By Paul Rest
Well, obviously no gods were there, at least not any that I could see. But there was some magic that happened weekends in thousands of households in the Greater New Orleans area that made one feel as if one was transported to a heavenly realm of gastronomical delights.
It started like this: On Friday morning, the man of the house would leave for work a little early. He would then go to where he had placed (or in some cases hidden) his rowboat. Flipping it over, he would launch the boat and row to a favorite spot. There he would drop traps in the murky waters of the bayou. The bait would be pieces over-the-hill sandwich meat or other similar pieces of something or another, the more rotten the better. These would be dropped in the traps and left there until later. He would then row to shore and push his boat to its safe place.
That afternoon after work, he would grab a six-pack of his favorite ice-cold beer and return again to his rowboat (this was usually made from aluminum, better to deal with elements), flip it over and re-launch it to where he had set his traps. This time however, he would have his fishing rod and bait with him.
Sitting in his boat, on a late Friday afternoon, before mosquitoes showed up, he would pop open a can of beer, bait his hook and begin casting. It usually won’t take long. Various catfish, maybe a Black buffalo, a bass (Largemouth especially), and trout would be pulled in and carefully detached from the hook. The fish would be placed in a metal canister that looked like a basket with holes scattered along the side. This was placed in the water and secured to the boat. Another beer would be opened. The hook would again be baited and the line cast in the water. Soon, another tug indicated another fish had gone for the bait (usually a worm, a night crawler).
When the bucket beside the boat was full and teeming with fish, the traps would be pulled up. These would be full of crayfish and crabs. These critters would be removed and placed in another metal basket. And another beer would be opened and slowly consumed as he rowed back to “his” spot on the bank of his favorite bayou. The baskets would be drained of water while placed on the bank while fishing gear was stowed in the car. The boat was again flipped over and the oars stored under the boat. (It seems folks there did not mess with other’s boats. You just didn’t do it!) All his catch would be placed in a foam (or something similar) container for transportation.
The man would arrive at home where his family, and in this case, a guest, me, were waiting. He would be congratulated on his catch and then the work began. One assembly line would be cutting potatoes that would go in iron skillets filled with hot oil to begin frying. A different assembly line cleaned the fish. (This was messy work but I enjoyed doing it. In fact, I became quite efficient at cleaning, scaling and filleting fish.) A third group prepared the crayfish (or crawfish, depending on how you pronounced it) and crabs.
The crayfish would be put in a “crayfish boil,” basically a bag of special spices dropped in a pot of boiling water. The crabs would also be boiled in another pot. And the fish fillets would be dipped in buttermilk and breadcrumbs and then dropped in another skillet filled with hot oil. Timing was everything. We were like members of a symphony orchestra all moving together towards the finale. No one wanted to arrive too early, or too late. The great orchestra conductor Gustavo Duhamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic) would have been impressed!
Since my cleaning task was done after washing my hands, I was assigned the next step. Dishes were placed on the table after I covered it with layers of newspapers. It was also a way I could quickly catch up with any local news I missed as I quickly scanned the pages of the Times Picayune. The table set, the food was taken from the stove and placed on the table. The crayfish were drained and simply thrown in a pile. The same happened with the crabs. The fish fillets and fries were served on a platter. And of course, there was plenty cold beer to wash every morsel down.
A feast for the gods. I remember that first meal. I was speechless, a rarity for me. I wanted to hug everyone at the table. I really couldn’t thank my dad’s grad school buddy enough for inviting me to join his family’s Friday evening meal and allowing me to become one of the family. “Wait till Sunday, Paul,” he said with a smile on his face. What was left over became lunch on the Sunday table. It was and is called “Gumbo” which was a new word to me. Rue would be built and then more magic would begin. The leftovers would be stirred in (every cook in New Orleans had her or his own recipe for Gumbo, often a closely guarded family secret passed down from generation to generation). It would be served over rice or rice would be added.
The smell that filled the house when I arrived was different from anything I had experienced before. Following my nose, I ended up in the kitchen. We soon adjourned to the formal family dining room table. There we bowed our heads and after grace we, well, dug in. I discovered okra for the first time. And, probably other spices that were unfamiliar so I didn’t know their names. Needless to a say, I asked for seconds, and when I saw there was some left after that, like Oliver, I humbly asked, “May I have another.” My hostess, her face beaming, “Of course Paul, have another. I’m so glad you like my Gumbo.” My god, like it? I would have married her on the spot for cooking like that. (That obviously was out of the question, as my host and hostess had already been married for over twenty-five years. But you get my point.) And I was invited other times. I don’t know whether it was my enthusiasm for their table (food), or they simply didn’t want to deal with any leftovers?
As I met other people, I realized this was a local ritual that began Friday mornings everywhere in the Greater New Orleans and throughout Southern Louisiana that has its conclusion with the Sunday Gumbo. Well, maybe in other households other than my dad’s grad school buddy’s home there were leftovers from the Gumbo? I don’t know. But what I did know was my education about food was in full swing in this classroom called “New Orleans.”
Food for the gods, and us mere mortals too who were allowed to sit at the same table.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of Paul’s food stories here
Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin