(by Suzanne Turner)
(This is a work of fiction, if very informed by my Southern childhood.)
Mama was off on a shopping trip to New York, and it was just me and Daddy in the little D.C. garden apartment where we lived when I was tiny.
Daddy had some Louisiana friends over that he knew from home, friends my mother did not approve of, and I was a little concerned. “Those boys hold you back,” I remembered her saying to him, even though I couldn’t yet have been five years old.
When his friends came in that evening, shaking off the rain, Jean-Claude pulled a violin from behind his back. My father exclaimed with great joy, “You brought your fiddle!” Remy Dumont pulled a little something out of his pocket. “I got my mouth harp!” And Rene Despoir brandished another violin. “What, none ya’ll brought a squeezebox?” Daddy asked in mock surprise.
(Photo by Marc Savoy)
Come to find out each had a little something that sang, a harmonica, a “‘tit fer,” a this or that, as well as a sweet for me and something for the pot.
Daddy had shooed Marietta out of the kitchen earlier that day and had been cooking up red beans and rice, a mess of collards, and even the start of a gumbo. One man had fresh oysters bought at the Maine Avenue fish market, another a piece of white fish, another some large prawns.
“No crawfish,” the group said in unison, unbidden, sadly, then all dissolved into laughter. I only knew these foods as something forbidden, something my mother would not have in the house, as she learned white sauces and canapes, and left her Southern roots behind her.
Raincoats off, there they were in their work clothes: dark pants, white shirts, dark ties, Wayfarer sunglasses, and a hint of Elvis sideburns on Jean-Claude and Rene, clearly the most daring of the bunch.
They were all joking, good-looking men with dark, slicked back hair. They loosened their ties and were lounging and kind of festive in a way that I rarely saw my father. It took them a moment to notice me, tiny and blonde in the pajamas the maid had helped me into.
“Daddy, what are we going to eat with Mama not here?” I had practiced before speaking. I did not know these men well and did not want to make a mistake. I could not imagine Mama letting us eat that “swamp food,” as she termed it.
The room erupted into hilarity. “Oh, no!” one said. “I didn’t think of that. How on earth are we going to eat?” Having just handed over a king’s feast in seafood, the others looked at my father in mock horror.
My father held his hands open, at a seeming loss. “Pizza?” he asked. Back in those days, pizza was an exotic and complicated affair. It involved going to the back door of an Italian restaurant with red-and-white checked tablecloths and bribing the chef for takeaway.
My mother would stay in the car with me, vibrating with tension, the engine still running, as though gunfire might break out in the parking lot any minute. The pizza came home in a thin cardboard box. The pizza was square, and the box was square, and by the time we got it home, the front seat was always covered in the grease that leaked out of the box.
Now I was really concerned. This would not do at all. I looked up at my father, beseechingly. “Maybe Marietta could cook some chicken?” I asked.
“Oh, baby!” said my father, always tender and quick to comfort someone in distress. “How do you think I ate when I wasn’t married to your mama? I know how to make you a little something.”
This was dumbfounding information, that men could actually cook. I didn’t believe him. His time in the kitchen that day, Marietta clucking at the door, had seemed occult, forbidden, something too disturbing to acknowledge.
“Are we going to eat that?” I asked, looking doubtfully at the kitchen attached to the living room in the little apartment, trying to keep my manners out front and my alarm behind me.
“Darlin',” said Daddy, picking me up, “that’s just that good old food your great-Grandmama Adana makes at home for you. You won’t try a little?”
“Will there be cake?” I asked, doubtfully, in my cleanest, politest Yankee, as I had been taught for company language.
The entire Greek chorus of Cajun friends exploded in laughter.
“Oh, chere, I got me a good old Cajun cake over here,” said Remy, producing a familiar delicacy from the coffee table beside him. “My little Esmee cooked it up today just for you.”
I could smell the brown sugar and coconut and pineapple from where I was standing. It was another delicacy my mother sniffed at because “most of it just comes from cans anyway.”
Then the room exploded into raucous laughter again, and the fiddle switched from a heartbroken dirge to a rousing romp. The harp and the harmonica and the beating on chair arms and ottomans went on until the men got up and starting dancing, passing bitty four-year-old me from arm to arm as their dancing partner, Jean-Claude and Rene pounding time with their feet and fiddling up a storm until Marietta called us to serve our plates.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. Marietta had knowingly provided hot dogs in Wonder Bread with chili from a can in case I didn’t want Daddy’s food. Instead of eating at the table, we sat in the living room, where my father and his friends passed the hot sauce and listened attentively to a reel-to-reel tape machine, amidst my father’s stereo equipment that had pride of place in the living room. They had recorded themselves talking and reading the newspaper, while Marietta had given me my bath. There was talk about poverty, which, I now imagine, got them to thinking about brothers and cousins lost to war or whiskey, fathers farming broken-down farms, strong smart cousins pumping gas because there were no decent jobs to be had at home.
Although I didn’t understand everything, for some reason my parents’ frenzied activity in the North came to mind—the parties and the different food, the poise, the accents, my mother slaving over her sewing machine late at night and her clothes being mistaken for “from New York” or Paris. If tomorrow was like any other New York shopping trip, she’d come back with a few scarves to decorate her own late-night creations, and accept the compliments as if they were couture.
I remembered my mother, crying softly as she loaded groceries in the back of the station wagon. When she had asked a lady in the supermarket “How’s your mama?” as we do at home, the lady and her friends had looked her up and down and laughed, saying, “You don’t even know my mother!”
Walking to the car, me in the front of the shopping cart, my legs dangling down, we heard one of the ladies hiss “Hick” at my mother, she who was hometown royalty, prettiest girl from her section of the Delta. “Never, ever, be as hard and rude as these people,” my mother would say to me, even as she aped every mannerism, carefully copied the tone and nuance of each expression, pinned and draped her clothes to look like theirs, using her fine sewing hand and her beauty and grace to outdo them all.
As much as I loved my Southern cousins, I was told all the time how lucky I was to be raised in the North, with advantages they didn’t have, my Daddy with a really good job. These things I believed as sacred text. If they said it was a good thing to be far from home and the constant good cheer of family gatherings, alone like a band of hunters too far afield, then that was the truth of it.
Remy looked at me, sitting in my daddy’s lap, quietly soaking it all in. “Well, at least that little Ashlyn won’t have to unlearn anything. She talks like a proper little Yankee princess. What the hell kind of name is Ashlyn, anyway?”
Daddy barked out his signature laugh. “Her mama was no way going to name her Adana after my grandmama, so that’s some kind of Irish French thing or other she made up instead. I think it’s pretty dreamy!” He rested his head on my hair, him soaking me in and me soaking him in, and it was the happiest I ever remember being.
It grew late, Remy’s fiddle crying high and mournful, the men silent. Now that I’m grown, I imagine them weeping a little, missing their mothers and maybe sweethearts left at home, not deemed suitable for this long climb.
My father was the only one that climbed as far and as long as he did. Later, the energy boom lifted first Dallas and Houston, then Atlanta, my mother exclaiming “I guess the South will rise again after all!” Most of those good old boys headed back down to those big cities closer to home to work in downtown skyscrapers grown up from the ashes of Dixie.
My father kept traveling farther and farther away around the world, amassing more honors and accolades, always with his Cajun charm and his native-born Creole ability to slip, Hermes-like, into any language and across any border. I would think of him, gone weeks and months, with only interpreters as company, alone at night in his hotel room in St. Petersburg or Dakar or Singapore, working quadratic equations just to pass the time.
When he was an old man dying of cancer, my parents long-divorced, he lived alone in a condominium overlooking Central Park. There he confided to me his lifelong nightmare, one that kept him waking up yelling all the nights of my childhood. As he had slipped under the waterline toward death, he had also slipped back into the soft Cajun accent of his youth.
“Ashlyn, it’s as though I’ve climbed to the top of the biggest flagpole you ever saw, and there’s nowhere to go. I can’t get down and I can’t stay up. The wind is blowing and there ain’t no water nor soft swamp beneath me but asphalt in all directions. I can smell grandmama’s cooking, but I can’t get down to eat it.”
I reassured him, “Daddy, great grandma Adana is cooking up a Cajun cake right now for you, and a whole feast—a big old snapper and an oyster stew and jambalaya and fried chicken and collards. When you get over there to her, she will meet you in her apron, and you will sit down with everyone you’ve missed seeing, Remy and Rene and Jean-Claude and your brothers and uncles and cousins and all of them.”
He looked across the trees below in the park, leaves just starting to change color, and I held his parchment skin hand in my own and thought of that night of the singing fiddles.
Suzanne Turner is president of Turner Strategies, a leading progressive public affairs firm founded in 2001. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Good Old Louisiana Creole Gumbo
(The recipe is adapted from two real Cajun grandmas. I’ve done my best to interpret “a pinch of this, a dash of that.”)
1 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. bacon drippings
1 c. coarsely chopped celery
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 large green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced
(I also like to use spicy Italian sausage, don’t shoot me!)
3 qt. water
6 cubes beef bouillon
1 T. white sugar
salt to taste
2 T. hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco), or to taste
1/2 t. Cajun seasoning blend (such as Tony Chachere's), or to taste
4 bay leaves
1/2 t. dried thyme leaves
14 1/2 oz. can stewed tomatoes
6 oz. can tomato sauce
2 t. gumbo file powder
2 T. bacon drippings
2 (10-oz.) packages frozen cut okra, thawed
2 T. distilled white vinegar
1 lb. lump crabmeat
3 lb. uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 T. Worcestershire sauce
2 t. gumbo file powder
Make a roux by whisking the flour and 3/4 c. bacon drippings together in a large, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat to form a smooth mixture.
Cook, whisking constantly, until it turns a rich mahogany brown color (20 - 30 minutes). Watch heat carefully and whisk constantly or roux will burn.
Remove from heat, and continue whisking until mixture stops cooking.
Place celery, onion, green bell pepper, and garlic in the work bowl of a food processor, and pulse until very finely chopped.
Stir vegetables into the roux, and mix in the sausage.
Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-low heat, and cook until vegetables are tender, 10 - 15 minutes.
Remove from heat, and set aside.
Bring water and beef bouillon cubes to a boil in a large Dutch oven or soup pot.
Stir until bouillon cubes dissolve, and whisk the roux mixture into the boiling water. Reduce heat to a simmer, and mix in sugar, salt, hot pepper sauce, Cajun seasoning, bay leaves, thyme, stewed tomatoes, and tomato sauce.
Simmer over low heat for 1 hour; mix in 2 t. of file gumbo powder at the 45-minute mark.
Meanwhile, melt 2 T. of bacon drippings in a skillet, and cook the okra with vinegar over medium heat for 15 minutes.
Remove okra with slotted spoon, and stir into the simmering gumbo.
Mix in crabmeat, shrimp, and Worcestershire sauce, and simmer until flavors have blended, 45 more minutes.
Just before serving, stir in 2 more t. file gumbo powder.
Serve with rice.
(No one knows why this is called Cajun cake. The trick is to pour the icing over the cake while warm and let it seep into the cake.)
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 t. baking soda
5 oz. can crushed pineapple, undrained
2 eggs, beaten
1 stick (8 T.) butter
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. milk
1 t. vanilla
1 c. shredded sweetened coconut
1 c. chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large bowl, stir flour, 1 1/2 c. sugar, and baking soda.
Add pineapple and eggs, and stir well to combine.
Pour into a greased 13 x 9 baking dish.
Bake for 30 - 35 minutes.
Begin icing once you remove cake from oven by heating butter, sugar, and milk to a boil, stirring often.
Add vanilla, coconut, and pecans. Boil for about 2 - 3 more minutes.
Pour over warm cake.
Allow cake to cool for about 30 minutes to an hour before serving.