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Gravy and other fixins'

By Anne G. Campos

etouffee1987 was one of those years when nothing went as planned. I felt trapped living on a mid-western prairie, surrounded by corn fields. The stress of working for a governor, one of the few in Illinois’s history who was not indicted, took its toll. Weekend excursions to infamous towns in Louisiana Purchase territories were pointless. I bolted at the first opportunity.

During the 1,200-mile drive to a New England port city, where I would manage the business operations of a small cultural institution, I convinced myself that I had crafted a bold plan. The new job, in a location hailed by national media as an up-and-coming hotspot, would serve as an ideal foil for becoming familiar with a community, studying its economic structure, and carving a niche that would ignite, again, my passion for the culinary arts. After spending the first two weeks of my bold plan analyzing the financial records of this institution, the ethical necessity of resigning post haste was astonishingly clear.

I arrived in New York City on Black Monday, the day of the most catastrophic stock market crash since the Great Depression. A friend offered his sofa as a temporary refuge.  Shortly after welcoming me to the Big Apple and closing the door, he handed me the help-wanted pages of the New York Times. An agency placed me in a position at a university. I spent the first few days answering phones, fetching coffee, and perusing the student newspaper. Within a week, I secured housing, an apartment share with a bi-sexual art student who displayed his exceptional photography of the human anatomy on every wall.

When I received my IRS refund in spring 1988, I was gripped by an inexplicable interest in New Orleans. I had seen the film “The Big Easy,” a high note in those final months in Springfield. The film’s sensuous atmospherics are woven tightly into a portrayal of the city’s complex cultural tapestry and rugged yet fragile resilience. The movie’s sights and sounds evoke the kind of nostalgia that clings desperately to memories of better times and yields unwittingly to righteous hopes about an uncertain future. Pleasure is immediate, distracting the viewer from life’s haphazardness, lending it vitality and meaning.

Seduced by the myth of this place, I boarded a bus to LaGuardia early one Friday morning, telling myself that the odds of purchasing a round-trip ticket were unfavorable. Once the plane was in the air, I admitted silently that I had been wrong about almost everything in the past 12 months, and wondered just how far off the beam I had fallen. When a flight attendant with a drink cart appeared, I looked at her as if my life depended on it. I ordered a ginger ale, believing that a can of soda would keep me grounded.

Fact vs. fiction

Most escapes from everyday disquiet involve approximating the distance between an alluring possibility and good judgment. NOLA is a place where it is nearly impossible to decipher fact from fiction.

The ride from the airport to the French Quarter reminded me of Third World countries where poverty is chilling and palpable. Ramshackle dwellings with too many people hovering hopelessly about makeshift porches, faces of hunger, smells of decay, and debris strewn helter-skelter defined the landscape. The architecture in the French Quarter looks more Spanish than French. Streets are narrow and claustrophobic. Music fills the air day and night, and people in various states of dress and inebriation shape an environment that is so far removed from Louis XIV’s Golden Age, one wonders why the French staked a claim to this territory not only once, but twice.

The cab driver suggested the Monteleone, a literary landmark founded by a Sicilian shoemaker, situated at the foot of Royal Street. Truman Capote’s mother identified it as her son’s birthplace, an exaggeration of the truth that continues to underwrite both his and the hotel’s reputation. Tennessee Williams’ first play, The Rose Tattoo, pays homage to the establishment, and in Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley yells for Stella from some illusory proximity to it. Hemingway makes slight mention of the abode in Night Before Battle, a short story set during the Spanish Civil War, and Eudora Welty features the Carousel Bar and Lounge in her yarn, The Purple Hat. Williams was the only one who called New Orleans home.

Tourists in New Orleans are not inclined to rise early.  Many are just finding their way to bed after a night’s riotous joviality. Others are overcoming the previous day’s appetites. Some are sticking to their routines for sanity’s sake.  I tumbled out of the elevator into the Monteleone’s lobby at about 6 a.m. Willie Mae, a member of the housekeeping staff, was relaxing in a chair moments before her shift. I approached her and asked if she knew of a place nearby to get a cup of coffee. She eyed me carefully, and with hesitance in her voice, replied, “Yes, ma’am, there’s a café where locals go, to the left, ‘round the corner, behind the hotel.”

Before the waitress returned with coffee and The Times-Picayune, there was a shoot-out in the bar across the street. In the hour that it took to drink my first cup, order a second, and finish reading the local paper, the police had not arrived. Few situations are more conducive to confronting ourselves than eating alone in public places. Just as an exquisite piece of art uplifts the spirit by simplifying and softening the severity of experience, a menu presents an ordered and coherent worldview. Choices are limited. Diners can suspend awareness of loneliness and nagging practical concerns and let hunger reveal the heart’s desires.

Back to the basics

I craved simplicity and comfort. I ordered a plate of shrimp and grits, a dish composed primarily of cornmeal, water, and salt. The cook sent out an embellished version of this Louisiana standard. His presentation contained the creamy, butter-infused base of grits, garden-variety crustaceans seasoned to a high pitch, and gravy packed with a punch and balanced perfectly between thick and thin. I was soothed and restored.

Before I left the café, I poked my head into the kitchen and declared to the older African-American cook, “Your grits have a heap of history.  What’s your secret?”

“I threw a Cajun spin on them. Folks like it better.”

“Than what?”

“I get my Tabasco from Maurice.”

“Who’s Maurice?”

“A town ‘bout two hours from here.”

On the street in the light of day, I noticed an Enterprise car rental sign peeking above one of the buildings. As I walked toward the sign, I thought about the cook. He made some assessments. I needed a gentle kick out of my reverie. I am a white woman. He assumed something about my tastes and dislocation. He referred me to Acadiana, a part of the state where French-Catholic colonists arrived from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, having been expelled by the British. Creole, translated from Spanish, means “native to a place.” His Cajun cuisine let me know I was a stranger in a foreign land. I wanted a place I could call home.

As I signed papers, the car rental agent inquired, “Where are you going?”

“Maurice.”

“There isn’t much there. Why?”

“Tabasco.”

With a look of pity on his face, he pushed a map of the area across the desk and suggested, “You might want to stop in Breaux Bridge.”

Flouting convention

As I bounded west on Interstate 10, the fact that I had run all too recently from rural society did not escape notice. I was now heading into intersections of Louisiana Purchase territory that most Americans prefer from a distance, where locals rely on the luck of the draw — crawfish, turtles, alligator, duck, rabbits, rice, okra, and corn — ingredients well-suited for making one-pot stews that can feed crowds of poor people. I also thought about Baudelaire, a 19th-century French poet and voluptuary who flaunted and transformed convention.

His fascination with how people and societies overcome hardship and obsolescence resulted in his most notorious publication, Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), a collection of poems that casts an honest light on the role of temptation and the hypocrisy of artifice. In 1857, his poetry so infuriated French moral and religious sensibilities, six of the poems were censored for 100 years. In a letter to his mother, Baudelaire lamented, “They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language.”

On another continent, French-Catholic colonists stuck to their guns. In Canada, they refused to pledge allegiance to the British. In Louisiana, they made their way as fisherman, hunters, and farmers in the idyllic, isolated reaches of swamps, bayous, and soil. In 1920, the state prohibited the use of French in schools, children were punished, and Mrs. Charles Hebert snuck crawfish étoufée, tails smothered with lard, onions and peppers, onto the menu at her family’s hotel in Breaux Bridge. She eventually shared the recipe with Aline Champagne, who opened the Rendez-vous Café shortly before 1950, when France and Louisiana came to their senses and lifted the bans on freedom of expression.  Today, Breaux Bridge stands for the “crawfish capital of the world.” Crawfish étoufée is the signature Cajun culinary innovation.

Maurice is about a half-hour drive west of Breaux Bridge. Once I made my way past Lafayette, the fourth-largest city in the state, I headed south on Ambassador Caffery Parkway, where signs announced Maurice as the “Gateway to Vermillion Parish … the most Cajun Place on Earth.”

A quick turn onto Highway 167 led me to a dusty, three-block strip where the speed limit slows to 30 mph, and a stoplight forces drivers to pause. When the light turns green, you are out of town, a deceptively subtle change in destiny locals know all too well. Populated by 700 people, this curious intersection is the home of a few commercial enterprises, mostly owned and operated by the same family, deboned chicken, the City Bar, and two Catholic churches, one established originally for white folks and another as a mission for black people.

Living in the Midwest, I learned that small towns are regulated by one or a few families, a phenomenon that reduces almost everyone else to outsider status. A warehouse caught my wary eye. Its sign, Hebert’s Specialty Meats, featuring deboned chicken, turkey and hot boudin, suggested this might be a place to find Tabasco.

So who's Maurice?

By now, I assumed Maurice was one of the founding fathers of this town, and that a relative worked at Hebert’s.  As I passed through the door, a balding, warm-hearted man greeted me with a smile, a twinkle in his eyes, and, “afternoon ma’am.”

We exchanged pleasantries, and, then, I asked him if he sold Tabasco and knew Maurice. He laughed and confessed, “Maurice owned the land in this town. He sold parcels to families such as mine. It’s fair to say, everyone here knows Maurice. I get my Tabasco from the factory a few miles from here.  It’s closed today, but I can give you some of mine if you would be willing to try our boudin.”

On that deal we got to talking. He told me to have dinner at Poche’s Market and Restaurant in Breaux Bridge and to be sure to tell Floyd and Karen that Sammy Hebert sent me. I thanked him for his kindness and hopped in my car. Before I started the engine, the ubiquitous mystery of a small bundle of sausage casing jammed with just the right ratios of pork, rice, onions and spices, wrapped in butcher paper and served with paper towels, wafted from the passenger seat alongside a can of cold soda. I devoured both. In Cajun country, tradition links family and friends.  Boudin made me feel welcome and part of a magnanimous community.

The success of any roux, the foundation for many sauces, depends entirely on other ratios, flour to butter, heat properties, nuttiness, and patience. One misstep and a sauce can become too thick, too thin, too lumpy, or insufferable. Baudelaire feared boredom and loathed arrogance.  The flavor base of classic French sauces derives from the holy trinity — onions, celery, and carrots — a mix that, if left alone, does nothing to counter ennui or false pride.

Cajun gravies retain the onions and celery but substitute bell peppers for carrots, a nod to the Spanish who protected colonists in the early, re-settlement years, and a transformation that gives life to subliminal desires. Crawfish belong to a super family of crustaceans, kin to lobster, but sweeter and chewier. Once cleaned of mud undertones, the meat from the edible tails has the advantage of befriending the flavors of ingredients in its vicinity.

The approach to Breaux Bridge introduced me to local culture. Caffery Parkway is named after an ambassador who was born in Lafayette, worked for eight U.S. presidents, and served as a diplomat in El Salvador, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil, France, and Egypt. Broussard Highway recalls a local merchant from a town on the outskirts of Lafayette that was once characterized by sugarcane plantations and horse-drawn buggies. A turn off of Route 10 onto Poche Bridge Road leads to the Main Highway, where Poche’s Market and Restaurant is situated. As I pulled into what appeared to be a truck stop with a metal building similar to Hebert’s, I thought, “Big Daddy,” money, power, politics and corruption, must have lived here. I no longer trusted Sammy’s recommendation.

I eased my way along the cafeteria-style assembly line to the cashier. After I paid $8 for a can of cold soda and a plastic plate of crawfish étoufée, coleslaw and potato salad, I demurred, “Sammy Hebert asked me to say hello to Floyd and Karen.” When I sat down at an unadorned table, Floyd and Karen joined me with a basket of biscuits. They let me savor my meal and talked about Breaux Bridge and the Heberts, as if we were all neighbors.

People who work hard every day and week, breaking their backs or their souls to earn a living, raise a family, or simply survive, want to feed their famished affections in communion with family, friends, and neighbors. They also want to break bread over a meal with gravy that can be sopped up easily and swallowed with conversation, intimacy, and joy.

Regardless of their histories and the incongruities between oppression and justice, people in South Louisiana aren’t afraid of vulnerability. They greet people with tolerance, love, and respect. Their languages, spices, and sauciness create experiences that elevate hospitality and humility to an art form and a noble way of life.

Since that impromptu journey, I have yet to receive such authentic, kind, and wise guidance.

Anne G. Campos lives in New York City.  She is a student of 19th-century American and French culture, trained in the culinary arts, and an avid traveler with a keen eye for social phenomena.  She received a bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.