The Vanishing Farmer

Rodney LeJeune with one of his oversized melons.

Rodney LeJeune with one of his oversized melons.

Until the day he left us for that big rice field in the sky, my dad was devoted to farming, a dwindling American occupation.

Daddy’s father, his father’s father, and everyone all the way back to the 1700s, when the first LeJeune set foot in the South, was a farmer. None ever owned slaves or lived in a fancy house. On the contrary, they’d pack large families into frame homes and, from sunup to dusk, quietly work with neighbors and relatives in the fields. Some of the time they even made a middle-class living, and this was achieved mostly by planting rice.

My brother is now in charge of the plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and overall worrying. But in light of agricultural trends, I often wonder, how many more generations will ride those combines?

When our nation was young, cultivating crops was, well, just about what everyone did. In 1790, for instance, 90 percent of the American workforce was a farmer. But cities and factories gradually started attracting farm folk, and by 1840, the number of farmers was down to 69 percent.

Then came the Civil War, and in the South the sharecropping system replaced the old slave plantation system. And even though opportunities to work the land and the number of farms increased, the magnetism of cities caused the number of farmers to fall to 53 percent.

The 1890s saw increases in land cultivation and agricultural output, along with tremendous immigration (including my German relatives, who were — ta-dah! — farmers). Even so, mechanization was taking the place of muscle, and by the year 1900, farmers made up only 38 percent of the working population.

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Harvesting rice on the Otto Zaunbrecher farm, Crowley, Louisiana. (Photo by Kristine Zaunbrecher Schippers)

In the 1940s, many Southern farmers migrated to war-related jobs in cities, and by 1950, the number of American farmers was down to 12.2 percent. In 1970, that number was only 4.6 percent, and today less than 2 percent of us farm.

Advanced technology, including better machinery, healthier animals and seed stock, and state-of-the-art research and development have all dramatically increased farm production, and now, more than ever, less hands can do more. And I suppose it’s a good thing that we’re increasingly leaving the old homestead to go to college and work in cities.

But, guess what? We all have to eat!  And no matter how sophisticated America becomes, we’ll always need farmers. So here’s to daddy’s memory, to all his tobacco-chewing buddies still here, and to the youngsters who have dirt in their blood. Your way of life may be less prevalent, but don’t ever forget, you’re extremely important and appreciated.

Caponata

imageMakes 3-4 cups. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

Although strongly associated with Sicily, there is evidence that this “agro dolce” (sweet and sour) eggplant dish was created by Arabs who lived in Spain. It was likely first concocted onboard ships, where cooks needed to make use of Mediterranean produce that was close to spoiling. The use of cocoa in caponata is a Sicilian custom.

 

1 large eggplant

Salt

½ cup olive oil

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 medium onion, finely sliced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup tomato paste

2 cups water

⅔ cup red wine vinegar

1 cup roughly chopped olives

½ cup capers

2 tbls. honey

2 tsp. cocoa

¼ cup pine nuts

¼ cup chopped parsley

¼ cup chopped basil

Black pepper

Toasts or crackers for serving (optional)

 

1. Cube unpeeled eggplant. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. With a weight on top (a skillet with a few cans is good), set aside to drain for 1 hour. Drain and rinse eggplant, and pat dry.

2. Heat ½ cup olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté eggplant until it begins to color. Add celery and onion and sauté until onion begins to brown.

3. Add tomato paste, water, vinegar, olives, capers, honey, cocoa, and pine nuts. Simmer 15 minutes.

4. Add parsley, basil, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve warm or cold as a side dish or an hors d’oeuvre.

Stir-Fried Shrimp and Asian Eggplant

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Makes 4 servings. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

 

3 tbls. canola oil, divided

1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

3 oriental eggplants (about 1 lb. total)

1 tbl. chopped garlic

1 tbl. chopped fresh ginger

2 tbls. rice vinegar

1 tsp. honey

2 tbls. soy sauce

½ tsp. hot red pepper flakes

1 tsp. sesame oil

¼ cup sliced green onion

 

1. Over medium-high, heat 1½ tablespoons canola oil in a large heavy skillet or wok. Toss shrimp with salt and black pepper and sauté until curled and pink, about 3 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

2. Slice unpeeled eggplants in half lengthwise and then on the diagonal in ½-inch pieces. Heat remaining oil in same skillet over medium-high heat until very hot and sauté eggplant until soft. If necessary, add more oil. Add garlic and ginger and sauté 30 seconds.

3. Gently stir in vinegar, honey, soy sauce, pepper flakes and sesame oil. Stir in cooked shrimp and sauté 1 minute. Stir in green onion. Serve hot.

Ratatouille

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Makes 6 to 8 servings. Adapted from a recipe by Sir Robin Hixson in the Delta Queen Cookbook (LSU Press, 2012).

Ratatouille originated in southern France’s Provençe region, where produce is abundant. It is cooked in stages and layered, resulting in a dish with rich texture.

 

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and diced

3 medium zucchini (1½ lbs. total), peeled and diced

Salt ¾ cup olive oil, divided

2 onions (1 lb. total), thinly sliced

3 bell peppers (1½ lbs. total), any color, seeded and cut into thin strips

3 large tomatoes (1½ lbs. total), peeled, seeded, and diced

Freshly ground black pepper

4 cloves garlic (3 minced and 1 whole, peeled)

2 bay leaves

1 small bouquet garni (fresh parsley, thyme, and oregano tied together in a cheesecloth bag)

 

1. Place eggplant and zucchini in separate nonreactive bowls (glass or stainless steel). Sprinkle lightly with salt and set aside for 20 minutes.

2. Heat half of the olive oil in a skillet. Add onions and cook until onions are soft but not brown. Remove onions from skillet. Add bell peppers to skillet and sauté, then remove from skillet.

3. Drain eggplant. Add to skillet and sauté, then remove from skillet. Drain zucchini. Add to skillet and sauté, then remove from skillet.

4. Pour remaining olive oil into a heavy-bottomed pot. Add layers of vegetables in the following order: onion, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Add minced and whole garlic, bay leaves, and bouquet garni. Cover and cook for 1 hour over gentle heat, being careful not to let vegetables stick to bottom of pot. Serve hot or cold.

Fried Eggplant

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Makes 6 servings. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

 

⅔ cup cornstarch

½ tsp. garlic powder

½ tsp. salt, divided

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

¼ tsp. Tabasco sauce

2 large eggs

1 tsp. dried oregano

1½ cups fine breadcrumbs

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)

Canola oil for frying

Coarse salt for finishing

 

1. In a small bowl combine cornstarch, garlic powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper. In another small bowl beat together Tabasco sauce and eggs.

2. Combine oregano, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and breadcrumbs in a third small bowl.

3. In a deep fryer, heat at least 1½ inches oil to 375°F. While oil is heating, peel eggplant and slice into ½-inch sticks, about the size of large French fries.

4. Dredge eggplant pieces in cornstarch and shake to remove excess. Dip in egg and then coat in breadcrumbs. Fry until a deep golden brown and eggplant sounds hollow when tapped with a spoon. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt and serve hot.

Shrimp and Bacon Creole Cream Cheese Cheesecake

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Makes 12 slices Recipe by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles. Served as an appetizer or lunch entrée, this rich, savory cheesecake is best baked a day ahead so the flavors can mingle. Top with tomatoes and pepper jelly up to eight hours before serving.

 

Nonstick vegetable spray

2 tbls. fine bread crumbs

2 tbls. vegetable oil

½ cup minced onion

½ lb. shrimp, cleaned, deveined and coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 slices bacon, cooked crisp, drained and crumbled

2 tbls. minced green onion (plus extra for garnish)

2 11.5-oz. cartons Creole cream cheese (or neufchatel cheese)

½ cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

¼ tsp. liquid crab boil seasoning

¾ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper

1½ pints grape tomatoes, washed and thoroughly dried

½ cup red pepper jelly

 

1. Preheat oven to 325°. Coat bottom and sides of an 8 or 9-inch springform pan with nonstick vegetable spray and dust with breadcrumbs. Set aside.

2. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat until hot and sauté onion until translucent. Add shrimp and sauté until beginning to turn pink, about 1 minute. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in bacon and green onion. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, beat cream cheese, cream and flour on medium speed 2 minutes. On low speed, add eggs 1 at a time, blending well after each addition. Beat in crab boil, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper.

4. Thoroughly combine shrimp and Creole cream cheese mixtures. Pour into prepared pan. Bake until set but still jiggly in the middle, about 1 hour.

5. Cool in pan until room temperature. Cover and chill thoroughly. Remove sides of pan from cheesecake. In a small saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon water and pepper jelly until jelly melts. Remove from heat. Arrange tomatoes on top of cheesecake and brush with melted jelly. Pour remaining jelly over tomatoes. Refrigerate until jelly sets, about ½ hour. Garnish slices with green onion.

Creole Cream Cheese

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Makes 10-12 cups. Recipe from Chef John Folse’s Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine (2004).

This is one of those historical recipes created of necessity. In Louisiana before refrigeration, almost everyone who had a cow made cream cheese with cream that was ready to spoil. My mom remembers making cream cheese by hanging fresh cream in cheesecloth on the sink faucet and simply letting it drain overnight, the way Creole cream cheese was made before rennet was widely used. In Old New Orleans, the Creole cream cheese lady would peddle her wares in the streets every morning, and her customers would typically eat the creamy breakfast treat with sugar, cream, and strawberries.

 

2 gallons skim milk

½ quart buttermilk

½ rennet tablet (available at cheese specialty stores)*

Half-and-half (optional)

 

1. In a stainless steel pot, combine skim milk, buttermilk and rennet, stirring constantly. Carefully monitor temperature with a thermometer until milk reaches 80 degrees F.

2. Continuing to stir, hold milk at 80 degrees F for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover tightly and let sit 3 hours.

3. Drain off whey (liquid remaining after curds are formed) and discard. Pack solids (curds) in 8-ounce portions. Top each portion with equal parts half-and-half, if desired. Chill and serve with sugar or fruit.

 

*Or substitute ½ teaspoon liquid rennet.

 

Testing Notes: Recipe is easily halved. To drain, line a colander or large sieve with a double layer of cheesecloth and spoon the curds into the cheesecloth. (Try not to break up the chunks of curds.) Drain one hour, or until cheese has formed one solid piece. Do not squeeze the moisture out of the cheese while in the cheesecloth; the final product will end up too dry.

The Dolly (Apple Pie Moonshine Martini)

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Recipe is from Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Ole Smoky Moonshine invited me to Chef John Folse’s Restaurant Revolution in New Orleans for a gourmet moonshine-themed meal. But these before-dinner drinks were so good and addictive that I really don’t remember what was on the menu.

 

For each drink:

1 part Ole Smoky® Apple Pie Moonshine

1 part ginger ale

Splash lime juice

2 Ole Smoky® Moonshine [marinated] Cherries

 

Shake Apple Pie Moonshine, ginger ale, and lime juice with ice. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with cherries.

Bubba 75

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Makes 1 drink. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles. This is a down-home take on the French 75, a potent cocktail created in 1915 by Parisian bartender Harry MacElhone, whose gin and champagne libation was said to have the kick of a French 75mm field gun.

 

2 tbls. blackberry moonshine (Ole Smoky brand 40 proof blackberry moonshine was used for testing)

1 tbl. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tbl. creme de cassis

Chilled champagne

Twist of lemon for garnish

 

Combine moonshine, lemon juice, and creme de cassis in a pint jar half-filled with ice. Cover, shake well, and strain into a champagne flute. Fill flute with champagne and garnish with lemon twist.

Blue Lightning Lemonade

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Makes 1 3/4 quarts. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

 

4 1/2 cups water, divided

1 1/4 cups sugar

Zest from1 fresh lemon

1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

Juice from 2 fresh limes

1 cup blueberry moonshine (Midnight Moon brand 100 proof blueberry moonshine was used for testing)

 

1. In a small saucepan, stir together 1/2 cup water, sugar, and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool completely.

2. Strain cooled sugar syrup into a large pitcher. Add remaining 4 cups water, lemon juice, lime juice, and moonshine. Pour into glasses filled with ice.