robs the cream cheese of some of its Creole authenticity, and says that Mauthé's milk "delivers the best-tasting curd because it is pasteurized at a temperature lower than those of the major dairies." Tooker heads the New Orleans Chapter of Slow Food USA, part of an international movement based in Italy seeking to advance such principles as high quality, better taste, and environmental sustainability in what is grown and eaten globally. She was instrumental in placing Creole cream cheese on Slow Food's worldwide list of endangered foods. The organization calls the list its "Ark of Taste," a biblical reference to Noah and the creatures he saved in the great flood.