“There are many cooking traditions in my family. Everybody plays music, and everybody cooks. My grandmother was the matriarch, she was the head chef. Also, her mother before her, both very good cooks.
George French is my dad, Bob French is my uncle and Papa French was my grandfather. Also, you had Morris French who played with Louis Armstrong back in the 1920s, so the Frenches go back at least five generations in terms of music in New Orleans. We eat well too, which contributes to our size and stature.
My grandmother cooked red beans and jambalaya, étouffée, that kind of stuff. It was popular then and it’s still popular today. We stuck to the traditional New Orleans menu. Mondays was red beans and rice and chicken. Tuesdays was cabbage with rice and porkchop. Wednesdays was Italian, spaghetti with green peas. Thursday was mustard greens or collard greens. Friday was seafood, shrimp or crabs. Saturday was kind of a potluck day, whatever was left over. And Sundays was roast with rice and gravy and potato salad. The only restaurant that sticks to that traditional menu now is Dunbar’s, Uptown. You pay one price and you can eat all day.
But I’ve amended my ways, I don’t do much red beans anymore. I do a lot of fish and a lot of chicken, lots of vegetables. Doctor Catherine at the Musicians’ Clinic frowns over red meat and pork so I can’t have too much of that. She also got me exercising, which I hate, but I want to be here. I want to be around.
My great grandmother’s style of cooking was more Caribbean, because they came from Martinique. That was different from my grandmother’s cooking, who was more traditional New Orleans. Back then, you couldn’t get plantains and certain fruits and vegetables, so she did okra, rice, beans—more hearty, New Orleans food—more roux-based, thick gravies.
My aunt Sophie on my mother’s side used to plant her own garden. She planted her own stuff; fresh tomatoes, pineapples, strawberries, whatever, and she would use what was in the yard and put that into her recipes, everything she was cooking. She would also grow her own tobacco and she would smoke it. She was a pipe smoker. The recipe that I did today is something that my grandmother used to do on Sundays. This was one of her Sunday statements. The steps are very simple and it’s not that flashy of a dish. She had another version she would do with hard-boiled eggs. She would slice the boiled eggs and put them on top, instead of breadcrumbs. It’s a very simple dish, but the taste is amazing.
Growing up, I always wanted to work with my dad who was a bass player, and my uncle was a drummer, so I idolized my uncle and did everything my uncle did. That’s how I ended up being a drummer. I used to set his drums up in the garage and play and then put them back in their cases before he came home. Same in the kitchen; my uncle had a recipe that he got from my grandmother, and it’s meat pies. I’ve got the family recipe [laughs]. What makes the pies good is that he would use beef, but he would also use veal, ground up, and oysters. Basically, it was an oyster dressing. But you can do what you want. Improvising is good.”
Claudia’s Creole Spinach Casserole
- 1 onion
- 1 bell pepper
- 2-3 stalks celery
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1+1 sticks butter
- 2 large tubs fresh spinach
- 1 block cream cheese
- 1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
- Finely dice the onion, bell pepper and celery.
- Bring about a quart of water to a boil in a large pot, season with salt and cayenne and add the first stick of butter.
- Simmer spinach with onion, bell pepper and celery for a few minutes until the spinach is cooked through; strain off water.
- In a deep pan, melt the second stick of butter, add strained vegetables and sauté for a few minutes, adding the cream cheese, and stirring until it’s the consistency of a dip.
- Pour into one large or two smaller baking pans (such as two 8-inch square pans).
- Cover with breadcrumbs, and bake for 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
See The Gravy Live at the French Market on June 21 with singer Linnzi Zaorski at 1 p.m. Come get some samples while Elsa Hahne interviews the musician onstage alongside a live cooking demo. We meet at the stage between Ursulines and Gov. Nicholls.