Holidays, if you are lucky, are when feasting on stuffed mirlitons is expected. Shrimp or crawfish cooked with The Trinity and tossed with breadcrumbs then packed into those little boats that taste like nothing (loosely speaking). The mirliton/chayote squash/christophene/vegetable pear is a berry (single soft seed as an embryo surrounded by fleshy fruit – think eggplants, bananas). It is related to the cucumber and the squash. And is part of the gourd family.
Changes in the name had everything to do with shedding the language of the people from whence it came. It was chayote to the first nation people. Became mirliton to the French so that name stuck in Louisiana for obvious reasons. It was then marketed as a vegetable pear to Anglicanize the fruit or make it more English. Meanwhile the actual English call it christophene. No matter what you call it, it ranges in color from dark green to ivory. And if you have ever lived in Honduras, you will know that it is plentiful and available in grocery stores all year round.
It is said Los Isleños, or Canary Islanders, brought the mirliton to Louisiana in the 1700s. These people would be the descendants of the Spanish colonists. And that is not wrong. But more specifically, Louisiana got mirlitons through Mesoamerican and Caribbean migration
Mesoamerica would have been from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Within this region pre-Columbian societies flourished for more than 1000 years before the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Mesoamerica was the site of two of the most profound historical transformations in world history: primary urban generation, and the formation of New World cultures out of the long encounters among Indigenous, European, African and Asian cultures
In short, that means French, English, and Spanish colonizers spread mirlitons. Here is a brief history…
1675 Slave ships wrecked off the island of St. Vincent. These West Africans, along with the steady stream of maroons escaping slavery on other Caribbean islands, found refuge and started families with the indigenous Kalinago (Carib) population. An Afro-indigenous culture developed that existed independently of the region’s colonial forced labour plantation system. They became known as the Garifuna or Black Caribs – distinguished from Caribs who are purported to have clear skin, light eyes and long blonde hair.
The so-called ‘Black Caribs’ together with the indigenous Kalinago created a formidable fighting force that resisted European colonizing efforts in the region for over a century, (that puts us around 1775) forcing both the British and French to recognize St Vincent as one of several ‘Neutral Islands’ (See Dominica and Saint Vincent)
But all good things come to an end…
In 1763, Great Britain ceded ownership of Louisiana to Spain, as part of a treaty marking the end of the French and Indian War. A lot of people don’t realize that. And the Spanish brought a taste for spices, because the Moors had been in Spain all this time so that Arab influence meant that as part of the Spice Trade they were much more interested in cardamom, as an example, and all the spices, than were the French. So the taste of spices came in but it was an overlay on this French attitude about food, so it was adopted and absorbed. The Spanish also had a taste for rice, so they were bringing the idea of rice and other things as well. They brought covered markets and a control of food, and they began to license taverns and bars in a way that was done by auction, and that’s how they got the money to run the city. Since this wasn’t taxes like income tax, but instead a tax on drinking, they encouraged everyone to drink, because the more you drank, the more taxes they’d have.
1789-1815 15-20K Haitian refugees migrated to Louisiana, 80-90% settled in New Orleans vicinity.
1791-1804 Free people of color, freed enslaved men, and whites came in waves both before and after the Haitian (nee Saint-Domingue) Revolution. Meanwhile, 25K Haitian refugees migrated to Cuba and and another several thousand went to Jamaica.
1796, British improved built armaments in Honduras and forced Garifuna to accept permanent exile as prisoners of war.
April 1797, over 5,000 ‘Black Caribs’ (Garifuna) were transported on British ships and abandoned on the deserted Honduran Bay Island of Roatan. Many later moved to the mainland of Honduras and became allied with Spain.
The Garifuna fought with Spain against British pirates and military attacks. They also took the Royalist side in the Central American Independence wars against Spain and as a result became a highly marginalized population in post-independence Honduras. (See Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua).
1803 Napoleon sold Louisiana to fund the Napoleonic Wars invading Russia, Portugal, Spain**, among other military actions including trying to quell the Haitian Revolt.
Mirlitons were staples in Haitian diets. Those coming from Haiti by way of Cuba temporarily settled on the coast before being ousted in 1808
1808 Spanish colonialists angry with Napoleon Bonaparte for deposing the Spanish monarchy and putting his brother on the Spanish throne (1808-1813) declared French settlers in Cuba unwelcome (persona non grata) and thus had to seek refuge elsewhere
1810 more than 9K of those Haitains had reached Louisiana from Cuba. Interestingly enough Haitian population in Louisiana was then about equal to percentages of whites, free people of color, enslaved people. That means at the time Louisiana was around 80% black.
1847 Marked the earliest accounts of vegetable pears/chayote/mirlitons in Louisiana proper.
Mirlitons have been prepared in many interesting t ways over time. Most of the harvest of chayotes in the islands used for stew and soups as a thickener. Even in gumbo, Sopas de mariscos, and bread. But here in New Orleans, mirlitons were also used to make “apple” pie, mainly because apples were not a native crop.
So next holiday season, thank the Africans turned Haitians turned New Orleanians for their knowledge of food stuffs and cooking. Without them, we would not have such an amazing dishes.