[“In the Kitchen with Irma” launches “The Gravy,” a series of features with local musicians talking about their experiences with food and cooking. Who better to launch such a series than the woman who used to cook red beans and rice for the guests before performing at the Lion’s Den.]
“I was raised in Greensburg, Louisiana for most of my young childhood. My father took me to live with his mother—I must have been about five years old—but the same year she passed away, so I went to live with her sister with six kids. In the country, the oldest kid in the family was the designated cook, who was my cousin, Lil’ Berta. Usually, your meals were fresh out of the fields. It was either greens or beans, whatever was in season at that time, and our meats were smokehouse meats, either ham or some beef or something they had in storage. We didn’t eat a lot of meat that I can remember. Mostly vegetables. Meat was maybe once or twice a week.
I don’t remember being sick as a growing kid. Once a month, you got your annual dose of castor oil. I hated oranges for a long time because they gave you an orange to suck on after you’d taken the castor oil. So for a long time, I would not eat an orange. And then when my kids were growing up, I did them the same thing.
I started cooking as a kid. Nine years old, my father put me on a Coke crate. We used them for stools, and my father put the crate to the stove. That’s where I stood and learned how to cook. He started me off with frying eggs and bacon and cooking grits, and from there I graduated to cooking beans, and from there to greens, and from then I’d cook anything that I want. My mom was not the big cook in the house. I was.
My favorite recipes, you don’t have to cook. I’m a salad person. It can be all vegetables, just the plain, garden variety of lettuces. I’m not too big on iceberg lettuce, but I do like the young lettuce leaves. Mix them up, throw some cucumbers and carrots in there, and I’m good to go. When I do cook, I bake chickens. I like that.
And I love cobblers, that’s why I’m always on a diet. Peach cobbler, blackberry cobbler. For the pastry, I use Bisquick. You can only do so much damage with Bisquick. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m doing it from scratch. I’ve even used canned buttermilk biscuits as a quick fix. You just cut them up in little pieces and drop them in the cobbler and bake it. Smush ’em a little bit, so they’ll think you’ve worked a lot.
As far as my meals, I lean more toward the salads and the vegetable dishes. I do love lasagna and I am crazy about the eggplant parmesan. Oh God, I love that stuff. So I don’t know why I’m so fat, because all the foods I love are not fattening. I think it’s got a lot to do with my schedule, and I don’t get to eat on a regular basis like I should. But when we have a break, I fix a meal. Usually I put a pot of red beans on, something that doesn’t require a lot of attention. And it definitely soothes my husband to smell the beans cooking in the house. You know you’re home when you’ve got a pot of beans cooking.
My husband, Emile, is a country boy. He loves his country meals; he’s a rice and gravy man, so he gets his rice and gravy. Brown gravies, red gravies. He likes meatballs and spaghetti, smothered pork chops. He likes his smothered chicken, take a hen and smother it. Smothered turkey necks, I do those, too. I fix up a big pan of smothered turkey necks and make some macaroni and cheese.
In the country, you tend to use more gravies and fillers to stretch things because most of the country families were large, so they’d fix meal that would spread over a large family. Gravies, something filling. Beans is a dominant factor there, greens is a dominant factor. I’ll never forget—I guess it was my first year of marriage with my husband—I caught myself fixing him a really neat city meal; I stuffed some pork chops with apple dressing and I made some vegetables on the side and a salad. When he sat down at the table, he asked me, where was the rice and gravy? And I have not stuffed pork chops since. It’s been 30 years.”
Irma Thomas’ Macaroni and Cheese
When Irma Thomas is left with an extra cheese tray after a party, she makes macaroni and cheese. Or rather, cheese and macaroni. “The macaroni is a plus, ‘cause the cheese is what you’re dealing with.”
1 lb uncooked elbow macaroni
2 tbsp butter
1 lb cheese, cut into small cubes (a mix of pepper jack, gouda, sharp and mild cheddar, colby jack)
1 large cooking spoon granulated sugar (roughly ¼ cup)
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
vegetable oil spray
Cook macaroni according to directions on the box, until almost done. Drain and butter pasta. Add cheese, sugar, eggs, and milk. Stir. Spray a lasagna pan or other deep dish with vegetable oil. Dump in the macaroni and cheese mix. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes.