Disappearing Culture: Places, People

A Lakewood Lens

You might remember Paul Prudhomme, that rotund, cheery chef from Louisiana that took the nation by storm in the 1980s and 90s, spreading his love of Cajun cooking by way of his cookbooks and through our television sets.

My brother introduced his recipes to our family and for thirty years we have been devoted to Prudhomme’s style of cooking; these dishes have punctuated our get togethers and created memories and our favorite recipes will hopefully be passed down to generations to come.

Cajun cooking isn’t spicy — it beholds a depth of flavor by way of spices and herbs added to meats and seafood typically found down south — like crawfish and shrimp. Prudhomme had a secret: you build layers of flavor in a dish, slowly, and in stages.

Last year, my daughter and I met in New Orleans and the first thing we did was march ourselves right to K-Paul’s- Prudhomme’s celebrated restaurant in the historic French Quarter. It was a highlight in my life. The chef himself passed away five years ago, but I got to chat with his niece and we had fun spouting off the names of his most popular dishes from his first cookbook, and what I call his bible: “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Cooking.”

I was saddened to read that his restaurant had permanently closed in May because of COVID. Founded by Prudhomme in 1979, the restaurant is credited with putting New Orleans on the culinary map. Prudhomme oversaw the charming restaurant for decades, helping to spark a national interest in Cajun cooking with his popular takes on dishes like gumbo, etouffee, and blackened redfish. You might be familiar with his seasoning blend, and if so, you’ll be happy to note the seasoning company will continue to operate.

But my story today is not to lure you into blackening redfish on your stove tonight. It’s more a commentary on how things that we cherish in our lives and in our country are beginning to disappear. And it seems that everyday that I wake up, something of value, something from our culture or from human experience has been destroyed, or is just gone: A city, a statue, a restaurant, a tradition.

My anger has turned into grief.

And it’s funny the things that you mourn. I miss Schuyler’s Country Kitchen in Lakewood. I miss common decency. I miss Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant in New Orleans. I miss the country I grew up in.

And I sense that our nation’s stories are being marched far away from our memory — the stories of ancestors and immigrants, those who struggled to find their way here and help build this great nation one brick at a time.

Prudhomme’s ancestors walked from Nova Scotia to Louisiana in the late 1700s when the Acadians were kicked out of their own country by the conquering English. It was a blight in human history; thousands of Acadians died as they fled. Some made it to Louisiana and because something good always comes from bad, we have Cajun food. Their dishes are a jumbled mix of French country style and the things they found in the bayous of their new home, like shrimp and crawfish.

Mr. Prudhomme was born in 1940 south of Opelousas, the 13th child of a poor sharecropper and his wife. He started cooking when he was 7, working beside his mother in a country kitchen that had no electricity.

Prudhomme joined his mother digging up roots and vegetables and feeding and slaughtering barnyard animals, and she instructed him in the mysteries of seasoning and taste.

”The most important thing to my mother was the health of her family and the joy of setting a good table,” he wrote. ”She was an awesome cook.”

Kitchen work in such a big family was hard — he later explained it was like restaurant work — but when he was 17, Prudhomme said, his mind was made up. He wanted to become a cook, so he “launched his own apprenticeship program, in which he traveled to restaurants around the country to work with chefs and learn from them.”

Seeing Prudhomme’s restaurant close was a bit heartbreaking, only because so much of what defined my generation is disappearing. We don’t know where we are or even who are some days. So many things that punctuated our era — New York City, K-Paul’s, separate bathrooms, certain stores, the old and charming San Francisco — to the most mundane of things, like finding Lysol spray cleaner at the grocery store.

In honor of my favorite chef, cook something special tonight. And make it extra spicy.


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