Sunday, January 03, 2010

On jambalaya.

We had our giant family holiday dinner on New Year's Day. In a nod to my Southern roots (via my mom), we had jambalaya, rice, buttermilk biscuits (and salad and fruit salad, both of which were splendid but not jambalaya, which is the subject of this post). Also, homemade beignets for dessert (also not jambalaya, for anyone who's keeping score).

At various moments in the kitchen, my oldest son and I did impromptu renditions of the excellent song:
Oh jambalaya, crawfish pie and file gumbo
For tonight I'm gonna see my mi chere amio
Dress in style, go hog-wild, me oh my o
Son of a gun, gonna have big fun on the bayou
Who wrote this song? we wondered. My first version was Emmylou Harris's on Elite Hotel. My son thought it was a Hank Williams tune, which it apparently is, although with a slightly murky background--there was a co-author, or maybe Williams bought it from that guy and called it his, which was supposedly a perfectly legit thing to do back in the day. My mom, when I was listening to the Emmylou version back in the 70s, said that the song had been a hit record for Theresa Brewer. Here's Hank:

and here's Emmylou:

What is jambalaya, you ask? Or maybe you already know. I remember eating it on New Year's Day with a friend at this restaurant in Redondo Beach. It had shrimp and tomatoes and peppers, and it was wonderfully spicy and soul-warming. I made two kinds: a shrimp kind and one with chicken and andouille. Our family crowd ate up the chicken-andouille version (as usual, I totally overestimated the amount of food we needed, so we packed up leftovers aplenty and sent them home). It really did seem like just the thing for a cold, end-of-the-holidays holiday.

And what is the etymology of jambalaya? I found several folk etymologies from Creole/Cajun derivations: it's a combination of jambon (ham), a la maniere de (in the style of), ya (African word for rice), thus: jamb + a la + ya. (Easily faulted, this etymology, since ham is not always a part of the dish, and there is no African language in which "ya" is rice.) Could it be a combination of jamon (Spanish for ham) and paella? Probably not. Or how about this:
Late one evening a traveling gentleman stopped by a New Orleans inn which had little food remaining from the evening meal. The traveler instructed the cook, "Jean, balayez!" or "Jean, sweep something together!" in the local dialect. The guest pronounced the resulting hodge-podge dish as "Jean balayez."
Wikipedia notes, "this story is believed to be false."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has a Provencal derivation: there is a Provencal word jambalaia, meaning a jumble or mish mash, and also a pilaf.

And it was jambalaya that brought to an end our jumbled, chaotic but very happy holidays. After that, it was all leftovers and dishes. Cheers!

TAGS: derivations, etymologies, southern, hodgepodge, jumble, chaos, holiday


  1. Wow. That sounds like a marvelous party, especially the singing. And the jamabalaya. And the warm, steamy feeling of it all.

  2. Dude. I feel smarter after reading this post. Also hungrier.

    Happy New Year High Touch!

  3. I need to know how to make it! Will you email me the recipe? Thanks!

  4. I heard it was delicious! Way to go!

  5. Love me some jambalaya...

  6. Eek! I love the etymologies. My favorite is the "Jean Belayez!" All words should be derived from the command to cook for a lot of people.

  7. So nice to come back at last to my desk and find this delicious post! I love jambalaya,too, but without any hereditary right to it - and I never knew there was a song!

  8. word verification: foodi



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