Last week, I learned how to do something I had always wanted to do, I learned to shuck oysters, but let’s not get too far ahead of the story…
Each year after Christmas we try to slip away for a caching road trip with friends, it is a nice way to end the year and it helps to start off the new year rested and ready for big things. We try to not plan things too much and often we are not even sure where we are headed when we pull out of the driveway. The only rule is that we head generally south and find warmer weather. This year our wanderings ended up in Southeast Louisiana and son of a gun we had big fun.
I had not been back to New Orleans post-Katrina and I will have to say, it is a city changed. Like wrinkles on the face of an old friend, you can tell that the years have taken their toll, but when you look into the eyes of the city you see the soul, still intact, still beautiful. Moving through the city you still see signs of damage, houses with the spray-painted signs saying all is clear, empty lots, abandoned homes, but you also see new construction, restorations under way and people everywhere continuing their lives. Of course, the French Quarter appears to be unchanged and all of the tourist spots seemed to have survived just fine, but amidst the rebuilding there is something missing. It is not just that some of my favorite old haunts sit empty, goodbye Ugelsich’s, there is something more, so many of the people are gone. Everyone seems to know someone who moved away after the floods and did not come back, victims of a modern day diaspora. There is a palpable longing hanging in the air under the spanish moss covered live oaks, it is the combined emotions of the tens of thousands who remain, missing their friends and family and the life they had. At the same time, the indestructible spirit and optimism of the people of Southeast Louisiana is still there in the outstretched hands and warm smiles that greet you everywhere you turn. Yes, New Orleans is a city changed, but a city of survivors and a city who has sent it’s children out as ambassadors to the rest of the country.
As New Orleans lost many of its citizens in the wave of refugees who were forced to evacuate, the rest of the country received a great gift. The Katrina evacuees brought with them a flair for life and a cultural heritage that has been a boon to many a community across the country. Now, I am a proud to be a son of the South, the region known for it’s gentle hospitality and a more relaxed way of life. No matter where my travels have taken me, I always look fondly to my home as the bar that all hosts are measured by. I have to say that when it comes to the great folks in Southeast Louisiana, well, let’s just say we could all learn a thing or two from them when it comes to hospitality, and while this is true of the folks I have met in New Orleans, it is doubly so when you head just a short way west to Thibodaux and Houma.
My wife and I are blessed to know a couple of these ambassadors from the land of plenty and they let us know that if we made it out Thibodaux way that they would have us over to have lunch with the family. Well, I am smart enough to know that when a great cook invites you over to eat lunch with their mother, well, you don’t turn down that kind of invitation. Now, I don’t usually mention names in this, but if you ever get out on Louisiana 1, just east of Thibodaux, you better stop in and pay a call on the Boudreaux’s. Don’t tell them that I let the secret out, just beg for a place at the table and promise to do dishes or mow the lawn or anything they want you to do, it will be worth it. Now, although I have lived and travelled all over, I spent a lot of my time growing up on my grandfather’s farm, in fact that is where I live now, and I know a little about farm life, and especially about those big afternoon dinners looking over the fields. Well, at least I thought I knew something about those big farm dinners, till I experienced one on Bayou LaFourche.
When we pulled up the boil was going strong and they were shucking a fresh sack of oysters. When it comes to fresh raw oysters, you don’t have to call me twice, so I made a beeline and began helping. More accurately I began eating, and after a few minutes of gorging on the best tasting oysters I have ever had I got up the nerve to ask for something I had always wanted, I asked how to shuck my own oysters. I know it sounds strange, but I had always wanted to do this and somehow had never learned. It is funny, since when I wasn’t on my grandfather’s farm in Middle Tennessee, I spent the rest of my time growing up in sight of the water in South Florida. Anyway, after a few minutes instructions and some false starts, I was a bona-fide oyster shucker, and you could not have wiped the smile off my face with a whole bucket of Murphy’s, but we were just getting started. On to the big table to learn the proper way to open and eat crab, lots of shrimp, boiled corn, peas onion, garlic, sausage, hot dogs, roasted oysters, pouldeau gumbo and cold beer. We ate off and on for two and a half hours, with liberal conversation breaks, before Mom broke out the King cake, fresh pralines and a hot pot of Community coffee.
I wish I had the skill to paint a picture with words of what an incredible afternoon it was. The Boudreaux clan took the eight of us and just folded us into their family, opening not only their home, but their hearts, and introducing us to a lifestyle we can only dream of. After that magical feast, we went on a tour of their farm, learning about how things are done there on the edge of the bayou, how the sugar cane is grown, how life has changed over the years, there was just too much to try to recount. We visited the barn where this year’s Mardi Gras float is being built, got to climb in an amazing 250 year old live oak, got a walking tour along Bayou Lafourche and got to raid their groves for the best oranges, lemons and kumquats you ever tasted. We thought we were stopping by for a simple lunch, but we received so much more, we got to enjoy a true experience, a slice of their life, and although I am envious, I sure do appreciate that little taste, and I understand better what all the fuss is about.
So what did I learn, besides how to shuck my own oysters and the proper way to eat crab? Well, I learned:
A bayou is not a swamp, the bayou is the waterway through the swamp.
When making a fire ring for boiling, you have to let the air up around the base of the pot.
Pouldeau is the Cajun word for a coot or Marsh Hen.
How to identify male and female crabs, and more than I really wanted to know about their mating practices.
How Boudin is made and why rice is so important to Cajun cuisine.
that true Southern hospitality is just about the best thing in the world.
I cannot say “thank you” enough to the Boudreaux’s for taking us “hill folk” in and making us feel so welcome and to LL for putting up with us all in the first place.
Postus Scriptus Blogitorum:
Like the dutiful and loving grandson that I am, I delivered several of the oranges, grapefuit, kumquats and lemons that we picked to my dear, sainted Grandma. Partly, because I am nice like that, but mostly as a thank you for looking after our cat while we were out of town and because she loves fresh citrus. Being a dutiful and loving Grandma, like she is, she accepted them graciously and the next day she called to invite us up for fresh, homemade Lemon Meringue Pie. Like the smart-alecky, rub it in your face kind of guy I am, I quickly shared my envy-inducing, delightfully impending homemade pie enjoyment all over the interwebz, so that all far and near could take a moment and wish they had a sweet grandma like mine. To make it even worse, I then posted a picture of my slice of the pie for all to see. Well, that led to a flurry of emails requesting my Grandma’s Lemon Meringue Pie recipe, so being the kind and considerate monkey that I am, I have decided to include it here, for your pleasure. Of course, you are on your own trying to come up with the main ingredient, fresh-squeezed lemon juice from the Boudreaux groves. Just how good and juicy are Boudreaux lemons, you ask, well the juice from three lemons was enough to make two of these wonderful pies, with some left over.
Grandma Ralston’s Lemon Meringue Pie
1 (8-inch) graham cracker Pie Shell
1 (14 ounce) can Eagle brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed Maison du Boudreaux lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
2 eggs, separated
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 tablespoons sugar
You can opt for a store-bought graham cracker crust, but they are pretty easy to make and I like homemade ones better. To make your own, crush 1-2/3 cups of graham crackers, I use the food processor, then combine them with 6 tablespoons of melted butter and 1/4 cup of sugar. Press this mixture into a 9-inch pie pan and you are ready to go. You can pre-bake the crust for 8-10 minutes if you want it to be crunchier.
Now for the pie;
In mixing bowl, combine Eagle brand, lemon juice, lemon rind or extract, and egg yolks; stir until mixture thickens. Pour into graham cracker crust.
Add cream of tartar to egg whites; beat until almost stiff enough to hold a peak. Add sugar gradually, beating until stiff and glossy but not dry. Pile lightly on pie filling.
Bake @ 325° until meringue is lightly browned. Cool.
After cooling, enjoy with family and friends, and be sure to take a picture and post it on the net to make all your friends jealous.
Note on the photos, these were all shot with my iPhone on location @ the Boudreaux Farm, except for the pie which was shot in my Grandma’s kitchen. All photos are unprocessed.