My parents were both good cooks, and my six siblings and I ate well growing up: chicken gumbo, breaded veal cutlets with red beans and rice, stuffed mirlitions, eggplant casserole, crawfish bisque, boiled shrimp and crabs, etc. For certain meals, however, like fried chicken, a kid had to move quickly if he wanted to get the pieces he liked best (for me, the side breast) and enough of them. It’s taken me years to get out of the habit of bolting my food, and to avoid making myself sick at all-you-can-eat restaurants.
Unfortunately, my parents did not pass their cooking skills on to me, which is to say that I never bothered to learn them. So, when I first lived on my own as a young bachelor and had to cook for myself, my nightly repasts became suddenly spartan. In fact, it usually took three nights to complete a meal. I would fry up a pork chop on Monday evening, heat up a can of corn on Tuesday, top it off with a can of petits pois on Wednesday, and begin another three-course/three-night meal on Thursday. Sunday, I would ride the bus out to my parents’ house and remind myself what it was like to have a real meal.
When I moved to Lafayette in January of 1976 for a half-hearted stab at graduate school, I lived on boudin and chocolate chip ice cream, which I bought, almost daily, at a little grocery right next door. On the other side of the store was a pool hall that served the best Cajun gumbo I’ve ever tasted. As a native New Orleanian, I may be an apostate; but, to this day, I prefer the Cajun gumbo to the Creole.
In December of ’76, I got the chance to help establish and edit a bilingual tabloid called La Gazette des Acadiens (1976-77) and soon chucked graduate school. My first decision as editor was to hire my mother to write a regular cooking column.
La Gazette was a terrific little paper, but, like most start-ups, survived less than a year. Soon I was back in New Orleans, where I eventually managed to pass myself off as an advertising copywriter. Working in the central business district, just across Canal Street from the French Quarter, meant that I could have an excellent lunch every day, what with dozens of sensational, affordable joints all within walking distance. Deciding which one to go to was simple: the day’s craving would dictate the venue. Fried chicken called for Portia’s on Rampart Street, an oyster poboy could only mean Acme House on Iberville, seafood gumbo led inexorably to Mother’s on Poydras, etc.
Fastforward several years. I’m married and have kids of my own. Inside, my wife does the cooking; outside, at the barbecue grill, I’m the occasional master of incineration. Then, what happens? I lose my job and find myself going stir-crazy looking for something to do around the house. My wife’s absorbed in homeschooling the kids and doesn’t have time to prepare a hot lunch, so I figure I’ll give it a shot. Much to my surprise, I discover that I enjoy the hour or two it takes to prepare a decent meal for a large family, and that I actually seem to have a knack for it. Well, what do you know? My parents did pass their cooking skills on to me, after all.
So, here’s my advice to all the unemployed dads out there: Pitch in, start cooking, and bon appetit!