The Gravy: In the Kitchen with R&B Singer Jean Knight

“When I was working at Loyola University I used to bake pies and cakes and all that, and then I worked at Tulane and Dominican all-girl college, Dillard. I worked at all these universities, Xavier, I worked at all of them. When I went to Loyola University, I went there as a dish washer, and every chance I got I went to the back where Ms. Ola, her name was, she would be making cakes and pies, and I said, ‘Could you show me how to do that?’ and she said, ‘You want to learn?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ So she showed me. And then, when Ms. Ola got sick, I was the perfect person who could go back there and do that. So they put me back there. I was making $16.37 a week as a dish washer. That’s right. And then they raised me to $35 and I thought I was rich! [laughs] Yes, indeed.  And Ms. Ola never came back.

Jean Knight, The Gravy, Elsa Hahne, photo

Jean Knight (photo: Elsa Hahne)

Later, I got my nieces jobs there, and my nephews. I gave my family jobs because they wanted to work and I taught some of them to do what I was doing in case they needed somebody to replace me.

We had to make our own dough. That was very, very important—making the dough. Now you can go buy the dough from the grocery store, you get it already made and rolled out and everything, but we had to make our dough. You put the flour in there, you put some ice, and don’t put too much water and shortening—you have to be careful with all that. It was really something.

I worked a good while in the schools, ‘cause I was working and singing, ‘cause I wanted all that money! This was in 1968 and you could get a loaf of bread for 16 cents! Can’t do that no more, everything’s so high now.

I like helping people, okay? I went to nursing school. I’m a nurse, I’m a baker, I’m a singer, I’m a homemaker.

When Christmas comes I make a couple of pecan pies. And I’ve been promising my godchild a cake since her birthday last year—July!—but I’ll give it to her this year. She wants my Pineapple Delight Cake, with the pineapple and coconuts all over there. You talk about delicious.

You know, I don’t really tell nobody how I make my stuff. Some things I don’t like to talk about. I don’t like to give out the recipe because then people will say they did it, you know. They will say, ‘This is my recipe.’ [laughs] My godchild knows how I am. I am very, very strange about a lot of stuff.

For the Pineapple Delight Cake, I get myself a box of Duncan Hines Cake Mix. It’s very good. You have to follow the directions—those people know what they’re talking about. You add your butter or margarine—doesn’t matter, it comes out the same.

I cook too. Gumbo, and smothered okra. I put the shrimps and hot sausage, a little ham. And potato salad. The way my mom used to make it, she would use the regular orange potato, and she would peel that and cut it up and she would put that in the bowl and then she would take the vinegar and put the egg yolk in the vinegar and that’s where her color came from, but I don’t do that anymore. But that’s how I learned how to make it. And that’s a job! All that stuff is work. And that’s why I respect people that cook, because it’s nothing easy.

My grandson called me up just the other day. His wife Agnus is pregnant. He called me, said, ‘Grandma, I want your expertise on some gizzards.’ I said, ‘Gizzards? What you want to do with gizzards?’ ‘Well, I want to eat them.’ ‘Put Agnus on.’ So I talked with his wife. She boiled them and put some seasoning in them. I said, ‘Did you get that yellow skin off the top?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, I guess you straight. Y’all can eat them then.’ [laughs] You only want the red meat part of the gizzard, you have to clean it. You have to get that yellow part off, definite.

I used to work this bakery, it was Lawrence’s Bakery, he was the wedding cake baker man, on Elysian Fields and Filmore. It’s another bakery now but they got the cinnamon roll recipe that the wedding cake man had. With the raisins! They’ve got the best. I may be coming from the dentist, the doctor. If I’m in that area, I’ve got to stop. Oh, yeah.”


Jean Knight’s Pineapple Delight Cake

1 box Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix
1 (16-ounce) jar Bama Pineapple Preserves
1 1/2 cups sweetened coconut flakes
1 cup maraschino cherries, without stems and pits, coarsely chopped

Bake two 8-inch rounds, following instructions on box, cool completely. Cover one round of cake with a quarter of the pineapple preserves. Cut the top off the other round of cake so it’s flat and put it upside down on top of the first round. Mix the remaining pineapple preserves with coconut flakes and cherries, and cover the top and sides of the cake.

See The Gravy LIVE at the French Market on March 15 at 1 p.m.
Get samples while Elsa Hahne interviews musicians onstage and hosts a live cooking demo. Set is located at the Farmers Market between Ursulines and Gov. Nicholls