Cosmic Cajun Universal Seasoning was born in South Louisiana, birthed from a most unique combination of cultures and heritages…country influences from Virginia, Italian influences from all parts of Italy, Cajun from Des Allemans, Paradis and nearby communities west of New Orleans and the Creole spices prominent in the foods of New Orleans. Can it get any better?
My mother, Lee, was a young woman when she moved to New Orleans to attend Charity Hospital Nursing School. Her mother, Matilda, had married an Italian immigrant in southwestern Virginia and raised seven girls and a son on a small farm in the Pound River valley.
Matilda, the country girl, learned to incorporate the flavors that her husband grew up with in Calabria, Italy, with the hill country farm cooking she learned from her mother. She had to be creative and learn to substitute for the customary Italian food items that were not available to her in the hills of Virginia. But, farming created big appetites and a big family meant the kitchen was always busy. There were no “small” meals.
Naturally, the idea that everything in the kitchen got cooked was passed on to her children, Lee and the other girls and also to her son who eventually owned and managed several restaurants in Norton,Virginia.
While in nursing school, Lee met and married a handsome young Italian American doctor in training. The young couple moved in with his family in New Orleans who resided on Louisiana Avenue Parkway. The house was busy and the kitchen was always open. The influences of Grandma Rosie, the mother-in-law, and Rosie’s mother, great Grandma Sita from Palermo Sicily, allowed Lee to learn more Sicilian and Northern Coastal Italy tastes and she was also exposed to the Creole methods and fare readily available in the markets of New Orleans.
When my father,”Doc”, finished LSU Medical School, he decided to open his practice in “the country” in St Charles Parrish; an area deeply under-served and one that would also provide a wonderful lifestyle in which to raise a family.
Small town life anywhere in those days was intimate and networked. People knew their neighbors, and shared there skills. They worked hard and worshiped together and then played hard together.
A favorite gathering place after church on Sunday was the Ideal Club, a local bar and cafe. It was the gathering place after church on Sundays. After noon, the back dance floor was used as a roller rink for kids; after six, out went the kids and in came the band. That’s when the roller rink became the dance floor again.
Among the wonderful friendships made there by our family, were those with Ms. Helen from Des Allemans (who ran the Ideal Club with her husband Norman) and Ms Thelma, from Ama, Louisiana, the wife of a prominent local attorney and soon to become a local judge, and Mrs Parr, from Boutte, where she was the chef in the family restaurant.
These three ladies were all known to be renowned local Cajun cooks. Lee took advantage of her opportunities and they shared with her all of their bayou background for cooking the fare that was so prevalent – wild game, fish and crawfish,shrimp,oysters. The country doctor was often paid with rabbit, ducks, squirrel, trout, crabs,river shrimp, whatever could be caught or trapped in the surrounding woods and waters as well a fresh turnips greens, merlitons, snap beans and my more fresh country garden veggies.
Lee became fearless about what could go in the dinner pot. If it came in a game bag, or plucked wild from the forest floor swamp, or perhaps a rarely enjoyed organ or part of a hoofed animal she’d cook it. And I might add make it delicious.
Lee and Doc raised a son (me) and 2 daughters (Jo and Anita) in St Charles Parrish, with a brief stint back in New Orleans when Doc went back to medical school to specialize in Pediatrics.
Again, multiple generations were under one roof but, this time there was little Eddie hanging out in the kitchen.
I like to eat good food and the best way to get what you want is to get it for yourself. I spent a lot of time at my mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s apron strings learning what they could teach me. I loved to hunt and fish with my dad and grand father so there was always something fresh on the stovetop. Turtle, ducks, rabbits, squirrels, fish along with items from the garden or forest floor, like oyster mushrooms from the base of a willow tree on a foggy bayou bank.
Another contributor to my unique culinary heritage was Leola, a saintly young African American woman who was the house keeper and nanny for the Isolani children for almost 20 years.
Both dad the doctor and mom the nurse worked long hours so Leola was our mom and dad. She was large and in charge. She taught us many valuable life lessons and we loved her. Leola had a wonderful positive spirit, the patience of Mother Teresa. She was an irrepressible optimist, even though at that time in the late 1950′s and 1960′s she had every reason not to be.
Because she was only 16 years old when she first started with our family, she wasn’t much of a cook. Over the years though she brought her own family traditions in to our kitchen. Red beans, white beans, greens–turnip and mustard. We would often visit her uncle Bull’s homeplace in Boutte to get fresh, cracklins, graton, and pecan candies (my favorite!).
Being so totally immersed in diversity in the kitchen, it seems like it was almost inevitable that “little Eddie” would grow up to be quite the cook. And so I did.