The persistence of memory: boiled seafood and family

boiled seafood

I’m headed to visit extended family in my hometown in Louisiana this weekend, and I admit, with no shame, that one of my top priorities is sitting down to a table heaped with hot boiled crawfish and crabs, corn, potatoes, and sausage. My mouth waters for a year in advance between each trip south, especially as I peruse Facebook photos of the ongoing crawfish boils starting in the spring. It’s like looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, but this is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

I don’t remember the first time I tasted boiled seafood, but I know it was probably before I could walk or even talk. To that end, I can’t remember when I first would have truly enjoyed, or looked forward to sitting down to a seafood boil, an essential element to family gatherings back home. I only know how much I’ve craved it and relished it in the years since.

But there is one particular image that sticks in my head and won’t go away: I was a little girl, perhaps about seven or eight, and my parents and I had already moved from Louisiana, so we were in on a visit, probably at Christmas. We are at my grandparents’ house, in their avocado-colored kitchen and avocado dining room (The chairs, the buffet, the bar, the table, the cushions, the carpet, the cabinets, the countertops! All avocado.). My grandfather, Richard, obtained a few dozen crabs, and probably as many pounds of shrimp, and it was all laid out on newspapers. I recall my mother drinking a beer, and at that young age, it seemed surprising. “I like a beer with seafood,” she told me. I wouldn’t understand that until I was of drinking age myself years later.

This is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

There was no music and no commotion; I think it was only a handful of us eating. I remember PawPaw cracking crab claws in a way that produced the most amount of meat, and saving the good ones for me. I remember my tongue and lips burning, and the juice squirting onto my shirt and down my forearms. I hear the small talk at the table, my mom and MawMaw catching up, and PawPaw chiming in here and there, in between crabs. I already knew how to use a butter knife to crack crabs and clean out the meat, and that I dared not to waste any of it, or someone would call me out. I knew to pinch, twist, and pull the tail off the shrimp, and that it’s best dipped in cocktail sauce. I knew the potatoes were a great way to take a break from the spicy meat, but if you didn’t let them cool enough, they too, would burn your tongue.

That evening eating a favorite meal with my grandparents was uneventful, yet momentous. It was simple, yet delicious. And it was fleeting, yet ever-lasting in my mind. Perhaps that was the first time that I truly appreciated the deliciousness of boiled seafood – and the delight in a family tradition. While I have eaten crabs and crawfish and shrimp many times since, and will in the future, that early enduring memory provides nourishment to this day, to my belly, and to my soul.

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The ROI of having a pet (Hint: it’s huge)

Four amazing dogs
Four amazing dogs, and best friends

When my friend Leslie proposed the topic for the first round robin for a select group of bloggers, I couldn’t help but smile. It was a slam dunk: “Is having a pet worth it?”

Where do I begin?

Asking someone who has had dogs since she was six years old and who is known to many people as Corgi-obsessed if having a pet is worth it may be like asking anyone if they need air to breathe. You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Take one look at my Instagram feed, my Tumblr, or previous posts about the passing of two of my dogs (here and here), and it will be easy to see that my answer is an emphatic and absolute YES.

As my dad said the other day, “It’s why they say ‘dog’ is ‘God’ spelled backwards.” I actually hadn’t heard that phrase before, but I do believe it’s true. And I’m not religious. Despite what the research says, I firmly believe dogs have and express emotions similar to humans (I’ve seen my dogs laugh, cry, and grumble). I do believe they are our best friends, perhaps even more faithful and dedicated than humans. And I do believe that dogs serve a unique purpose in providing us with joy, showing us the depths of love, and serving us with loyalty and unconditional devotion. The number of times I have laughed while watching my dogs play, or cried to see them in pain, or hugged them fiercely when I needed comfort, are too many to count. Dogs are great listeners, and they keep us active. They don’t let us get too into a funk or lose track of time because they have to be fed and walked and put to bed. They are constant reminders of the simple pleasures in life, like laying in the cool grass on a summer day, lounging on our backs and dreaming, and making time for play. They are sensitive to pain, and eager to please — just as we are. At the end of the day, they are happy to see their loved ones, and grateful for a warm bed — also like us.

Studies have shown again and again that having a dog boost our mental, emotional, and physical health. And although it may seem like getting a new dog soon after one has passed would be too difficult, people commonly find themselves looking for a new four-legged family member pretty quickly (we have, more than once). I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say that a beloved dog is not only a companion, but truly becomes a part of the family forever.

As I have never owned a pet other than a dog (a total of five so far), I can’t speak to the benefits of having a cat (I really don’t like them anyway) or a fish or rabbit. But I do know plenty of people who have also enjoyed owning these other animals. My personal opinion, of course, is that dogs reign supreme.

In case you still aren’t convinced, read 13 Reasons Why A Dog Will Make Your Life So Much Better, which is validated by adorable gifs of dogs, including my dream combination of Tom Hanks and a Corgi (Corgi count in this article: 3).

This post is dedicated in honor of Rocky, Harrison, and Casey, and to my current companions, McGee and Abbey.

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To read the rest of the responses to this month’s round robin question, visit the following blogs (and come back in a month for the next topic):

Leslie Farnsworth: http://lesliefarnsworth.com

Joan Johnson: http://onefishtaco.blogspot.com/

William Pora: http://williampora.com

Rebecca Harvey: http://bayoucitypostcards.blogspot.com/

James McPherson: http://jalmcpherson.com/

Jon Lundell: http://therealmil.blogspot.com/

Ode to my grandfather

My grandfather, Richard Roussel, Jr. died 19 years ago today. He would be turning 91 next month, if he were still alive. I was only 11 when he died of colon cancer, and my memories of him, the strong ones, are as faded now as old newspapers left in the sun. The headlines are still visible, but the stories are harder to read. 

Even though I won’t get a response, I wanted to write him a letter. So, here’s to you, PaPa. 

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Dear PaPa,

I still vividly remember that morning, when I found out you were gone. I had only just returned from seeing you, for the last time, and as I sat in my fourth grade Language Arts class, writing about “What I Did This Weekend,” detailing my visit to Louisiana, I suddenly felt like something was wrong. That you weren’t okay. I went to the main office and called my dad, crying, saying I was worried. When I got home that day, sure enough, he told me to pack my bag again and we were headed to Lutcher once more. Mom was still with you, with the rest of the family. I packed an extra sweater, saying that the hospital was usually cold. And then Dad told me we weren’t going to the hospital – you were gone.

I always remember November 7 because it’s four days after Aunt Denny’s birthday and four days before mine. I remember how Richie held me on his lap and let me cry, and how mad I was that I wasn’t able to say goodbye to you. I remember being so happy that we had gone to Panama City one last time as a family the year before.

I wasn’t old enough to have known you as well as some of my other cousins. And since I moved away, our time together was even shorter. But I can’t tell you how happy I was to arrive home after school that day in Cincinnati and see you on the front porch with MaMa and Aunt Teeka and the others. And remember how I would go feed MawMaw Chicken’s sheep with you in the mornings, before we went to see her and Uncle Ernest at the nursing home? That was the best.

I still remember you throwing bowls of rice in the kettles whenever I see goldfish in a pond. I still think of you every time I make pralines, even though Aunt Kay is the one helping me to perfect them. After all, you made them the best. I still remember watching Matlock and eating grapes with you and MaMa, and how you loved your Milky Ways. I still remember that old rolltop desk, and how I hoped I would find something mysterious in it that would give m a clue as to who you were. I remember how when you were gone, MaMa and Gabby and I would talk to you every night, and go through some of your things, and remember your voice and your smell.

I don’t remember much anymore about you, but I remember all that. I wish that you could be here now, and we would crack pecans together and you could taste the gumbo I make with one of your spoons. I wish you could see how hard Mom has worked over the years, and how she, your baby girl, still misses her daddy. I wish that you were still there with your big grin and your hat, slapping someone on the back and calling them “Padnah.” I wish you could see what an amazing family you raised. The Roussels — through ups and downs, distance and change, and happiness and heartbreak —  are still strong, and full of life. You raised good people, you and MaMa. You were good people. I just hope that we’re making you proud.

Love,
Jenna

Love of food runs in the family

The other day I came across this photo uploaded to the Facebook page for my hometown in Louisiana, but one of my mom’s cousins. As the note says, it’s from the LSU Cooperative Extension, and pictures my grandfather with his brothers and fellow farmers, selling their bounty in 1950. I immediately asked my mom if we had a copy somewhere in a box that I could frame.

I have bits and pieces of the stories of my grandfather and his family as young farmers. I’ve tasted his cooking (and miss it dearly), and have heard my mom and her brothers and sisters tell tales of many early mornings in the fields to pick peppers, onions, corn, and other fruit and vegetables. It makes me wish that when I was younger and first started writing stories, that I had written it all down then, and that I had interviewed my grandfather about it before he got sick and passed away from cancer in 1994 when I was 11.

Today, much of my cooking is a tribute to him and the joy he got out of it. He cooked for festivals and fairs, weddings and fundraisers, birthday parties and work events. I love discovering more tidbits year after year and putting together a more complete picture of this beloved man and talented cook. I just wish I had been able to spend more time with him to hear it from his mouth.

Do you have any fun relics related to cooking like this that give you a peek at your family’s past?

(Thanks to Laddie for posting this photo!)

So it begins…life in the country

The view from the back of the house
The view from the back of the house

I’ve been on the West Coast for exactly a week, and in my (parents’) new home in Paso Robles for less than 24 hours. A slight hiccup means my stuff still isn’t arriving until Monday, but when it all gets here and I start a new work routine, it’s going to start feeling a little less like vacation and more like reality.

corgi signBecause so far, it hasn’t quite hit me yet. A weekend in Napa to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of my friend followed by a couple of days in San Francisco with another dear friend who moved out here in 2011 has been a stellar introduction to my new life as a California girl. Imagine trying to answer people when they ask, “So, where are you from?” I used to have trouble explaining my Louisiana to Ohio connection, but now to throw DC in the mix, especially right at the transition, is another story. Because I did in fact end up making DC my home, and I felt more in tune to it than I ever did in Ohio, despite living in the latter for nearly three times as long.

First order of business upon arrival to the “farm” was greeting the Corgis of course. My boy McGee is the same as always, and it’s wonderful to be with him again. And Abbey, oh Abbey, she’s a just a little ball of fluff and cuteness that I can barely describe. To be with puppies again is so much fun! And exhausting, for sure. Leftovers for dinner and a glass of wine topped off the first night, and I went to bed with the windows open in my room, all decked out already with some personal touches from my parents.

New coop door!
New coop door!

Today started with a great long walk with Dad and the dogs in the neighborhood, and I got to see just how many great hill workouts I’ll get in. My runs won’t be boring around here. Life on a farm has its duties — I helped Dad build a door to the chicken coop, and later I’ll pick some tomatoes from the garden, and maybe we’ll go to a wine tasting nearby.

But what’s most important is what’s happening right now: the dogs are laying on the floor, I’m in a chair writing, and my parents are nearby doing their own work. Beautiful scenery is all around us, and I get to wear stretchy pants and drink Dad’s fresh coffee. Life’s pretty good in the country so far.

As I settle in to my new home and figure out this journey, I hope you’ll stay tuned. Readers of my blog know I’m not really a daily update type of blogger, but I did want to share this first one with you from California. And if you really can’t get your fill of the Corgis, you can start following corgisandwine.tumblr.com, for lots of updates on… well, Corgis and wine.

A day at the new office
A day at the new office