Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Southern delicacies (old ladies talking)

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 11:27 AM

Earlier this week I sat once again in a hospital waiting room. Anticipating an hour or more, I brought with me Cleopatra, a new book by Stacy Schiff. As I read about lavish banquets and postwar processions, imagining dinners of peacocks and presentations of sacred bulls, I slowly lost focus of the 49 B.C. festivities, tuning in instead to the 21st century conversation across the room.

Aioli Dinner, 1971, A gourmet dinner club that met every month between 1890 and 1920 near New Iberia, Louisiana. The women standing in the back row cooked, and the young men around the table served.
  • George Rodrigue, Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art
  • Aioli Dinner, 1971, A gourmet dinner club that met every month between 1890 and 1920 near New Iberia, Louisiana. The women standing in the back row cooked, and the young men around the table served.

“A few years ago my cousin Alphonse helped with Christmas Dinner,” explained an old woman named Mavis. “I had a gumbo and a turkey ready, but he brought a huge pan covered in foil for my oven. Inside was two coons*, surrounded by corn, carrots, and onions. It sure looked pretty, but I couldn’t eat it.”

Tante Gites Gumbo, 1979

“That’s nothin’,” said a lady named Alma. “My daddy put a whole coon in my freezer one time, with the head on. I opened my icebox, saw that thing staring at me, and shut it right back. I thought about it for three days before I opened the door again and threw it away, that thing looking at me the whole time. I thought my daddy was gonna kill me.”

“Should we eat them nutria rats*?” asked Weezie.

“I told my husband to bring me one,” said Mavis. “He brought me two. Honey, when I saw them heads! But the meat was so pretty and white. I made chili with one and gravy with spoon bread with the other. I told my kids and grandkids that it was rabbit."

Fur Trappers on Cow Island, 1975
  • George Rodrigue, Private Collection
  • Fur Trappers on Cow Island, 1975

“They loved it, because that meat was so tender. But Honey, I chewed and chewed and chewed thinking about that nutria rat with that head on it, and I couldn’t swallow. I mean I heard them nutria rats is clean eatin’, full of swamp grass, but I just couldn’t eat it. My kids keep asking me to ‘cook the rabbit again,’ but I just can’t feed them something I can’t swallow myself. Even now I shudder as I think about that head!”

“I know what you mean,” said Weezie. “My mama tried to pass a cow tongue off as a roast at her table. She told me what it was and my throat got tight, and I just couldn’t swallow.”

Alma chimed in, “My husband is from Woodville, Mississippi. He made sure that every creature that walked across that country road ended up on my stove. We ate it all. I cooked alligator, possum, coon, rabbit, deer, frogs, you name it. But the one I couldn’t take was that wild hog. I couldn’t even bite it. Something about that musk smell.”

“That’s how I feel about chitlins,”* said one.

“Oooh I love chitlins!” said another.

“When my Tawny moved to Madisonville,” explained Mavis, “we’d catch those big frogs around dusk and cook ‘em for dinner. They do taste a little like chicken, but just because I know it’s a frog, it tastes different.”

Andre and Boudreaux Boiling Crawfish, 1978

“You ever tried that calamari?” asked Alma. “We was in California and I saw these cold, round hamburger-lookin’ things on a platter and tried one. It was some good. I ate three before I saw them legs out of the corner of my eye. They was just danglin’ out of my mouth, and I couldn’t move. I mean I couldn’t spit it out, I couldn’t swallow, no nothin’. The room started spinnin,’ and his legs was still hangin’ out of my mouth. And to think, just a second before, I thought it was good! My daughter finally pulled it out.”

“That’s nothin’,” said Weezie. “You ever seen them snails, with the garlic and the butter? It’s disgustin’!”

“When my granddaughter Tawny was pregnant,” said Mavis, "all she wanted was them clams from Popeye’s. She ate ‘em everyday, and she drove across town, because only one Popeye’s in New Orleans fixed clams. To me they taste like rubber bands. You just chew and chew until you swallow.”

“I saw a woman on TV who ate toilet paper,” said Alma. “But she only liked the two-ply.”

***

With great relief, I joined the old ladies, as they laughed until they cried, as did the old man next to me and the nurses at reception, until a young woman handed Miss Mavis a cup,

“Come on, Honey. We need another sample.”

And with that, she wheeled the old lady into the back, the rest of us silent and staring.

Dolores Pepper (a.k.a. Wendy Rodrigue)

Old Ladies Sewing, 1986
  • George Rodrigue, Collection of the Acadian Museum in Erath, Louisiana
  • Old Ladies Sewing, 1986

*raccoons, but the old ladies said ‘coons’ throughout; similarly, I’ve always heard ‘nutria,’ but they said ‘nutria rats’ throughout; ‘chitlins’ are pig intestines, usually served fried

For related posts, see “Aioli Dinner”, “Women of Vision”, and "Swamp Women" from the blog Musings of an Artist’s Wife

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