Hammond, Louisiana: Strawberry Capital of America

Linda Cannon and her daughter Kim

Linda Cannon and her daughter Kim

Had a great birthday lunch with my special friend Linda Cannon and her daughter Kim in Hammond, Louisiana, “The Strawberry Capital of America.”

The City of Hammond is north of New Orleans and east of Baton Rouge, and was founded around 1818 by Peter Hammond, a Swedish immigrant who started growing trees to carve into products for the maritime industry. In 1854, the railroad came through, which made the area extremely important agriculturally and, a little later, in dairy farming. In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants settled around Hammond, and they were (and still are) fantastic farmers, who shipped their produce to larger markets by rail.

imageHammond is the largest city in Tangipahoa Parish and the hub of Louisiana’s premier strawberry-growing region that includes the towns of Amite, Independence, and Ponchatoula, a town that calls itself the Strawberry Capital of the World. (Sounds like there’s a friendly rivalry going on).

Fried Catfish with Shrimp Creole at Brady's

Fried Catfish with Shrimp Creole at Brady’s

But back to lunch — we ate in the Historic Downtown District at the bistro-ish Brady’s. I had a perfectly medium-rare Asian tuna salad. Linda’s pasta with a light sauce and shrimp was delicately seasoned, and Kim’s fried catfish with shrimp Creole was an eye-popping dish large enough to fed all three of us.

Strawberry Waffle with Vanilla Ice Cream at Tope la

Strawberry Waffle with Vanilla Ice Cream at Tope la

For dessert we walked around the corner to the hip restaurant Tope la, where I just had to have something with strawberries. The strawberry waffles with vanilla ice cream filled that bill, and it also filled me up so much that on my way back to Baton Rouge I had to fight nodding off behind the wheel.

I learned three things on this trip: 1. Not much makes you happier than spending time with an old friend. 2. There are plenty of tempting restaurants in Hammond, a quaint and thriving town overshadowed by the larger New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 3. Just about every town in Louisiana began with an interesting story, one that we modern folks typically haven’t heard.

Butch Cassidy (aka Robert Leroy Parker, 1866-1908)

imageButch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, the “Sundance Kid,” robbed so many of the Union Pacific’s trains that the railroad company hired the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency to put a permanent end to their heists. But the detectives only succeeded in pushing the outlaws to South America. It is widely believed that the two were gunned down in Bolivia, although some historians believe that Cassidy sneaked back into the U.S. and lived in anonymity.

Discovering Natchitoches

 

Ft. St. Jean Baptiste (Six blocks south) Built about 1715 by request of Saint Denis to halt the Spanish expansion eastward. Natchitoches Indians, allies of the French, gave their name to the city.

Ft. St. Jean Baptiste (Six blocks south) Built about 1715 by request of Saint Denis to halt the Spanish expansion eastward. Natchitoches Indians, allies of the French, gave their name to the city.

Pop Quiz – What’s the oldest permanent European settlement in all of the Louisiana Purchase? If you guessed Natchitoches, Louisiana, you’re right!

I visited this charming little city this past weekend to attend my niece’s graduation from Northwestern University. Honestly, I didn’t expect to do much more than listen to speeches, give a few hugs, and slip back home. But a road sign reminded me that Nattchitoches was no ordinary town. So after the ceremony I sought out downtown and the Landmark Historic District, a 33-block area filled with wrought iron, stucco and old red brick, and lots and lots of history.

In 1714, French Canadian Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis made his way up the Red River and to the village of the Natchitoches Indians. Prosperous trading followed. By 1716, the French had built Fort St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches on the site to prevent the Spanish from advancing into Louisiana from Texas.

Until 1803, when Louisiana switched hands to the U.S., cotton and tobacco were planted by slaves of French-speaking Creoles, who were mainly from New Orleans. After Louisiana became part of the U.S., a population boom hit, with English-speaking northerners settling in the region and building substantial plantations.

An agriculture boom resulted. And in an attempt to create a short water route to Arkansas, a diversionary project was miscalculated and inadvertently caused the Red River to shift. This engineering blunder cut off the region’s access to the all-important Mississippi River and left behind a 33-mile oxbow lake known as Cane River Lake, which runs parallel to the city’s Main Street.

Then came the Civil War, and Union soldiers set the town on fire. But Confederate cavalry arrived just in time and distinguished the flames before everything was destroyed.

imageToday, a well-researched replica of Fort St. Jean sits a few hundred yards from the original site. But some of the most interesting architecture is found in the city’s well-preserved mercantile buildings, including the Kaffie-Frederick Hardware Store, that dates back to 1863 and has been operating continually since it was built.

Then, of course, there’s Oakland, Cherokee, and Melrose Plantations, and the Taylor-Cook House, a two-story, red brick charmer built in 1840, and where much of the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed.

Foodwise, Natchitoches is famous for its meat pies, which are made from a recipe that goes back 300 years. This savory little turnover is made of ground beef or pork and onions, peppers, garlic, and spices, and fried in a flour dough crust. Natchitoches meat pies resemble Spain’s empanada, and Chef John Folse believes the original version may have been developed by the Natchitoches Indians and improved by the Spanish (who, in colonial times, illegally traded with the French).

Most folks in Louisiana also know that Natchitoches is famous for its Christmas light festival. But this city offers so much more to see, especially if you’re wowed by American history.

Lunchroom Lady Rolls

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Lunchroom Lady Rolls

(Makes 8 large rolls)

 

This recipe is in honor of my long-ago days at St. Francis Elementary School, when, until the 1970s, lunchroom cooks actually prepared everything from scratch. The soft, yeasty bread rolls they baked just about every day were served with dark cane syrup.

 

1 cup whole milk

2 tablespoons butter (plus ¼ stick melted butter)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon iodized salt

1 package (2-1/4 teaspoons) yeast

2 tablespoons lukewarm water

2½-3 cups sifted bread flour

 

1. Bring milk to a boil. Remove from heat and add butter, sugar, and salt. Cool to lukewarm.

2. Soften yeast in the lukewarm water and add to milk mixture. In bowl of KitchenAid mixer, add milk and 2½ cups flour. With dough hook, beat on low and add enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Dough should come clean from sides of bowl but yet be soft. Raise mixer head to upright position and put plastic wrap directly on top of dough. Let rest 10 minutes. (This step is important. It makes the texture soft).

3. Remove plastic wrap. Put mixer head back down and beat on medium speed for 8 minutes.

4. Remove bowl from mixer, put greased plastic wrap directly on dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1½ hours.

5. Turn dough out onto a floured board and knead lightly until surface is smooth. Butter an 11 x 7″ baking pan. Divide dough into 8 pieces. Roll each portion into a ball, brush each ball with melted butter, and place in prepared baking pan. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in bulk, 30-40 minutes.

6. About 10 minutes before rolls have finished rising, preheat oven to 375 F. Brush rolls with remaining melted butter and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until dark golden brown.

Dooky Chase Restaurant More than Great Food

Here I am with Mrs. Leah Chase, the undisputed "Queen of Creole Cuisine."

Here I am with Mrs. Leah Chase, the undisputed “Queen of Creole Cuisine.”

Today I had lunch at Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans, where Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cooking” still humbly reigns. This 90-year-old culinary icon cooks, writes books, and appears on TV. She also has too many awards and honors to list. Mrs. Chase’s husband Edgar “Dooky” II was there too, and, from behind the bar, made everyone he met feel like family. (Dooky’s father, the first Edgar/Dooky, started the restaurant in 1941).

Dooky Chase is located in Treme, a faubourg (sort of like a suburb) that, thanks to television, is now a household name. But before the cameras arrived, Treme was celebrated for being America’s oldest African American neighborhood. Aside from that distinction, the area was first to allow free people of color to buy land, with some records of Black ownership going back as far back as the 1700s.

Unfortunately, Treme fell victim to high water during Hurricane Katrina. But thanks to a lot of helping hands, the formerly flooded Dooky Chase is now spic-n-span and looking better than ever.

Mrs. Chase sent me off with an autographed cookbook, a few recipes for an upcoming newspaper column, and a desire to buy some of the fantastic art that hangs on the restaurant’s walls. I also left with a better understanding of why this place is always packed — the food is excellent and authentic Creole, the staff is professional and friendly, and the ambiance screams “you’re home.”

Many Meanings of Gumbo

The Creole/Louisiana word “gumbo” is derived from the word for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa. That region was home to many of the first Louisiana African slaves, who brought with them a love for spices, smothered greens and stews, and whose okra was originally known as “kingombo.” The word evolved into “quingombo,” and was later shortened to “gombo,” then “gumbo.”

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