Louisiana is back in the news, and once again, for all the wrong reasons. For those who haven't had the time to keep up with the news, in anticipation of massive overflow of the Mississippi River resulting from snowmelt and heavy rains, Louisiana has engineered the flooding of backwater Cajun communities in the hopes of diverting the waters from New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Hundreds of fish camps and rural communities, known for their drawling dialect and laissez-faire attitudes, are at risk of being wiped out. As I write this, they're filling sandbags and packing their cars with their most treasured possessions, preparing to evacuate with no certainty that they'll have a home to come back to once the waters come.
Lousiana has been near and dear to my heart for a while now. Where many people see the crime rates, the lagging education, and the poverty, I see the rich culture, the history, and of course, the food. My heart breaks for the residents of the state once again, and I hope they'll pull through, as they always have.
The recent news stories about the flooding made me think back to my first trip to New Orleans, in the 1990s, well before several life-changing events, including both Hurricane Katrina for Lousiana and motherhood for me. It was a simpler time for both me and that city...neither of us was jaded just yet, but I think we've both come out better on the other side.
~ ~ ~
I met Chris my first day of college. He was a sophomore; I was a freshman. A lonely freshman. Only three people from my high school went to the same college I did, and they weren’t close friends. So, my first night there, my roommate asked if I wanted to go eat pizza at her boyfriend’s dorm and meet some people. “Why not?” I thought. We went, and Chris was there. Six months later, we went on our first date. Fast forward three and a half years from that, and we were getting married. I was 22 years old, had a diploma and an entry-level job, and no money saved up. He was 23 and had a job that required extensive travel (about 98%) and didn’t pay nearly enough to make it worth it. But we both had work and we were in love, and that’s all that mattered to us.
My parents gave us our wedding. It was the wedding of my mother’s dreams. But, she and my dad were accustomed to both hosting and attending lavish parties, so they threw us a fantastic one. I loved it.
The honeymoon was up to us. Being very young and just starting out, we didn’t have much in the way of funds. So, we sat down one night and started making rules. We chose our location by gradually whittling down our options: “No international travel.” “Must stay east of the Mississippi.” (We lived in Florida at the time.) “No beaches.” And so on. Eventually we settled on New Orleans. Neither of us had ever been. It wasn’t too far away, but it sounded like there would be plenty there for us to enjoy.
We set our budget, trolled Travelocity and chose a great hotel in the middle of the French Quarter, and started planning our itinerary. On vacations, I like to squeeze in as much as possible. Chris likes to relax as much as possible. So, we compromised and decided on one set activity a day, plenty of hanging out in the hotel, wandering the streets of the Quarter, and possibly exploring more of the city.
Every night, we’d have dinner in a different restaurant, trying to sample all of the traditional, famous recipes of the Crescent City. One of our favorite meals was at The Gumbo Shop, a little restaurant on St. Peter Street. The gumbo is divine, the etouffee melts in your mouth and warms your soul, but it’s the bread pudding that, well, “takes the cake.” We have been back to New Orleans many times, and we always make time to eat dinner at The Gumbo Shop. The meal is always finished off with their Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce. On off years, when we can’t make the trip, I make the dessert at home, and we sit and enjoy it, remembering “letting the good times roll.” Très magnifique!
Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce (from The Gumbo Shop cookbook)
¼ cup butter
3 cups milk
2 quarts day-old French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
½ cup cubed pineapple
½ cup raisins
Pinch of salt
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla
3 large eggs, beaten
Combine the milk and butter in a saucepan and heat until the butter is melted. In a large mixing bowl combine the bread, pineapple, and raisins and toss to mix. Add the milk and butter mixture, mix, and let stand for several minutes, allowing the bread to absorb the liquid.
Mix the sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the vanilla to the beaten eggs, then mix in the sugar and spices. Pour all this over the bread and milk mixture and mix well.
Transfer the pudding to a greased 1 ½ quart baking pan and bake at 350 for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm, topped with about 3 tablespoons of Whiskey Sauce.
¼ cup butter, softened
2 cups confectioners sugar
1 jigger bourbon
Using electric mixer, slowly cream the sugar into the butter. Slowly beat in the bourbon.
(c) 2011 Lisa Kuebler. The second half of this essay was originally published on Open Salon, 2010.