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Cajun food heaven

Aug. 25, 2010 at 3:25 a.m.

Myra, Benny and an alligator hatchling in Cameron Parish, La.

CAJUN SWEET POTATO BEIGNETS 2 cups flour

1/2 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. baking powder

3 eggs, separated

2/3 cups milk

2 sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 cup sugar

Canola oil

Cinnamon sugar

1 cup sugar and 3 Tbsp. ground cinnamon, mixed together

Sift all dry ingredients together.

Add egg yolks to milk and beat. Add sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, and mashed sweet potato (about 1 1/2 cups) and mix well.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well, forming a dough. If batter is too wet, then add up to 1/4 cup more flour.

Fold in egg whites until incorporated.

Heat oil and drop batter into oil with ice cream scoop. Fry for about 5 minutes. Beignets will float to the top. Roll over so they will cook on both sides. Remove when crisp and golden.

Toss immediately in cinnamon sugar. Drizzle with maple syrup and top with crushed pecans and serve hot.

By Myra Starkey

Benny pointed back toward the large oak trees near the road. "I rode out Hurricane Audrey in the branches of that tree in 1957. I'm lucky to be alive."

We were in Cameron Parish in south Louisiana, and from where we were, there was nothing but a few piddling sand dunes, a mile of marsh and lots of alligators between us and the mighty Gulf.

More than 300 people died in that area during the 12-foot storm surge, and the wind gauge at the weather station in Lake Charles, 30 miles north of there, had broken when the storm reached 180 mph.

We had gone to visit my parents this past weekend in Louisiana. Taylor told my dad that he would like a big alligator skull and did he know anyone who sold such things.

My father called around and located this guy named Benny down in Cameron Parish who was into all things alligator. We found his place at Mile Marker 55 just as he directed us and rolled up into his oyster shell driveway.

His son lived in a Cajun high rise (trailer house on stilts) near the road, and Benny lived with his wife of 47 years in their elevated brick and cedar home behind that.

We drove back to the large, open-sided metal shed that housed his alligator operation. He put down the piece of alligator hide he was making into a guitar strap and came out to meet us.

Benny's face and hands were wrinkled and worn from 68 years of exposure to the harsh sun and salt air of the marshland. He had a charming grin and loved to tell stories.

He had been in the alligator business for more than 40 years, starting out robbing alligator nests for eggs. He would hatch these and then grow the little gators to about 4-foot, 4-year-olds before he harvested them for their hides and meat.

Benny is not uneducated. He has also been a school teacher, a high school principal and a football and wrestling coach with multiple state championships to his credit.

Benny was soon joined by one of his sons, Yancey, and the two of them and my dad spent the next 45 minutes talking about the LSU and Alabama football programs and seasons past and championships that slipped away. They discussed this with perhaps the same level of passion as one might have toward a world war or other event of similar magnitude.

All the while, I was looking around the shed. There were large piles of dried-out alligator heads with red marbles inserted for eyes, shriveled alligator feet, buckets of fearsome gator teeth and necklaces made of rebel flag beads and teeth. These would all be packaged and distributed to truck stops and souvenir shops across the South.

Benny told us they sold tens of thousands of these things.

Up front, sitting on a large plank, were two of the most enormous gator skulls I had ever seen. These heads with their 90 shiny white teeth each still gave me the willies, even though they were long dead. They had been the business end of a 13- or 14-foot gator.

Maybe my fear stemmed from the fact that I knew there were still lots of those monsters crawling around in the swamps and marshes.

Benny wanted to show us where all of the process started, so he took us around to one side of the shed to a large wooden case. He hoisted the heavy lid on one side, and inside it was full of black wire baskets, each filled with hay. He picked one up, opened the top and pushed the grass aside to show us nearly 40 eggs. He told us in great detail about the lives of alligators and how he and his sons would collect these eggs from the nests out in the marshlands.

He explained that the survival rate in the wild is fairly small, but the farms that raise these gators have to release 140 out of each 1,000 that hatch once they reach 4-feet long, and so that has drastically increased the population.

I'll have to remember that if I ever come face-to-face with one in the wild in a surprise situation.

We heard some chirping noise coming from the other side of the case and so went around, and he opened the other lid to show us all the babies that had just hatched. We even saw one emerging from its shell.

He gave Taylor and me each one to hold. We were extremely reluctant until he reassured us that these little squirming lizards would not bite until they were about a year old. They did seem like they would make cute pets, at least until that day when you would begin to notice your other household pets disappearing.

Actually, a person cannot own an alligator without a permit, and so we did not bring any home.

It was time to leave, and Benny gave me all sorts of gator souvenirs, such as a small gator head, big gator teeth and a necklace. This necklace was similar to the one that he gave to Hank Williams Jr., who is a friend of his.

And Taylor became the proud owner of the huge alligator skull, which I will be so fortunate to display in a prominent place in our home.

My friend, Janet, recently traveled through Louisiana and had sweet potato beignets at a restaurant in Broussard. Never to be outdone by another Cajun, I have been perfecting my own sweet potato beignet recipe, and I think it's almost perfect. Each beignet is rolled or tossed in cinnamon sugar as it is removed from the frying pan. Drizzle each with warm maple syrup and toasted pecans, and you will be in Cajun food heaven.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or e-mail myra@vicad.com.

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