We don’t often get the chance to venture off the peninsula, but an opportunity to spend Thanksgiving in Plain Dealing, La., with Lisa’s family was too good to pass up and we spent a week immersed in family history and tradition.
The family home where her grandmother Genia was raised has not changed much since it was built by her great-grandparents, Ruby and Cecil, in the 1930s. As in every home, the kitchen is the heart and we spent quite a bit of time at the small café table in the heart of this home.
Lisa remembers visiting every other summer as a child, waking up early to a line of breakfast cereals and a pitcher of milk put out by Susy Bell, the family’s kitchen help.
Following breakfast, many hours were spent at that same café table watching Susy Bell prepare the large noon meal. Today great-uncle David keeps the decades-long tradition of family cooking alive.
Our first morning was a special treat, as we watched him carefully prepare the chocolate fudge layer cake his mother, known to all as “Kake,” began making more than 50 years ago. The ancient handwritten recipe somehow isn’t enough; special touches must be learned via experience and observation, and we did our best to soak it all in.
On Thanksgiving morning we watched David prepare a classic cornbread dressing. We learned that the trick to making a proper cornbread is bacon grease heated in the cast iron skillet, then poured hot into the batter before being returned to the sizzling skillet for baking. If done properly, the cornbread can be flipped in the pan to finish its last few minutes of cooking.
Mark even had the chance to pitch in, as the gravy was forgotten until the last minute. Fortunately, that happens to be a specialty and he whipped up traditional pan gravy to the delight of those around.
As the house filled with family that day and the buffet was laid with scrumptious dishes, one could almost feel the history attached to this multigenerational tradition.
Families here are often tied together for many generations by marriage and friendship. The Boulwares and Coyles are two such families and the day after Thanksgiving we attended the Coyles’ annual turkey gumbo party at their family “camp” retreat a few miles out of town.
We walked in to find that “our” generation was now firmly in charge of the evening. Brother and sister Charlie and Maggie had been working the gumbo for hours in the largest cast iron pot we’ve ever seen, used only once a year for this very purpose.
The first key to any gumbo is the roux, which is cooked to a deep, dark golden brown. The second key is properly proportioning the “holy trinity” of Southern cooking: onions, green pepper and celery. Onions may be used freely, but only small amounts of the others or the flavor can be quickly overwhelmed.
Charlie and Maggie never did agree upon when the roux was perfectly brown, but the deep color and rich flavor of the finished gumbo was superb.
Watching their young children run around the house after supper it was impossible not to feel wonderment at the special bond these families have shared for so long.
While we believe in the importance of building a connection with the sources of our food, we were happy to be reminded that family traditions and knowledge, recipes and stories, favorite dishes and special techniques, passed down from generation to generation are just as vital a connection to develop and sustain.
Eat well and be well, y’all.
Mark Ozias and Lisa Boulware are owners of The Red Rooster Grocery. Reach them at email@example.com.