Mamaw Onsby lived in a small two-room house set back from ours under a huge white oak with thick knotted roots that gripped the earth like the toes of Antaeus. She had come to live there after her husband of sixty-odd years had died, and she was perfectly content, rarely coming to our house to visit, usually sitting at home listening to the radio and reading her Bible. Daddy tried to put an air conditioner in her window, but she wouldn’t have it. She was a tiny old woman, not much taller than I was at 11 when she died, and like many women of her generation who considered smoking unladylike, Mamaw dipped snuff (Garrett) and would make snuff out of cocoa and sugar for us to dip with twigs from the big black gum tree that grew near the road.
Her home was an early destination for me and her other great-grandchildren because she would make biscuits every morning, big, fat cat-head biscuits that she baked in an antediluvian skillet. Mamaw usually made sawmill gravy to go with the biscuits, but my brother Tom always asked her to make chocolate gravy. She’d look at him and say, “Oh, this thickenin’ gravy ain’t good enough for you, is it?” My brotherTom, little devil he was, would say “NO!” as loud as he could, and Mamaw, with a mumble about him being “just like a damned Onsby” would make chocolate gravy. The rest of us to be polite always had a biscuit with regular gravy, but she made us have another with chocolate “so it won’t be wasted”. It never was.
Heat two cups whole milk with a pat of butter; mix very well three tablespoons cocoa, two tablespoons plain flour, three quarters of a cup of sugar, add to warm milk with a whisk, stirring vigorously to prevent lumping. Heat until gravy thickens. Some people add vanilla to this, but for the life of me, I don’t know why.
In and around New Orleans, you’re going to find what is called red gravy, which is usually an Italian-style tomato sauce, but in most of the rural inland South, tomato gravy, like sausage gravy, is a variation on what we know as sawmill gravy.
When possible, of course you’re going to use fresh, ripe home-grown tomatoes. Second-best are home-canned tomatoes, but you’ll find people using store-bought canned tomatoes, whole, diced, pureed or sauced. Bacon drippings are the traditional fat, and the liquid, in addition to the tomato juice, can be water, stock or milk, or combinations thereof. For instance, Bill Neale’s recipe calls for chicken stock or water, while Robert St. John’s recipe calls for both chicken broth and milk. In both recipes, fresh tomatoes are peeled, seeded and chopped or diced. Traditionally served over buttermilk biscuits, rice or grits, Neale among others also recommends it for fried chicken, and tomato gravy is wonderful for smothered chicken or chops, too.
2 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (can also use a 14.5 ounce can of tomatoes or an 8 oz. can of tomato sauce/tomato puree)
2 tablespoons bacon drippings
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups water
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
Cut up tomatoes in bowl, add the salt, pepper, sugar and garlic powder and mix well. Heat bacon drippings in a skillet, add flour and make a roux, pour in tomatoes and water or milk and cook until thickened.
I came to know Harry Ward when we worked together at The Warehouse and Audie Michael’s in Oxford during the 1980s, before the town became the characterless hipster charade of condos and concrete that it is now. Though Harry says the folks in Acadia parish would scoff at his claim to be a Cajun, Harry (who is from “N’awlins”) claims it, and I’ll always consider him the first Cajun I ever met. Harry was the first person I ever heard call a spice sack a “sock”, and he also introduced me to Tony Chachere (not literally, of course). Recently Harry sent me this wonderful Brennan’s recipe, and I learned of his ordeal with Katrina as well. While I’m sure there are thousands of such Katrina stories to be told, Harry’s seems particularly poignant to me, perhaps because it left him so far from the home he loves, or perhaps simply because it happened to my friend.
When Katrina struck, I was living in Bay St. Louis. Over the years, I had renovated my grandparents’ weekender there. The house was built in 1908. After about 3 years of completely renovating the whole house, I moved in in the late 90’s. As the house was only 600 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, I custom-cut plywood for my windows in preparation for hurricanes over the years. The old house was built up on brick piers about 2 feet off the ground, a typical construction at the time, with a wrap-around porch to take advantage of the sea breeze.
As Katrina approached, I knew we would have to evacuate. For the smaller storms, I had just boarded up and rode out the storm. The house had survived Camille, which up until then had been considered “the storm of all storms”, so I knew the house was storm-worthy. My wife and 3-month daughter evacuated to friends near Lafayette, Louisiana as I did not want to go north (to Mississippi or north Louisiana) for fear of Katrina knocking out power as she moved in that direction. After the storm, television coverage of Katrina was mostly of N’awlins as the television crews could not get to the Gulf Coast. We finally saw a fly-over of Bay St. Louis and realized we wouldn’t have anything left. When we made it back to the Coast, we discovered that only the steps remained of my grandparents’ house. The house was 23 feet above sea level. We had a 30 foot storm surge.
We went to Philadelphia, to my wife’s parents’ house, for about 3 weeks. Her brother came to visit there while on business. He was living in Reno, Nevada and suggested that we come out west to Reno as he had a fully-furnished rental. We came in the belief of a temporary stay, but we’ve been here for 10 years. I’m employed with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. Katrina has been an emotional and financial strain on our family. My wife still has nightmares of water and waves even though we evacuated.
I miss the South, the friendly people that wave to everyone even if they don’t know them, the food, the conversations and the slow pace of life. I miss talking about food or our next meal, even right after finishing one: “What do you want to make with the leftover shrimp or crawfish or crabs?” Like all great Cajun recipes eggs Chartres is about how and what to do with leftovers. Like gumbo; left-over meat or seafood, a roux, and you got your gumbo. Or jambalaya; leftover meat or seafood, mixed w/ rice, and you got your jambalaya. My mom made the eggs Chartres with left-over hard boiled eggs, especially after Easter. Now, this does not mean she would not boil extra eggs at other times, for egg salad, potato salad or even creamed eggs Chartres.
Brennan’s of New Orleans: Creamed Eggs Chartres
1 cup finely chopped/shredded white onions
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (reserving 4 center slices for garnishment)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of paprika
In a large skillet sauté onion in butter until clear/transparent; stir in flour and cook slowly 3-5 minutes more. Blend in milk and egg yolk until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, 8-10 minutes longer or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, add sliced eggs and mix lightly. Spoon into 2 8-oz casseroles and sprinkle with paprika and Parmesan cheese mixed together. Bake at 350 degrees until thoroughly headed. Garnish with eggs slices; serves two. This is a wonderful breakfast or brunch recipe, and can be served in a casserole with toasted French bread slices.