Perique tobacco exhibit at Historic New Orleans Collection illustrates persistence of art amid market forces

The persistence of a tobacco-curing tradition passed along from Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians to early settlers in St. James Parish is on display at the Historic New Orleans Collection.

“Perique” is a collection of photographs by Charles Martin, who captured the images of the pressure-fermenting process over the course of eight years. That process is a dramatic contrast with the market-driven flue curing technique developed in my native region, Virginia and North Carolina.

This painting of English settlers harvesting tobacco in the 17th century is by Sydney King. National Park Service image.

This painting of English settlers harvesting tobacco in the 17th century is by Sydney King. National Park Service image.

In the early 1700s, French colonizers hoped to establish a tobacco industry in Louisiana that would compete with that of their British rivals in the Chesapeake area of the East Coast. But a bloody uprising by Natchez Indians in the summer of 1729 threw those plans into disarray, according to Tulane historian Lawrence N. Powell, writing in “The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans.” Downriver from Natchez, hurricanes and other flooded wreaked havoc on the crop.

Acadian farmer Pierre “Perique” Chenet began selling “le tabac de perique” in 1824 on the east bank of St. James Parish. He was said to have learned the pressure-fermenting process from Native Americans; some say the technique may have come to them on a roundabout route from Hispaniola.

While the flue-curing process was a happy accident, the process for curing perique clearly developed through generations of trial and error. Bundles of leaves that have been air-dried for a couple of weeks are tied into bundles and packed into fermenting barrels, which have replaced the hollowed-out stumps used by the native Americans.

“The natives packed tobacco leaves into a hollowed-out stump, which was covered with a heavy cypress weight,” Mary Ann Sternberg writes in the book produced to accompany the “Perique” exhibit. “The weight was placed under pressure by using a lever fashioned from a cut sapling positioned in a crotched three. Pressure from the lever squeezed juice from the tobacco leaves, creating a marinade that fermented and cured the tobacco inside the stump. Several times during curing, the natives removed the weight and extracted the leaves to air them, then returned them to the container and applied further pressure.

“Chenet is said to have modernized the process by substituting wooden boxes for hollow stumps, and adding a frame by which to enhance the delivery of pressure.”

Perique was noted for its “rich, fragrant aroma and spicy sweetness,” but about the same time that Chenet started his business, demand for a milder, lighter, more aromatic tobacco arose. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland all worked on cultivating milder varieties of the tobacco plant. Farmers across the country experimented with different curing processes. But the breakthrough did not come until around 1839.

Growers had noticed that sandy, highland soil produced thinner, weaker plants. Captain Abisha Slade, of Caswell County, North Carolina, had considerable infertile, sandy soil, and planted the new “gold-leaf” varieties on it. Slade owned a slave, Stephen, who around 1839 accidentally produced the first true bright tobacco. He used charcoal to restart a fire used to cure the crop. The surge of heat turned the leaves yellow. Using that discovery, Slade developed a system for producing bright tobacco, cultivated on poorer soils and using charcoal for heat-curing.

The infertile sandy soil of the Appalachian piedmont was suddenly profitable, and people rapidly developed flue-curing techniques, a more efficient way of smoke-free curing. Farmers discovered that brightleaf tobacco needs thin, starved soil, and those who could not grow other crops found that they could grow tobacco.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, the town of Danville, Va., where my mother was born, had developed a bright-leaf market for the surrounding area in Caswell County, N.C., and Pittsylvania County, Va.

Danville was also the main railway head for Confederate soldiers going to the front. These brought bright tobacco with them from Danville to the lines, traded it with each other and Union soldiers, and developed a taste for it. At the end of the war, the soldiers went home and a national market had developed for the local crop. Caswell and Pittsylvania counties were the only two counties in the South that increased in total wealth after the war.

In North Carolina, where I lived for 22 years, flue-cured tobacco is grown in the east and air-cured burley tobacco is grown in the west.

Air-cured tobacco is hung in well-ventilated barns and allowed to dry over a period of four to eight weeks. Air-cured tobacco is low in sugar, which gives the tobacco smoke a light, sweet flavor, and a high nicotine content. Flue-cured tobacco was originally strung onto tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in curing barns. These barns have flues that run from externally fed fire boxes, heat-curing the tobacco without exposing it to smoke, slowly raising the temperature over the course of the curing. The process will generally take about a week. This method produces cigarette tobacco that is high in sugar and has medium to high levels of nicotine.

Some say that perique, which was praised in 1915 as “the champagne of tobaccos,” can be produced only in St. James Parish. I wonder, however, how hard anyone tried to expand the market for this laboriously manufactured product that was out of sync with mass-market tastes. I’m not a tobacco consumer myself, but the artist in me appreciates the dedication of those who have continued to work hard to bring the leaf to its highest expression.

The “Perique” exhibit will be on display at the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center at 410 Chartres Street through Feb. 2. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Read more about perique tobacco:

“The Mystique of Perique,” from Pipes Magazine, 2010.

“The Last Perique Farmer” by R. Reese Fuller, The Times of Acadiana, 2002.

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