Gonzales, Louisiana, is affectionately known as the “Jambalaya Capitol of the World.” In 1968, Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen bestowed the honor on Gonzales and thus a reputation. Every spring since the great proclamation, the annual Jambalaya Festival has been held in Gonzales. There is a true passion for the signature Cajun dish not only in Gonzales, but also in the rest of Ascension Parish. Every resident swears by his or her jambalaya recipe. Each restaurant in the area would be remiss not to add jambalaya to their menu. But what makes the jambalaya here so much better than the jambalaya cooked in other parts of Louisiana?
First, we need to determine what jambalaya is. Similar in many ways to Spanish paella, the term “jambalaya” is derived from the Spanish jamon, meaning ham. It’s pronounced “jahm-buh-LIE-uh” or “jum-buh-LIE-uh”. Jambalaya found its way into Creole cookery in the late 1700’s where it soon took on the flavor of added local ingredients. Today, it is a Cajun/Creole dish made from a mixture of meats, rice and seasonings blended to produce a delicious dish. It can be made (separately or all together) with ham, chicken, sausage, fresh pork, shrimp and oysters, to which is added shortening, rice, onion, garlic, pepper and other seasonings.
There are two different types of jambalaya – Creole jambalaya (also called “red jambalaya”) and Cajun jambalaya (also known as “brown jambalaya”). The difference between the two is that tomatoes are used in Creole jambalaya and not used in Cajun jambalaya (the idea being the further away from New Orleans one gets, the less common tomatoes are in dishes). Cajun Jambalaya originates from Louisiana’s rural, low-lying swamp country where crawfish, shrimp, oysters, alligator, duck, turtle, boar, venison, nutria and other game were readily available.
There are a few key indicators above that give Gonzales (and Ascension Parish by extension) and advantage over other Louisiana communities when it comes to making jambalaya:
1. First and foremost would be the Acadian culture that has thrived in this area since the early 18th century. Many Acadians settled in the river parishes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, preferring to live quiet, agrarian lives, just as they had in the countryside of Acadia, Canada, before they were forcefully removed by the British. And because the Cajuns live farther away from New Orleans, they were less likely to have tomatoes, thus producing the “Cajun” jambalaya.
2. While Gonzales is outside of New Orleans’ city limits, we are only 45 miles or so upriver from the Big Easy. Due to our geographical proximity, Ascension Parish has still been able to benefit from the port of New Orleans, especially in terms of the trade in spices as well as the antebellum influx of West African cooking traditions that newly arrived slaves brought with them. Thus, Gonzales was able to add certain ingredients to its jambalaya while other rural, Cajun communities farther away from New Orleans did not.
3. Louisiana’s rural, low-lying swamp country describes the lay of the land in Ascension Parish perfectly. Most of the parish was at some point rural, low-lying swamp, which is the perfect haven for the myriad of swamp creatures mentioned above. Mother nature has provided Ascension Parish with a bountiful spread that is perfect to fill a pot of jambalaya with.
So, there you have it. Gonzales (and Ascension Parish) is the Jambalaya Capitol of the World due to a combination of people, land, and history. We are proud of our jambalaya heritage here and can confidently proclaim that we have the best jambalaya in the world.
Some food for thought: What’s the best bowl of jambalaya you’ve ever had? Was it homemade or served at a restaurant?