Scent: Message Received

winter storm jonasThanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #Blizzard2016, I had an unexpected “winter break” from teaching, and I must say I have really enjoyed my #snowcation. Sandwiched nicely between my Christmas break and my Easter break, this one came with no expectations of shopping or meal planning. With my six school days I did some school work but mostly did things that I wanted to do, not that I had to do. I finished two knitting projects, crocheted a stack of make-up remover pads for my daughter Margaret who blogs about make-up and fashion, made a large batch of grapefruit orange marmalade, organized my bedside library (if you could see the number of books in my bedroom alone you would also designate this area as a library), did some writing and editing, and read several books.

oliver wendell holmesChris Grabenstein’s new book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, was great. I also read Janet Evanovich’s latest, Tricky Twenty-Two, and even though I am really done with Stephanie Plum and her band of misfit friends and family, for many years I have been reading each of Evanovich’s books as they come out and I just can’t quit on her yet. I am one-third in to Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, and I am hooked already. In fact, I was hooked by the very first sentence:

“These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.”

figI grew up on biscuits, not bagels; I despise Earl Grey tea; and I have no idea what a jar of whole soybeans “turning” in the sun would smell like. So, of that short list of items that Gretchen the protagonist is describing, the only one I can really identify with is the freshly cut figs. My Aunt Helen had a giant fig tree in her backyard and I used to retreat there when my mother would bring us over for a visit. I would literally climb inside the outer ring of larger branches and stand there, all but obscured from view, and eat fig after fig right off the tree. When I see what a small carton of four or five fresh figs cost at a gourmet grocery store here in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars in figs I ate in my childhood.

FigsI can’t bring myself to purchase them no matter how badly I want them these days, because I know deep down that they will not taste as good as the memory of my Aunt Helen’s figs tastes in my mind. I know this because when sniffing the carton of absurdly expensive nuggets, they do not smell like fresh figs pulled off the tree, one after another. And, that doesn’t count the preserved figs I’ve eaten. These are figs that were gently poached whole in simple syrup and then preserved in mason jars, given out to friends and family as casually as though everyone in the world had access to that sort of goodness on a regular basis. Those preserved figs were great plopped on homemade vanilla ice cream or pound cake, but they were just as good, if not better, draped across a slice of buttered toast.

Lewis ThomasThe connection of smell and memory is a powerful one. I was never much of an outdoorsy person but I did love the smell of the honeysuckle growing along the fence in my backyard as a child. I could stand there for hours, pulling the tender strands and sucking off the sweet nectar, one after another. The memory of pulling a satsuma off the tree in my backyard and eating it right there, dropping the peels and pithy stringy bits at my feet, is so powerful I can almost smell it right now, the citrus oils, almost acrid, slightly burning my nose.

Mississippi RiverClimbing up the levee to sit and watch the boats go by on the Mississippi River was a favorite pastime, something I did every time I went home for the weekend from college. I loved looking at the water, the soft waves lapping at the rocks along the bank, the pieces of driftwood floating by, but it is the smell of the Mississippi River that instantly told me I was home.

sulphurMy hometown had a smell all its own as well, although those of us growing up there couldn’t really smell it. You had to be away from it for a while to be able to smell it. Originally Port Sulphur was a town created to house the workers of the Freeport Sulphur Company, the townsite as it was called. With its close proximity to the shipping channel via the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect location to fill tanker ships carrying the liquid sulphur away to foreign lands. When I had friends come for the weekend they all noticed it right away, but to us it just smelled like home. If you aren’t familiar with the smell of sulphur, you can get an idea of it by smelling the yolk of a hard-boiled egg (especially one boiled long enough for the green ring to appear around the yolk) or the tip of a kitchen match just as it starts to burn.

king cakeEveryone knows the smell of freshly baked bread, the earthy smell of yeast turning a bowl of plain flour and water into the bread of your culture, whatever that might be. In Louisiana, that would be French bread, not really a baguette as it has a soft exterior as well as a pillowy interior. It is the platform for po-boys of every kind: fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, fried catfish, and more. It is just as good slathered with butter and eaten as is. Add some sugar, eggs, and milk to your bowl of yeast and flour and you get brioche, the bread of kings, Mardi Gras kings that is, the king cake. We have one shipped to us every year, just to get a bit of Mardi Gras here in our home in Maryland. Opening the Fed Ex box and then the Gambino’s box, and then the twist tie on the plastic bag, and wow, the aroma of that still fresh brioche hits your nose like a ton of bricks.

For Italians, the smell of a pot of tomato gravy bubbling away on the stove or a pan of lasagna baking in the oven is the smell of their grandmother, cooking love right there in her kitchen. For me, that would be the smell of a roux. It’s so simple, a roux, just equal parts of flour and fat. Yet, it is the basis of many a Louisiana recipe: First you make a roux. The trick is to cook it very, very slowly, until it simmers into a liquid pool of peanut butter-colored lava. I say lava because if you have ever had a bit of roux splash up on your hand while cooking, you will know exactly what I mean. Outside of cooking caramel (again equal parts of two otherwise benign ingredients, sugar and water), a cooking roux is the hottest substance in a kitchen. holy trinityWhen you add the holy trinity (chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery) to a hot roux, that smell can transport me to the kitchen of my mom, my Aunt Helen, my Uncle Guy’s make-shift kitchen in his grocery store, the kitchens of restaurants all over Louisiana. Both my daughters know that smell and when I am making a gumbo, they come out of their rooms, away from their phones and devices, to stand in the kitchen and smell the smell of a Louisiana they never lived in, a place where they have only visited, a place they only know through family and food.

mom's perfumesPeople have their own individual smells as well. My mother loved perfume and she loved trying them all. A walk through a department store with her meant an interminable amount of time spraying and spritzing one after another. She never wore a lot of perfume at any one time but she wore perfume every day. We all knew her favorites and there was always perfume under the Christmas tree for her. She loved the little sample bottles that came with cosmetic purchases. These miniature bottles became so popular that they started making them to sell as a boxed set. She received several of those as presents and long after she had tired of the perfume inside each one, she kept the bottles on a mirrored tray on her dresser. This collection of little glass memory containers was lovingly bestowed upon my fashionista daughter.

al di laI guess I have my own smell which has changed over the years. Fresh out of college in my first job I found a perfume I loved and wore it for years until the store where I bought it closed. I’ve never been able to find Al Di La since but I still have my last bottle of it. It has a few drops left in it, enough to whisk me back to driving my chocolate brown Ford LTD, a former unmarked police car that was my college graduation present from my parents, windows down, wind blowing my hair, feeling as young and carefree as I actually was at the time. From there I transitioned to many of my mom’s favorites, the Estee Lauder perfumes: Aliage, Estee, Youth Dew, and eventually landing on my all-time favorite, Cinnabar. my perfumesAs a young working mom in a big company, I was told many times my scent announced my visit before my colleagues saw or heard me coming. I never used a lot of perfume at any one time, much like my mom, but the spicy, warm smell of Cinnabar became my signature smell. One of my bosses from that same company announced one day that it was time I find a new scent, and she gave me for Christmas a gift set of Aromatic Elixir by Clinique. I am still wearing that scent to this very day, alternating occasionally with Cinnabar.

Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring, once said,

“For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that we use it so little.”

cruso quoteThis is so true for me. Today as I opened the little pink box where my daughter keeps those miniature perfume bottles, the smell of my mom enveloped me and brought a lump to my throat. Yes, the image of those little bottles, arranged just so on my mom’s dresser in my parents’ pre-Katrina home, is a strong one, but the soft, powdery smell emanating from that box made me yearn to give her a hug and make her a cup of tea. The smell of a roux cooking will always make me yearn for those simple times of eating a bowl of gumbo at my Aunt Helen’s house or a plate of my mom’s crab stew. These are the smells and scents of my life, each one cataloged and filed away for instant recall at the opening of a bottle or the making of a roux.

Comfort Food, or a Meal for Comfort?

GRITS socksI was born and raised in southeast Louisiana. I didn’t go far for college, only 100 miles, and after graduation I stayed in my college town until I moved to the Washington, DC, area in early 1988. Thus, for over thirty years, I ate, drank, and lived the life of a true member of “GRITS”, a “girl raised in the south”. (I didn’t come up with that clever acronym; it was on a pair of tennis socks I bought in a gift shop in the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, while on a business trip.)

I noticed the difference right away, virtually the first week after moving into my high-rise apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Each morning I would take the elevator downstairs to walk to work. Most mornings I would arrive at the elevator at the same time as another young woman, about my age, and as we left the apartment building she was always headed in the same direction as me. The first few days I smiled at her and waited awkwardly in silence to reach the lobby. After about a week, when we got in the elevator I introduced myself and commented that it looked like we were walking to work in the same direction. We made small talk until we reached the lobby and then she said, “Have a good day” and sped off ahead of me. I never saw her again, and I lived there for two and a half years!  Obviously she didn’t want to chat with me in the elevator each morning or walk with me into downtown Bethesda, so she altered her morning schedule to avoid me. In the inimitable words of Dorothy, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”.

I experienced this same distant behavior frequently in my early years living in the DC area. Some people speculate that it is because of the transient nature of the area, with people coming to DC to work on Capitol Hill, with the military, or at NIH. Even if they stay in the area long-term, living in the immediate suburbs is expensive and stressful, so most people move farther out where they can afford to buy a house and start a family. Once my husband and I had a family of our own and our girls were in school, we found friends amongst the parents of their friends as well as from people we saw at Mass every Sunday. Little by little we made ourselves at home here, but still something was lacking.

Food is the main tool I have used to bridge the gap between my southern upbringing and my life as a transplanted “Yankee”. (I know that there are those of you who will say that Marylanders are not Yankees but one of my father’s first comments after being told we were expecting his first grandchild was, “Damn, a Yankee grandchild!”) At my first job in Bethesda, I became the go-to person for desserts. I would surreptitiously find out the favorite cake or pie of my co-workers and bring it in on their birthdays. Eventually, I had people making special requests: red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, carrot cake with coconut-pecan frosting, Mississippi mud cake, Italian cream cake, Louisiana bread pudding with hard sauce, German chocolate cake, peanut butter fudge, chocolate pecan pie, mini-cheesecakes, triple fudge brownies—these are all tried and true favorites in my trusty three-ring binder of dessert recipes.

In the south we have a tradition of bringing a hot meal to a family whenever they are in need: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, recovering from surgery, moving into a new home, etc. Now, I know that this tradition is not exclusive to the south, and I myself have been the recipient of such kindness over the years here in Maryland. When we purchased our first home and moved in, the lady who was our home day care provider, almost like family to us, prepared a casserole of chicken cordon bleu for our first night in our new house. Yes, we ate it sitting on the floor gathered around the coffee table in the den, off of paper plates, surrounded by boxes and moving crates, but it was absolutely delicious and so appreciated. When I had the shingles in 2006, a good friend showed up at my door with a tray of Italian doughnuts: fried dough, piping hot and covered in sugar. If you haven’t experienced shingles (lucky you) you can’t even imagine how wonderful and comforting that tray of fried dough was—pure heaven. A year later, when my mom passed away, another dear friend dropped off a large container of her famous chicken salad with grapes, a platter of croissants, and a dessert. We had several great meals from that delivery, and while not strictly speaking a hot meal, one of the blessings of having a croissant stuffed with yummy chicken salad for dinner is that there are virtually no dishes to wash after.

For several years I made a large pan of lasagna to bring to friends. It seemed like the perfect meal: lasagna, garlic bread, and a salad. Now, I married an Italian and I love to eat at Italian restaurants, but otherwise I have no direct ties to that cuisine. I’m not even sure I like my lasagna so why was I cooking it for friends? Then, I switched to roasted Cornish hens on a bed of wild rice, a lovely meal, but surprisingly even people who love chicken are not a fan of the miniature gamy birds. Finally, it hit me—why not cook from my own roots? A pan of chicken jambalaya, a salad, and a baguette make a wonderful dinner, easy to transport and easy to reheat by the serving in the microwave. turkey and sausage gumboI recently took dinner to a friend who was recovering from surgery, offering a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo, potato salad, rice for the gumbo, and triple fudge brownies for her kids.

fire king tulip mixing bowl

Fire King Tulip Mixing Bowl (set of three), vintage (mid-1950’s). Source for photograph: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/32228953556014519/

Although I am completely happy with my current gumbo recipe, my potato salad is still an issue. I mean, technically it’s fine—homemade and well-prepared—but, I am trying to recreate the potato salad of my childhood, so fine won’t cut it. My mom was the go-to person for potato salad, not only in my family, but in my entire hometown. She made it for family get-togethers at my aunt’s house. She was always assigned it when the sodality ladies in my hometown church parish prepared food for a funeral reception. My dad would peel the potatoes for her, a whole 10-pound bag at a time, using a paring knife, never a vegetable peeler. He had learned this in the Army he said, and there was very little potato on those long spirals of peel that would collect on the spread-out newspaper as he worked. French chefs are judged on the amount of potato left on the peel, and he would have passed that course with flying colors. After the potatoes were cubed and boiled, she would mix up her dressing (mayonnaise, mustard, pickle relish, some of the juice from the pickle relish jar, and vinegar) and pile it up in a white mixing bowl with tulips painted on the sides. I loved that bowl and always thought I would end up with it, but sadly Katrina got it instead.

I’ve tried many different recipes over the years. I’ve gone with every potato that can be purchased in a normal grocery store: russet potatoes, red potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, etc. For a while, I only made German potato salad with the theory that if I couldn’t get mine to taste like my mom’s, then I would go completely out of the box and make something so totally different that any comparison would be moot. My husband wasn’t a fan, and he is particularly sensitive to potato salad where the potatoes aren’t cooked just right. So, I just gave up. I stopped making potato salad altogether. I never order it when eating out because it often has chopped boiled eggs in it, and that is the one thing (other than lychee nuts) that I absolutely can’t eat. I’m not allergic or anything, I just don’t like eggs, unless of course they are beaten up into a cake or pie or pudding or something else yummy.

After my father’s funeral in May, we all went back to my brother Tommy’s house for a family meal. My brother John Roy brought potato salad. I had asked specifically that he not put boiled eggs in it, and he obliged even though he prefers it that way. I took one bite and I was instantly transported to my mother’s table. There it was right in front of me. I asked him for the recipe and he just laughed (this is common in Louisiana).” There is no recipe,” he said, “it’s just potato salad.”  But, as always, I persisted, and so he gave me the basics and I vowed to try again.

When I made the gumbo dinner for my friend in June, I tied on my favorite apron and tried again with a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes, per my brother’s instructions. Yes, it was better—closer to my mom’s but nowhere near as good as my brother’s. I had even texted him several times while shopping for the ingredients to be sure I had it in my mind correctly, but still no dice. So, I’m not there yet. The elusive potato salad quest continues.

Bringing food to a good friend in need is an old southern tradition that I dearly love, both on the giving and receiving ends. “Can I bring you dinner?” just rolls out of my mouth the minute a friend shares difficult news with me. What better way to bring comfort to a friend other than a delivery of comforting food, regardless of the cuisine, recipe, or technical quality of the dish? Having a hot meal or a sandwich stuffed with a delicious homemade chicken salad in your own home prepared with care by someone who loves you is more than just a relief after a difficult day; it’s a reminder that home follows us, wherever we go, whatever we go through. And, as Dorothy says at the end of that timeless classic, “There’s no place like home.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I’ve told you about mine; now it’s your turn! What’s your go-to comfort food or favorite meal to share? Comment below!

Here’s a few recipes to get you started in this ageless southern tradition!

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Ingredients for gumbo

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 bunch of green onions, green and white parts, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Meat (dark and white) from one whole chicken (see below)
  • 1 pound cooked andouille or smoked sausage, sliced into 1-inch disks
  • 3 quarts chicken stock or water (see below)
  • 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • garlic powder to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2-3 tsp of Lea & Perrin
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked long-grain rice, warmed
  • 1 bunch of parsley (Italian flat-leaf if possible), finely chopped
  • Filé powder (optional)

Ingredients for homemade chicken stock:

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 large leek
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 large yellow onion

Directions for homemade chicken stock and chicken meat for gumbo:

  • Unwrap and rinse chicken, removing inner bag of chicken parts. Place whole chicken in large stock pot, including the neck from the inner bag. (Discard the rest of the chicken parts unless you want to fry up the chicken liver as a cook’s treat!)
  • In the stock pot with the chicken add
    • One large yellow onion, quartered (no need to peel)
    • Two large carrots (cleaned and scraped)
    • One large leek (sliced lengthwise almost to the root and rinsed carefully between the layers to get rid of dirt)
    • Two stalks of celery, rinsed clean, cut into halves
    • One head of garlic (no need to peel).
    • Fill pot with water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for one hour or until chicken is completely cooked through to 165 degrees.
    • Remove chicken carefully and set aside to cool. Using a spider or strainer, remove the vegetables and set aside. These veggies will not be used in the gumbo but are still very tasty! (The head of garlic is delicious squeezed out and eaten on bread or mixed into mashed potatoes!)
    • Strain chicken stock and reserve for use in the gumbo. Freeze any unused stock for future use.
    • Strip all meat from chicken and tear or cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
    • In a large skillet over medium-low heat, heat the andouille or sausage to remove excess fat. Drain on paper towels, and set aside with chicken meat.

Directions for gumbo:

  • While you are cooking the chicken and making the chicken stock, make a roux.
    • In a large saucepan over medium to medium-low heat, whisk together the oil and flour and cook, stirring constantly with whisk or wooden spoon, to make as dark a roux as you can without burning it. (The heat can be higher, but you must stir more assiduously to avoid burning it.) Be careful! A hot roux is as hot as caramel!
  • When the roux is medium-dark, reduce the heat to low and add the onion, bell pepper, green onions, garlic, and celery. Cook them in the roux until the onions are clear and have begun to brown a little, about 10 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  • Slowly add the chicken stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming from the roux. Add the chicken meat and sliced sausage to the pot, along with the salt, pepper, hot pepper sauce, bay leaves, Lea & Perrin sauce, and thyme.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce to low. Cook uncovered on low for about an hour. While it’s simmering, occasionally skim fat and foamy material from the surface.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer the gumbo, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 hours (it improves with time).
  • Remove and discard the bay leaves.
  • Check seasonings and adjust to taste.
  • Just before serving, add chopped parsley. Stir well and serve.
  • To serve, put about 1/2 cup of fluffy cooked rice in individual bowls and top with about 1 cup of the gumbo. Sprinkle with filé powder, if desired.

Gumbo recipe adapted from Washington Post food section, November 20, 2005, and from Blanchard/Songy family recipes.

Triple Fudge Brownies

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg. (4 oz.) BAKER’S Unsweetened Chocolate
  • ¾ cup unsalted sweet butter (1 and ½ sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (see note)
  • 1 tub of dark chocolate frosting

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large plastic or glass bowl, microwave chocolate squares and butter on high for 2 minutes or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted.
  • Stir in the sugar, the pinch of kosher salt, and espresso powder. Mix well.
  • Add eggs and vanilla; mix well.
  • Add flour and chocolate chips; stir until well blended.
  • Spread into foil-lined 13x9x2 inch pan that has been greased (spray foil with Pam).
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with fudgy crumbs. Do not over-bake. Allow to partially cool.
  • Open tub of frosting and remove the foil inner lid. Be sure to get all of the foil off of the rim. Microwave for 10 seconds and stir. Microwave again for 10 seconds and stir again. You are looking for a pouring consistency.
  • Pour frosting on top of warm brownies and set aside. Cool completely in pan or refrigerate for frosting to “set”.
  • Lift out of pan onto cutting board. Cut into 24 squares (6×4 rows). Cover tightly and store at room temperature.

Ghirardelli'sNote: if you want the chocolate chips to melt into the brownie rather than stay whole, do not use Nestle’s Toll House brand as they are specially formulated to retain their shape even when baked. To have the chips melt more into the brownie, use Ghirardelli’s chips.

Brownie recipe adapted from the side of the Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate box: Baker’s One Bowl Brownies

À bientôt

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I said my final goodbye to my dad or at least my final goodbye in this life. Being a faithful Catholic, however, I truly believe that I will see him again in eternal life, so perhaps Thursday’s goodbye was merely à bientôt.

Religious items from my father's funeral

Religious items from my father’s funeral

His funeral was beautiful. My brothers and I tried our best to include all the different branches of our extended families. An Irish priest, a longtime friend of the family, in his still thick Irish accent, celebrated the Mass, with another priest concelebrating. My older daughter was the cantor for the parts of the Mass and hymns, and my husband sang the responsorial psalm. My younger daughter, originally scheduled to read the first reading, served as lector reading both readings as my dad’s niece’s laryngitis kept her from doing the second reading. My nephews brought up the gifts, along with my mom’s niece and my parents’ godchild, my dad’s nephew. Pall bearers included my nephews and four men who were all very dear friends of my dad’s. Nearly a hundred people came to the church for the two-hour visitation prior to the funeral, and while there were many tears, there were also many light moments, reminiscing about my father’s legendary storytelling and practical jokes.

At the visitation, a family friend said to me, “Losing a parent is tough, but losing the last parent is something else, something greater.” He was so right. At my mother’s funeral, also beautiful with many family members and close family friends participating, I remember holding on to my dad’s arm. He cried throughout most of the Mass, and after that, he cried every time he went to Mass. He had been devoted to my mother throughout their nearly 53 years of marriage, but particularly so during the last fourteen years of her life, when he cared for her around the clock during many surgeries and medical treatments for heart and kidney disease. We all worried so about him and how he would cope with my mother’s death. The belief that they are together again is of some comfort, but losing him is the final ache in a series of pain that began with Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005.

As readers of my essays will remember, I lost my hometown to Hurricane Katrina, and along with my hometown, my parents lost their home and almost all of their possessions. My mother wasn’t feeling well preceding the mandatory evacuation order and did not pack to the same degree as she had for previous hurricanes. She later told me that she was lying on the sofa directing my father, tense and nervous about the storm, as to what to pack. Later, when unpacking her suitcase in a La Quinta motel room in Houston, she discovered she had mismatched pairs of shoes, pants with no matching tops, and an odd assortment of other items.

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

When news eventually arrived that the house was gone, and by gone, I mean totally gone-its remains were located weeks later on the back levee, broken in pieces-my mother was devastated and really never recovered from that. I recently learned from my mother’s sister, my beloved Nanny Pat, whose gift to my mother of a kidney in 1995 gifted all of us with twelve additional years with her, that my mother had said she really did not want to live through another anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. She died on August 23, 2007, just days before Katrina’s second anniversary. We all pretty much agree that she just gave up fighting as she had done for so long.

Everything changed after my mother passed away. In October of 2007, just a month and a half later, I realized I would never get another birthday card in the mail from her. My mother (as well as my Nanny Pat, who continues to this day in this family specialty) was a master of correspondence. She wrote to me almost daily during my four years of college, and sent many, many care packages. The contents were usually somewhat odd and I learned to open the care packages in the safety of my dorm room rather than in the student union where I picked up my mail. Once, the small box, heavily armored in scotch tape, contained about a hundred sticks of doublemint gumDoublemint gum (still individually wrapped, but loose, not in packages) and some personal sanitary products.

My mom sent out scores of greeting cards all year round. Hallmark was her favorite store, and no matter how poorly she was feeling, my dad’s offer of a trip to the Hallmark Gold Crown store was sure to perk up her spirits. Naturally, all birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays warranted a card, but so did the minor ones as well: Fourth of July, Halloween; if Hallmark had a card for it, a card was purchased. When family members married, their new spouses were added to the address book, along with their birthdays and special dates. My husband often remarked that he found it so touching, how my mom and my Nanny Pat never ever let his birthday or Father’s Day pass without Hallmark making an appearance in our mailbox.

My dad wasn’t much on correspondence although he would sign his name to any card my mom put in front of him. He was, however, very attached to his cell phone. While he never graduated to a smart phone, he and his flip phone were best friends. He was famous for calling people closest to him several times a day. While my mom’s cousin Anna was still alive in Glasgow, Scotland, he called her frequently. Once he pronounced his initial greeting, he immediately passed the phone to someone else. I will dearly miss talking to him and hearing his familiar “Whatcha doing?” which was always followed by a litany of what he had eaten that day, and sometimes, what he ate the day before. He loved to tell me exactly how he had cooked something. How many times did he tell me how he made his famous smothered chicken? “First, I rinse off the chicken pieces and dry them. Then, I lay them out on aluminum foil and season them with salt and pepper. Next, I brown them on all sides in a big pan with some olive oil. I set them aside and brown thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. When they are nice and soft, I put the chicken back in, add a little water, cover them with foil, and put the pan in the oven for about an hour. It’s so good it will make you slap your momma.”  This was always served with hot white rice and good French bread.

Food has always been an important part of the fabric of our family life. None of us were ever breakfast people, and lunch was usually leftovers or a sandwich (in my father’s case, a “half a sandwich”) but extensive discussions ensued each day about what would be cooked for supper. Most of the meals served at the supper tables of homes in southeast Louisiana need to be started early in the day and simmered for a long period of time. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage or ham needs to cook for hours. My dad’s smothered chicken also involves considerable prep and long, slow cooking. Gumbo is not a dish to throw together after work on a weekday night.

My parents also loved to eat out. My dad would first order his glass of red wine and settle in to study the menu, cover to cover, all the while asking what everyone at the table was going to order. He was always a gracious diner. I don’t think I ever saw him send anything back to the kitchen or complain about a dish served to him. He was not exactly a picky eater, but he was not very adventurous until he quit smoking in 1995. He claimed that his tastes changed after he quit smoking, that food tasted “more alive” and then he really branched out trying all sorts of things that shocked us, like Chinese take-out and delivery pizza. He loved to outsmart anyone at the table who was intent on paying the bill, often handing the waiter his credit card when he placed his order to ensure he would get the bill. The best you could do was to offer to pay the tip, and that was not always something you would win at either.

I feel so fortunate to have spent nine days with my dad in April, helping to get him out of the rehab facility he had been in and get him back home with my brother. My brothers and I worked together to make important health decisions for him. During that time, in spite of the stress and difficult decisions, my dad and I had such a good visit, shared some good meals, and had some nice chats. I was able to tell him thanks for being such a great father, for teaching me so much, for giving me a strong work ethic. None of that made it any easier when the news did come on Friday, May 8th, that he was gone. It is and will be for a long time incredibly hard. À bientôt, mon père, à bientôt.

A Narrow Sliver of Land

Map of Louisiana showing Plaquemines Parish in red

We all have our Proust moments: the singular bite of something that we loved and cherished in our childhood, re-tasted later as an adult, transporting us back in time to a particularly fond memory. Truman Capote, in his semi-autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory”, describes in great detail the food of his childhood in the Deep South during the Great Depression: fried squirrel, biscuits and ham, flapjacks, Christmas fruitcakes. Capote could not hardly write a paragraph without offering a food memory from his past and neither can I.

Just as with Proust and Capote, my childhood memories are also centered on the foods of my youth, and even today, small tastes of certain foods evoke large memories of my life lived on a narrow sliver of land called Plaquemines Parish. I grew up in the small town of Port Sulphur, located 45 miles southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally founded as a sulphur mining town, it became the crown jewel of the “fisherman’s paradise” and home to groves of citrus fruit. Unfortunately, Port Sulphur is now known for something else: the exact spot of landfall of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. And, on that fateful day, I lost my hometown.

turkey and sausage gumo

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo

My mother’s parents emigrated from Scotland in the early 1920’s when my grandfather was hired by the Freeport Sulphur Company. Unfortunately they both died before my mother finished high school so I never had the opportunity to experience “boiled mince”, which is the first dish she cooked for my father as a newlywed. It did not go over well. So, she learned her Louisiana-style dishes from my father’s mother, known affectionately by all as “Mama the Cook”.

red beans and rice

Louisiana Red Beans and Smoked Sausage

Great cooks abound in my family.  I grew up on several different variations of gumbo, my mom’s versus my Aunt Helen’s and later, my brother Tommy’s.  My dad’s stewed chicken melts in your mouth and my brother John Roy fries a mean turkey. We each make our own version of the Louisiana staple, red beans and rice with smoked sausage (mine is pretty good). My cousin Kim’s crawfish maque choux won a local cooking competition. And then there’s the best jambalaya in the world, made by my Uncle Guy’s brother, Joe.

Uncle Guy, whose first language was Cajun French, married my dad’s sister and went into the grocery business with my grandmother.  He cooked every day in the back of his grocery store. When shopping in the store with my mom, I made a beeline dash to the back of the store to see Uncle Guy. He was my godfather, and I was his “Michelangelo”, his nickname for me. He always offered me a taste of what he was cooking. I would ask “what is it?” and he would invariably respond “chicken”. I lapped it up, only discovering much, much later in life that I had been eating goat, snapping turtle, wild duck, goose, alligator, and more. These foods all seem exotic and distant now, but were perfectly ordinary and normal at the time.

I have many fond memories of Friday nights, when we would all meet at my Aunt Helen’s for dinner.  Being Catholic during pre-Vatican II times, we abstained from meat on Fridays all year-long.  Luckily, given the abundance and quality of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, this was not a problem. My Uncle Guy and my dad would go out to the “pit”, a separate building next door to their house that had a great indoor barbeque and a small kitchen, to fry whatever fish he had caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, usually catfish or redfish, sometimes flounder.  He would also boil shrimp and crabs (as opposed to steaming as is done in the Chesapeake Bay region where I now live), and when the season was right, we had boiled crawfish.  My Aunt Helen had a huge pot of seafood gumbo simmering on the stove in the kitchen, and next to it would be a big pot of white rice.  My mom made potato salad and for my cousin Keith “macaroni salad”, a cold pasta salad of small elbow macaroni, mayonnaise, celery, and pickles, and oddly enough, eaten on saltine crackers.  There would be snacks out, too, normal things like potato chips and French onion dip, but also another Louisiana specialty, shrimp mold, which is a cold shrimp salad made with condensed tomato soup, unflavored gelatin, chopped celery and other seasonings, poured into a ring mold, and then after it has set, eaten as a spread on Ritz crackers.

There were always multiple desserts, the domain of my cousin Penny.  Some of her specialties were red velvet cake, carrot cake, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and usually some crazy cold concoction like “banana split surprise” or some other instant pudding/whipped topping/multiple layered gooey thing.  We often made ice cream: banana, peach, or strawberry, in an old hand-crank machine filled with crushed ice and rock salt, later upgraded to an electric one. My dad’s younger sister, Hilda (affectionately known as Susie), also a stellar cook, would come in from out-of-town laden with goodies such as her specialty, pecan pie. And, if my Aunt Lillian was there, we would have her famous peanut butter fudge, a recipe we all thought went with her to her grave until I found a handwritten copy in an unmarked box of miscellaneous papers after moving 4,000 miles to Waterloo, Belgium.

There were lots of family members but also present were neighbors and outsiders too, people who had been in my Uncle Guy’s grocery store at closing time, or his fishing buddies like my mother’s cousin Duffy or someone I remember calling Uncle David (pronounced the French way to rhyme with “speed”).  We would all sit around the den and eat in stages, eat whatever was ready next and then move on to the next item, never sitting down to a table set with silverware and such.  The boiled seafood was eaten either in the pit or in the garage, on big tables spread with newspaper.  When the steaming pots were dumped on the tables, out would tumble perfectly cooked shrimp, crabs, or crawfish, seasoned to perfection with Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and the “side dishes”, corn on the cob, whole heads of garlic, and new potatoes, all cooked together, truly a one-pot meal.

Extra fridges in the garage or in the “sewing room” held sodas and beers, and everyone just helped themselves.  Of course, most women did not drink beer then, so my Uncle Guy was called upon to make his famous “Old Fashioned” cocktails for Aunt Helen and any of the other ladies who wanted one.  After dinner, there would be homemade orange wine, made from the citrus grown on Uncle Guy’s land, “Songy’s Evergreen”, and cherry bounce, a deadly potent liqueur made by fermenting fresh cherries with bourbon and sugar for several months, usually served over vanilla ice cream or pound cake. Aunt Helen had a large glass jug that sat in a wooden stand which would be rotated daily during the fermenting process. If the top wasn’t removed periodically to release the pressure created by the fermentation process, you were likely to find the walls covered in sweet, sticky, dripping cherry bits, sort of like stumbling upon a homicide scene right out of CSI New Orleans!

After the men were finished cooking in the pit, they would play “pedro”, a card game distinctive for the manner in which the cards were played, by thumping them down hard on the table. I can almost still hear the sound of Uncle Guy’s knuckles hitting the table when he played his card, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a beer in a frosted mug at his elbow, complete with his customary pinch of salt added to the foam.  The men didn’t seem to eat much, other than pieces of fried fish as it came out of the cast iron skillet in the pit while it was cooking.

When the card game was over, and almost everyone was loosened up from the beers and Old Fashioneds, the coffee table was pushed aside, the lights in the den were dimmed, and records were played on the stereo for the grown ups to dance.  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, all were regulars at the Friday night parties.  While this was going on, my mom would give me the “signal” and I would reluctantly go to the kitchen and put the food away, unloading and loading the dishwasher, washing the huge gumbo pot, wiping down the countertops.

shrimp and crab stew

Shrimp and Crab Stew

Life first separated me from my hometown after college, and then more permanently when I moved to Maryland in 1988 for work and for love. But I returned home once a year, husband and babies in tow, for Christmas or Easter or during the summer, to visit family and get a refill of good food and the slow, laid-back lifestyle found only in Louisiana. During those years I made sure to learn the recipes for dishes that instantly transported me back home: the smell of a roux slowly cooking to the color of a copper penny, the smooth creaminess contrasted against the crunch of the celery in shrimp mold, the sweetness of crabmet juxtaposed against the cayenne pepper in crab stew, the irresistible velvety uniqueness of Aunt Lillian’s peanut butter fudge. Unfortunately, I never mastered Uncle Guy’s Old Fashioneds or Aunt Helen’s Cherry Bounce, but my daughters are both well versed in roux-making and beignet-frying, as well as how to determine if fudge has reached the critical soft-ball stage.

I’ve only returned to my hometown twice since Katrina, once in 2006 to see for myself the massive destruction, and then again, for my Aunt Helen’s funeral in 2012. It’s difficult to go back, and there is no one there to go back to. Except for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where I received my sacraments and was married, which miraculously survived Katrina’s violent flooding and high winds, there is no physical sign of my past in Port Sulphur:  my parents’ home, every school I attended, the homes of my childhood friends, my extensive collection of original Barbie dolls and their miniature exotic wardrobes, my yearbooks and mementos from high school, all gone.
As time marches on, and those I love age and leave me, all I have left of my hometown are my cherished Blanchard family recipes and memories like those Friday nights, sweet and poignant now, but taken for granted and viewed as an obligation by a sometimes sullen teenager. Home now means the place where my husband and daughters are . . . but deep down, home will always be that narrow sliver of land sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and the bayous of southeast Louisiana.