Coming up with recipes for a cookbook is the easy part. Putting down the ingredients is near impossible. Writing text befitting my arrogant notion that I might compete with William Faulkner is a journey into a black hole. I do not share the wit of Willie Shakespeare. My shtick is to torture my listeners with one tedious tale after another.
My customers chide me: when are you writing that cookbook? Of course it makes sense to write one since I give out recipes all the time. I get the call, “how do you make that roasted garlic thing?” “How come my gumbo isn’t doing right?” “Tracie, Help!” I have no problem writing down the recipe for artichoke hearts on the back of a Ragin’ Cajun bumper sticker. I have no qualms about sharing stories of my life. And I don’t really discriminate against any audience. If you eat my food you listen to how my week went. Easy as that.
Cooking to me is heart and soul. It is all the different types of love you might ever know in your life. It is watching my grandmother cook night after night for aunts and uncles, cousins, cousins and more cousins. It is reminiscent of my first love and all subsequent love affairs that have followed. Love and food are synonymous. Love and food carry with them their own unique love affair, a symbiotic relationship indeed. Both are certainly necessary nutrients no man can live without. Pretend though we might that we are self-contained individuals who can do everything alone; no one can live without Love and food. Not even me.
All of life surrounds food. We meet in restaurants. We go on picnics,
Everybody hangs out in the kitchen. All the “love” we know in this world has some sort of cuisine attached to it.
Take the first date, for instance. Split a plate of French fries at twelve years old with the cutest girl you have ever seen in your life. The age-old tradition of bringing sweets for your sweet has been around forever. Grandmothers are always throwing food at you – “Didja eat?” And certainly true love is when your grandfather finishes that last bit of broccoli on your plate because your mother said you couldn’t have grandma’s famous peanut butter cookies until you have cleaned your plate.
We are always amazed at the amount grandpa could pack away.
So as I mull it all over like a sweet simmering wine, I can’t help but smile at all the food stories I have told. It seems that everything about me revolves around food. So people tell me, Tracie, just write the stories you tell us. Tell us your story about how you got started in cooking Cajun food. I am so bored with that story. I have told it so many times. Perhaps I should have written it down then and I could have simply left a news flash on the table for everyone to read. But I didn’t have the recipes then, only stories.
Back in college an English professor handed me a box of New Yorker magazines and told me to read them all over the weekend. All? I did not know they were New Yorkers at the time for all the covers had been removed. That dear eccentric man informed me that he had wallpapered his bathrooms with them. I was seventeen. I stared in amazement at the absurdity of it. Now as I type this nearly thirty years later (Gads! Has it been that long?) I rather like the idea.
I was forced to remind him that the University of Virginia was playing North Carolina on Saturday. Everyone would be at the game.
He was unimpressed. “You will read Ms Orsi. This is a matter of your future!”
I did not miss the game but somehow managed to read each one from uh, I almost said cover to cover, but you know what I mean.
I knew after that weekend that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to sit in big leather chairs and sip cognac. I wanted to smoke a pipe by the fire discussing whether or not Francis Bacon was really William Shakespeare. I felt that at one point in life I would learn to love Nathaniel Hawthorne but that might be pushing it. Actually, Hawthorne is brilliant but it took maturing to learn to love him.
If there were a style of writing somewhere between the style of Hemmingway and Steinbeck, I would like to find it. Hemmingway takes his reader by the hand and walks him down every lane he has ever strolled; into every back alley bistro he has had a drink. Steinbeck takes his reader by the hand into the back alleys and introduces him to all the people he has met along the way. Since my first year of college, I have traveled down a few roads I would like to share with anyone willing to listen. And I can assure you I have met quite a few characters along the way. Many of them have been in the past few years as a restaurant owner in New Jersey. Perhaps I will introduce you to a few of them.
And then it dawns on me – I always think of Earnest Hemmingway looking like my dear professor sitting at a bistro table in Paris. He is eating oysters and drinking aperitif. He is watching a girl who is sitting by a window waiting for someone. He is wondering who she is waiting for. Perhaps my professor was watching my future yet to unfold. He liked Martinis. Much of Hemmingway’s inspiration is founded over a plate of oysters on the half shell, and certainly we all know what a drinker he was.
I too derive inspiration from a tiny restaurant called the Ragin’ Cajun. I opened in the winter of 1992. Many characters have walked through the door and many stories have been told. Occasionally a young girl will come in by herself and sit by the window waiting for either a new date or a girlfriend who got off work a little late. There is a lot of wine and much laughter. I have kept a journal of some of the best stories, and new friends have sent me letters reminding me of their experiences at “The Cajun.”
I may not be as clever as Earnest Hemmingway or as keen as John Steinbeck. But this is my restaurant, these are my friends, this is my Moveable Feast.
No one would believe me if I told them I had opened Ragin’ Cajun because of a steak sandwich. Actually it wasn’t any ordinary steak sandwich. This one came flying through the air and crashed against the wall just inches from my head.
The chef had thrown it at me because the cheese had coagulated while he burned a chicken kabob for the second time. I refused to take it out to the customer. I said to the chef,” You cooked it, you take it out.” Crash.
I told the customer that the chef was mentally ill and that the steak sandwich had met with an unfortunate fate. If he wanted, I’d be happy to make him a salad.
I got fired. I was told I didn’t work hard enough.
My rapport with chefs has never been good. One guy Rico use to scream profanities into the dining room calling the waitresses every horrible word in the book. Even that one. One night I threw a tampon at him and it bounced off his head and burnt up on the grill in between a rack of baby back ribs and a T-bone. Later that night, he whipped a hard-boiled egg through the dining room. It bashed me in the ear.
So for a “chef” to whip a steak sandwich with coagulated cheese at my head was right in line with the hard boiled eggs, the knives, the plates, ice snow balls and stock pots I have had to dodge throughout the years.
I left college in 1982. I traveled the resort circuit working in St. Thomas, Park City, Utah, The Outer Banks, and somehow ended up in Virginia Beach where Jo Jo introduced me to Cajun food. In the summer of 1989 I came to New Jersey to visit my grandparents. I decided to stay. Thank God because Grandma passed the following summer. What a terrific year I had!
I went back to school thinking that I would be a Lawyer. I got fired from seven jobs in three years for being, well, um, let’s just say I’m a little too sassy for management.
The flying steak sandwich was the last straw. I decided to rent a tiny storefront in Belmar, New Jersey for a couple of years. I wanted to prove to all those culinary school paper hatted idiots that the restaurant business is sooooo easy that even a dumb-ass girl with no formal training could run one successfully.
I chose Cajun food because I found that every menu in the area had a “Cajun” item but there was no “Cajun” food. Not the real thing anyway. Besides, I figured if anything, I would eat well. I did some research and had come to love the whole concept of the Cajun people. Their cuisine merely marks a way of life and a style of living indicative of the character of the Cajun people themselves. There’s the spirit of their imagination, creativity and abundance of love much needed in the world today. I try to convey that same love of life at the Ragin’ Cajun. With the help of my staff and the tolerance of my clientele, I believe we’ve accomplished an incredible taste of the Bayou.
It’s almost twenty years and I sit on the porch of my yellow house watching heat lightning flash over the Shark River Basin thanking God I never took the LSAT.
My friend Billy comes in and we’re talking about how far I’ve come on such a spiteful whim. I stand behind the stove in my apron cooking up Broccoli and Crab Soup. He stands next to me drinking iced tea talking to me while I stir the pot. I tell him I am happy for my success and that I feel I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
He points to my feet and laughs. “Who gave you shoes?” I throw a lime at his head. He ducks and it splats against the wall. I suppose I am no different from a chef only I don’t wear whites and I laugh as I whip things across the room. I make some Chicken Etouffé for Billy and myself. I serve it at the counter where we both sit down to eat. I would never serve a steak sandwich with coagulated cheese. In fact, I would never serve anything I wouldn’t eat myself.