This story appeared in today’s print edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is about a trip I took with my friend, the chef Joe Truex, to his home in Louisiana.
Mansura, Louisiana — Joe Truex parks his Subaru station wagon in front of my house before dawn. An orange U-Haul trailer, glowing in the street lights, tilts oddly behind it. “It’s not sitting right,” Joe worries, squatting by the hitch and giving it a tug. “I guess we’ll find out if it holds,” he adds, laughing.
Joe and his wife, Mihoko Obunai, own the prominent Atlanta restaurant Repast. Because they are near neighbors and have become good friends, I stay clear of appraising or recommending their food. But that morning I pack both hats — writer and friend — for our road trip. We take off on a voyage to his boyhood home in central Louisiana, where his past and future would await. There, Joe will headline the kind of gig that every chef dreams of: spending the day with the legendary Alice Waters.
Waters’ founding of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., in 1971 changed the way America eats. Local, fresh, seasonal: she set the example for the San Francisco Bay Area, which spread the word to the rest of the country. She has been called “the mother of the organic food movement.”
What on earth would Waters be doing in Mansura, La. — a town of 2,200 that boasts just one significant crossroads, several lovely homes and two dueling fried chicken restaurants? A local school had planted an “Edible Schoolyard” — her vision of a garden that would be the first step toward changing the way children are fed. More than 50 students had written her letters, imploring her to visit for the first spring harvest. Once Waters committed, the local organizers arranged for Joe — the parish’s best known chef — to join her.
But Joe has a second reason for this trip, as well. His mother, Faye Escudé Truex, died in 2008, and he and his six sisters have been slowly divesting the family home of their widowed mama’s antiques and extensive folk art collection. Joe has dibs on three serious pieces of furniture — an 8-foot-long Empire sofa, his daddy’s roll-top desk and the brass bed he slept in as a child. I know the prospect was making his grief churn, and I remembered also waiting two years before claiming furniture from my dad’s house in Maryland. This would be good for him.
Nine hours after leaving Atlanta, we roll into Avoyelles (“ah-VOILS”) Parish — a Texas-flat landscape dominated by monoculture soybean and corn farming, with the occasional speckly white surprise of an intact cotton field. Crop dusters clatter through the sky (“cancer capital of Louisiana,” Joe said cheerily), and long-empty country churches stand boxy and sun-bleached against the low crops. We cross a bridge, pass through a grove of trees and find ourselves in Mansura, where the proper names on every sign are French, and every church is Catholic.
“Here’s something I’ve got to show you,” Joe says, pulling off the main drag in front of a whitewashed, cinder-block building with an enormous parrot painted on the side. Daiquiri Island: a blender-drink bar with a drive-thru lane. “Everybody knows you go home to drink these,” Joe says with a wink as a woman passes ginormous Styrofoam cups of White Russian slushie through the window like boxes of nuggets at Chick-fil-A. “They don’t open the straws for you.”
I had heard of the drive-thru daiquiris, one of many exotic details of his home Joe would bring up whenever we drank wine late into the night and his accent grew thicker. Avoyelles is among the northernmost French parishes in Louisiana; its people came directly from France in the 18th Century rather than with the Acadians through Nova Scotia, so they are not properly Cajun though they identify with that culture. Several surnames — Roy, Escude, Laborde, Rabalais — predominate, and Joe says, “We’re all kind of fourth cousins.”
With our White Russians in hand, we round the corner to Joe’s family home on Leglise Street, a handsome one-story structure with 18-foot ceilings that was built by his grandfather, Arthur Escudé, in the early 20th Century. It fronts four acres of unfarmed land. “Mama was born in this house,” Joe says as we walk up the back ramp that, in later years, would help her down to the carport.
We work quickly, loading the U-Haul with Joe’s pile of furniture — the brass bed, the desk, the folk-art wood carving of a tabby cat. “Mama never let anyone sit on this sofa,” he says, slapping out the dust, which gives pointillistic form to columns of window light. “I mean no one.” The sofa is embroidered in fine cross-hatched cream satin, which had been streaked by sunlight. We heave it into the U-Haul, and Joe and I both catch sight of a large drop of blood spreading over the pale surface. Uh-oh. Joe had opened a cooking wound. “Not to worry,” he laughs. “My kids’ll be climbing all over the sofa soon enough; this won’t be the only bodily fluid.”
White Russians, bloody sofa, party! Off to the home of Paige Rabalais — the local high-priestess of the good-food movement, who organizes the parish farmers market, heads the Slow Food chapter and managed to get the Edible Schoolyard off the ground after seven months of solid work. She and her husband, Rodney, live in an art-filled, bohemian complex they named “Slowness” for the Milan Kundera novel. Alice Waters looks right at home, wandering through with a glass of white wine in hand. As much as the guests here revere Waters, I would soon discover they are the only people in Avoyelles Parish who’ve ever heard of her.
Waters tells me how deeply moved she has been by the South and Southern foodways in recent years. “The South is like this house,” she says. “It’s about slowness. Some of it comes with the weather. Some comes with an appreciation of different people and different traditions. There’s an openness and a kind of biodiversity here that’s quite remarkable. Very different sorts of people come together and it makes for a melting pot that’s better than the sum of its parts.” She goes on with a brilliant whoosh of words, likening the rootedness of the people to the local agriculture. She’s a deeply metaphorical thinker.
Resisting the temptation of another round at Daiquiri Island, we get a good night’s sleep before the early-morning assembly at Avoyelles Public Charter School. This K-12 institution draws students from throughout the parish and has made a permanent place for 81 children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Built on a bean field 10 years ago, it has expanded dramatically and boasts the best charter school scores in the state. Thanks in part to the Native American-owned Paragon Casino & Resort in Marksville — the parish seat adjacent to Mansura — Ayovelles is a wealthier place than it was when Joe was growing up. There is a manifest “if-you-build-it,-they-will-come” spirit at work here.
Town bigwigs speechify, children in Cajun peasant garb two-step, and Joe and Alice Waters accept hand-stitched aprons — Waters’ with an Eiffel Tower appliqué, Joe’s with a stew pot and the words “Stir Dat.”
“Both of my parents were high school educators,” says Joe, addressing the crowd. “To tie that up in my life, and growing up here….” His voice chokes with emotion. “This place gets in your heart. I had to see the world to really understand and appreciate the parish.”
After the assembly, the crowd pours like a wave toward the garden, where a feast awaits. Joe pulls me aside and says, “This is so intense. I’m getting all kinds of mama love.” Faye Truex, who had been a civics and American history teacher at Marksville High School, made a difference in kids’ lives. They all needed to tell him how much.
“She had a way of encouraging without denigrating,” says Donna Saucier, now a teacher at the charter school. “I loved her.”
John Ed Laborde forged a lifelong friendship with her after she pushed him relentlessly in high school. “She was a big woman who had this deep, raspy voice, and she was a great cook who was always trying new recipes.”
Alice Waters and Joe, arm in arm, make the round of the food stations, trying the local specialties. Gerald Wayne Lemoine has rendered dice-sized cracklins and then used the lard to fry cinnamon rolls. “You eat them hand in hand,” he says.
“You do?” asks Waters.
“Well, you got two hands, don’t you?”
Waters tries fresh, local goat milk, honey, crawfish etouffee and squirrel fricasse.
“Don’t you think a really gamy Hermitage would be the wine to drink with this?” Joe asks her as she gnaws a tiny thigh.
Waters loves the cochon de lait — a roast suckling pig that is the great specialty of Mansura, “the cochon de lait capital of the world.”
The children pour in and take seats on the lawn in front of a cooking station set up for Joe. He sautes the meager spring harvest from the garden — kale, spring onions (called “shallots” here) and flat-leaf parsley — and passes out tastes. One little girl takes an anxious bite of the greens, grimaces, spits it out, and joins the line for freshly churned ice cream.
The crowd thins, Waters takes leave for New Orleans where she has another event to attend, and Joe and I take off in his car. He seems simultaneously buzzed and spent. Turning off the main drag, he shows me Spring Bayou where locals keep their weekend “camps” — getaway homes by the water’s edge. We stop by a bend in the river where cypress trees arc forlornly from the water like Dr. Seuss drawings. I can tell what’s going through Joe’s mind.
“She would’ve been proud of you today,” I say.
We drive past the grandiose Paragon Casino, a business that thrives in the paradoxes of this sybaritic French culture. A flashing billboard advertises an all-male revue next week, followed country crooner George Jones the following week.
We pass the Cochon de Lait Pavillion, set with banks of cinder-block stalls for vendors to hang and roast pigs during the annual spring festival. Locals cook their suckling pigs one of two ways — in an enclosed box or rotating on a spit. (“There’s nothing on this earth like a hung pig,” says an elderly woman in town.)
We’re headed to the home of Lionel Augustine, Joe’s best friend from his high school basketball team, where he was the only white player.
I have to ask. “Your parents were cool with your having black friends?”
Joe thinks for a second and answers cryptically, “Mama didn’t have any hate in her heart.” But she was a woman of her times.
Augustine lives on the edge of town on a chunk of property. Though he works in a local industry, he raises a cow and a pig each year for personal consumption and farms a serious vegetable garden. We meet the pig who is two weeks away from his initiation into the brotherhood of boudin. I think Alice Waters would love this place.
Augustine pops a zydeco CD into the player, and we drink vodka-cranberry Eight Balls and beer. His daughter serves us spaghetti made with tomatoes and peppers from the garden and meatballs made with last year’s cow. It is fantastic.
The liquor loosens tongues, and Joe starts to share more about the family home, about his mother.
“That thing about your mama,” Augustine says, giving Joe a probing look.
“We just talked about that,” Joe says, glancing my way. “All I can tell you, man, is that she didn’t have any hate in her heart. She really didn’t.” They look at each other, a gulf of sadness between them.
And then Buckwheat Zydeco’s recording of “Midnight Special” starts playing. “Crank it,” Augustine instructs. “C’mon. Get up!” We start jumping around the room, dancing, air guitaring, catharsis. Joe and Augustine hug, friends for life.
Two days later, we’re back in Decatur, and I head over to Joe’s house to help him move the sofa out of the U-Haul.
“Come inside, I want to show you something,” Joe says excitedly, taking me to the room where his son, Yohan, sleeps. There is Mihoko, straightening up, and there is his brass bed, shining brightly against the yellow walls.
It looks like it has always been there.