Monday, April 23, 2018

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


"...my instinct tells me that only a dumb-ass would boil a sack of crawfish inside..."


Thoughts about Crawfish and Slot Machines

“You here for Mexican or crawfish?” While choking on my frozen-no-salt, I explained to the waitress that we were most definitely there to eat Mexican food and consume ample quantities of 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. Crawfish?

My sister Yvonne drags me to Little Mexico when I visit her in south Louisiana, “it’s close to here, the booze is cheap, and you never have to wait for a table,” Yvonne repeats every time we go, in an apologetic tone. While I carefully inspected the menu to decide which of Senor Padilla’s authentic Mexican dishes would please me, should I order Chile Relleno or perhaps Camerones Jalisco, the waitress carried metallic trays of boiled crawfish to customers who were there for crawfish not Mexican.

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 Padilla would want to satisfy his customers. It’s just that I went there expecting a certain ambience to go along with my tequila and tortilla chips which didn’t include people sucking on crawfish heads.

In the end, I departed very happy and telling the staff too loudly “it was great,” and I would return, and I will the next time I visit Yvonne.

Besides, chefs commonly intermingle 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 this third establishment in Billy and Michele Billeaud’s three-food-venue empire offers Cajun/Creole dishes, specializing in beef, pork, chicken, rabbit, shrimp, and crawfish. I’m not courageous enough to eat their alligator, but their alligator customers consider it superb, and 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, a very fine dish indeed.

Driving to Billeaud’s No. 3 was a disorienting experience. All of the landmarks were unfamiliar, the area had changed significantly, what happened to all the 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, is the 24-hour Big Easy Casino which promises a “payout average” of over $25,000 a day. I went in.

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, in full agreement on the topic of decent wine, and I’m too damn old to eat sorry etouffée. How 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 crawfish etouffée causing me to shake my head and say those people don’t know what the hell they’re doing. When I encounter these regrettable moments I think of James Beard’s admonishment against serving crappy hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties, “Many of the snacks created for such occasions are excellent, and many are garbage, one owes it to his guests to know the difference,” Beard sniffed in "American Cookery."  Don’t let the bow-tie wearing fat man’s patrician tone and voluminous cookbook put you off, Beard wrote with delicious irony. Donnie blows away our guests with lobster recipes from James Beard’s "American Cookery." 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. It’s misguided 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 1958, it calls for celery, onions, bell pepper, green onion tops and parsley, but keep in mind that Paul Prudhomme added basil and thyme to those ingredients.

Even more important than chopped vegetables 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 include on another page the qualification 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 Mr. Paul for his indirectness, some 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 and knows what to do about the butter. We’ve all known remarkably skillful cooks driven by experience and instinct rather than recipes and measurements, one who was close to me was Na Na, whose real name was Anne Lassaigne and who worked for my grandmother. Oh, how I miss that woman. I covered her body with a sheet before the funeral home came to take her away. Na Na required no recipes, she couldn’t read.

I’m not certain if bad-boy Floyd Landry used measurements or 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 Prudhomme, Floyd’s barely decipherable coon-ass dialect and habit of addressing everyone as “Dawg” tells me he wasn’t much into words. But his etouffée was masterful, unsurpassable, in the early eighties in Houston when I ate it at Willie G’s Seafood Restaurant after drinking at Rotary Table Bar or some other dive. We did have to wait for a table at Willie G’s in the early eighties, the food served by Floyd and his Cajun bros had turned them into celebrated hotshots, people crowded in, and waiting for a table was part of the boozy ritual.

Marcelle Bienvenu, who like Paul Prudhomme worked for the Brennan family and who, as a chef, food journalist and multi-book author, is decidedly into words, bypassed the discussion of equipoising fat and butter in her “crawfish etouffée-stew” recipe in "Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make A Roux?" I’ll forgive Bienvenu for not chiming in, and for anything else, any woman devilish enough to put a marinated crawfish tail in a martini can count me in 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 that 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 cotton and sweet potato farm near Opelousas Louisiana 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. Camera-charming Paul was making the point that he incorporated into his professional practice 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. Indeed, internationally acclaimed Paul Prudhomme brought notoriety to Opelousas Louisiana and nearby parts of St. Landry Parish, similarly to Opelousas-born Tony Chachere whose Cajun food products command world attention. However that region where for 42 years Prudhomme’s father handed over a third of his farming profits to the land owner had non-food related fame. When I was young I heard the older people discuss the hookers and slot machines, and later when I developed intellectual interest in the Gret Stet’s colorful history, learned more about Sheriff Doucet who allowed those establishments to run smoothly in exchange for “his take” of the proceeds, 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. Legalized gambling would ultimately be expanded 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 the highway between Opelousas and Krotz Springs or Opelousas and Eunice. On the other hand it could have come from New Orleans.

Image: Billeaud's No. 3 - Crawfish Etouffée

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