Been a while since I hollered at y’all. But I have written a couple more pieces for The Takeout. The most recent is a handy guide to cheating at the Easter tradition of egg pocking. The second is, among other things, a definitive ranking of instant grit flavors. Go get you some.
If the mountain doesn’t kill you, something else will. Like eating the way I do when I go home for Christmas. I forgot to take photos of a few meals this time around, but I think the ones below will still give you an adequate sampling.
(Speaking of sampling, feel free to buy one of my books!)
We arrived in Opelousas Friday morning after an overnight drive from Colorado (just over 17 hours) and kicked things off with boudin and cracklins from Billy’s, one of the finest meals known to man.
That evening we had fried fish and shrimp stew, courtesy of my stepdad.
Here’s another gumbo recipe that Louisiana folks can argue about. More importantly, most non-Louisiana folks should be able to pull off.
I’ve written extensively about gumbo on this blog and elsewhere, so much so that I get tired just thinking about linking to the other pieces — and the arguments that usually ensue. There’s always some joker from Texas, or New Orleans, or North Louisiana — or even better, who has never set foot in Louisiana, but his grandma was from there — who’s gonna stroll in and tell you all about how wrong you are. “IF IT AIN’T GOT OKRA IT’S NOT GUMBO.” Nope. You’re wrong. Get out of my face. Or some fellow Cajun food snob will pop in with, “Mais, you gotta make you own roux, cher, or it don’t count no.” Mais, I’m here to tell you, you couldn’t tell the difference in a blind taste test. (The point is, people like to argue about food. Also, Cajun gumbo is different fro Creole gumbo is different from New Orleans gumbo.)
Anyway, my longtime friend Toby Dore, aka The Cajun Traveler and proprietor of the Cajun Hostel, has just posted his Chicken & Sausage Gumbo recipe. I’ll let you in on a little secret: When I moved from my basic gumbo recipe toward my advance recipe, it was after watching Toby cook a massive gumbo for one of his annual Christmas parties. I swiped a few steps from him. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. And he makes a particularly bold old-school choice with one ingredient.
The good thing about this recipe is that it should be easy enough for most non-Louisianans to master and create an authentic Cajun gumbo in their own home. Just don’t skimp on the sausage!
I’m home in Louisiana for the holidays. And that means food. Lots and lots of food. How has it gone so far? Let me show you.
1. Fried shrimp platter from Soileau’s in Opelousas, eaten upon completion of 25 hour drive from New York.
I had a very surreal moment last month. Trying to find something at Trader Joe’s, I overheard a man with a British accent asking a store employee if TJ’s carried something called Tony Shasheer’s.
“Excuse me?” the store employee said.
“Tony Shusheery’s?” the Brit said.
“Say what now?” the employee responded.
“It’s a Louisiana seasoning blend,” the Brit said.
“No,” the employee said.
I should take a moment to point out that, defying centuries of Wheaton genetic coding, I didn’t insert myself into this conversation. One, the first rule of Trader Joe’s is “Get the hell out of Trader Joes.” Two, I knew that TJ’s didn’t have Tony Chachere’s.
Before I launch into a thousand words about this subject, spoiler alert: The sausage you put into your gumbo is more important than whether you use store-bought or home-made roux.
The good folks over at 93.7 The Dawg posted The Ten Commandments of Gumbo. They had me at hello — or at least at Commandment One: Thou Shalt Never Use Tomatoes. I’m in complete agreement and have very strong feelings about this.
But it went off the rails with Commandments Two and Three. I was on board with the spirit of Commandment Two — Thou Shalt Not Use Un-Cajun Sausage — if not the letter of their law (more on that in a bit), but Commandment Three brought me up short: Thou Shalt Not Use Store-Bought Roux.
Call me a heretic and a heathen, but I strongly disagree with this one. (And, yes, I realize The Dawg was just having fun. So am I. I’d much rather have debates about this than about politics. In fact, arguing about gumbo is one of the things that made me a writer.)
After making like a stunted tree and throwing a tiny bit of shade at the New York City poboy scene in the last post, I was told by Lisa “The Homesick Texan” Fain to get myself to Cheeky Sandwiches on the Lower East Side.
Ugh. Manhattan. Double Ugh. The Lower East Side. I spent enough time getting drunk off a shitty beer and watching hipsters do blow in skeevy bathrooms when I was younger. Also, it always strikes me as a pain in the ass to get to. And for what? To be disappointed? Again?
But Cara and I happened to be in Manhattan. And Lisa, though a Texan, knows enough about Louisiana food (and has had enough of mine) for me to trust her. (Later this year, she’s dropping an entire book of recipes for queso.)
Still, we kept our hopes extremely low. We’ve been burned before, yall.
Like many places on the LES, Cheeky is a hole in the wall — one table and the rest of the seating consists of stools along the counter with a direct view into the cooking operation.
We ordered a shrimp poboy and a fried-chicken-and-biscuit sandwich.
To be clear, the SEAFOOD Sandwich is the only pure poboy option on the limited menu. You have a choice between fried shrimp, fried oyster or a half-and-half, that last choice instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever eaten in a legitimate Louisiana poboy shop.
Interestingly, Cheeky’s poboy is smaller than a traditional Louisiana poboy and even smaller than some New York versions we’ve had. The shrimp itself was also on the dry side.
The bread was perfect, the shrimp’s batter was seasoned just right — use some salt and black pepper, people! — and the sandwich was completed with dressing, lettuce, tomato and just a tiny bit of pickle that brought it all home. This might sound crazy that I’m giving dry shrimp a pass, but believe me when I say that all of the other parts pulled together to compensate for a slightly subpar performance by the star.
Well, the star of that particular sandwich. Because while we went looking for a shrimp poboy, we both loved the fried chicken on a biscuit. The chicken was fried to perfection, crispy and juicy — which is hard to pull off with white meat. And the biscuit was a big crumbly delight. (I’m not going to get into biscuit debates, because I’m sure there are other Southerners who would take issue with this biscuit just based on its size). This sandwich was tied together with purple-cabbage slaw.
After we were done, the fellows behind the counter gave us an order of beignets. They were a little on the doughy side compared to a Cafe du Monde air pillow — the beignets, not the fellows behind the counter. The server was a skinny thing and the cook looked like he’d just finished working out for eight hours straight and could kill you by just flexing a bicep. At any rate, I’m not going to knock fried dough covered in sugar unless you turned it into a grease ball.
Anyhoo. I’d recommend the joint to New Yorkers AND to Louisiana folks. Louisiana folks just need to know you’re not going to get a footlong sandwich. But it’s a good sandwich. And it’s technically not a poboy shop since the SEAFOOD is the only poboy on the menu. Other sandwiches are served on other types of bread. (I’ve got my eye on the beef short rib sandwich for next time.)
You also won’t get beer or booze or french fries, which is fine. You don’t need the extra calories. There are Zapp’s potato chips, including the Crawtator and Voodoo varieties.
On top of all this, Cheeky Sandwiches is just a couple of blocks from the D Train, so it’s not even that hard for us to get to from Bay Ridge. (This is likely not relevant to you, but if you see us creeping around the LES, now you’ll know why.)
Short Version: If you’re a New Yorker or otherwise not from or familiar with South Louisiana food, go. You’ll like it. If you are from South Louisiana, you’ve been warned.
The Gumbo Bros: 224 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn
I’d recently received a number of suggestions from New Yorkers to go check out a new place in Brooklyn called Gumbo Bros., a small shop that serves gumbo and poboys.
To my knowledge, New York has never had a legitimate Cajun restaurant. It’s 2017 and that hasn’t changed. The closest thing to legit Cajun offerings at the moment are some of the menu items at a barbecue joint. That’s because Blue Smoke Executive Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois is from Thibodaux, Louisiana. Now until Mardi Gras, he’s offering a special Cajun menu.
The lack of Cajun food in New York is annoying. But that’s okay. I know how to cook. What gets frustrating is this weird combination of a) the total ignorance of what Cajun food actually is with b) the assumption by many New Yorkers that they actually know what it is. This coming from people who think New Orleans is Cajun and the capital of Louisiana.
I’m not going to flog that particular horse at the moment. I’ve done it enough.
But a couple of things.
First: Ordering gumbo in New York is just plain silly. You never know what you’re going to get, but you can almost always bet it’s not going to be actual gumbo. It won’t be made with roux or there will be at least one wrong vegetable in there, whether it be corn or lima beans or tomatoes. This sort of nonsense helped radicalize me into a writer.
Second: A poboy isn’t necessarily a Cajun thing. It’s a Louisiana thing, born in New Orleans. But that’s still South Louisiana (which is important) and Cajuns love them.
I’ve written before about the sorry quest for a decent poboy in this city. The shrimp poboy, in particular, is the Holy Grail. But due to many factors, almost all of them have been fails. The wrong bread. Not enough shrimp. Soggy batter. Shrimp are expensive in New York. They’re not expensive in Louisiana. This becomes a huge problem for restaurants in New York trying to recreate a Louisiana experience.
The almost good news is that Gumbo Bros. almost delivers. If you’re a New Yorker who doesn’t know any better — or even if you’re one of those New Yorkers who thinks you know better — Gumbo Bros. poboys and gumbo are close enough to the real thing to give you an idea of what these things are supposed to be.
The Cajun potato salad? A perfectly fine potato salad with a little bit of kick. But there’s nothing Cajun about it. In Cajun country, potato salad typically consists of potatoes, eggs, mayo, mustard (and other optional vegetables). It’s often close to yellow in color and many times the potatoes are pretty much mashed. This wasn’t that. But, this was a bit of menu marketing, so no harm, no foul.
The gumbo? It certainly was pretty to look at. Dark and on the thick side, it didn’t have tomatoes or any other crazy things in it. The sausage was good. Overall, it tasted like something you might find in the French Quarter. I’ve actually had worse in the French Quarter. Also, I ate it despite the presence of trace amounts of okra. I have strong anti-okra feelings.
The poboy? We tried really hard to keep our expectations low. When it was served, the expectations shot up. It was the right size and seemed to have enough shrimp. The shrimp were of decent size and covered with golden batter. And the bread, which is shipped every day from New Orleans, was spot on.
But. You probably knew that was coming. The batter for the shrimp wasn’t seasoned enough — or at all. Contrary to the belief held by many outside of the state, Louisiana food shouldn’t take the roof of your mouth off. When I say seasoning, I mean the addition of something as simple as salt would have improved the batter.
More important, the shrimp seemed to have been cooked twice. They looked and tasted like frozen (cooked) cocktail shrimp that had been battered and fried. This resulted in a dry, overly chewy shrimp.
If it sounds like I’m nitpicking, I am. This is what happens when you’re a subject-matter expert. (Or think you are, at any rate.) The older I get, the more I want to give people a chance. I try not to point out every mistake The New York Times makes when it writes about Louisiana — I’ll save all my ire for their use of crayfish instead of crawfish. And I don’t want to be indirectly responsible for screwing up a business that at least tries to get it right. But a) people have been asking what I thought and b) other folks from South Louisiana that I know might like a heads up.
If you’re from New York, the place is worth a visit. If you’re from anywhere outside of South Louisiana, you might like it. Hell, I don’t know what they consider gumbo in North Louisiana and Alabama — where the founders are from — so if you’re from there, give it a shot, too. It might actually taste like home.
But if you’re from South Louisiana (or have eaten at my house), the gumbo is likely going to leave you wanting. The shrimp poboy might frustrate you. If you absolutely have to have a poboy and don’t have a trip home scheduled any time soon, give it a shot. But if you have a hard-core craving for something fried and crispy that will remind you of home, there’s a Popeyes a block away.
By the way, you can find a gumbo recipe in the back of my first novel, The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival. Or you can get the recipe for free here. I know there will be something there for Louisiana people to argue with. Check out my other novels while you’re at it.
People sometimes ask me about my days as a small Cajun boy in South Louisiana. They seem to be under the impression that we rode alligators to school while wearing no shoes. That’s just about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course we wore shoes. Alligators have pointy backs.
But seriously, we didn’t have alligators. We grew up in prairie country. We weren’t Swamp Cajuns, but rather Prairie Cajuns. True story: If I see my shadow in February, it’s six more weeks of winter.
Continue reading “Clovis Crawfish and the Curious Crapaud”
Breakfast this morning was a smoked sausage and egg biscuit at Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecue. In the Memphis airport. Now, of course, you’re thinking, “Airport. Doesn’t count.” Well, let me tell you. Jim Neely his own damn self was in there checking on things, holding court with customers about the Food Network, barbecue, running restaurants and his nephew. Good enough for me. Continue reading “Things I’ve Eaten Today”