I dream of po’ boys, flash-fried oysters mashed between toothsome crisp-crusted French Bread, an un-replicable unctuous bite. Muffulettas oozing oil and olives. Beignets smothered in powdered sugar snowdrifts.
The luscious, lyrical meals of my childhood — flour-roux gumbos, Jambalayas, fried soft shell crabs, Black Bottom Pie —forbidden foods as an adult with wheat allergies.
New Orleans and the surrounding areas, my father’s ancestral home, redolent of seafood seawater and slow-simmered spices, where supper plans were hatched over breakfast. Our family visits, after Grandmother Marie passed, centered around meals with my father’s brother Uncle Johnny, Aunt Susie, our five much older cousins.
My father’s eight-years-older brother, Uncle Johnny, was once signed to Detroit, injured in his first pre-season Spring Training, returned to New Orleans without having played a professional ballgame, became a car salesman, dealership owner, Chrysler company man. Everyone in the family drove a Chrysler — except for Great Aunt Dinky, proud owner of successive Mercedes sedans — my parents on the receiving end of Uncle Johnny’s showroom castoffs.
A talker, Uncle Johnny, as verbose as my father was quiet, sucking and jabbing his omnipresent cigarette to punctuate his point, of which he had a few, his wife alone possessed the power to quell his harangues. Aunt Susie, New Orleans native, grew up just blocks from Uncle Johnny and my father, but across the Maginot Line of another Parish, a Parish of the newly arrived, like her family, from Mexico.
Taco Night, Aunt Susie’s sisters joined us, simmering onions and tomatoes, frying soft corn tortillas until puffed crisp and shimmering with oil, peeling paper-skinned things resembling green tomatoes, what I later understood to be tomatillos, but not from my aunts or whatever you would call them, Aunts-in-Law — who spoke rapid-fire Spanish-Cajun-English, a cascade of words flowing fluid from one language to another — as an adult, I learned about “tomatillos” from a chef in San Francisco who specialized in nouvelle interpretations of regional cuisines.
Aunt Susie and the Aunts-in-Law arranged heaping platters on the long low table with seating for twelve, extra chairs brought in from the garage or the formal dining room, family squeezed so tight elbows bumped, until a rhythm of raise-taco-lower taco-refill-taco-raise-taco was established with our immediate neighbors. For my siblings and I, the presence of so much food, our portions unsupervised, was dizzying, we ate well past the point of full, and munched on chocolate and lemon Moon Pies afterwards, avoiding our packaged dessert-abstaining father’s silent stares.
Aunt Susie, Uncle Johnny and our cousins moved to Nashville (some Chrysler-opportunity), the end of such gatherings. Despite scattered siblings and cousins drifting back or towards our familial homeland, New Orleans meals henceforth held in hotels or restaurants, the merits of which are debated against the meals of our memories.
“etouffée” hand-scribbled during Amor y Amargo‘s weekends-only “Double Buzz” hand-crafted coffee & cocktail pairing event. My Great Aunt Dinky (who actually might be a great cousin, several times removed, but she’s always been an “aunt” to me) would approve.
Do you have a favorite word? Send it along. I look forward to writing something for you!