Editor's Note: In 2010, Katie Oxford filed a series of riveting columns from the heart of the Gulf oil spill disaster. She recently returned to Louisiana. This is her seventh column in a series.
I was glad to be going to Alzina Toup's kitchen in Galliano. The day before, I'd traveled to Grand Isle. A trip that somehow, strangely, made me miss my mama. Mother Nature too.
Three years ago, I'd met Alzina's granddaughter, Jenny, who then as now, manages the Kajun Truck Plaza in Port Fourchon. Walking through the restaurant there, I noted that there wasn't an empty chair in sight. Now I know why.
Jenny likes to cook like Streisand likes to sing. "Cooking is in you," Jenny believes. She brings more than knowledge into the kitchen. She cooks Cajun style, an art she learned from her grandmother, who Jenny affectionately calls "MaMa" (pronounced as in Café Du Monde).
"Jenny went to culinary school," Alzina told me later, "but you know they don't teach our Cajun way of cooking." Clearly, Jenny got the best of both schools.
Twice a week, in Alzina's kitchen, the grandmother/granddaughter team serves a scrumptious feast to folks who've made reservations in advance.
Twice a week, in Alzina's kitchen (a separate structure not far from Alzina's home), the grandmother/granddaughter team serves a scrumptious feast to folks who've made reservations in advance. How far in advance? Last March, they were booked through October. Each event is priced individually and they charge per person.
This day, I entered Alzina's kitchen when she and Jenny were preparing lunch for 10. It was easy to see that the pair make quite a team.
Watching them prepare a meal is like watching two birds build a nest. It's like, well, spiritual. They moved in tandem, seldom saying a word. Understanding and love flowed between them like the aromas swirling around in Alzina's kitchen. Occasionally, I asked questions.
Alzina's ancestors came from Nova Scotia. "All my mother's family were great cooks," she said. "They were preparing the way for this generation. They lived off of the land and their food was delicious." The pots in Alzina's kitchen hold more than ingredients. One skillet, I spied, is over 100 years old. "My son brought it to me," Alzina explained. Lovely.
As Alzina and Jenny pulled food from the oven the telephone rang. Seconds later, I was explaining to the caller that Alzina was preparing a lunch and couldn't come to the phone. "That's okay," she said, sounding like a neighbor. "Just tell her that her tax papers are ready." I repeated the message right away to Alzina, who hardly looked up from her work but kindly nodded and gave a smile. I love the Cajun ways.
An unforgettable feast
Around 12:30 p.m., an eager group from various parts of Louisiana arrived. The leader announced, "Smells good in here!" Alzina greeted them in her quiet, gentle way. Then, stepping aside, she said, "Y'all tell us when you're ready to eat." No one hesitated.
Soon, everyone was enjoying their meal and asking Alzina questions. I had to lean in to hear her answers.
"We make everything," Alzina said. I'll say! This day they made stuffed chicken, rice with gravy (made with drippings from the chicken), Amerada sweet potato, pork tenderloin, Lima beans, black-eyed peas, jambalaya, okra and seafood gumbo, oven-roasted shrimp and out-of-this-world flan for dessert. I wasn't kidding about "feast."
Alzina and Jenny do more than feed folks. As Alzina put it earlier, "We touch a lot of people."
A few hours later, a happy, grateful group walked from Alzina's kitchen carrying precious leftovers.
Then, to my delight and surprise, Alzina and Jenny invited me to their table now set for three. I didn't dare mention "vegetarian," nor did I deny myself of the most delicious meal that I can ever remember.
To some, their cooking is just too good to be true. Visiting chefs from New Orleans have found their food so delicious they believe that Alzina and Jenny use more ingredients than they admit. Indeed they do. It's something culinary schools can't teach.
Alzina and Jenny do more than feed folks. As Alzina put it earlier, "We touch a lot of people." You won't find an ounce of arrogance in either one of them or in Alzina's kitchen. On the walls hang paintings of the Blessed Mary and my favorite, A CAJUN'S PRAYER by Bob Hamm. Beautiful.
They serve silently, letting the results of their labor speak. In Alzina's kitchen, Cajun culture sings.
Author's note: Jenny told me that when Alzina's not cooking, she's crocheting caps for cancer patients and burned children at the Shriner Hospital in Shreveport and in Galveston. This August, Alzina turns 85.