Local classics for each day of the week
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I’m not sure what they eat on Mondays in Atlanta or on Fridays in Houston, but many of us here in New Orleans will start our work week with red beans and rice and end it with seafood, not only this week but every other Monday and Friday of the year.
That is how we like it here in a city where tradition rules. It was pot roast or fried chicken on Sundays, and on other days we’d dine on stuffed peppers, panéed veal or gumbo. Your mama’s recipe was always the best.
I wonder if West-Coast high rollers and East-Coast stuffed shirts who sink their teeth into lavish presentations by great New Orleans chefs realize that much of the background for these dishes came from the kitchens of southern Louisiana home cooks.
“What we grew up with defines what we do as chefs,” said Frank Brigtsen, owner of Brigtsen’s in the Carrollton-Riverbend area and of Charlie’s Seafood in Harahan, near the neighborhood where Brigtsen grew up. For Brigtsen, it was those wonderful dishes prepared by his mom, Ernie, now 83.
“On my first trip to Europe, I called home and she asked what I wanted to eat,” he recalled. The answer was red beans and rice and catfish and grits. On his first night at home, she cooked both. Today, one of the most popular dishes on Charlie’s menu is catfish and grits.
Growing up in River Ridge, Brigtsen ate red beans every Monday and seafood at Charlie’s every Friday night. That was about four decades before he bought the restaurant because of the great memories attached to it.
“On Sundays, we had roast beef with green peas and mashed potatoes,” he says. That was often followed by bread pudding on Sunday nights. Some other signature dishes in Ernie’s repertoire were oyster dressing – the star of Thanksgivings – barbecued shrimp and gumbo, which she made on Friday nights when they didn’t go to Charlie’s. You won’t find her exact recipes on Brigtsen’s menus, but threads from the memories are shot through the upscale dishes at this fine-dining favorite.
If a United States president is visiting New Orleans, he’s likely to show up at Dooky Chase Restaurant on Orleans Avenue, where Leah Chase is almost always in the kitchen, even at 89 years old, cooking what she’s always eaten since growing up in Madisonville across the lake.
“We always had some kind of beans, or the field peas that Daddy raised, on Mondays,” she says. Red beans and rice are on the spread at her daily buffet that also features Creole gumbo, stuffed peppers, veal grillades with jambalaya and fried chicken.
“But we only had meat on Sundays,” Chase says. “You waited to get some panéed meat on Sunday like breaded veal round or 7 steaks used for gravy and grillades.”
Although the meals were simple, they were based on vegetables, most of which were straight from her father’s garden. Carrots, string beans, turnips and cabbage all went into the soup on Wednesdays and, if money was available, a beef knuckle or soup bone would be added to the pot.
“If there was no seafood on Fridays, we ate stewed eggs with Creole sauce over rice,” she said, or sometimes fish when a family member caught it. In keeping with Catholic tradition, no meat was eaten on Fridays. But seafood was served on Sunday, too. “When ingredients were available, we definitely had gumbo, but on Sundays only.”
“On Sundays we ate well,” she recalls. That was occasionally at her grandmother’s house in New Orleans, and then it was fried or stewed chicken. And, for holidays in the local black family tradition, there are two special meals that stand out in her memories. They are cowan, a snapping turtle stew, always served on Easter when the spring turtles came out, and poached red snapper, served cold and decorated with mayonnaise, dill and eggs. It, too, was served at Easter as a fancy fish salad.
Talking with some New Orleans Magazine staffers with roots in New Orleans, all agree it’s red beans on Monday and seafood on Friday, but variations begin with whether your mother was French, German or Italian, or maybe from some foreign state such as Minnesota. Such was the case with Liz Scott Monaghan, creator of Modine Gunch, who got her Creole cooking education from school lunches and neighbors.
“My mother didn’t cook,” she said. “But in the 1950s, the St. Rita’s mothers cooked.” One of the cooks at the Uptown Catholic school was a Mrs. Reising of the historic Reising Bakery family. “We didn’t get a tray with a fruit cup. We got something wonderful – red beans and rice, fried chicken, corned beef hash. I still drool at the memory of grade-school lunches.”
On Fridays, her family went to the old Bruning’s Restaurant for boiled crabs. One day a neighbor took some children, including Monaghan, on a crabbing outing and afterward cooked a seafood gumbo.
“I distinctly remember my first spoonful. I was 6 or 7 years old and I loved gumbo from the beginning. My neighbor felt so sorry for me because I hadn’t had gumbo. I had never eaten anything like that. It was so wonderful.”
If the daily food traditions were influenced by any one entity, it was the Catholic church.
Errol Laborde, editor-in-chief of New Orleans Magazine, recalls eating fried fish, most always catfish, on Fridays. One exception was Good Friday when dinner was always fried oysters. “As though the Bible demanded it,” Laborde says. “On special occasions, my mom made great stuffed mirlitons – always two versions, one with shrimp, the other with ground meat.” Sunday was roast day at the Laborde home, and it was served with rice dressing or “dirty rice,” long before Popeyes popularized it.
Growing up in the Irish Channel, New Orleans Magazine Cast of Characters columnist George Gurtner had so many food experiences it would take a book to cover them all, a job he should eventually take on. Here is my favorite:
”Chicken fricassee was my favorite dish, prepared endlessly by the mother of my friend, Roger Tiffany. This was a frequent treat and because Mrs. Tiffany knew I enjoyed it so much, she always invited me over to eat. She consistently cooked the same, fantastic puffy rice, covered in brown gravy with parsley, potato salad, green peas and biscuits. This meal never varied. And it was (and still is) my all-time favorite. I always joked that if I were walking the last mile, this would be my ‘last meal.’ In fact, on one visit to Angola (I was doing a newspaper piece on convicted murderer Dalton Prejean who was on Death Row waiting for his sentence to be carried out), we were talking food and I suggested Mrs. Tiffany’s chicken fricassee to him. I was told that was Prejean’s request.
While stewed or fried chicken were regulars in some 20th-century New Orleans homes, panéed veal, stuffed peppers and eggplant were musts in others. Also popular were smothered 7 steaks and beef daubé.
“I grew up eating my grandmother’s food,” says Carolyn Kolb, Chronicles columnist for New Orleans Magazine. Her grandmother was German, and some of her specialties were a German spinach dish with onions, garlic and hardboiled eggs, Kolb’s favorite, and noodles with mushrooms and sausages. Complaining about canned mushrooms, she often went to City Park and picked cèpes for her buttered noodles.
“My grandmother made a wonderful red gravy to put over spaghetti. We often had spaghetti and daubé. She said for the best flavor for any kind of daubé you really needed 7 steaks that are bony, fatty and gristly. “She was right. They do add great flavor,” Kolb says.
Why people pick one day over the other to serve certain foods is mostly up to the cook. Legend says Monday was washday and a pot of beans cooked themselves while the wash was done. Kolb didn’t realize she cooked spaghetti every Wednesday until a football coach trying to recruit her son always called on Wednesdays. She talked to him a lot when her son was still at practice and he would ask what she was cooking. Once he asked if she cooked spaghetti every Wednesday night. It must have seemed that way although she hadn’t realized it before. Perhaps her grandmother served it on Wednesdays and it was a subconscious decision. Who knows?