Alzina Toups is 86 years old. She has lived her entire life in the tiny town of Galliano, Louisiana, situated alongside on Bayou LaFourche, an hour and a half south of New Orleans and 30 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. Her father, husband (with whom she worked on their boat for 20 years) and son have all been shrimpers.
“I’m a simple person and I lead a simple life,” Alzina says, in her lilting Cajun/French accent. “Each one of us has a gift, and we should use our gift. My gift is in cooking. You gotta love what you do, ‘cause it’s not an easy job, that, cooking….You know, some women go shop for diamonds, jewelry – I’m not wearing no jewelry – it’ not my thing – but when I see cauliflower, broccoli, I go crazy. My ancestors lived off the land. They didn’t have a car. Most had to go by boat or pirogue; they cooked whatever they had. My parents, they were great cooks. I still can taste my mother’s lima bean[sic], green bean[sic] and spaghetti; I still have the taste in my mouth.”
I fell in love with Alzina long before I tasted her food – in October 2013, to be exact. She had come to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, where she was to be awarded The Ruth Fertel (Founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses) Keeper of the Flame Award, honoring “an unsung hero or heroine, a foodways tradition bearer of note.” I’d come to SFA’s annual symposium because its mix of serious scholarship, fellowship and fun is unmatched.
I’m not quite sure how it happened. Four hundred-plus folks, many important in the food world, attend the SFA Symposium. Maybe it was because she and her granddaughter, Jenny, who works with Alzina in her kitchen, came with my husband and me on our school-bus-turned-RV to the Symposium’s traditional Friday night catfish-fry, instead of the busses that transported everyone else. Whatever the reason, Alzina and I immediately connected. Over that brief weekend, we talked several times and sat together at meals.
Driving home, my husband and I tried to figure out how we could come up with enough people for dinner at Alzina’s. She only takes reservations for groups, as few as ten, not more than 20. All our ideas became moot when I broke my leg two weeks later.
But by this January, I was ready to travel again. And we decided to head to Louisiana for the food, music and a week of warmer weather. There wasn’t time to put a group together, but on impulse, I called Alzina anyway.
The first surprise was when she answered the phone. The voice on the other end sounded so young and strong, I’d thought it was her granddaughter. Alzina immediately remembered me and suggested tacking us onto a party that had reserved over 4 months previously.
Alzina’s isn’t really a restaurant. The metal building formerly housed her son’s welding shop. When he moved to a bigger facility, Alzina installed a commercial stove, innumerable pots and pans and two conference tables to seat her guests. That may sound impersonal, but it’s exactly the opposite, not least because it’s decorated with the religious pictures, artifacts and a personal blessing from Pope Benedict XVI that Alzina, a devout Catholic, treasures. We arrived early – as instructed – but a few of the group from New Orleans had already arrived and more trickled in, with bottles of wine and bonhomie.
After exchanging hugs and a few reminiscences, Alzina and Jenny got back to work, a coordinated team. And the smells got better and better as they began setting out the feast. An outstanding okra and shrimp gumbo came first. Most gumbos are thickened with either a flour-fat roux or filé (ground sassafras leaves), but the body in Alzina’s gumbo came solely from okra that had been roasted to condense its flavor and thickening power, making it more delicate that most.
The feast continued with homemade bread, a completely deboned chicken (“It only take me four minutes to bone,” Alzina says) stuffed with rice and pork; butter beans; Amaretto sweet potatoes; shrimp in a slightly sweet sauce of tomato, garlic and the Cajun “Holy Trinity” of onion, pepper and celery; and fork-tender roast pork.
Dessert was a walnut tart worthy of the most sophisticated pastry chef and caramel flan, reminiscent of her mother’s Portuguese heritage.
Everything was wonderfully delicious. But the most important ingredient is Alzina herself. One of her gifts definitely is cooking, but she has another: “I get connection with people. My soul touch with people when I look in their eyes.”
Alzina’s technique of roasting the shrimp, even briefly, is a simple, yet sophisticated way to enhance their flavor.
- 2 lbs. Jumbo shrimp – peeled and deveined
- 1/2 c. olive oil, divided
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 4 T. unsalted butter
- 1/4 c. thinly sliced green onions
- 2 jalapeño peppers, seeds and stems removed and finely chopped, or more or less to taste
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 c. white wine
- 1 T. fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 c. chopped parsley, divided, preferably flat-leafed
French rolls, pasta or rice
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Toss the shrimp with the 1/4 cup olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast for 5 minutes, remove and set aside.
To make the sauce: Melt the butter and remaining olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet.
Add the green onions, jalapeños and garlic to the skillet and sauté for 8 minutes. Add wine, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste, cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in half the parsley and shrimp and cook about 3 minutes more, or until the shrimp are cooked through. Stir in or garnish with the remaining parsley. Serve on French rolls, pasta or rice.
Alzina uses black-eyed peas that have been canned with jalapeños. I’ve not been able to find them here, so I add chopped fresh jalapeños when sautéeing the meat and aromatics at the beginning. Feel free to add more or less peppers according to your heat tolerance; this recipe is so delicious it’s well worth making necessary adjustments.
Black-eyed pea jambalaya
- 2 T. bacon fat, unhydrogenated lard or vegetable oil
- 1 lb. smoked sausage, cut into bite-sized slices
- 1/2 lb. ham, cut into bite-sized cubes
- 1 chopped onion, not supersweet, 1-1 1/2 c.
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 sweet bell red or green pepper, chopped
- 2 15 oz. cans black-eyed peas
- 2 c. low sodium beef broth or stock
- Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
- 1/2 c. chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
- 1/2 c. thinly sliced green onion
- Approximately 5 c. cooked long-grain rice
Heat the fat in a large pot, add sausage, ham, onions, garlic and pepper; cook for 25 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the black-eyed peas, broth and half the parsley and green onions. Simmer, stirring occasionally for 1 hour. Add rice, 1 cup at a time, depending on moistness desired. Stir gently to mix. Stir the remaining parsley and green onion and serve immediately.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.