For the better part of a week, my friend, Adele, has been sending me texts and pictures filled with the color and character of New Orleans. She returned to her home town of big sin and an even bigger easy to spend a few days with family and to celebrate Mardi Gras. With each remembrance delivered across virtual space, I miss that wonderful city of peccant song, food, and spirit.
I used to see a girl from New Orleans whose Cajun grandmother was an absolute love. We would travel for miles, top-down, and wind in our hair, deep into bayou country…where the state bird is the mosquito. There’s no way I could miss one of Mamma Toula’s home-eatin’ events. Upon arrival, the thick, damp, air wafted my way the most wonderful of olfactory sensations simmering in large, cast-iron pots over an outside open-fire. It was too damn hot to cook that much food inside the small, clapboard house the family matriarch had lived in for decades.
On no too few occasions, I summoned the courage to ask for the tightly held secret family jambalaya recipe. Each time, Mamma Toula declined, but would joyfully quiz me on the contents of that one-pot wonder. I passed with flying colors when asked to list the vegetables, but the meats, I have to admit, were sometimes a mystery. She would shake her head at my eventual surrender and say with a wink, “Dats alma dillon, Sha.” I never asked if she was kidding with me. I never really wanted to know the truth about the alma dillon.
I firmly believe that little old woman was a seer…or as my daddy would call her, a diviner. I remember as if it was yesterday walking up to Toula while she stirred those big pots, blackened by seasoning. She always wore her hair in a not-so-tight bun that allowed errant silver strands to wisp across her face…and she smelled of lye soap. When I leaned down for a tight hug, she would put her thin, work-worn, liver-spotted hands up to my face, look directly into my eyes, say something in a dialect that I didn’t quite understand, and then she would smile a gapped-tooth smile. I had the eery, but warm feeling that she was looking right through my soul, and for a brief moment, I felt an anxious relief at her touch.
I’m smiling right now as I remember sweet Toula and her family. I sit at my kitchen table with an Abita beer in one hand and a worn brown paper bag in the other. On that flattened grocery sack, in a faded, almost illegible scrawl, are the ingredients to the best pot of Cajun cooking the angels ever left behind. Yes, eventually, after many late night conversations around a liquid concoction called tunda an’ lightnin’, Momma Toula “saw” that I was worthy of many family secrets.
Squinting my eyes I read tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, celery, chicken, shrimp, sausage, ‘gator, and my sweet Cher, alma dillon. Wonder if Whole Foods has a reptile section?
Let the good times (and good food) roll…