Monday, April 23, 2018

Thoughts about Crawfish and Slot Machines - Louisiana Food, Politics, Gambling - Essay

Crawfish Etouffée - Billeaud's No. 3

" instinct tells me that only a dumb-ass would boil a sack of crawfish inside..." (Virginia Billeaud Anderson discusses Crawfish Etouffee, Louisiana politics & gambling. Mentions Don's Seafood, Ella Brennan, Paul Prudhomme, Floyd Landry, Marcelle Bienvenu and Edwin Edwards.)

Thoughts about Crawfish and Slot Machines, Louisiana Food, Politics, Gambling

“You here for Mexican or crawfish?” While choking on my frozen-no-salt, I told the waitress we were most definitely there for Mexican food and margaritas, and didn’t the sign on the façade of Little Mexico: Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Sunset Louisiana assure us we could get authentic Mexican food? What's with the crawfish? 

My sister Yvonne brings me to Little Mexico practically every time I visit her in south Louisiana, saying "the booze is cheap, and you never have to wait for a table.” While trying to decide which authentic Mexican dish to order, Chile Relleno, or perhaps Camerones Jalisco, it shocked me to see a waitress carry metallic trays of boiled crawfish to customers who were obviously there for crawfish, not Mexican. Don't get me wrong, it’s not that I objected to the Mexican place crossing over into Cajun cuisine, I understood it was the peak of crawfish season and that an astute enterprising restauranteur such as owner Senor Padilla would want to satisfy his customers. It’s just that I expected a certain ambience to go along with my tequila and tortilla chips that didn’t include people sucking on crawfish heads.

Nevertheless, chefs commonly mix cuisine categories. Nobody questioned it when Ella Brennan served Escargots with Angel-Hair Pasta at Commander’s Palace and published the recipe in "Ella and Dick Brennan: The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook" with the rather profound preamble, “This dish is a cross-cultural combination of French, Italian, and Creole tastes.” And no one squawked when the late Paul Prudhomme served Crawfish Enchiladas con Queso at his New Orleans K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and included that recipe in his cookbook "Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen."

So it was hardly surprising a few days later when I saw Crawfish Enchiladas on the menu at Billeaud’s No. 3 in Broussard Louisiana, although for the most part Billeaud's No. 3 specializes in Cajun/Creole dishes, including beef, pork, chicken, rabbit, shrimp, and crawfish. I’m not courageous enough to eat their alligator, but alligator customers consider it superb, and while there I overheard a man tell his wife that the peach cobbler was the best he had ever had. I did eat Billeaud’s Crawfish Etouffée on that visit, and found it yummy.

Driving to Billeaud’s No. 3 was a disorienting experience. All of the landmarks were unfamiliar, the area had changed significantly since I had last been in that part of south Louisiana. What happened to all those sugar cane fields? Instead I see a car dealership, some oil and gas industry offices, a “RV” camper park, and a swanky golf community with enormous houses. Decorously attached to the Chevron station’s "Subway" fast food and Food-n-Fun market with discounted beer and tobacco was the 24-hour Big Easy Casino which promises a “payout average” of over $25,000 a day. I went in!

Billeaud's No. 3

Meanwhile back in Houston I started thinking about Miss Ella. In 2017, at age 91, Ella Brennan told "The New York Times" that she was too damn old to drink cheap wine. I’m with you Ella, I'm too damn old to drink cheap wine, and if the truth be known, I'm too damn old to eat sorry crawfish etouffée. It's so annoying when some trendy overpriced restaurant garnishes a piece of fish or a crab cake or fills a pastry shell or stuffs an omelet with disgraceful etouffée causing me to shake my head and say those people don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Regrettable moments like this put me in mind of legendary food writer James Beard’s admonishment against serving crappy hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties. Some are acceptable but many "are garbage, one owes it to his guests to know the difference,” Beard sniffed in his book "American Cookery." Don't let Beard's patrician tone and voluminous cookbook however put you off, the bow-tie wearing fat man wrote with delicious irony. At home, Donnie makes a lobster recipe from James Beard’s "American Cookery" that blows away our guests. But back to Miss Ella. Everyone in New Orleans - uptown swells, inebriated derelicts at Johnny Whites, even my favorite Lucky Dog vendor in “da Quarter” - felt elated when Miss Ella received a 2009 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Admittedly, crawfish etouffée recipes do vary. One cook will add sherry, another lemon juice. Garlic or no garlic? Chef John Folse uses paprika. Although, it’s misguided, I believe, to add “Rotel” tomatoes. There’s some disagreement about the chopped vegetables, and if you’re unsure about which chopped vegetables to include I suggest you simply follow old man Don Landry’s etouffée recipe, the one Don L. Landry, Ashby D. Landry, and Willie G. Landry used at the original Don’s Seafood and Steak House in Lafayette Louisiana. Published in their 1958 cookbook, it calls for celery, onions, bell pepper, green onion tops and parsley, but keep in mind that chef Paul Prudhomme added basil and thyme to those ingredients.

Even more important than chopped bell peppers and green onions are the correct amounts of crawfish fat and butter, however it became evident when reading "Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen" that the proper amount of fat and butter is not always straight-forward. In his elaborate roux-based etouffée recipe, Prudhomme gave precise measurements for butter, but felt compelled to qualify on another page that crawfish head-and-tail fat adds incredible richness and “can be substituted for some or all of the butter in the recipe.” We can’t fault Chef Paul for indirectness, some cooks boil and peel their crawfish to extract the fat, and some purchase peeled tails. It is here that a cook’s innate sense kicks in on the amount of butter.

We’ve all known remarkably skillful cooks that possessed that innate sense, driven by experience and instinct rather than recipes and measurements. I had a cook of that caliber in my life. She worked for my grandmother. We called her "Na Na" but her real name was Anne Lasseigne. How I loved her. She held me, and put me in my place when I was uppity. I covered her body with a sheet before the funeral home took her away. Years later she actually came to me when I needed her. Na Na required no recipes. She couldn’t read.

Virginia and Anne Lasseigne (Na Na)

I’m not certain if bad-boy Floyd Landry used recipes and measurements or innate sense and instinct to achieve perfect proportions of crawfish-fat and butter in his crawfish etouffée, and it’s unlikely he bothered to write about it in the manner of Paul Prudhomme. Floyd's barely decipherable "coon-ass" accent and habit of addressing everyone as “Dawg” tells me he wasn’t much into words. Nevertheless, Floyd Landry's etouffée was masterful when I ate it at Willie G’s Seafood Restaurant in Houston in the early 1980s often after knocking back drinks at Rotary Table Bar or some other local dive. Floyd had become a celebrated hotshot, people crowded into Willy G's, and waiting for a table was part of the boozy fun.

Marcelle Bienvenu, who like Paul Prudhomme worked for the 
Brennan family in New Orleans and who, as a chef, food journalist and multi-book author, is decidedly into words, bypassed the discussion of equipoising fat and butter in the “crawfish etouffée-stew” recipe in her book "Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make A Roux?" I’ll forgive Bienvenu for not chiming in, and anything else, for that matter; any woman devilish enough to put a marinated crawfish tail in a martini can count me into her cult following, there's nobility in a gin-soaked crawfish tail. Bienvenu did, though, address proper crawfish boiling. Her book instructs readers that it’s best to boil one’s crawfish outside on a butane burner to avoid the crawfish escaping from sacks and running around the kitchen, and to avoid the pot boiling over. That said, my instinct tells me only a dumb-ass would boil a sack of crawfish inside.

Be it crawfish etouffée or any other dish, the consensus is that one should work with fresh ingredients. To emphasize the importance of fresh seasonal regional ingredients in his cooking, Prudhomme described his childhood on a St. Landry Parish cotton and sweet potato farm, where as the thirteenth child of a sharecropper who spent 42 years plowing behind a pair of mules, he helped to harvest and butcher the food his family ate. Such an experience, it goes without saying, led to Chef's professional use of only food products that traveled a very short distance from farm to kitchen.

People didn’t seem overly disturbed by the whorehouses and gambling joints. St. Landry Parish, where Paul Prudhomme's father spent 42 years share cropping and handing over a third of his profits to the land owner and where Opelousas-born Tony Chachere made internationally acclaimed Cajun food products, had non-food related notoriety. When I was young I heard the older people discuss the hookers and slot machines. Later, as I developed intellectual interest in the "Gret Stet’s" colorful history, I learned about Sheriff Doucet who allegedly allowed those establishments to run smoothly, and who was nicknamed “Cat” after the brothels. If, as they said, Sheriff Cat repeatedly avoided prosecution, it was because juries of his peers and the populace generally tolerated dens of iniquity. The "New Orleans Times Picayune" occasionally condemned St. Landry Parish’s illegal gambling, there were sporadic vice raids and predictable outcries from devout Protestants, but none of this overwhelmingly disrupted bid-ness.

Sheriff Cat Doucet 1948
Re-election poster

Legalized gambling would ultimately expand beyond race tracks, particularly after Governor Edwin Edwards helped people understand basic math, and come to their senses. Insufficient revenue from a miserably slumped oil and gas economy made tax increases and slashes to education and social programs inevitable. That pretty much clinched it. The citizenry ushered in the lottery, casinos, and those video poker machines you see in restaurants, bars and truck stops as fast as Uncle Earl could mark up a race track form.

One of my childhood toys may have been linked to this considerable history. I clearly recall playing with an ole timey pull-handle slot machine, one of Daddy’s possessions, which he kept in his warehouse. That thing was magical. To watch the contraption spin, then align three cherries or three lemons and dispense jingly coins was indescribably exciting. How stupid of me not to ask Daddy where it came from, and now it’s too late, but it’s satisfying to think the slot had seen its best illegal years in the back room of a sleazy place on a St. Landry Parish highway, maybe between Opelousas and Krotz Springs or Opelousas and Eunice. On the other hand, it could have come from New Orleans.

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