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When my husband was a young boy growing up in South Louisiana, his family owned a fish camp on the outskirts of New Orleans. Every summer, the family would pack up the car, hitch up the boats and with enough snacks to keep everyone happy during the drive, head out on the old back roads that ran parallel to the bayous and just off of Lake Pontchartrain.
Once the cars were parked, the men would unload boxes of food stuffs and carry them into the kitchen where the women would unpack them and place the goods into the cabinets, all the while catching up on their gossip.
As for the children, the first thing they would do was set the old crab traps with chicken and turkey necks and toss them into the water. After that, the youngest boys would check on them until there were enough crabs to boil.
My husband has many fond memories of summers well-spent, where he’d run barefoot and wild until his skin was a deeply tanned and the bottoms of his feet thickly calloused. The days were spent fishing and crabbing and in the night, the older boys would take the boats out and trawl for shrimp or gig bullfrogs. He remembers drifting off to sleep, crowded in among a pile of children and blankets while the grownups had cocktails and played bourếe (a French card game). He’d fall asleep to the sounds of their laughter rising into the thick night air and the distant croaking of the bullfrogs in the marsh.
The menus were simple and centered on whatever happened to wind up in someone’s net. A common meal was fish fried in cracker meal, but there were often plump frog legs and boiled crabs. There was a steady stream of side dishes, but the one that everyone loved most was the spicy, milky corn stew commonly called, Maque Choux.
Maque Choux, like Louisiana— New Orleans, in particular—is an amalgamation of numerous cultures and cuisines that have melded together in harmonious fusion. Maque Choux can be traced back to the Native American Indian tribes of the area, notably the Choctaw and the Chitimacha, but variations of Maque Choux can be found throughout the region, usually as fried corn. Depending on the cultural influence, or the tastes of the chef, Maque Choux can contain bits of Andouille sausage, pickled pork, bacon or ham, or even shrimp or crabmeat. And while every chef adds their own special touches, there are two points on which the recipes never vary: one must always use fresh corn, and the corn needs to fry until the sugars caramelize.
When the last of the corn and tomatoes are ready to harvest, I fry up big pans of Maque Choux and then over a dinner of fried fish, I’ll beg my husband to tell me stories of the days when he was a young boy running wild and free at Paw Paw’s fishing camp at Happy Jack.
8 ears of corn, shucked, corn cut off the cob and the cobs scraped and milked
4 slices good quality bacon
1 large onion, finely minced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and finely minced
2 stalks of celery, including leaves, finely minced
2 toes of garlic, finely minced
3 Serrano peppers, finely minced
1 stick of butter
2 tablespoons of sugar
3 bay leaves
3-4 dashes of Worcestershire
3-4 dashes of Tabasco™
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1. In a heavy cast iron skillet, fry bacon until crisp; remove to paper towels.
2. Add the corn, corn scrapings and corn milk to the bacon drippings and fry the corn until it caramelizes.
3. Add the onions, peppers, celery, garlic and sugar and cook 10-15 minutes stirring often.
4. Add the bay leaves and butter and stir to combine.
5. Reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 hours.
6. Just before serving add Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco™ and salt and pepper to taste.