If high school football is classified as a religion in Texas, then food is certainly a religion in Louisiana where it is always a prime topic of conversation. While enjoying a delicious meal, someone will inevitably say, “What y’all want to eat tomorrow?”
I grew up in southeast Louisiana, where from a young age I was schooled on the true meaning of good food. Friday nights meant no meat, which was no sacrifice for us living in the Mississippi delta. We congregated at my dad’s sister Helen’s house for supper, eating whatever my Uncle Guy caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, frying up crispy strips of catfish or redfish lightly dredged in Zatarain’s Fish-Fri. I can see him coming in from his outdoor kitchen with each batch of fried fish, a frosted mug of beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Often, he would trade a bag of groceries from his store for a sack of oysters or an ice chest filled with Gulf shrimp. There was always Aunt Helen’s seafood gumbo in a pot big enough to bathe a toddler in. My mom’s contribution would be macaroni salad or potato salad, Louisiana-style, almost the consistency of mashed potatoes. My cousin Penny made the best desserts. I never knew how good I had it until I ordered my first seafood dinner as a college student…utterly shocked at paying for fried shrimp for the first time in my life.
Occasionally someone would go duck hunting and gift us three or four cleaned ducks. My mom, born to Scottish immigrants, wasn’t raised on Cajun food, but that didn’t stop her from making the best roast duck in the world. Stuffed with quartered onions and Louisiana navel oranges, seasoned with ordinary salt and pepper, she roasted them in a low oven for hours. The meat was tender and juicy while the skin was ebony-colored and crisp.
Two recipes of hers were reprinted year after year in the local cookbook. Oyster Stew with Spaghetti was one of my dad’s favorites. He always requested it whenever he hosted the men’s card game. Her other specialty was something she called Scottish Potatoes, which was nothing more than a peeled Russet potato wrapped tightly in tin foil with thin slices of onion and thick slabs of butter. The outer layer of the potato caramelized and stuck to the foil while the inside of the potato stayed soft and fluffy. The onion virtually melted into the pool of butter at the bottom of each foil packet. Perfectly simple and simply perfection.
The sight, taste, or smell of a favorite food can conjure up the greatest of our memories. Proust had his madeleines and Laurie Colwin memorialized her mother-in-law’s Latvian bread. While I’ve never successfully replicated my mom’s Scottish Potatoes, my memory of those silvery jeweled orbs lined up in a pan next to the stove in her kitchen remains just as fresh as ever.