By Robin Caldwell
Louisiana is a cozy state that can be traveled from one end to the other in a little over six hours or driven from one side to the other in about three hours. Every inch of it — no matter the direction — is a culinary haven filled with an abundance of food choices to satisfy the pickiest of palates. A single four-hour drive from New Orleans, the recognized culinary hub of Louisiana, to Shreveport could introduce you to another cuisine that is every bit as interesting, tasteful and diverse.
ACF Chef Hardette Harris enjoys educating about the distinct flavors and foods of the northern end of Louisiana. Chef Harris is the founder and operator of Us Up North, an educational and culinary business that supports the heritage of North Louisiana foodways.
Chef Harris was born in Minden, a small town near Shreveport. What exactly makes North Louisiana cuisine different from their southern kin’s Creole and Cajuninfluenced food? “Creole and Cajun culinarians cook and eat those cuisines in our region all of the time, but they are not indigenous to our region,” she says, noting that the everyday meals consumed in North Louisiana depend on a heavy dose of the area’s agriculture and aquaculture, making freshwater seafood, pork and fresh vegetables important staples.
“There are a lot of Italian, Greek, German and even TexasMexican foods here. Our cuisine looks a lot like what is considered Southern cuisine.”
In her Us Up North kitchen and cafe, Chef Harris serves a limited menu based on traditional dishes from the region, prepared in the same generations-old manner, for schoolchildren, corporate
groups and tourists. As the owner of an atypical restaurant, Chef Harris often has the opportunity to take her history show on the road, escorting groups on tasting tours of the region, where they get to eat and learn about the influences of enslaved Africans, Native Americans and immigrant settlers.
In a relatively short period of time, Chef Harris has become an ambassador of the region’s distinct flavors and foods. It began with a step out of her comfort zone, asserting to author Adrian Miller, winner of a James Beard Foundation Book Award, that the people “up north” in Louisiana ate differently. Convinced that she was right, Miller quoted Chef Harris and included her recipe for purple hull peas in his book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
Ultimately, Chef Harris had the idea to invite Miller to Minden for a book signing and community dinner to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as celebrate North Louisiana food. From that night, what started as an idea would soon become official. In one unanimous vote, House Concurrent Resolution No. 88 named Chef Harris’ menu the official meal of North Louisiana . She claims to be the only chef in the state to successfully create and have Louisianan cuisine become a state meal, and the second in the country to do so.
The official North Louisiana meal consists of one appetizer, a mini Natchitoches meat pie, and several meat options including fried catfish, barbecue smoked sausage, baked ham and fried chicken. Vegetables include collard greens, cabbage and turnip greens seasoned with smoked pork (ham hocks or neck bones). Pinto beans, purple hull peas and butter beans are on the menu. The side dishes are a simple baked sweet potato, rice with gravy, potato salad and fried okra. Skillet cornbread is also a favorite in the area. Desserts include pecan pie, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. Chef Harris even added condiments: mayhaw and plum jelly, homemade pepper sauce and cane syrup.
“Essentially, we’re talking about food seasoning food and a flavor unobstructed by product, much in the manner of Edna Lewis,” says Chef Harris.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to read the issue.