Non-cooks think it’s silly to invest two hours’ work in two minutes’ enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet.
– Julia Child
As I slowly blend the roux for my grandmother’s chicken gumbo recipe, I’m transported to another place and time. One of my earliest memories is sitting at Mema’s kitchen table in East Texas, as she slaved away at the hot stove, baking homemade bread or macaroni and cheese (very often at my request). I’m four years old wearing Mema’s tattered red nightgown. I’m wolfing down snap peas from my grandpa’s garden, absorbing the sights and sounds of her kitchen: The scent of her buttery homemade bread. The flavors of her saccharine sweet tea and chicory coffee. The texture of her velvety chocolate-brown roux. Pecan pie, boudin blanc, crawfish étouffée, hominy grits, red beans and rice. These dishes form the distinct fabric of our family’s history.
My grandmother, Isavern Marie Lejeune, cooked tirelessly for our clan on a consistent basis. As our family’s matriarch, she felt it was her duty to nourish each and every one of us. All of our gatherings revolved around food, much as they do today. I never truly appreciated the value of her exquisite Cajun meals until I was an adult, and by that time, she was gone. I pay homage to her now by introducing her dishes to friends and acquaintances. I regard her recipes as living, breathing entities. By keeping these dishes alive in our family, I honor what she meant to me.
Replicating these dishes for my loved ones is an incredibly personal and intimate act. As I recreate these meals for my loved ones, I’m painting a portrait of my Mema’s tenacity, my Uncle Joe’s oddball sense of humor, my Aunt Sandra’s benevolence, my father’s ingenuity, my mother’s fortitude. I cook to forge a connection with my grandmother, as well as those who came before her. Mema stored these recipes safely in the back of mind; never once were they written down until my very practical mother and I decided to record them for future generations. Mema’s mother Malina “Minnie” Crochet taught her to cook these dishes, as Minnie’s mother Marcilia taught her. Mema had no use for measuring cups; she eyeballed all of her ingredients, and her dishes never suffered for it. The tastes and textures of her meals were ethereal, out of this world. I’ll never know when or how my family’s recipes originated, but I like to believe it was many generations ago, possibly somewhere in Novia Scotia or Southern Louisiana. I’m still in the process of mastering these recipes, but I plan to carry them on as long as I live and breathe, to my future progeny, my family, my friends, and my loved ones, old and new.
I cook not merely for sensual pleasure (although that’s certainly a part of it), but to nourish the soul as well as the senses. I cook to keep tradition alive. I cook well because a life without fine cuisine is akin to a life devoid of color and meaning. I cook well because I can.
Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
– Harriet van Horne