Wednesday, October 7, 2009

AFJ 2009: Creoles Are Not a Fairy Folk: An Updated Definition, with Food

This panel, moderated by Times-Picayune writer and filmmaker Louis Eric Elie, included kosher caterer Bertha Pichon, Poppy Tooker, who helped the local agricultural and aquacultural people get back up and running post-Katrina, and Leah Chase, proprietor of Dooky Chase, a landmark in the African American community where civil rights workers could meet without fear. The panel’s title comes from remarks made by food writer Alan Richman, who questioned the idea of Creole cuisine even though he spoke at length with Chase.

When Chase (right) was growing up, Creole had nothing to do with food. It was something done at home, being your own culture and your own thing. Chase described herself as a militant child, and she felt the strength around her but lamented it not getting passed on. You gain no strength from not passing traditions on, be it food or master builder skills. They favored the superficial things like how you looked. The favored Catholic church was Corpus Christi and its African American congregation were style leaders.

Chase had no problem with Paul Prudhomme jumping on the Creole bandwagon. Chase said she and others benefited from his marketing skills.

Tooker said the only thing she knew growing up was Creole cream cheese. Chase interrupted to note that Tooker was too young to know the “part-black” stigma of Creole. Tooker noted she was now trying to “passez noir” instead of “passez blanc.” Pichon learned the Creole cooking base of tomatoes, garlic, green peppers and light roux. She spoke broken French and Creole, and had to unlearn that at Catholic school.

What are crucial ingredients? Tooker needs bacon grease and butter in the fridge, celery, bell pepper and onions, thyme bay leaf and flour to make a roux.

Pichon liked bell pepper and thyme and bay leaf but little celery. Chase said there was little celery except for special occasions and redfish and good paprika. You put celery hearts on the table after using outer stalks, and it was decoration as well as an appetizer. Chase also said she mixed up Italian gravies with sardines and eggs but over rice instead of pasta. Tooker promises calas, rice fritters, for breakfast tomorrow.

Creole essentials? Tooker suggested gumbo, bread pudding, stuffing to put in vegetables. Chase wants to get people to the table, something she noted wasn’t only lost by African Americans. She wants her grandkids to make a jambalaya and use some shortcuts. Pichon taught hers sons and daughter to cook. Her son makes a good crawfish bisque using head stock. Everybody loves to eat it, but no one wants to do the work of cleaning and stripping the mud bugs. Chase said the bisque was seasonal. Creoles didn’t eat anything without wine. Kids got wine mixed with water and sugar. Gumbo was served at every festive occasion and on Sundays. Creoles didn’t like fatty meat. Gumbo was always served with wine.

The gumbo was the preamble to a meal with all available meats at a festive meal. Sundays the gumbo was followed by Reveillon of stewed chicken and baked macaroni.

Creole meals need rice, macaroni and potato salad, Chase said and the others concurred.

While none of the panelists used packaged roux, Chase thinks that may come to pass with more cooks with less time.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

No comments: