Marcelle Bienvenu, Queen of Cajun Cuisine
Yes, Marcelle Bienvenu is Catholic — and yes, she can make a roux
Most likely anyone who lives in the Cajun area of Louisiana knows of Marcelle Bienvenu, a cookbook author, food writer, and a passionate advocate of everything Cajun, especially food. Born in St. Martinville, in the very heart of Cajun country and predominately Catholic, she came by her faith and food passions naturally.
“My parents were devoutly Catholic,” she said. “We said prayers every day and went to Mass daily. I went to a Catholic school and was taught by the Mercy Nuns who came here in the 1800s.”
And as for cooking? Well, she attributes her skills to her parents. “My daddy was a great fisherman,” she said, “and he was always cooking over a wood fire. I was always fascinated by his cooking and I was infatuated with it. Here, food is like entertainment. Everybody cooks, and it is a 24-hour-a-day love affair with food. Life has evolved around our culinary traditions, the Spanish, and the Native Americans who lived here.”
She also noted that her mother was a good cook, too, especially with making preserves, jams and jellies. “But dad,” she said, “he was not afraid of cooking. He had a beer by his elbow, and he would talk about the history of the dishes and how they came into our culture.”
Although Bienvenu earned a degree in political science, she turned her vision to the food world, and started writing a food column in 1984. “I was then hired by Brennan’s Restaurant Group,” she said, “to work in the Commander’s Palace as the banquet director and to book parties and events. That was when Chef Paul Prudhomme was hired by them and I became interested in the history of food and our culture.”
In 1990, she started working with chef Emeril Lagasse, helping him with his cookbooks and his television shows. “He would say when he first came here from the north,” she said, “he entrenched himself in this cuisine. He was fascinated by the food here. For him, he was very adamant about keeping the culture of Louisiana going. I worked with him until Hurricane Katrina, then I went to teach at the culinary school at Nicholls State University.”
While there, Bienvenu realized she knew much about teaching, so she decided to add the title of “culinary teacher” to her writing credits. “We had small classes and only 16 in the kitchen,” she said. “So we were so very close to the students. We started with most coming from south Louisiana, and now students are coming from everywhere.”
The program was divided into sections — one for pastry chef, one for front or back of the house service, and classes in knife skills, plus more. The students had to operate the school’s bistro and even iron their own table linens. “We were one of the few public universities to offer degrees in the culinary arts,” she said.
As she reflected on her Cajun background, Bienvenu stressed that she is a purist when it comes to making gumbos, though there is no strict rule. “I used to do a gumbo class and broke it into two groups,” she said. “One was chicken, and one was seafood. And I did a class on making roux. All the dishes are different, and the further west from Lafayette to Texas, the darker the roux with influence from the Germans and their smoky sausages.
But, she said, wherever one cooks in Louisiana, the ingredient trinity is onions, bell peppers and celery. “A lot of dishes start with them,” she said. “Without them, nothing tastes so good.”\
Note: Marcelle Bienvenu has written several cookbooks: Cajun Cooking for Beginners; Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine; Cooking Up A Storm: Recipes Lost and found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans; Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make A Roux? (Book 1): A Cajun / Creole Family Album Cookbook; Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic & Can You Make A Roux? (Book 2): A Cajun/Creole Family Album Cookbook (Louisiana Classic)
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Recipe: Papa’s Bouillabaisse
“My father was an avid sportsman, and this was one of his favorite seafood dishes to prepare when we spent time at our camp on Vermilion Bay.
“This story about bouillabaisse came from Carmen Bulliard Montegut, a wonderful cook from St. Martinville, who published a cookbook featuring favorite dishes from her hometown that was once called ‘le petit Paris de L’Amerique.’”
“The first bouillabaisse was made in Marseilles, France, and the old Creole tradition runs that it was the discovery of two sailor fishermen, who were disputing as they sat in a schooner as to the proper way of cooking fish. One succeeded in making a dish that would have gladdened the heart of any old French or Creole Bon Vivant. The other fisherman failed. The successful one enthusiastically offered to teach his friend, and as the latter was following the directions implicitly and the finishing touches were being added to the dish, the teacher seeing that the important crucial moment had come, cried out, bringing down his hand emphatically, ‘Et quand ca commence a bouillir-baisse’ (and when it begins to boil, lower the flame). Hence the name bouillabaisse was given the dish from that moment.”
Makes about 8 servings
- 2 ½ pounds fish fillets, like snapper, redfish, or speckled trout
- Salt and cayenne
- 3 cups coarsely chopped yellow onions
- 2 cups coarsely chopped green bell peppers
- 2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 stick butter
- 2 (1-pound) cans whole tomatoes, mashed with their can juices (or the equivalent of diced tomatoes)
- 1 pound medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined (optional)
- 1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage (optional)
- 4 bay leaves
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 8 slices French bread, toasted
Rouille (recipe follows)
Season the fillets generously with salt and cayenne.
Combine the onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic in a bowl and season with salt and cayenne.
Heat the butter in a deep, heavy pot over medium heat. Put two to three fillets of fish in the bottom of the pot in the butter. Then add one-third of the vegetable mixture, then one-third of the tomatoes. Continue making the layers until all the ingredients are used. Put the shrimp, crabmeat and bay leaves over the final layer. Pour in the wine, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for one hour (do not remove the lid).
To serve, put a slice of French bread in the bottom of a soup bowl, then ladle the soup over it and pass the rouille with toasted French bread.
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley leaves
- Salt and black pepper to taste
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and whisk to blend.