Driving down the backroads of southern Louisiana is a beautiful sight as you travel westward from New Orleans and on through the villages and towns that rest along Bayou Teche. The landscape appears to be largely unchanged since the height of the agricultural industry that slowed down in the 1980s. Along the main roads lies acres of sugarcane, soybean, or hot pepper fields extending as far as the eye can see with quaint houses marking where someone’s property begins. If one feel asleep and woke up on these roads, there would be nothing to distinguish this area of Louisiana considering the many fast food, casinos, and gas stations showcasing national brand names. However, when walking into these places and spaces, the sound of the Southern drawl with a Creole-Cajun twist is unmistakable. I happened to find my way into these very places and spaces to visit and interview my family on my father’s side to gather stories of my family’s history.
This summer, I have been working on an autoethnography to explore the connections between culture, identity, and food by collecting family recipes, interviewing my family elders, and researching the development of the agricultural industry in the southwest region of Louisiana. Food has always been a point of connection and remembrance within my family. Growing up, I remember food being at the center fold of every family event. Aunt Justine would bring her famous pecan pralines and a random dish she attempted to recreate from an antique cookbook. Aunt Maxine, the marvelous host of almost every gathering, would ensure there was at least one green vegetable dish (usually collard greens) among the array of dirty rice, fried catfish, crawfish etouffee, and other Creole classics. Aunt Marcie would bring a new recipe she had been experimenting with over the past few weeks. My uncles and their families would bring a different dish each time. While, we–my father, mother, sister, and I–would bring our presence and smiles, since my mom was never been a big fan of cooking. These gatherings would be filled with laughter, full stomachs, and stories of their childhood with sprinkles of political discussions. A family of six with now families of their own spoke of the past with such nostalgia that I constantly questioned if they missed their previous way of life or my grandmother’s cooking more.
They were simple, in the best way, as they attest to in the interviews of my Aunt Marcie and Aunt Justine. The classic trait of any family living off the land in the countryside village of Loreauville, Louisiana. A family of six with each one having a role to play in maintaining their household. My grandmother tended to the domestic space of the house, while my grandfather with the help of my dad tended the vegetable garden and outside space. My grandfather’s vegetable garden was his pride and joy. He grew everything from eggplants to carrots to spinach to beans to even flowers. This was their lifeline; my grandmother never cooked a meal with all, or nearly all, the ingredients coming from this garden.
The interviews revealed fascinating nuisances to how an individual remembers their past, especially when its tied to a collective memory of what that past looked like. Their revelations about how they have interpreted their similar yet different lives acknowledges the unique aspects in which one’s identity and culture is cultivated and defined. However, food memories were the most vivid for my father and his sisters; these moments highlighted love and pride not embodied in other moments from their childhood. This family of six offers a fresh perspective on how a Southern Black family navigated the evolving cultural, social, and political landscape of southwestern Louisiana from the 1950s to the present. They are not the single story of a generation. Regardless, they are worth highlighting to illustrate how narratives of food structure meanings of identity and culture for Black Americans.