A balancing act: preserving the past or letting some of it go
Tante Gite's pudding recipe reads, in its entirety: "Cut, peel, seed, and boil squash - cool, mash, drain well. Add butter, sugar, vanilla, flour, baking powder, 2 eggs - 350 degrees, 30 minutes."
My mission: fill in the blanks.
It was my friend Freda who gave me the idea. She recalled as a child some 50 years ago, gathering with cousins in her Tante (Aunt) Magitte's kitchen, the afternoons warmed by an extended Cajun family and Tante Gite's pudding. By Freda's fond remembrance, it was a kind of squash custard, silky-sweet Cajun comfort food.
An avid amateur chef, I set about reclaiming Tante Gite's recipe. The appeal was more than culinary. A few years before, I'd moved from my native Illinois to southwest Louisiana's Cajun country. I was lured by a rich cultural tapestry, by Creole fiddlers and crawfish festivals, and by madcap country Mardi Gras celebrations, not to mention an innately generous people who happily shared everything from lawn mowers to life stories.
Cobbling together a version that did justice to the original would be my little contribution to cultural preservation, my grand remerciement (big thanks).
Gathering the appropriate texts, I began my research. First I consulted "My Cajun Mama's Cookbook," found at a folklife festival in Eunice. Then on to "The Harper Family Cookbook," a treasure from my college days; perhaps a "Tante Gite" Harper resided among the cornfields of Macomb, Ill.
Then I made my way through the pages of "Forgotten Recipes," and even the scholarly "Heritage of America Cookbook." I looked under Desserts, Vegetables, Casseroles, and Maud Harper's Best. I found recipes for rice pudding, bread pudding, scalloped squash, and squash timbales. Each teased with possibilities. This recipe used sugar but also cups of cornmeal; that one used eggs but no sugar. Another promised a custard consistency, but included cheese and paprika.
I sensed the cause slipping away. But no, I vowed: This recipe, and Tante Gite's legacy, would endure. I compared and extrapolated, made some educated guesses, and formulated a theory.
I tested my hypothesis. The resulting porridge was edible but squashy, hardly the treat Freda described. I made a note to increase the vanilla and sugar. That sweetened version emerged with a gumbolike consistency, more fit for a soupspoon.
Further revisions followed: more flour, fewer eggs, cane syrup instead of sugar, butternut squash instead of pattypan. The tastier experiments I gave away (endearing myself to new neighbors in the process), but finally I conceded: Tante Gite's recipe was lost to the past.
I guess it's fitting. No culture thrives by cluttering its present with every bauble from its past. Even - perhaps especially - in Cajun country, adaptation is key to survival. Would the first Cajuns have survived if they hadn't acquired a taste for crawfish and turtle, not to mention the moxie to catch the critters? How much poorer would their cuisine be if they hadn't learned to use okra and peppers from African-American slaves and free people of color? Or appropriated their German neighbors' recipe for andouille? Or the native American secret for adding filé to flavor and thicken gumbos?
Every external change brings an opportunity for internal growth. If I appreciate the music of people who speak a different language, what else in them might I admire? If I enjoy the food of someone whose skin is a different color, perhaps we are more alike than we thought.
The great Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa noted: "A culture is preserved one generation at a time." The challenge of each generation is to know what's worth preserving and what must be changed for the culture to remain healthy and dynamic. Any generation that excludes new and different voices, simply because they are new and different, strangles its cultural soul.
Tante Gite's pudding belongs to her generation. I wonder if they're ready for Miss Christine's Squash Surprise at the St. Anthony's Church potluck?