The shrimp creole is particularly scrumptious, the jambalaya really hits the spot now that I know a relative once owned the building at 630 Saint Peter Street that currently houses one of my favorite New Orleans restaurants — the Gumbo Shop.
My son, Ethan, several years ago “discovered” the inexpensive, down-home restaurant located a half block from Jackson Square while he was a student at Tulane. Then, a year ago, while filling the considerable gaps in the New Orleans branch of our family tree, I learned that a relative, Jean Baptiste Mercier (1735-1818), my sixth great grandfather, once owned the building. The coincidence seemed too incredible to be true. I recently re-confirmed it.
I tried to tell the story to my sons a couple weeks ago as we dined on gumbo and po’ boys in the wonderful back courtyard of the restaurant. The courtyard, with stairs leading to second- and third-floor balconies, probably didn’t look much different when the building was owned by my family 200 years. The feeling was pretty eery as we sat under a heat lamp on a January afternoon.
Jean Baptiste Mercier, I’ve discovered, was born in Bordeaux, France in 1735 and moved to New Orleans in 1760 to escape the ravages of the French Revolution, according to his grandson, the poet, playwright, and physician Charles Alfred Mercier (1816-1894). Jean Baptiste became a very successful merchant in New Orleans.
A sign on the front of the plastered-brick creole townhouse building that houses the Gumbo Shop identifies it as The Commagere-Mercier House. It was constructed in 1796, according to “The French Quarter of New Orleans” after the Great Fire of December 8, 1974 destroyed an earlier house on the site. By 1806 it was home to the mayor of New Orleans and Mr. Forstall’s Store.
The building, according to the book, was “sold by Commagere in 1806 to Madam Gracieuse de Fontenelle, wife of Jean Baptiste Mercier, and by her heirs in 1828 to Louis Gally, whose family owned it until 1866. It has been occupied by the Gumbo Shop since 1945.”
Fontenelle, it turns out, was the third wife of Jean Baptiste Mercier, who was married once in France before he arrived in Louisiana, according to a biography of Charles Sydney Mercier. My direct line goes through his first wife in the new country, Francoise Radegonde de Mayeaux, who died in 1783 at 48.
The Mercier connection is through my father’s side of the family. His mother’s family, the Kruttschnitts, came from New Orleans. Julius Kruttschnitt (1854-1925) married Elise Minna Kock (1857-1941). Kock’s great grandfather, on her mother’s side, was Jean Baptiste Mercier.
Stanley Arthur, writing in “Old New Orleans, a History of the Vieux Carre, Its Ancient and Historical Buildings” found that “in 1825, in the succession of Dame Marie Gracieuse Fontenelle, widow of Jean [Baptiste] Mercier, the property went to her daughter Justine, who had just married Jean Jacques Justin Plantevignes. Four years later the old Mercier casa was sold to Louis Gally and the names of subsequent owners would fill this page.”
Next time I need to ask for a tour of the kitchen. According to Arthur’s book, “an inspection of its interior, the courtyard, and the old kitchen with its unique fireplace will further fix the impression that this is a very old home.”