The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Sunpie Barnes

july 09 gravy sunpie“I don’t cook everyday. All the different types of work that I do: I have my regular nine-to-five working for the national park service, have been doing that forever, and I’m a working musician, and I do other things also, so I’m on the run a lot. But I like to cook because I like to eat. It’s not every day, though. Can’t tell that lie! But I live with a gourmet cook, so I don’t cry about it.

I was raised up in the Deep South so I can cook all kinds of soul food, southern cuisine, but also stuff that’s here in Louisiana. I started to cook alligator sauce piquante today but ended up not doing it because I’ve eaten so many tomatoes lately. So I’m cooking salmon and white shrimp–white shrimp are beautiful right now. I love fish; I’ve been eating fish a lot lately because I’ve been fishing also. I didn’t catch salmon, of course, but I’ve been going out in the swamps, getting some bass and stuff like that.

As a child, we dug everything out of the woods that could be dug out and eaten. Did a lot of hunting and fishing; I guess what people call subsistence living. We were raised with a huge garden, some people talk about a vegetable garden, but ours was about two and a half acres. Peas, corn, all varieties of collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, rutabaga, black-eyed peas, green beans, snap beans, blue runners, crowders, tomatoes, okra, squash, cabbage, watermelon, cantaloupe. No carrots and broccoli! This is the South, and carrots and broccoli are not soul food. Squash is soul food. Pumpkin–same family–not soul food. [laughs] We grew some spinach, but it was mainly greens. It was our yard and our neighbor’s yard so we shared fields. My parents were sharecroppers. We shared a couple of fields. I grew up on the edge of Benton, Arkansas, in a community called Gravel Hill, right on the edge of the Mississippi Delta. I came from Blues Country but the accordion really struck a chord with me.

I used to be allergic to shrimp, made me deathly ill. The first time it hit me so hard it put me down on the ground. Thought I was going to die. Cramps, and I couldn’t breathe. I’m allergic to the iodine. King crabs and stuff like that put the hurt on me. Hurt my feelings too. I had these friends when I was working at Jean Lafitte and they loved me and they had this restaurant. All they served was gumbo and po-boys, basically all shrimp. They served this big olí bowl of gumbo that was nothing but shrimp and I couldn’t get it across. ‘Huh?’ So I was sitting there. ‘You want some more gumbo?’ Finally, I had to say, ‘Look, I have to tell you, I think I’m allergic to shrimp.’ They said, ‘Huh?’ ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘Mama, come here!’ She came out the kitchen. ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Mama, he’s allergic to shrimps!’ She said, ‘Huh? Oh, ohÖ,’ and she sat down as if somebody had died. ‘Oh, no… You’re allergic to shrimp, how could that happen to you?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Boo, what are you going to eat?!’

I’ve fished and cleaned fish my whole life. There’s not much to think about, you just do it. Cleaning and filleting fish, yeah. Cleaning wild game, yeah. Deer, hogs, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, we ate it all. Birds. I think I’ve eaten every songbird known to mankind. You name it. Name one! If we’d had a nightingale cross by, we’d have eaten it. But my favorite bird, actually, is robin. Still. But as we grew older, we learned that these were songbirds. We were like, ‘What?! Songbirds?’ In the countryside, boys all bird-hunt. So we’re out bird-hunting and this man stopped us, he said, ‘Come over here, boys. You know, it’s against the law to hunt songbirds. Let me see what you’ve got.’ So we were like, ‘Songbirds? These ain’t songbirds.’ We had a bunch of robins. ‘Robins don’t sing. Mockingbirds sing.’ And the man cracked up laughing, ‘No, these are all songbirds.’ So we had to go home and take out some books and look this stuff up. ‘Craziest crap I ever heard of.’

Robin is excellent. You need a bunch of them because itís not the biggest bird in the world. Maybe fifteen to a pan. Weíd bake them in the oven and they were great. Just salt and pepper and Worchestershire sauce. Snap some lemons around that sucker and turním loose in the oven.

In college, the first ornithology class I was in, my professor came to me and said, ‘You’re doing a good job. I’ve never seen a freshman that knew this many birds before. How did you learn so much about birds?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘I’ve eaten every bird in this class.'”

Sunpie’s Simple Shrimp and Salmon

Cooking shrimp fast and hot with plenty of lime somehow helps Sunpie deal with his allergy to the crustaceans.

(Serves 2)

2 portion-size cuts of salmon
a few sprigs fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Monin apricot syrup
sea salt

10 large fresh white shrimp, heads removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt
1 lime, cut in half

Start with the salmon: Sprinkle cilantro over salmon. Warm honey in a small cup in the microwave; add mustard and syrup and stir until smooth. Coat top of salmon with honey glaze. Sprinkle salt on top and bake in the oven at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Pour oil into a hot frying pan; add shrimp and sprinkle liberally with sea salt. Cook over high heat for a minute; squeezing half the lime over shrimp. When shells turn brown on bottom, turn shrimp over, squeezing the other lime half over shrimp. Cook until shrimp are pink and shells brown. Serve immediately with salmon and a green salad.