So, Stan and I became friends and he kept asking me to come and stay with him and his wife and cook Cajun. As you pull into the driveway at Stan and Bruci’s house, you see a lovely home. As you pull into the driveway around back, there is another building. Huh? What’s that? That’s Stan’s kitchen. Thus began the yearly tradition of my cooking for one week every year in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, home of crawfish étouffée (pronounced A-2-fay). In 1976 I went to Mardi Gras and tasted crawfish étouffée in New Orleans for the first time. I’m still not over it. It was amazing. However, when I started to visit Lafayette decades later, and I’d order it in the restaurants, it wasn’t the same as what I remembered. I thought it was regional differences, but one day Stan explained it to me. When you boil and peel a crawfish, at the base of the tail is a piece of fat. In the old days, commercially, this was separated and packaged apart from the crawdad. It’s this fat that was the basis for étouffée, a french word for “smothered” and Stan translates this as “in its own gravy”. Roughly 25 years ago, the Food and Safety commission outlawed the commercial use of crawfish fat. Apparently the bacteria count is too high. If you are a home cook and boil and peel your own crawfish, you can use the fat. But I had only had it in restaurants and was underwhelmed.
So one year I arrived, and Stan told me after 25 years of trying, he had fixed étouffée. He had come up with a recipe without the crawfish fat that was just as good as what used to be available commercially. His trick is using the crawfish to make a roux. It could be fixed anytime of the year. He had me cook it to see if it was reproducible. It was. As I was tasting it, he asked me what I thought. I told him, if he ever got the call that I was in the hospital, and that it was the end, BRING THIS. It was last meal good.
Then came the argument: “Stan, you HAVE to fix this in the Breaux Bridge Crawfish festival.” “I don’t want to cook in that thing.” “Why not?” “Let’s just say the results are predictable. It seems same family has won every year for many years. (Let’s call them the Smith family) I am not cooking in it.” “OK, do you mind if I cook in it? Next year it’s my 50th year, and the festival’s 50th year. (This was 2010) That must be a good omen.” And so it was agreed. Stan’s secretary, Amy, and her son, Britt, were my soux chefs. All I wanted to do was not screw up Stan’s recipe. Calamondin Cafe was in the working pilot phase and I brought cake samples, which were loved. Stan was gracious enough to do all the prep work at home ahead of time. His recipe cooks quickly, so the “turn in” time for the judges was 11:30 am. It was agreed that I wouldn’t start cooking until 10:50am. All went smoothly. It turned out perfectly! Amy’s Dad was going to be my barometer, When his eyes opened wide and he tossed his head back, I knew I had done Stan proud.
So after you send in the judging samples, the participants and visitors get to wander around and sample all the entrant’s creations. Well, clearly I do not look Cajun and no one was coming to my booth for a sample. Then one vendor who was at the festival selling wooden plaques came by. He said, almost resigned to the fact he had to taste mine, “Well, I always taste all of them.” He took a bite. His eyes got big. “Wow! That’s different!” “Good different, or bad different?” I asked, knowing the answer. “Really good different. I think this one is the best one here!” Word spread fast, and we had a swarm of samplers. And he came back with a cute cooking plaque for me from his booth and said, “I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but yours is the best one here, and you deserve this.” I call it “the people’s choice award.” I explained I was just the vessel for Stan’s recipe and brilliant roux trick, but I enjoyed the moment.
Then the judging announcements. “Third place goes to……Guidry!” No problem. I wasn’t going for third anyway. “Second place…..Smith!” What!? This could be legit? They always win first place! The vendor turns to me and says, “Go on. I’ll watch your booth when you go up to get your award.” “First place………Smith!” All I could do was laugh. Part 2….