années passées, Chere (Years Gone By Dear)

The air in Louisiana is so thick at times, you could take a bite of it and chew it up. My favorite time of year there is always Fall/Winter and I grew up loving those seasons for a lot of reasons, but mainly because when those seasons arrived, so did the seasonal fare that came with it. 

The red cemented patio of my parent's ranch style brick home was littered with my family. My brother and me, along with my cousins played in the backyard with the usual excitement, despite the ability to not end up in a pool of sweat from the slightest exertion. My uncles and dad, cap adorned and propped in mesh folding chairs, coozied cold ones in hand while the "old language" flowed from their cigarette smoke clouded mouths, talked eagerly to one another as they caught up on the latest news of friends and family...gossip if you will.

The red mesh bag sat in the sun while the cat circled it's movement curiously. My mom is in the house with my aunts getting corn and potatoes ready while Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers and Zydecco tunes filled the background. The huge steel pot outside was coming to a boil and the time was near. My dad walked over to the red bag and cut the top open and I could see the bubbles start. Crawfish blow bubbles when they are agitated. Growing up in Cajun Country, you have to come to terms with the fact that your daddies/papas/men of the houses are hunters, farmers, and fisherman and with that comes death. My dad took a few out so we could see them walk around with claws pinching and the cat thinking a new toy had arrived as he pawed and swiped at them. I always mentally said goodbye to them, but never watched my dad initiate the mass execution of these crustaceans, or maybe I blocked it from my childhood memories.

I was probably about 5 or 6 at that time. My Uncle Leroy called me over on one of my loops through the family circle and asked me to come over. My Uncle Leroy had silvery white hair and he slicked it back with pomade like a true old school country/western star. He always wore western shirts, the kind with the pearly buttons, and he had a pair of cowboy boots that would shame any faddist. Uncle Leroy was always a gentle man. He always made me laugh and he had a great smile. "Come see, Chere," he called. I ran up to him and he asked me if I ever tasted a beer before. I giggled, and tell him, "Nooooo, Uncle Leroy!" He tells me to have a little sip, just a little one, and I go for it. For the record, “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” resulted in the face a baby makes when he has grapefruit or peas for the first time --- in other words I would not be making Schlitz famous by any means to my tasting abilities. For many, many years of my life, I resisted beer because of that first time experience. My mother was quite happy with that reaction.

My mom comes out with the potatoes and corn and puts them in the large pot with the Louisiana Crawfish Boil seasoning. It's on! Within the 15-20 minutes of the boil, the picnic table in our backyard gets covered in newspaper and soon it's time to dump all the goodies onto it. All the different shades of red make my mouth water and I cannot wait to shell the first one. My family comes together and we begin to pinch and peel the tails off, dipping it in the drawn butter, taking breaks to eat potatoes and corn. I was always proud if I got a lot of meat from the claws. It was like a rite of passage learning to eat crawfish. I am, however, not one who sucks the heads of these creatures. Yes, I know it's where all the flavor is, but I cannot bear to do this. My mother on the other hand...well, let's just say she isn't one to spare meat of any kind. You should see her eat ribs!

We are all laughing and talking as we devour our 50 pounds of crawfish. People always ask me what crawfish tastes like, I always answer, "Pure heaven!" I always found crawfish to be much more flavorful than lobster and less sweet. The seasoning definitely helps with this and I don't mean Old Bay. For me, crawfish brings back a lot of memories growing up and although my family always got together for eventful meals, I always loved our crawfish boils. Having my Uncle Leroy visit from Texas was always a treat as well and it seemed appropriate that he would be the one to give me my first sip of beer. 

I remember looking over to see a Garter snake in the yard. This was not unusual. I also saw a toad there. Then I saw the Garter snake open it's mouth and eat the toad. This was absolutely awful and fascinating to my 5 year old self. I was unable to comprehend what I was seeing verbally and just sat there wide-eyed and pointing. After much "Well, I'll be's and Look at that sonofa's", we continued to scarf down what was left of our feast.

Fais Do-Do in Crowley, LA, 1938. Photo from Library of Congress by Lee Russell

Fais Do-Do in Crowley, LA, 1938.
Photo from Library of Congress by Lee Russell

By the end of the boil there is nothing left. The cat is allowed atop the table to lick the scraps we have amassed. Our bellies are full and I know once things get cleaned up, the preparation for a mad throw down of Bourré will begin. Bourré is a card game played by Acadians and was most popular at my family's gatherings. Then comes the real commotion, but that tradition is for another time. For now, my brother and I will endure the hoopla of my family and make way to "do-do"⁵.

I'm tempted to find a Schlitz and toast my Uncle Leroy (RIP) because it's highly unlikely I'm going to find some crawfish here.


7 Little things you may not know:

  1. In 1902, With over 1 million barrels sold, Schlitz becomes the largest brewery in the world.

  2. Schlitz introduced the now ubiquitous “Brown Bottle,” an innovation that inhibits light from spoiling beer as quickly, the first 16 ounce flat top can, and the now notable, "Tall Boy".

  3. In 1970, Unable to keep up with demand, the Company builds a 34-acre brewery in Winston-Salem, NC. With a 4.4 million barrel annual production capacity, it became the largest brewery in the world.

  4. We do not refer to Crawfish as Crayfish or Crawdads in LA...ever.

  5. "do-do" (doh-doh) is short for Fais do-do, which is a Cajun dance party, but the term is used to denote putting children to bed quickly and away from the noise, the folkore in full can be read here. My aunts used to say "Go do-do" when it was time for us to go to the back room and sleep. 

  6. Crawfish are farmed in the same fields as rice at times. When you drive out in the country sometimes you will encounter a number of escapees, claws up, ready to throw down on the roads. Louisiana accounts for 90% of crawfish in the nation. Before the 1980s they were sought after naturally, but due to high demand, farmers decided to use their rice fields interchangeably with crawfish harvesting.

  7. The slang word "Boo" in Cajun means Dear or Sweetheart. My parents called each other that all the time.

Standard is the New Black

winston

A few days ago I went to a restaurant to celebrate a friend’s birthday. This restaurant is one I’ve frequented many times and has resulted in mostly ordering take out. This restaurant is noted for it’s fancy cocktails and honestly great food. Perhaps they think the attractive, handpicked servers make up for the lack of bar professionalism that I’ve encountered on several occasions. Why are my panties all in a bunch for this particular experience? Mostly because I’m exhausted from every establishment denoting a high-end experience with lackluster service.

I’ve attended the bar here on four separate outtings. Every time, I’ve left with visions of wanting to plant an open-faced slap to the cheek of my bartender. I feel this is the scenario which resembles that of an ugly baby. Nobody wants to tell someone their baby is less than adorably cute. NOT ALL BABIES are cute and NOT ALL RESTAURANTS live up to their sparkling reviews in Style Magazine. I’ve read reviews of establishments that, to be quite honest, are overrated. Yes, I find it exciting and mouth watering that RVA is on the map for foodietown, but I also disagree that restaurants should get props where they are unworthy of such accolades and mediocrities, nor do I want to pay for such an experience.

I feel every time I go out these days, whether it’s a burger joint or the new Southern fusion installation, I’m paying high dollar for mediocre service and food. I had one server recently not know what’s in a Manhattan and could not tell me one single whiskey they had. I had another bartender serve me whiskey on the rocks when I asked for it neat. I witnessed a bartender describe Blue Moon as a Pale Ale. I went to the “Best Crabcakes in town” restaurant and got a mouthful of shell. I have had a lot of awful service experiences in the past year and honestly I’ve grown quite annoyed to the point where I don’t want to visit these places again. If you are going to pay $20+ for an entree or $10 for a cocktail, you had better provide the same standard of service. If your restaurant is getting rave reviews and all this air is being blown up your yin-yang, then you better not ignore me when I need a refill or just an acknowledgement that I’ve stepped up to the bar.

On this particular early evening at initially mentioned restaurant, I had to move twice just to get the bartender’s attention. I understand busy. I work in a very busy restaurant, but I never ignore a customer once eye contact is made. I understand muddling fruit and making tropical inspired libations is time consuming, but I also expect you to handle your business. I ordered a vodka and soda. Quite simple really. The sweat ladened man behind the bar asked if I wanted to start a tab in which I responded with a “yes” and after taking my card for several minutes, I vacated the bar area. A friend greeted me ten minutes later with my card in his hand. So, this guy just decided to give my card to some random person I may or may not have known. I thought he was keeping it for the tab since he never came back to me. I had the one drink. I went to pay my tab and I was greeted with a close to $8 tab. 

I’ve paid $8-12 for craft beer before. I’m no stranger to paying high dollar for delicious morsels. My problem with all this is, you’re serving me a standard drink and making me pay above and beyond for vodka that costs $20 a bottle and with a very crude disposition. If you had served me that drink with a smile on your face or a willingness to earn the $2 tip I left, it might not have gotten to me that much, but you didn’t. So, the next time I want a standard vodka for half the price I’ll go somewhere where I know my patronage is appreciated…thank you Bamboo. If I want to pay $12 bucks for a fancy cocktail with amazing service I’ll go over to Max’s or Roosevelt where I know I’m not just paying for a drink, but I’m paying to feel like I’m worthy of sitting at the bar. You may have all these “adventurists” fooled, but it takes more than some muddled fruit and tattoos to ignore your apathy.