Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Potatoes Pontalba

With New Orleans chefs' tendency to commemorate great events and important personages, it's not surprising that the Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba numbers among those so remembered. On page 341 of Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook in the "Accompaniments, Etc." chapter, the Baroness receives her due. Potatoes Pontalba is a homey, comfort-food dish made with cubed potatoes, onion, garlic and tasso (a spicy, dry-cured ham traditional in Cajun cooking) and makes a wonderful side dish to the main courses featured in the cookbook.

At, it's stated that Micaela Almonester, born in 1795, was the daughter of a genteelly poor Creole mother and Spanish-born father by the name of Andres Almonestera y Roxas. Roxas established a large fortune in New Orleans during the late 1700s and contributed large sums of money to establish today's St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere. He also left his daughter the land bordering Jackson Square where Micaela built the Pontalba buildings during the later 1840s. The buildings were a sensation, both for their beauty and utility as well as being built by a woman at the center of a notorious scandal.

At the age of 15, Micaela married a French cousin by the name of Clestin de Pontalba and moved to France. A New York Times article written August 31, 1997, by Angeline Goreau tells the tale of a troubled marriage complete with meddling in-laws, greed and violence. Her in-laws' constant maneuvering to take control of her finances finally exploded into violence and scandal October 19, 1834:
". . . on the morning of Oct. 19, the 80-year-old Baron de Pontalba, dueling pistols in hand, burst into the sleeping quarters of his 40-year-old daughter-in-law (the future Baroness de Pontalba) and fired three shots into her chest. Perceiving that she was wounded but not yet dead, he pursued her through several rooms of their country estate, repeatedly shooting - but missing. Finally, he gave up, rewrote his will in favor of a military school and killed himself."
The murder attempt eventually led to the Baroness' separation and she returned to New Orleans. Bill Thayer's website has an article from the Louisiana Historical Quarterly by Henry Renshaw that details the Baroness' quest to build the Pontalba buildings on the land inherited from her father. Emphasizing her family's ties to Jackson Square is the fact that the Battle of New Orleans was fought on her uncle Ignace Delino de Chalmette's plantation.

After completing the buildings, she returned to France and (eventually) her husband, dying at the age of 78 in 1874. "Micaela Almonester Pontalba: The Baroness of Extremes " 2006
New York Times: "A Spectacular Mess of a Marriage" 08/31/97
Bill Thayer's Website: "Jackson Square by Henry Renshaw"
photo courtesy of David Paul Ohmer, used under this Creative Commons license

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