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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Food, Culture, & Youth: Culicurious Blogger Shares Her Story

Culicurious-My-South-La-Food-CultureHi everyone, I’m Addie K Martin of Culicurious. I live in New Orleans, and I’m originally from a very small town called Golden Meadow, in the heart of Cajun Country in South Louisiana. Food is a big part of the culture and daily life in my hometown. And also here in New Orleans. When we’re eating lunch we’re usually talking about what we’ll have for dinner. Here in South Louisiana, we don’t eat to live, we live to eat. Everything we do is focused around food. And that’s pretty awesome.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a household where home cooked meals abounded. My mother was and is a very active home cook who had a very wide cooking repertoire. We grew up eating Cajun classics like gumbo, shrimp stew, crawfish (or shrimp) étouffée, redfish court bouillon, jambalaya (both red and brown), and boat loads of beans (red or white) and rice. We also had a wide assortment of fried foods: shrimp, oysters and many types of fish. Of course, special treats included crawfish, crab and shrimp boils, but my dad was usually the one doing all that heavy lifting in that arena.

White beans and riceMy mom also cooked great American dishes like spaghetti and meat sauce, baked chicken and curried rice, spinach pie (aka quiche), fried chicken, stuffed breads (homemade bread stuffed with a ground meat and cheese mixture), roasted meats (pork, chicken or beef), and the best spread of Mexican food I ever have seen. While we ate primarily South Louisiana foods, we still also ate these American foods quite often. We rarely ever ate out at restaurants. That was mostly unheard of. Nearly all of our meals were prepared by my mom at home. And we ate very well, as you can see.

So now that you’re hungry from me setting my childhood home food background, I want to dive into how all this fits into and influences what I do now in my own life for cooking and food. The first thing I can say is that having a mom who cooked nearly all of my meals helped me to know that food is primarily cooked at home. Even when I was in college before I knew how to cook, I was buying foods to cook and prepare at home. It seemed natural to me to cook at home. I would even make things like roasts and spaghetti. I always remember knowing how to do that stuff.

chicken & okra gumboGrowing up in a food-centric culture also heavily influenced my decision to attend culinary school. I had the fortune of attending a public university that also houses a culinary school so I was able to go to culinary school and get my degree all within about 5 total years. Thankfully many of the classes I took switched over and helped me fulfill those requirements. I loved culinary school so much. I loved learning how to prepare food and really think about it from a scientific and technical stand point (I’m pretty left-brain oriented). We even had a Creole and Cajun Cuisine class which was pretty amazing. I learned even more about my native cuisine than I’d ever known.

And now, some 10+ years after earning my college degree and some 15+ years since living at home, I feel like I am finally growing into my own with cooking. I cook primarily with seasonal ingredients, buying local wherever I can. I also use very little processed food in my kitchen, much like my mom used to cook for us when we were growing up. While we do eat out about once per week, I am the primary cook in our house (which makes sense since I am a full-time blogger working from home), and I take that job very seriously.

Boiled crabs with fixinsToday I take those values my parents instilled in me at an early age and apply them to my every day cooking. There’s still nothing better than a huge pot of gumbo to feed friends on a Sunday afternoon while watching a Saints game. My sister and her family along with me and Jeremy (my husband) still hold several crawfish, shrimp or crab boils each year. The seafood is still very affordable overall so we love to indulge as often as we can. Golden fried shrimp po’ boys are still one of my favorite things on the planet. Period.

In an age where traditions are being shoved by the wayside, I aim to keep mine alive and well. I seek to help preserve the cooking and food traditions of my South Louisiana culture. It’s actually very easy for me to do since I still live in New Orleans, only 50 miles from my hometown. But I do try. Because I must. The only way our cuisine can continue is to keep making the dishes and teaching the younger generations how to do it, too.

What about you? Do you come from strong food culture background? How does it affect your life today?

And finally, since you’re one of Jenna’s readers, check out her food culture post on my site today.

If you’d like to connect on social media, follow me at @culicurious on Twitter, and you can also like my page on Facebook.

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!)

The spirit of the Saints

First truth: I’ve never really been a fan of professional football. Growing up, I relished Saturday’s college football games and typically napped during the Sunday ones. I have stood by my Tigers and Longhorns, respectively, through the years, through good seasons and bad, but have never really thrown more than a passing thought to the NFC or AFC, and like many others, really only watch the Superbowl for the commercials. I have never seen the fuss over Brett Favre, am annoyed by the stories of Tony Romo’s rotating blonde singer girlfriends, and laugh at my boyfriend’s undying allegiance and frustrations with his Browns.

But boy do I love those Saints right now.

For those of you that know a little about me, it makes sense that if I were to root for any NFL team, it would be the Saints. Born in Louisiana, it didn’t matter that I moved to Texas at five, and then Ohio at the age of seven – there was no way I was going to become a Bengals fan. As much of my family are die-hard LSU fans, many are die-hard Saints fans, even when they were the Aints. But for me, a mostly non-fan of the NFL, my Saints’ fandom was sparse, more of a check-in here and there to make sure they were still out there, still kicking. Besides, they don’t really show Saints games in Ohio.

But today, the Saints are playing in the Superbowl. And I am a fan. I am even throwing a party, my first Superbowl party ever, complete with gumbo and king cake. Last year, I fell asleep on the couch during the big game. This year, I will be rooting until the very last seconds, because those Saints have a way of coming back when you least expect it.

Just like the people of New Orleans have since Katrina.

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Where we began

0615092011I had a coworker over for dinner the other night because she wanted to learn how to make gumbo. As a fellow lover of cooking, Julia and I agreed that I would teach her some Cajun dishes if she could show me how to do some authentic Italian dishes. I didn’t worry about the fact that I had never actually made a gumbo yet (only red bean gumbo, which is different), but I have never really failed at cooking yet, and I figured with the success of other Cajun dishes, it would be fine.  It was delicious, as determined by Julia, my boyfriend, and the other coworkers I brought samples in for, so was pretty happy. I also was fair to them and kept the spice levels down (although I added more later to the leftovers because I can’t ever have too much Tony’s or Tobasco sauce).

This isn’t about the gumbo though. Julia is also a writer, and we often talk shop on different ideas, writing styles, and the like. I even shared with her a story I wrote in high school that was a hit with my family (and that also helped me earn class credit for my college application) called Cajuns, Crabs and Comfort. What was great about Monday night was going back to where we both began as writers.

I shared with her my two Young Authors books, these little stories some students would write as a library project in elementary school. You would write a short story, illustrate it, and moms would come in to type them up and bind them. My second grade story was about my first dog, Rocky. A year later, I modeled a story The Babysitters’ Club series, naming the girls in my “job-care club” after my cousins, drastically improving upon my illustrations, and using big words and lengthy dialogue. Julia had a good time ribbing me about these books, but it was funny to think of how far I’ve come as a writer. I keep those books because they are a reminder of where I started – of my first achievements. I also still have my first-ever published article- a story about my neighbor who served in WWII, and that was one of 6 student stories chosen to be published in the local paper. Julia and I both knew we wanted to be writers at the age of four or five, and except for us each having a slight detour of the imagination in high school down another career path, we’ve stuck with that dream ever since.

Now, we’re both working in online communications at a non-profit. It may not be exactly where we envisioned ourselves, but we’re still writing. And we both know that someday, we’ll be doing what we always thought we’d be doing on a more full-time basis. Julia hopes to write children’s books, and I hope to write a book and maybe be a writer for a magazine.

There was a time when I couldn’t rest from writing poetry and fictional stories. I wrote fake newspapers about my family and stories for my cousins. I wrote endless lists of the titles of the books I was someday going to write. Of course, much of this was when I was younger, and didn’t have a job, or a boyfriend, or other things I was involved in. But, everytime I look at those little bound books on my shelf, I remember where I came from, and remember that my bio from back then still rings true: my favorite food is still macaroni & cheese, I still love baseball, and I still want to be an author when I grow up.

Where did you begin?