Sunday, May 2, 2010

Paradise Lost

Jeffrey and I often lament the unfortunate lack of a native food culture in the United States.  Not only has the idea of eating seasonally and locally been lost to most Americans, but they also have no cooking intuition whatsoever.  Even if you gave them a basket full of fresh produce and meats, they would have no idea what to do with it.  Generations are growing up without watching their mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers, for that matter) cook and bake.  They don't learn to appreciate the taste of fresh, homemade food, so they settle for tasteless store-bought bread and pallid out-of-season tomatoes, and that becomes the norm.  Nor do they learn to appreciate the joy of communion that sitting down to a home-cooked meal can bring.  Convenience trumps quality and all else.  Fortunately, the ever-growing 'foodie' trend, as obnoxious as it can be, is introducing people to the standards of quality and knowledge of preparation that native food cultures around the world have always known, but which are news to most Americans.

Despite the barrage of processed foods that have possibly irreparably damaged Americans' attitude towards food, there are some regional cuisines that still defend their traditions.  The best, in my mind, is the Cajun food of Louisiana, now popular all throughout the bayou regions on the Gulf of Mexico.  Both of my parents graduated from high school in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a small town on the coast not far from New Orleans, thus I've grown up eating and enjoying a variety of Cajun fare.  Like all rustic, traditionally peasant cuisines, Cajun food relies heavily on local, seasonal ingredients, and a meal is a real event that brings people together.  Every gathering of my dad's family involved a feast of fresh seafood---boiled shrimp, steamed crabs, oysters eaten raw straight out of the water.  Growing up like this, I took for granted that what I was eating came out of the inlet in which I had just been swimming, was caught by people I knew personally, and was prepared at home within hours of leaving the water.  Though sometimes my uncle who still lives on the bayou would throw it together in a jambalaya or an étouffée---Cajun staples which I hope to share with you sometime---most of the time we ate it just by itself, cooked simply.  With such ingredients, it's all you want and need.  The crawfish boil is an excellent example of this.  Like mini-lobsters, live crawfish are plunged into boiling water that has been heavily seasoned with a blend of Cajun spices, until they emerge with their shells gleaming bright red.  The tail meat is sweet like lobster, but more tender like a shrimp, and you must couple that with sucking the spicy juices out of the head (and eating the roe-like guts, too, if you're so inclined).  It's an experience I can recommend to anyone who can handle the heat.  

Lucky for us, my dad came home yesterday from a week in Mobile, Alabama, with a cooler full of boiled crawfish and raw Gulf shrimp.  Though nothing like the feasts of my childhood---which, as my generation has gotten older and moved on, are no more---these days I'll take what I can get.

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