Paul Proud Man
Rounding out my taxonomy of NOLA fatties is Paul Prudhomme. Prudhomme gave America a cuisine. Before he made Louisiana cookery famous, and the techniques available to anyone, American cuisine was hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and some kind of Sunday dinner of fried chicken or chicken fried steak, a Swiftian, contradictory term for a “dinner” offering I only ate once, mashed potatoes, boiled to a tenderness near rot, and a sweet dessert.
The many parvenus who’ve come since Chef Paul owe much to him, and his wonderful first book, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984). He developed that rapid-fire method for cooking a roux, demanding concentrated vigilance, organization and preparation, and the ability to detect the state at which a roux reaches that perfect state to gird the sauce for the meat it is meant to accompany. Chef Paul’s book provides a feast of fine photographs of the different stages of roux. Traditionalists may turn up their noses at this departure from the traditional long-cooking roux making, but damn me, when I get that roux going in my whole Iowa neighborhood, if you close your eyes, you’d think you died and went to South Louisiana. Not that most Iowans, bred on German fare that, first and foremost, must have no flavor, would touch the stuff. On the rare occasions I cook, the smells bring back memories of walking through New Orleans neighborhoods at 5 in the afternoon, inhaling the exhiliarating odors of meals being prepared, and wondering just what they were having for supper that made me want to knock at the back doors and beg for food. I learned to cook Louisiana food out of self interest, and maybe self preservation.
I am beginning to feel like I’m doing the theory for a before and after weight loss gimmick because I am going to post a photo of Chef Paul before and after he lost weight. Here is Chef Paul before in a photo from his first book, presenting for you the standards from the Louisiana kitchen–boudin, pickled meat, shrimp, crawfish, berries, nightshade vegetables, potatoes, yams, shrimp, crawfish, and fish. The only thing missing is the butter, lard, and sugar.
But now Chef Paul has shed the weight. He looks much more healthy, and thinner–it is possible to read even more of Louisiana in his face–the dark skin, the knowing smile that also conveys benign good will, and the coarse, once dark hair. He just has that “look” that is so typical of many native New Orleanians (Prudhomme is from Opalousas), and other people from South Louisiana.
One last word about Chef Paul, or New Orleans culture, is that the title “Chef” is like an earned doctorate. People append the honorarium here when speaking of any of the entitled chefs–Chef Susan Spicer, Chef Emeril Legasse, Chef Leah Chase. Among the few New Orleans celebrity chefs. And in almost every native household, there is a cook in the kitchen whose productions rival those of the chefs. It is said that a–well, I’ve only heard the word “man”–that “a man can’t be elected to public office if he can’t cook.” That accounts for the ubiquitous jambalaya at every outdoor event of every kind, political or not.
The celebrity chefs came after Chef Paul, but the everyday cooks were a fixture in household in New Orleans when Ignatius was stuffing himself with foot-long hot dogs. A Confederacy of Dunces doesn’t mention much about what was produced in the Reilly kitchen other than Irene’s bottles of muscatel, and the ever-present French drip chicory coffee on the stove next to a pot of “berling” milk. MacLaughlin mentions that the person Ignatius was based on had a lifelong yearning for hot dogs because he was denied them as a boy, and something like this is the only explanation, other than propinquity, to explain why, in New Orleans, anyone would crave hot dogs rather than shrimp po-boys, red beans and rice, crawfish pie, or any other new Orleans staple, including a Hubig’s pie.
This is the French drip coffee maker that has been in use in homes in South Louisiana since the 19th Century. It isn’t a French press, or an Italian drip style coffee maker. Boiling water is poured into the top chamber over the grounds, and the coffee drips rather quickly over a steel plate with holes. I have no idea what dented up old pot Irene Reilly “berled” her milk in, but she would have made the chicory coffee in one of these. The coffee and “berled” milk are poured at the same time into a single stream in equal proportions into the cup it is served from. This is the coffee you buy with beignets at Cafe du Monde, or better yet, at the remnants of the old Morning Call next to the news stand in Metairie, just south of the entrance to the 23 mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville and the North Shore.