You Start with a Roux
By Dr. Robbie F. Castleman, Department of Biblical Studies
by Christina Bunker
Hot butterscotch pudding in a cold bowl. On my mother's kitchen ceiling. And floor. And every cabinet in her tiny kitchen. The stove. And oozing around the magnets on the refrigerator. I was eleven. Never again was I allowed in my mother's kitchen. Either this happened before the invention of Pyrex or it was the first inkling of how my mother would banish all but my toddler-self from her life.
So, twenty-some years later I was sitting in a cooking class in New Orleans and asking myself, what is a roux? Actually in my mind it was spelled r-o-o, I'm sure. I'd signed up to learn how to cook in the crescent city known for its culinary Creole delights, Cajun spices and French Market coffee.
I was a transplanted west-coast newlywed who, prior to nuptial delights, knew how to fry pork chops made fancy with a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup poured on top. I also made Kraft macaroni and cheese quite well. Cheerios in the morning, PBJ for lunch and cafeteria ease for dinner during my swing shift as a registered nurse. Vegetables? Peas and corn. Only frozen, not canned. I did have standards. French toast was all I knew of French cooking when I signed up for this class that took for granted everyone knew what a roux was. Everyone around me was writing, "begin with a dark brown roux" like they thought, "of course." Realizing I was in over my head, I disappeared at the break and never returned.
I did need help, but not intimidating help. What I really needed, as it turned out, was a dictionary.
A r-o-u-x, roux, is just a little fine flour and oil that is browned in a variety of ways as the bases for all cooking sauces and cream of anything ala French. I've never made one to this day. They come in a can and are sufficient and easy to disguise.
I found out what a clove was the hard way. One night I got a recipe for "Creole Fish Fillets." Perfect for me and my hungry husband. The seasoning for the fish called for "one clove of garlic". I thought it was nice that there are two in a box, so you can have one extra. So I used one from the box on my two little fish fillets. I'm Italian, so nothing seemed amiss to me. My Anglo-hubby, however, came through the door of our tiny apartment and asked, with tears of joy in his eyes, "Whatcha cookin', hon?" After those Creole fish fillets, neither of us had a sinus headache for a year. This is quite a feat in New Orleans. From this, I discovered a cure for colds and that there are two bulbs in a box of garlic, each of which has eight or so cloves.
Did you know that hushpuppies are not just shoes? I lovingly asked my husband at the beginning of my day off what he might like for dinner that night. He said, "You know, I haven't had hushpuppies in a while-they can be good with whatever you cook." "Okay," I said, thinking he must need new shoes. But, it turned out, there were such things as hushpuppies in my New Orleans cookbook. And a recipe that read "serves two." So, I followed the directions and made two.
That evening when my beloved entered our lovely little kitchen, there were no tears in his eyes, but when he saw what was on the plate with a nice side-salad (I've always been good with salads) he asked, "what's that?" I said, "Well that's what the Israelites asked when they saw manna, but these are hushpuppies." He smiled real big and said, "Okay, I guess I've just never seen them the size of baseballs before." That night I learned that big things do not fry all the way through.
Since then and through many years I've become a good southern cook. My red beans and rice are famous with my sons. My barbeque shrimp is even better than this dish that Pasquale Manale's made famous in up-town New Orleans. I won a contest once for my Lasagna (the secret is a lot of cheese, like four times what the recipe calls for). But, my grandparents hail from Ticino in Southern Switzerland, so that gives me an edge there, for sure. I make an almond cream cheese bread pudding that's exquisite. My bourbon nut baked brie is just yummy.
But, over the years, I've learned that my dinner table conversation is usually better and richer and more interesting than my average meal. It's the people around the table and in my kitchen who interest me the most. The biggest thing I've learned about learning to be a good cook is to marry a man with flexible standards and a sense of humor. You can start with a roux or not, but you must end with laughter in the company of friends and family.