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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.

Monday, June 4, 2012

So Rose the Dead

Originally posted in 2009.  I found the following clipping at my great aunt's house on the bluff a few years ago. Couldn't ascertain the date of the publication, which I estimate at sometime in the 1930s.  "So Red the Rose" was published in 1935, so it had to be after that.

The author, Thomas Craven was an art critic with a decidedly jaundiced eye.  You can read about him here.

Enjoy!  It's kind of mean, which is probably why I find it so delicious.

Chicago Herald Examiner
A Sunday Edition

Culture of Natchez
Old Mansions Invaded by Tourists
By Thomas Craven

The spirit of the old South, the languorous, magnetic South, lingers on in the little city of Natchez. Situated on the Mississippi, with wooded hills and a magnificent view of the river and the low green fields of Louisiana, Natchez is waging its last fight against the irresistible forces of the changing world. 

As a commercial center, the town is a tomb, a plaintive echo of past opulence, as the sacred citadel of culture with its aristocratic embellishments. It is a landmark in the history of American manners. Here uncontaminated by the encroachments of modern life, you will find mansions, gardens and great estates and the ancestral pride which is the outstanding glory of the ancient regime.

Natchez is famous for its gardens, and that fame is abundantly justified on every hand, but the old houses, with two or three exceptions, are architectural messes. The houses erected from the fruits of slave labor and in the old days staffed with a retinue of black servants are enormous structures with endless balconies or galleries ornamented profusely with grilled ironwork.

You will see in these time-eaten mansions, some of the finest extant specimens of English silver, old chairs and tables of excellent design and incomparable craftsmanship, and occasionally, family portraits painted by real artists such as Audubon and Gilbert Stuart.

The peculiar appeal of Natchez is not based on the intrinsic excellence of its showplaces, nor can it be attributed to any superiority in matters of taste and artistic discrimination. It arises from the legendary appeal of the Old South; and that lure, critically examined, is rooted in snobbery and fantastic notions of superior breeding. 

Snobbery, of course, is not the exclusive possession of the South. We find it permeating the cultural aspirations of Americans of every locality driving our heightened artists into complete subservience to European standards. But as concerns the actual traditions and deposits of slave-holding lords, the South is still esteemed as the cream of American culture.

For this reason, Natchez attracts to its hallowed atmosphere an annual pilgrimage of culture seekers. Conscious of its superiority and literally bankrupt, the town, in plain language, has been forced to sell its most cherished possession, its culture, to outsiders with money to spend. Every spring a week is set aside for the exploitation of inherited treasures and family pride. 

The far-famed old mansions are thrown open to the public – admission twenty-five cents:  visitors are fed and quartered at reasonable rates in houses which, some years ago, could not be penetrated for love or money: the skeleton in every closet is exhibited for a small consideration; and there are other sources of revenue – costume balls, parades, festivals, and garden parties.

Last spring the PILGRIMAGE netted the town about $40,000 and enabled the mortified aristocrats to carry on another twelve months.

After the curiosity seekers have departed, laden with cultural baggage and sometimes with antique chairs and soup tureens, the aristocrats close the doors of their august abodes and meditate on the glories of a vanished society -- the life described by Stark Young in his fable. SO ROSE THE DEAD.