Hey there, hi there, ho there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, when Jon O’Guin, our culinary David Boudia, does a deep dive into some facet of food culture for our collective embetterment. Wow, I dropped a reference to the last American High Dive Gold Medalist, and a word whose first definition notes it is obsolete in the opening sentence. Today is gonna be a niche fucking day, my friends. Anyway, we’re talking about Jambalaya. Specifically, the history and etymology of it. If that sounds boring, I assure you, it’s crazier than you think. But first, to understand what’s going on with Jambalaya, we have to understand what’s going on with Cajuns.
This...may take some time.
So let’s take a quick detour into Cajun Country before we dig into Jambalaya.
From Canada with…Love?
As you might recall reading here before, Cajun cuisine is born of forced immigration: Around 1713, during the War of Spanish Succession, Britain invaded what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Isle but was then called “Acadia”. When the war ended, Britain wrote in the treaty “But we still get to keep Acadia.” This did NOT go over so well with most Acadians, who spent the next 40 years being dicks to the British there, basically indulging in light guerrilla warfare against their landlords.
When the French and Indian War broke out in 1755, (which, brief reminder, is what we Americans call it because America was fighting the French and Native Americans. Everyone else calls it “The Seven Year War”, because that’s how long it took, and no one really cared what was happening in Podunk New World.) Britain said “Man, this Acadia place is in a great strategic spot to help us in the Canadian front of this war. But the Acadians keep being dicks to us ever since we invaded their lands, killed their friends, and then declared they had to pay us rent. What’s the big idea?”
A question Colonial Britain asked A LOT without ever noticing the trend.
So a few months in, they said “Screw it, I don’t have time to figure out who’s going to mess with my shit and who isn’t, you’re all evicted,” and just forced most of the Acadians to leave. (I say “most”, because around 15% of the population just…didn’t. They stayed, and just avoided British patrols and shit until the whole thing calmed down.) Some were sent to America, but a lot of them ended up back in France, who said “Ah, my faithful subjects, so good to ‘ave you back! We are so proud of everything you did. Not enough to let you LIVE HERE, of course. There is no room!” When the Acadians pointed out this wasn’t a great response, France pointed out that their good buddy Spain, a nice Catholic country like France, had a TON of territory it could give them back in the New World to rebuild their communities. Spain said “totally, you can stay as long as you like!” This was an easy call from Spain, who had literally JUST gotten the territory from France, as an apology, since helping out France in the war had lost them Florida. This territory, called “Luisiana,” (because the French had named it after King Louis, and Spain didn’t feel like making a BUNCH of new maps and signs) then became filled with these Acadian war refugees.
And thus they ended up in Louisiana, becoming the predominant ethnic group for a time. Eventually, the word “Acadian” became “a Cajun”. Also, like 40 years later, Spain said “You know what, I hate this land. France, take it back.” And then literally less than a YEAR later, France said “you know what, America, you can have it.” What I’m saying is: No one has wanted Louisiana since it got Cajuns.
I blame their love of the fiddle, which no one calls "Mozart's Mistake".
Anyway, Cajun’s particular form of cooking was born from French Canadians used to northern coastlines forced to live in balmy swamplands, with a bunch of Spanish neighbors, and tons of imported African labor, and this is where Jambalaya comes from. And luckily, there’s a great demonstration of how this all comes together, in the story of where the name comes from!
What’s in a Name? A Jalapeño By Any Other Name Would Burn As Sweet.
No one knows where the name comes from.
Dum-di-dum-dum dum-dum, dum-ti dum dum dum dum. BUM BUM BUM BUM, BUMMM BUMMMM.
Man, it is hard to write music notes as mouth sounds.
I kid, I kid. Not about the “no one knowing” thing. That’s...mostly accurate, as we're about to explore. I would just never leave a good mystery like that without turning over a couple rocks for you guys.
So let's look at the details we have. To wit: there are 4 distinct and semi-plausible theories for where it comes from, and they’re all kind of helpful in understanding the mess of the history of the dish.
Theory 1: Jean's work is never done
The first theory is a frequent one that pops up in discussions about where food comes from: the old “I misunderstood the order, so I’ll just keep repeating it.” The story goes that a gentleman came to an inn or restaurant, and asked for the chef’s special, or simply a hot meal, depending on who's telling the story. Either because the chef did not HAVE special that day, or because they were running low on food, respectively, the waitress turned back, and shouted to her Cajun chef, “Jean, balayez!” Which translated from French means, “John, sweep something together.”
"I would, ma chere, but zee broom, she is broken and que tragic!"
Hence the jambalaya: a mixture of seafood, chicken, sausage, veggies and rice. A quick stew thrown together at the last moment. The customer, not being familiar with French, assumed that “jonbalaye” was the name of the dish, and his jumbled pronunciation of it to other restaurants eventually created “jambalaya.”
Here’s the problem with that story: it’s pretty hard to believe. Jambalaya is only quick FOR A STEW. It still takes like, at least 40 minutes to cook. It’s not something you ‘throw together’. Further, anyone who spoke Cajun would have pretty quickly figured out what was going on. Imagine if your friend said they had this great meal from the Chinese place called “Taykowt Tu-go.” You’d figure out what the hell happened pretty damn quick. (Say it out loud if you’re confused.)
Theory 2: Ham from a Pigeon!
Another theory is that the name is a pidgin mix-up. Jambalaya is, in essence, a mixture of meats and seafoods cooked in and with Rice and spices, invented in a Spanish territory. Which makes Spaniards think of this:
This kind of looks like a really poorly made cornbread. Just abysmal.
That’s Paella, pronounced, if you don’t speak Spanish, as “pie-ay-a” (double Ls in Spanish are a Y sound.) And what’s one of the meats used in Jambalaya? Pork Sausage, which is basically ham, which in French is Jambon, and in Spanish is Jamón. So if you were trying to make a “Ham Paella” you’d call it a “Jamón paella” or, if you were code-switching, “Jambon-paella”. This…more plausible, but has a bunch of problems. Firstly, Spanish and French are both postnominal adjective languages: their adjectives come AFTER their nouns. Both languages would call the dish “paella de Jamon/paella du jambon”. Secondly, both languages ALSO have WORDS FOR SAUSAGE., that looks nothing like their word for ham!
Theory 2.5: Throw your hands up in the AYA
Some, who I will call “Ay-holes” in a reference you literally cannot understand because I haven’t explained it yet, (great job, me) think the paella theory is almost right, it just got the structure wrong: the name isn’t Jambon paella, it’s “Jambón a la Ya”. These people claim that “Ya” or “Ay” or maybe “Aya” or "yaya" is the word for rice in an African language, tacked on for some flair to a mostly French sentence: “Ham, served with rice”. WHICH African language is never mentioned, and actual, respected researchers have said “look, I can’t find it. I can’t prove that no one has ever called rice ‘aya’, so maybe, but it’s not in any of the 200 languages I checked.” Interestingly, SORGHUM, another food grain, IS called “ya” in a couple African languages, so it’s not impossible that either the dish was originally Ham and Sorghum, or that someone misidentified rice as sorghum/vice versa, and therefore walked around with the wrong word in their head.
I mean, can YOU tell if this is Sorghum or Rice?
Trick question: it's literally a mixture of both, along with some oats.
Making things even more hilarious? One of the languages with the “Sorghum = ya” relationships, is Grusi (which is a Language GROUP, but we have to condense this shit somehow) , and it’s spoken around Ghana. And Ghana now actually DOES sell “Aya” BRAND Rice, because the world is cruel, the world is wicked. It's I alone that you can trust in this whole city.
Theory 3: Let's not Forget our Native American Friends
There’s another claimed origin, where a local tribe says its from their traditional pre-meal salutation of “Sham, pal ha! Ya!”, which translates to “Be full, not skinny! Eat up!” Which I don’t know that I fully believe. Not that I doubt that European settlers would have just taken a Native American phrase and not credited them, trust me, I TOTALLY believe that would happen. I mainly don’t know that I agree with it for two reasons, one of which is kind of nit-picky, and the other is a major one, that I’ve been saving.
The nit-picky reason is the Native tribe says that the phrase was altered by “Spanish Pronunciation.” Which is a little weird, because the J sound in Spanish is NOTHING like the S-sound. Like, Js make a couple sounds in Spanish, but they’re like, the W sound (Juan) , or the H sound (guajillo). If they'd blamed France, whose J is frequently a "ZH" sound (Jean, du jour), THAT, I would have pretty readily believed. But Spain? Naw, dawg, I just ain't feeling it.
Theory 4: The Final Breakdown
The MAJOR reason is the smoking gun I’ve been leaving out of every other one: the word “jambalaya” already existed in French. Kind of. The first use of the word ‘jambalaia’ comes from an 1837 book of Poetry, written in Provencal, which, while, YES, Provence is a region in France, Provencal, the language, is a dialect of Occitan, a language in spoken in northern Italy, Southern France, and Eastern Spain.
Technically, Eastern Spain speak Catalan, which is a distinct dialect of Occitan, like Provencal itself, but...Look, Every bold word on that map is a different regional dialect, or micro-language. It's all just a goddamn mess over there.
In it, the author uses the word to mean “a mish-mash”. 3 years later the poem is reprinted, but this time the word is spelled “jambaraya” for reasons unknown. 9 years later, the word shows up in a farming magazine in America, as a recipe for Jambalaya AKA Hoppin' John, that consisted of diced chicken cooked with Rice. Which, fun fact, is kind of what Jambalaya is, but sure as SHIT is not what Hopping Johnny is. HOPPING JOHNNY is rice mixed with black-eyed peas, ham hocks, and collard greens. What the shit, American Agriculturalist? What kind of dope you smoking’? Actually, since this is the 1840’s…probably all of it. All the dope. Cough Syrup back then was literally THC oil mixed with Morphine.
Sorry, "THC Oil mixed with Morphine, CHOLOFORM, and Alcohol." How silly of me to forget.
So, Case closed, “Jambalaia” is already a word in Provence, so it must be from there. The Acadians, in their stay in France, picked up the word, and when they started making mixed-up stews in their new home, they used It. And this is fine theory…except for two things: first, that the Acadians stayed mostly in Northern France during the expulsion, and secondly, 1837 IS 80 GODDAMN YEARS AFTER 1755. The first recorded use of the word ‘jambalaia’ isn’t until the Cajuns have already set up shop here, had some kids, and some GRANDKIDS.
Somehow, 10 years later, the American Agriculturalist publishes the recipe for jambalaya…FROM ALABAMA. Now, sure, they present it with a recipe for “Louisiana Muffin Bread.” But it’s…just… a mess. It’s all a mess. There’s no reasonable path. Nothing that doesn’t have some crucial gap. (Though recent scholarship suggests it could have been a Provencal enclave of immigrants in Alabama or the Carolinas, and the recipe just shifted to Louisiana because they were more “French” than those regions.)
A Questionable Completion
And that’s part of the beauty of it, in the end. Jambalaya is a complete jumble. It's either a combination of languages that makes little sense, or it's literally a word for "mish-mash", or someone just butchered a French phrase into a word. And how great is it that such a prominent and jumbled dish has a history just as confusing and messed up? It’s a total scholastic catastrophe. And a hell of a fine meal. Which is exactly what we love to find here.
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