Wednesday, February 4, 2009

CHEFS ON THE BAYOU


Yesterday, I lunched with my Fortnightly group at Lagniappe Too, and, as usual, enjoyed the parley with friends who know an amazing amount of lore about the Queen City of the Teche. The repartee is delightful, as is the food prepared by one of New Iberia’s leading chefs, Elaine Landry. Table conviviality is a hallmark of Cajun country, and there’s no dearth of appetite at most social gatherings that include food. Only a few evenings before this luncheon, I attended a Super Bowl party at the home of Daily Iberian publisher Will Chapman and his wife, Gladys. In their handsome home, I feasted on a bowl of chili that could easily compete in the Great Chili Challenge held annually in New Iberia, not to mention a homemade rum cake that might challenge the best of bread puddings made by New Iberia chefs.

“Food is love,” Fortnightly member Dianne Landry declared at the table yesterday. “When we have a family gathering, I think the most loving thing I can do for them is to cook!” She’s right, of course – appetizing meals foster good will, even within the most dysfunctional families, and the French in south Louisiana have long espoused this philosophy.

Back in 1983, my good friend and fellow writer, Morris Raphael, translated 39 tapes recorded by Weeks Hall, the former owner of The Shadows-on-the-Teche, (an antebellum mansion he donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation) in which the subject of gastronomy in French Louisiana is featured. The tapes, in compiled format, also cover origins of south Louisiana food and area history …but the cooking of food is the foremost topic of interest. Morris still enjoys active sales of this wonderful translation of THE WEEKS HALL TAPES and says that it was a laborious process to compile from tapes that were worn and to make transitions because at least five of the original tapes had been lost or damaged beyond repair.

This morning, as I was recalling the gourmet meal shared with the Fortnightly group, I went to the shelf and got out Morris’s book, THE WEEKS HALL TAPES, to read Weeks Hall’s views regarding south Louisiana cooking. Of particular interest was Tape 13, dated May 3, 1953, in which Hall talks about the Gaelic influence on south Louisiana food preparation, attributing much of the good cooking to male connoisseurs who cooked and had as their guests for meals “only gourmets with the same stripe.”

According to Morris’s translation of this tape, suppers prepared by men were hosted in the homes of a salesman, a doctor, a bootlegger, a farmer, and attorney… any man who could cook excellent cuisine. Weeks Hall attended one supper with gourmet chefs that featured a mechanic who, before beginning the “roux,” placed a bottle of corn whiskey on the sill beside the stove. His sous chefs watched as he stirred his roux and removed bones from catfish that would become part of the dish. Hall related that as the roux progressed and the scent of the concoction became more appetizing, the level in the corn liquor bottle diminished.

Voila, a wonderful catfish courtbouillon was ladled into soup bowls, and beer was placed on the table. As the story goes, the courtbouillon was eaten with relish, and the mechanic received glowing compliments. The connoisseurs, even though they were filled with whiskey and beer, could discern the flavor of this courtbouillon as distinct from any of the others the chef had made! In Tape 14, Hall declares that the chefs began to discuss the merits of the present courtbouillon and former ones the mechanic had cooked. This appraisal led to a round table discussion in which chefs sitting around the table talked about the making of their own former courtbouillons.

Can you imagine how far into the night these male conversations might go? Each time I read these two chapters of THE WEEKS HALL TAPES, I wonder how many bottles of good corn whiskey and beer were brought in and consumed before the “meeting adjourned!”
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