Most families funnel their oral history one generation to the next. And while my family is no exception to this, it was never a great uncle or great great grandmother who caught my attention most. It wasn’t even a family member. It was the cook who ran my paternal family’s kitchen from 1916 to right about the time I was born.
I have one memory of Jesse Lewis, when Mom brought me to his cottage near the railroad in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. I wore a pale green dress and pigtails and thought Jesse was about the oldest person I’d ever seen. He placed his wrinkled hand on my cheek and smiled broadly so that his skin stretched.
“Aren’t you fine,” he said.
Fine, I considered, was a pretty good thing to be.
Jesse died shortly after, but his impression on our family lived on in conversation, lore, and mostly in the kitchen. We’d be soaking catfish in a milk bath before dunking them in seasoned flour and hot oil and inevitably someone would say, “Jesse always used white pepper for that.” Or it would be lunchtime and the grown-ups would be relaxing on the front porch, shaded from the bright Mississippi sun, and one would remark, “I’d kill for some of Jesse’s kidney stew right about now.”
As I grew up, it became obvious to me that Jesse’s influence on the family was the result of far greater than what his job description entailed. His profession was a cook, yes, and he was a good one. But his mark was so indelible that I regret not knowing him more than I regret not knowing my actual ancestors, because I never understood exactly why he was so memorable.
Recently, I took necessary measures to “meet” him. And in his resurrection, I realized that his story was never just about food.
When we step out into the world, bursting with ambition, narrowing the exact spot of our mark, without realizing it, we’re setting conditions. Some want notoriety. Some seek fame. Some long for respect. But in the end, we all want to be remembered, and our actions, great and small, secure that fate. Take my sister, for example.
She’s an ideal guest in that she ensures she leaves a place she’s visited better than how she found it. She does this discreetly and doesn’t even expect the favor returned. And while I would find her effort exhausting, it goes without question that she simply wants to ease the load whenever she can. Life shouldn’t be burdened in her view of it. And I wonder if on that first step onto the pavement as we set out, if that ideal isn’t a good goal to have overall.
But each of us will be remembered, even if all we do is show up. So perhaps the greater question is not if we will be remembered, but rather, what will our impact be?
Jesse’s career was to create experiences he would never experience himself. Sure he tasted the court-bouillons, oyster cutlets, and floating islands. But he, himself, never sat at the table, one of his dishes before him, temporarily awed by sight and smell. That was a burst of joy to be given to others, an aftereffect of his artistry. It could be said that his entire career was about something he would never get in return. So why did he bother? Why do any of us make the choice to give without expecting a return on investment?
This weekend I had the privilege to eat in JoAnn Clevenger’s dining room at Upperline Restaurant. I say her “dining room” because this legendary owner circles the room in her red dress and antique brooches as if she were hostessing us at home. She’s there when you arrive, there to clear your empty plates of roast duck and crispy oysters, and she’s there to bid you farewell.
“This dinner absolutely charmed me,” I told her on the way out.
She grabbed my hand, one of the strands of her signature loose bun bobbing on her forehead, and said, “That’s my job--to send you out restored, thinking, ‘I feel good!’”
She went on to explain that that’s the origin of the word restaurant: restorative.
I certainly felt good. I was certainly restored, too--my belly full and once again in love with New Orleans cuisine. But I was also so inspired by JoAnn Clevenger’s generosity of the dining experience that I wanted to pay forward my jubilation to others. I couldn’t keep something so lovely to myself.
When I got home, I spotted “Jesse’s Book of Creole and Deep South Recipes” on my kitchen shelf. My great aunt wrote it back in 1954. I thumbed through it until I found a most wordy recipe, one with copious notes and directions: Shrimp Creole Louisiana.
It was time I got to know Jesse.
The next afternoon I bought two and a half pounds of head on shrimp, trinity vegetables, herbs, and allspice. According to Jesse, the mistake in most creole sauces is in the color. It should be more brownish red than red, achieved only through finely minced vegetables. Easy enough. But it was the direct order that under no uncertain terms was anything but a fresh shrimp stock to be used when I realized that there were no shortcuts on the road to meeting Jesse Lewis.
Sleeves rolled up, hands covered in orange shrimp brain goo and black slimy veins, I forged ahead, playing Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. That’s what Grandma would play at her parties. I wondered if Jesse listened to the radio while he cooked. I continued with the recipe closely, careful to keep the stock simmering and to flatten the boiled shrimp heads into a sieve, getting the most head meat out of each one. I wondered if when Jesse made Shrimp Creole, he saved some for himself and his wife, Agnes. Or was Agnes waiting at home for him with their dinner? As he fried onions in lard and crushed thyme between his fingers was he thinking about putting his feet up when he got home, drinking a cold beer, and talking to Agnes about “fine” things?
Jesse’s Shrimp Creole recipe is complicated for such a casual dish. He could have made it easier, but I realized that his creole could have had less savoir faire if his dedication was just simply to food. And as I watched the sauce turn brownish red and my kitchen settled into the aroma of garlic and thyme, I finally understood Jesse Lewis. He was a man not of his product, but of what his product yielded. Each night when my ancestors and their guests sat for dinner, they were charmed, beguiled, and positively inspired not just by one another, but through the service of Jesse and his dedication to setting the right conditions. True, Jesse would never be guest at his own supper, but he had something far greater: A gift so damn good he gave it all away. Like anyone who has finally nailed it, found their calling and gone for it without looking back, Jesse was not about what he made alone but about what it did for others. The ability to give that experience was all the reward he needed.
I know enough to know that just as good wine tastes better when shared, so too, are our gifts. They are bland when held captive to ourselves. They don’t fully open until their whole story is realized. And perhaps that is the moment in which we know we are right where we should be--when we love our work enough to let others enjoy it more. What a “fine” way to be remembered.
I was full by the time the Shrimp Creole made it to the table. I’d tasted it so much along the way, spent so much time in the smells and labor of it, that I wasn’t all that hungry. My family devoured it, delighted in it, asking for seconds, while I ate just a tiny portion. I knew Jesse understood.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.