Cooking With Myra: Favorite part of Louisiana culture is food
By Myra Starkey
Nov. 19, 2013 at 5:19 a.m.
I love my home state of Louisiana. It is a beautiful place with trees so high they cannot possibly be climbed by even an above-average child.
A lot of rain makes the forests flourish and the low areas swampy. It is possible to drive down a road and only see the straight patch of sky immediately above because of the tall trees. If only there were tribes of pigmies with blow darts, one might think he or she was in the Amazon.
Perhaps my favorite part of the culture is the food. Creole food is spicy and full of the flavors of the state. Growing up in this sportsman's paradise, I ate all kinds of game - squirrel stew, barbecued possum, fish and shrimp cooked every way imaginable, fried alligator, boiled crabs, crawfish and duck gumbo.
Lest you think we are totally backwoods in South Louisiana, I will say that I never ate an armadillo until I arrived in Texas. My father and his father before him were hunters, and it was only natural that my dad would teach his eldest daughter to hunt and fish.
Since my parents were blessed with three daughters and no sons, my father had little choice in regard to whom he would take with him to the duck camp. I was the firstborn and heir to this outdoor kingdom.
I first visited the duck camp at Grand Chenier in the South Louisiana marshes when I was about 9. I was the only girl. It was just as you might imagine a place might be that was a refuge for men who hunted ducks from daybreak to mid-morning.
They spent the rest of the day plucking ducks, talking about shooting ducks, cleaning shotguns, watching Southeastern Conference Football, eating duck gumbo, telling hunting dog stories, comparing their old 12-gauge shotguns, eating an early but heavy supper of all sorts of fried or stewed wild game, drinking a few beers, telling more stories and then calling it a night to get some sleep before waking up well before daybreak to be out in the marsh in the duck blind.
The place was decorated by men, which meant it was full of stuffed, dead animals, old couches and recliners and several televisions. It was not overly clean but had that lived-in look. There was a large main den and several bedrooms near the back. There was an open kitchen where a cook hovered over pots of aromatic boiling concoctions, which I later learned to be gumbo of the most exquisite flavor.
The cooking was the main attraction at the duck camp. The men might have gone down there for the camaraderie or the actual hunting or even just to get away from their demanding wives armed with "honey-do" lists, but mainly, they went for the food.
That was the first thing they wanted to know when they arrived, "What's for dinner?" Most of the men brought food with them to supplement the meals. Their wives packed snacks and cakes. None of the things compared to what came out of the kitchen at the hands of the camp cook stirring up long-forgotten recipes passed down from one generation to the next.
My dad used to say the old camp cook could stir up a slow, sauteed gumbo of blackbirds and it would taste good. A big, black pot over a slow fire with the proper spices and enough time could make most anything delectable.
At supper there would be a lot of discussion about where each guy planned to hunt and lots of stories about past years. These men had invested years together and were all good friends. There were often multiple generations of families present; grandpa, father and son. Many of them even came to the camp in the off season to prepare their blinds, clear the canals and ensure the TVs were in working order.
Blinds have to be built out of leftover lumber from all kinds of projects and then covered with limbs and cane so the ducks don't see you as you wait ready for the ambush as they sail in. All this preparation was done before I actually arrived on the scene since I was there just for the hunt itself. Looking back, I might have been brought along so additional birds could be shot. Each hunter had a legal limit they could shoot, and my dad likely helped me reach that number. All I knew is that it was time spent with my dad.
Each of the members of the camp had a bedroom which they had furnished for them and their guests. Our room had several bunk beds with old mattresses, which appeared to have been purchased as surplus from The Louisiana State School of the Incontinent.
We brought sleeping bags, but first, we had to rid the room of dead roaches, rat poop and spiders. The camp was not occupied during the spring or summer until preparations started for the fall hunts. The cleaning of the room involved old brooms and plastic trash bags and was mainly concerned with removing anything that was large or alive.
Since it was winter and there was no heat, we slept in our long underwear inside our sleeping bags.
During this weekend adventure, I tried not to whine, and I think my dad would agree that I made the best of the situation each time I went. When I was young, I went to be with my father, but as I grew up I begged to go because of the boys that went with the other dads.
Once I became a teenager, my invitations to the duck camp ceased. It suddenly was not the proper place for a young lady.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.