Monday, August 17, 2015

A Confederacy of Moviegoers

I remember when I saw The Waterboy in the theater with my older sister. We laughed—at the wrong parts. That wasn’t the first time I cringed when watching a film that supposedly portrayed Louisiana. So, when Steven Soderbergh said, “I think it’s cursed,” and “I’m not superstitious, but that project has got bad mojo on it,” while referring to a film version of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (Riedel, New York Post), I wondered if we’d ever see Ignatius on film. Then, I wondered if it was simply impossible to translate most of Louisiana culture to the big screen. After all, attempts to put Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer on film haven’t been all that successful either.

Why are two seminal novels about New Orleans so difficult to film? I think the answer is as complicated as the state itself. What Toole and Percy accurately portray are the people of New Orleans, the characters who are more than parade-goers ready to throw some more plastic around their necks before riding a huge party wave down Bourbon Street. Both authors write of a unique place where the ordinary and the mysterious, the hilarious and the tragic, reside together. A web tangled so tightly that most outsiders can’t see the threads that have been knotted together for centuries. We are Cajuns and Creoles, Native Americans and Spanish, Irish and Italian, German and Vietnamese. We are white, black, and every shade in between. And our cultural ways, all that amazing food and music, stems from this in between space. Instead of addressing this wonderful diversity that has led to our fabulous and unique cultural ways, the media reduces so much of our history to repetitious myths. If you ask me, the media too often simplifies a population that refuses to follow simplistic categorization. At least, that’s my best guess.

Not that they all get it wrong. Fabulous shows like Treme and any film by Glen Pitre provide accurate depictions of the place so many of us proudly call home. What these representations get so right, along with Toole and Percy, is that they let the people speak for themselves in a state that often mixes the divine and the mundane and calls the result normal. So, next time you want a true depiction of Louisiana, I suggest you find your way to the state and experience it for yourself. And for a bit of added fun, go to New Orleans and locate Ignatius J. Reilly’s statue standing guard in front of the old D. H. Holmes department store building. Heck, eat a Lucky Dog while walking the Quarter. Along the way, listen to the folks and all their stories, which they will gladly tell in accents as authentic as red beans and rice with sausage on Monday. Listen to the music, the laughter, the tears—all the sounds that mash together to form a place that refuses to be defined and easily understood. Just the way we like it.

For more on failed attempts to film A Confederacy of Dunces and The Moviegoer, try the following links:

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Eating Cajun

Such novels as Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance help me return home, at least in my imagination. In the novel, Paul Thibodeaux (a typical Cajun surname, by the way) ends up in California where he discovers a supposedly Cajun restaurant and decides to try it. Bad mistake, as many of us Louisianians have learned over the years. Don’t get me wrong: many Cajuns have opened restaurants all over the world, and some chefs have taken the time to learn actual Cajun foodways. But, most of what you see labeled as Cajun in restaurants has little to do with those of us from Louisiana.

Anyway, Paul glances over the menu and asks, “What is all this stuff? I thought this was a Cajun place,” to which the waiter replies, “Yes, sir, we have authentic dishes from the bayou state” (80). Paul braves the menu again and chooses the gumbo. A “half hour later his waiter brought a small cauldron of bitter juice so hot with Tabasco that after the third spoonful, Paul broke into a sweat” (81). The waiter proceeds to tell him, “It takes time to develop a true Cajun palate,” and Paul responds, “[I]t sure don’t take much time to ruin one” (81). [The Next Step in the Dance, New York: Picador, 1998.]

There is a fine line between adding hot sauce to a dish to enrich the taste and just plain ruining the dish altogether. In truth, Cajun dishes are not spicy hot and do not call for a cup of Tabasco. Actually, we make dishes with locally available ingredients, and the recipe usually calls for enough of such ingredients to feed a large family. The vast majority include onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic, which add to the taste. In fact, the mix of ingredients in many Cajun and Creole dishes mimics the mix of cultures in the state itself, with African okra adding something extra to seafood gumbo along with filé (ground sassafras leaves) from Native American cooking traditions.

There is no such official product as Cajun mayonnaise or spices, though Cajuns have created such products to make dishes tastier. Still, products that are spicier seem to be automatically labeled as Cajun now. So, the next time someone tries to feed you Cajun turkey or you see it in the grocery store, you may just want to pass it by. Like me, you can bite your tongue and think about the mix of rice, chicken, and sausage mushed together with tomato sauce that makes yummy jambalaya. Or, try your hand at making crawfish etouffee, which is literally crawfish tails smothered in rich gravy and served over white rice. And if you’re not ambitious enough to attempt the recipes yourself, I highly recommend a visit to Cajun country where I promise you’ll eat well, including gumbo, without burning your tongue!

Crawfish Etouffee 
[from Louisiana Legacy, a book of recipes collected and first published by the Thibodaux Service League in 1982]

½ cup butter                                              Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped green onions                     1 teaspoon cornstarch (optional)
¼ cup chopped parsley                             Lemon slices (optional
2 pounds crawfish tails
1 cup crawfish fat, or 1 cup butter

Melt butter in large skillet and saute green onions until tender, about 10-15 mins. Add parsley, crawfish tails, crawfish fat or butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat 15-20 mins. If you want a thicker gravy, dissolved cornstarch in a small amount of water and add to sauce. Serve over steamed rice. Garnish with lemon slices, if desired.