My absentee father passed away when I was 8 years old, and the only family I knew came from my mother’s side. My mother grew up in New Orleans but had “people” in the heart of Acadiana – that is specifically Opelousas and surrounding areas. Now after having spent time in both parts of the state, I say that the food preparation differences were reminiscent of Country mouse vs. City mouse.
Although for some reason the City of New Orleans has been inextricably linked to Cajun food (can anyone say tourism?), it is truly undeniable that New Orleans’ Creole food is created differently and is largely removed from the Cajun cooking of Southwest Louisiana. New Orleans food was heavily influenced by French occupants, ladened with sauces, and at times a little fussy; whereas, Cajun cooking in broad strokes, evolved in a “one pot cooking” style.
This was not just the natural outcome of culturally disparate people cooking in different parts of the state. Louisianans out in the country were largely of some French ancestry (think French Canadians driven out of Nova Scotia as opposed to French from France) more often than not mixed with the same African, Indian, and Spanish cultures. It was the geography, topography, and the isolation of living in areas closer to the swamps that led to the differences – even in their dialect. So in a fair comparison of one culinary style to another, country cooking had, and continues to have, a joie de vivre distinct from that of the city.
Massive cast iron skillets and pots were used not because they lent themselves to even cooking, but because that is what was what they had – and they were dead useful. Dutch ovens could be hung to cook in fireplaces or hearths. Deep skillets could be nestled in a pit to fry over open flames. Those pots were heavy and hard wearing and only got better with age and use.
That is absolutely my Opelousas people. They were and remain big cookers and even bigger eaters. A well seasoned cast iron skillet was a staple in my Aunt Willie Lee’s kitchen. She used them for everything from beans to cakes. But to me, they often just made magic.
Aunt Willie’s husband came from a long line of rather large people – in height and girth – who “could burn” (old slang for could really cook). He was from Sunset, about a 15 minute drive from Opelousas, and in his prime he worked off-shore as a cook. Whether he chose to be a cook because of his filiation with food or because that was the only good paying job he could get at the time is debatable. But what is not up for debate is that he was taught to cook by his mother, who by my memory was an affable, fiercely loving woman who would stuff crawfish heads by hand for the most amazing bisque I have ever eaten.
They were poor folk by most standards, but you could never tell by the spreads at meal times. All the kids, cousins, and neighbors would eat their fill of whatever was in those pots. And that “whatever” was largely fresh grown and in-season – not because it was en vogue or even best for the environment, but it’s because it’s what they had.
We moved back to Louisiana from San Diego when I was in junior high school. They introduced themselves to me – often against my will – by way of a plate. Summer time was marked by okra and tomato smothered with fresh-caught shrimp in Aunt Willie’s cast iron skillet. In fall we picked pecans from the trees in Aunt Willie’s yard for pralines to finish off a “whatever we just caught” fish dinner. In winter, Aunt Willie’s husband would hunt duck and rabbit with his younger brother to put in gumbo, along with whatever sausage they got from that little place along the highway, that made fresh cracklings complete with grease, sogging the side of the bag. And in Spring, some families would break out the crawfish pots for boils, but mine would fire up the BBQ pits for feasts bar none.
Food was my introduction to their culture, my culture; it was a part of who we were, who we are, and how we know that. So as an adult when I was introduced to my father’s family it should not be terribly surprising that too was by way of food. However, to learn about them had to be by way of recipes since my father and both his parents had already passed. I have to say that those recipes told a fascinating story.
There were recipes for fudge candy, pecan pie, and caramel cake because by all accounts his mother was quite the baker. There was okra goulash, old soufflé chilli casserole, and chewy bread – I still don’t really know what those things are, but the notes on the recipes inform me that they were tried and tested favorites. Then there were recipes for crawfish ettoufeé, scalloped oysters, shrimp jambalaya, fish sauce piquant, and a gumbo recipe chalked full of fresh crab and shrimp, which struck me as odd. Odd not because she liked seafood – but because she lived in Atwater, CA – north of Merced and south of Modesto, north of Fresno and south of Stockton. In short, this is land locked, cow country and nowhere near water. So the question was “where the devil were they getting this seafood?”
Reading her recipes, the sheer number of them that required seafood made it seem that this woman had a deep and fundamental affinity for seafood … a product that she should not have been able to even procure. So why? Why did she love seafood? The answer came to me through a conversation I had with one of my father’s sisters who explained to me that their mother was from Texarkana, Texas, and they had moved to Atwater after their father’s military service had taken them to far off places like Japan and Maine. Suddenly, I had clarity. Their mother’s favorite recipes were filled with seafood because she would have grown up eating those things – it would have been part of her culture.
My friend Google Maps tells me that Texarkana has lakes, rivers, streams, and all sorts of water around it, dotting the landscape. Seafood would have been fairly prevalent for her growing up, and I imagine her family’s table being similar to that of my kin. But most interesting is that as an outsider reading those recipes, it strikes me that she was a little homesick. The preference for seafood is evidence that she missed it living in her little cow town. Being able to taste a little bit of home would have given her comfort.
In my conversation with my father’s sister, still confused but empathetic, I asked, “crawfish ettoufeé? Where’d she even get the crawfish?!?!?” San Francisco. As the years passed, crawfish would have been available in the frozen food section of the grocery store. But when the kids were small, the family would drive 2 hours north to the fish mongers in order to get shrimp, crabs, and oysters. Wow!
I have been known to refuse to drive 6.1 miles to my nearest home improvement store and have just waited until morning to finish a project with supplies from the hardware store (.8 miles away). So driving 2 hours for seafood is really a testament to how ingrained food is in our cultures and how ingrained seafood was to hers. In driving to San Francisco for seafood, she didn’t just teach her kids that at times it is necessary to completely invest yourself to get what you want. Driving 2 hours just to get seafood for dinner, passed on her family traditions on a plate.
And that is really what food culture is: the memories and identity that pass through mind, heart and taste bud in order to root themselves in our subconscious. It is that fundamental connection to “where I’m from”. It is looking at potato salad and knowing when it’s wrong without ever lifting a fork to it. It is love and belonging passed through generations.