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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Queen of Cuisine -- Regina Charboneau

Photo by Sal Durkin  Used with permission

A steamboat was as beautiful as a wedding cake without the complications.” ~ Mark Twain
One of the happiest sounds I remember as a child was the music of the steam calliope on the Delta Queen as it pulled into and out of Natchez. The boat is mingled in my mind with enchanted summers where the setting sun lit the horizon with impossible colors, the air hummed with the screams of the cicadas and the scent of honeysuckle hung in the heat. Cries of, “River swimp! River swimp!” came from the curb, the shrimp man’s truck loaded with seaweed, ice and shrimp. The voices of our elders called us to supper on the porch. The river and the boat, the aromas of summer and the meals shared with loved ones are all woven together in a tender tableau.
Beginning in April, the strains of the calliope return on the steamer American Queen, bringing with it the culture and the food for which the South is known. And at the helm of the galley will be the Chef de Cuisine, Natchez native, Regina Charboneau, whose award-winning recipes have taken her from Natchez to Alaska to Paris to San Francisco and now back home to the mighty Mississippi where she has created menus reflecting America’s heartland and her Southern heritage.
The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented. ~ Mark Twain
Regina says she has Mississippi River water running through her veins. Food and entertaining are there, too. Her father, J.P. Trosclair, came from a long line of fine Louisiana cooks. His gumbo and crawfish étouffée were legendary in Natchez. Her mother came from a long line of Mississippi hostesses.
“It was lucky for my mother that she married a good cook,” says Regina. “She was a charming hostess. She could set a pretty table but she couldn’t cook.”
As for drinking I have no rule about that. When the others drink I like to help; otherwise I remain dry, by habit and preference. ~ Mark Twain
It was an influential combination for Regina, for whom cooking and entertaining is second nature. After attending cooking school in Paris in the late 1970s, Regina moved to Alaska where she served as executive chef at the Tower Club in Anchorage. In the early 1980s she moved to San Francisco where she opened Regina’s at the Regis in the heart of the city’s theater district. It would be the first of several successful restaurants and clubs in the area. She became known for her genuine Southern-style hospitality, and it was here where she first met Christopher Kyte, who owned a company called Uncommon Journeys.
“He had these beautiful vintage train cars,” Regina said, “and he hired me to create menus for the excursions.”
In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals — well, it makes me cry to think of them. ~ Mark Twain
It was on an excursion from Oakland to the Sundance Film Festival that author Paul Theroux traveled. He wrote about the trip and his meals prepared by Regina. The story appeared in Gourmet Magazine and in two books since then. Regina has been featured in several magazines, and has appeared on the NBC Today show as well as many NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates. As well as being a regular guest Chef on “P. Allen Smith Gardens” television show, Regina writes a monthly column on Southern food for The Atlantic Monthly Journal’s website. She also recently received a Cooking for Solutions award at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for being an advocate of sustainable seafood.
So it was no surprise that when Kyte and former president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, Jeffrey Krida, bought the American Queen to refurbish it and put it back on the river, they thought of Regina.
“Jeff Krida says they got the boat, called me and then found a captain,” Regina says with a laugh.
Chef Regina's vision for the American Queen is to recreate many American Classics using the best ingredients each season and location has to offer while creating some new dishes that will become synonymous with the American Queen.
“I want it to be a culinary experience for the passengers,” she says, “with a nod to the history of food that holds cultural significance to the various stops along the river,” she said. “For example, we’ll feature barbeque and caramel cake in the Delta, gooey buttercake and fried raviolis in St. Louis, French cuisine and a jazz brunch in New Orleans.
Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs. Ham and eggs, and after these a pipe —— an old, rank, delicious pipe — ham and eggs and scenery, a “down grade,” a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart — these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for. ~ Mark Twain
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No one will want for anything.”
The Mississippi river regions offer a plethora of ingredients to work with sustainable fish and seafood, farm-raised quail, free-range chickens, artisan cheeses, wild pecans, wild honey, wild rice, sweet corn, stone ground corn meals and grits with an abundance of citrus and vegetables.
Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern corn bread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it. ~ Mark Twain
“The key is to recreate without totally reinventing a classic,” she says. “I want to hold on to the core of what has made a dish an American Classic. Some dishes beg for a modern twist and some are best prepared the way they were meant to originally be prepared with the best ingredients available.
The meals onboard will feature sideboard service.
“You serve yourself what you want,” Regina explained. “You create your own dining experience.”
The centerpiece of Regina’s creations will be the Captain’s Menu, featuring many of Mark Twain’s favorite foods, which he often wrote about.
“I’ve taken his favorite foods, some just as he had them and some with a bit of an updated twist to create a genuine River-Boating menu that I would hope he would be glad to partake of,” she said.
The way that the things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor — particularly a certain few of the dishes. For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and wheatbread, and the fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North — in fact, no on there thinks it knows how to make corn bread, but this is gross superstition.
She views her task as less is more, with an eye to sustainable foods.
“I’m trying to not just give recipes but I’m setting standards for the quality of food onboard. We’re using a significant amount of organic produce. I’m not an earth mother, but I’m in touch with food and the quality and the health of my family and the people I love. I really do care where my food comes from and I think with the demographics of the people on the boat, it will matter to them as well.
I’m sure if Twain were onboard, he would approve.
Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside. ~ Mark Twain

Elodie Pritchartt lives in Natchez, Mississippi where she saw the river every morning from her bathroom window.  She swam in it, learned to water ski in it and swallowed enough river water to make her immune from every known pathogen to man.  She is looking forward to hearing the calliope again.
The American Queen begins cruising from New Orleans on April 15, with stops at Oak Alley, St. Francisville, Houmas House, Vicksburg, and Regina Charboneau’s hometown of Natchez.

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