I’m hard put to think of any food I like more than red beans and rice. And after spending a week eating Creole food throughout the trip, the one thing I did not get to eat was red beans and rice. Zea’s in Town Center in Baton Rouge has it on their menu. It comes with a huge fried chicken breast served on top of a steaming plate of dark red beans and gooey rice; just the way I like it.
But I didn’t make to Zea’s on this trip. But I did eat some amazing food while visiting family and old friends in Louisiana. And that’s what it’s all about – FOOD. What you ate that day; what you are going to eat later in the day; who you ate with; where did you eat; how was it cooked (grilled, baked, sautéed, boiled, and of course fried); was it a gumbo, Etouffee, or bisque; and on and on and on. It never ended.
My first stop was a little hole in the wall just outside the Louis Armstrong International Airport (a.k.a. MSY – New Orleans) called Fisherman’s Cove in Kenner, LA. I had the (notice the THE as that is how one refers to the food in Louisiana) fried eggplant stuffed with crabmeat and covered with crawfish Etouffee, a couple of slices of buttered French bread and a glass of Shiraz. It melted in my mouth. (Needless to say I didn’t count Weight Watcher points while out of town this trip.) The portion was moderate and very satisfying. My sister had boiled shrimp and said it was very good.
The next day we met up with two old friends from our early childhood and their mother. We think it was my wedding, forty-one years ago this May 30th that we last saw them. We four girls look good for our age, but their mother looked fantastic. Unfortunately the restaurant was packed (it was LSU graduation that day and everything was crowded on that side of town.) We could barely hear each other but we had a wonderful visit and enjoyed a delicious American meal at J Alexander’s near the Mall of Louisiana on Bluebonnet Road. I had the Cypress Salad with chicken fingers, bacon, cucumbers and cheese. It was very good, but huge so I ate about half of it. On a side note, when I left Baton Rouge in 1976, Bluebonnet was a street off Jefferson Highway that was part of a quiet neighborhood. Today it is a vein in the thoroughfare that cuts through the South side of Baton Rouge, stretching from Jefferson Highway to Highland Road, four lanes of one commercial business after another.
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of spending the day with three old friends. Two of which I had known since I was a child and the third I met in junior high. We were all good friends through high school and college and have remained close as adults. We get together once a year when I come to Louisiana to see them. One lives in Franklinton, LA in an old home she has renovated and filled with antiques; one lives in a beautiful traditional Acadian home in Denham Springs while the third is still in Baton Rouge in a lovely old neighborhood on the South side of LSU. She still has her father’s season tickets to the LSU football games on the 40 yard line as well as LSU basketball season tickets. This year we gathered for conversation in Denham Springs eating lunch at Randazzo’s Italian Market. I had the lasagna and it was very good. It was the charm of the couple who own the restaurant that was most endearing as they walked up to every table asking if our meals were acceptable. Moving from Italy to Denham Springs, the chef and his wife opened the business to bring the “traditions from the hills of Italy to the Bayou country.”
As my friends talked over each other and about our choices of food, we connected as we did as children filled with the love of friendship. Missing was one friend who had a conflict, a wedding to attend in New Orleans. But we thought of her and others who might join us next time. After perusing the antique stores in “Old Denham” we made a stop at the home of one of my friend’s mother. Living in a retirement community near her daughter in Denham Springs, she looked and acted just as she did when I was a child, proud, beautiful, and always the gracious hostess. Because it wasn’t just a visit to her apartment, it was also a visit to the dining room where we talked about the food and saw the beautiful tables and chandeliers and menu for the night. Even retired people in Louisiana, look forward to their meals which I found in some pleasant way very consoling.
That night my sister and I joined our cousin and his wife at Ralph and Kacoo’s, a famous seafood restaurant. I had a delicious bowl of crawfish bisque and a Sensation Salad and two Coors Light draft beers. The salad was made famous by Bob and Jake’s, a steak restaurant very popular when I was a child. Crawfish bisque was my all-time favorite dish growing up as a child. The original owners of Ralph and Kacoo’s had a place on False River called the Triple Arch, in New Roads, Louisiana. It was a favorite pastime for my parents and friends to make the trek on Sunday’s after church. The dining room was to the right after entering the building. The walls along one wall were covered in a mural of Southern families, horses and buggies. The bar was to the left of the dining room and off-limits to us kids. But not the dance hall. It was straight ahead from the front door. We loved to finish our meal and get permission to go the goldfish pond out back which meant going through the dance hall room to the back door of the restaurant.
The wooden floor was smooth and aged from years of dancing. The tables were up against the wall with folding wood chairs stacked along the wall. Outside was a round stone goldfish pond filled with lilies. The lake (False River) was swampy and creepy and we stayed as far away as possible from it. Back inside we felt safe, loved and protected by our parents and waiters who knew us each time we came. Hush puppies were a specialty and a lost art, I’m afraid, but the memories of those trips to eat seafood and share a meal with other families still warm my heart.
Sunday was a day of rest with a home-cooked meal for lunch with my sister and then a visit with old family friends in Springfield, Louisiana. Having lived most of their adult life in the Memphis, TN area, they served Memphis BBQ which was like coming home and most rewarding. But more so was that their two grown children drove all the way from Baton Rouge to spend the time with us. It’s not easy to leave someone you’ve known since the day they were born, three years after you were born. Like a brother, this friend’s parents were my second parents. His family is my family and sharing a meal with them was a blessing.
And so it ended, five days in Louisiana, and yet no red beans and rice. But today I decided, enough is enough. I spent the morning cooking dry red beans with onions until they were soft and perfect. I could have added sausage as usual but I didn’t. And just when I thought I could never replace Zea’s red beans, I invented my own recipe! Left-over BBQ hamburgers (one and a half) and Nathan’s beef hot dogs (one) cut into pieces and added to the beans and voila, the perfect red beans and rice! It was delicious and my vacation was complete.
In between I had some delicious strawberries and blueberries covered in real cream, some chicken and sausage gumbo, and a delicious Bishop’s Cake out of the River Road Cookbook (the Louisiana Bible of cookbooks) and my stomach was full, my appetite satisfied and my heart happy.
Good food, good friends, good God, let’s eat…Amen.