Digging into Louisiana’s Culinary Melting Pot: An Interview with Dixie Poché

Featuring Dixie Poché, author of Classic Eateries of Cajun Country

What motivates you to write?
I love to read a variety of books – history, mysteries, Civil War diaries, cookbooks to “lose” myself in other settings. Writing has given me an outlet to express myself as well as a way to hold on to memories. I’ve done travel writing through the years which has given me an avenue to learn about other areas.

What was your favorite thing about publishing a book?

My favorite part of publishing a book is sharing the traditions which I grew up with. It’s given me a better appreciation of my roots. There seems to be a lot of interest in our Cajun culture and unique dishes. Visitors are captivated by our festivals like Mardi Gras throughout the state, the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, the Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula, and many more. Newcomers enjoy sampling our boudin, po-boys, and gumbo and listening to our French music.

In the spirit of research, I enjoyed chatting with my mother and aunts about some of the dishes they prepared as I learned about variations of etouffee and fricassee and sauce piquante and gumbo as well as the difference between Cajun and Creole cooking. They reminisced about the tradition of the boucherie which they participated in every year in the country. The boucheries (pig slaughter) were a family gathering in which every part of the pig was used to feed family – bacon, boudin, sausage, ham, hogshead cheese, cracklings.  They used every part of the pig except for the ‘squeal.’

What was the hardest part about writing your book?

Deciding on what eateries to include was a challenge because there is an endless supply in Louisiana and I especially like the mom and pop shops.  

Can you share any fun facts or stories about the Cajun eateries you learned along the way?

Sampling dishes was by far the best part!

On my visit to Teet’s Food Store in Ville Platte which opened in 1955, there was a slew of smoked meats like ponce (pig stomach stuffed with sausage), turkey legs, sausage, and various parts of the pig including little piggy tails on display. The scent of swine from the rustic smokehouse is throughout the store. Teet’s has a one-of-a-kind tee shirt which proclaims “Peace, Love, and Ponce.”

I also visited Bellina’s Grocery which opened in Donaldsonville in 1944. Shopkeeper Michel Bellina took over this Italian shop when his father retired. Through my visit I was introduced to the Sicilian tradition of St. Joseph Day Altar which is held on March 19.

I sampled a toasty loaf of French bread at LeJeune’s Bakery in Jeanerette. Now run by 6th generation bakers of the LeJeune family, the bakery was opened in 1884 and bread and ginger cakes are still prepared in the original building.

At Breaux’s Grocery in Leroy, opened in 1944, off the main highway in Vermilion Parish, I had the pleasure to interview Fadrey Sonnier Breaux who was 97 years old. She reminisced with a startling clarity about the rationing program during the time of World War II, and a time when patterned livestock feed sacks used to make girls dresses. She passed away right before book was published. 

Is there anything that surprised you about the history of Cajun cuisine?

I was surprised about the origin of French toast which I grew up calling “lost bread” or in French “pain perdu.” It was a good way for homemakers to use slices of stale bread. Rather than throwing it out where it would be lost to the household, the cooks improvised and dipped the slices in a thin batter of egg and sweetener followed by pan frying.  It was a nice dish to be served for breakfast or supper.

I also learned that there is a lot more to Louisiana than crawfish, gumbo, and Mardi Gras. Many cultures such as French, Spanish, African-American, Native Americans, German, and Italians have influenced our cuisine. We enjoy a melting pot of dishes.

What impact do you hope to leave by publishing your book?

I love to visit mom and pop places which are often “diamonds” in the rough. Many shopkeepers opened their business during hard times but persevered.

Could you share a recipe from your book or one that relates to the book?
Teet’s Smoked Jalapeño Cheese Sausage and Cajun Shrimp Pasta
Courtesy of Teet’s Food Store / Specialiste dans la Viande Boucanee, Ville Platte, Louisiana
1 small onion, diced
1 small bell pepper, diced
1 pound of Teet’s Smoked Jalapeño Cheese Sausage
2 cups of water or seafood stock
15 ounces of Alfredo sauce
1 pound of shrimp
½ stick of butter
1 bundle of green onions, chopped
1 pack of penne pasta
1 cup of parsley, chopped
garlic bread
Seasoning Mixture:
2 tablespoons of garlic powder
3 tablespoons of your favorite Cajun seasoning
3 tablespoons of Italian seasoning
Place diced onions and bell peppers into your favorite pot and cook/brown until they are almost translucent/browned. Add the smoked jalapeño cheese sausage to the pot and brown all together. This sausage adds a little extra dose of cheese that creates a wonderful flavor! Once browned, add the water or stock and Alfredo sauce and let it simmer while you cook the shrimp.

Season the shrimp with the included seasoning mixture. Feel free to add more seasoning if you’re up for it! Place the butter in a black iron skillet and melt. Add shrimp and cook until no longer clear. Once cooked, add the shrimp to the sauce mixture and add the green onions. Mix well and put on low heat and cover.
Cook the pasta in accordance with the package directions. Drain pasta and mix the pasta into the sauce. Let it cool before serving.

Can you tell us a little more about the project you're currently working on for us?

Soon to be published is another local history book “Louisiana Sweets: King Cakes, Break Pudding and Sweet Dough Pie.”

Sweets are definitely something I love. I researched the history of some of my favorite desserts along with 60 venues or festivals which feature it. I enjoyed following the path of Louisiana’s culinary history through the beignet which is Louisiana’s state donut and served at Café du Monde in New Orleans. I’ve included the beginnings of Mardi Gras king cake, bananas foster, pralines, and pecan pies. I also featured many of the venues or festivals which prepare these great dishes.  

What's your favorite recipe/dessert that you talk about in that book?

Sweet Potato Praline Brownies provided by the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission.  I grew up in the country on a gravel road and my house was surrounded by corn fields and sweet potato fields.  I like the versatility of the sweet potato.  

And for fun--What book(s) have most influenced your life?

I like to curl up with a good book especially when the raindrops hit the tin roof of my house.
I enjoy Southern-themed books like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, all books by Ernest Gaines, and the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  I also enjoy the mix of food and humor through authors Ruth Reichl John T. Edge, Patricia Volk, and the team of Jane and Michael Stern