There are only two perks of living where I live: the first are the birds. Shorebirds, migratory path heaven, strays blown in from across the Gulf, the usual suspects who inhabit the South. Then there is the selection at the grocery store. It means at my local market--the one in the middle of nowhere, fifteen miles from the nearest Wal-Mart--Neeco's, carries all the Cajun brands of food. There is lots of sausage, Chesi's ham in the deli, anything you can imagine with a fleur-de-li stamped on it--beer cozies, bird baths, shirts, tattoos on the workers--and any spice you need to make a Cajun anything. There is a little packet rack that has a Cajun meatloaf that is to die for.
So meeting me when I came in the door was a display of Zatarain's,
He died in the most terrible shape. He was a diabetic who would not yield to his condition, and lived in absolute squalor after my mother and he broke up. But that is not important.
What is important is that while he lived--although he was a very easily stressed and angry man--he loved people and had a gift. That gift was anything that was taken from the sea or garden, and transforming it into something people rhapsodized about.
Understand Cajun culture: Those of Southern Louisiana are their own set of personnes, they are extremely open and will call you "Boo" a lot. "Boo, how you doin!" "Boo, I love yew!", it goes on and on and although Gulfport is on the periphery, we still call each other Boo. They show up. They show up. At your door. Uninvited. In my father's case, with coolers and coolers of shrimp or crawdads they have just bought off the boat. They were there to eat. They were there because my dad was a miracle of sorts to them. "No Mississippi boy's gonna know how to cook shrimp," the largest man carrying the cooler had said a few years before.
They would go to the carport, opening the gates that swung shut over it wide. Daddy had a propane burner and a 50 gallon pot. And into it would go bottles--bottles, mind you--of Tabasco, two or three eight ounce containers of cayenne, masses of uhn-yauns, (pick seafood, crab, crawdad, shrimp), red potatoes, corn, and my personal favorite, weenies. (They are hot dogs everywhere else). Out would come the ping-pong table (it was the seventies, after all) and the Times-Picayune, which they would use to cover the table and then eat. And eat. And eat.
He was always amused by that line about a Mississippi boy not being able to Cajun properly. He was the best around, cooking for as many as five hundred at a time. His education came by being a barge captain in Baton Rouge, in the remote bayous, where the elderly Cajuns would tell him--from their porches where he would ease up the barge and talk to them from the deck--and take their secrets back with him to the carport in New Orleans.
Thus was born my first lesson ever about food--or the one that I remembered--"Sue-Sue," my mother would say, "Do not touch your eyes when you eat." I took this as the gospel, and there are pictures of me sitting on top of a ten gallon pot peeling and eating my own shrimp, much like the one above, Polaroid with a little date to one side, with my red-headed brother beside me at an antiqued yellowed table.
I had some frozen shrimp in the freezer tonight and I threw it into a pot with the Zatarain's, the remains of an very large onion, and a bit of corn on the cob I had in the fridge. And there was supper. I had turned on the stove hood, but then I realized, I wanted the whole house to fill with the smell. And then I leaned over the pot and breathed the incense of my childhood, that smell, wafting up in the dark of the carport, the darkest sky, the friendliest voices, the best food, and a gift exercised and appreciated.