The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Big Al Carson

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Big Al Carson. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Big Al Carson. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“I grew up right here in New Orleans. I’m homegrown, as I always say. I grew up in the Seventh
Ward and the Lafitte projects. I’m right here in the midst of things. Homegrown.

I used to cook more than I do now, because I just can’t stand up at the stove like I used to. And cooking is a hands-on thing. If you want it right, you’ve got to stand there, cultivate it, you know—make it what you want. But I do have some favorites I make. I love to cook cabbage. I like to smother it down with pig tails and ham hocks. I like it real smothered down, where it lays over the rice real nicely. You don’t have to break it up no more, once you get it from me. And there’s one dish I don’t think anybody else does, it’s zucchini and squash, with shrimp and smoked sausage. It don’t take long. I don’t have a name for it, I just do it. It always comes out right for me. Of course, I’m a hot sauce man, so I have to throw a little hot sauce in there. I love Crystal—there’s nothing else. I have nothing against the others, but Crystal’s my favorite. It has a nice little tang.

Some people like tomato sauce, and some people don’t. I like the tomato sauce, so I throw a can of whole tomatoes in there, with the juice. Just to get some acid in there, because zucchini is sweet, so you’ve got to put a little tart in there.

I’m a sea salt man now. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and I have, so I don’t use anything but sea salt—the brown sea salt, not the white sea salt. The brown sea salt doesn’t have as much sodium content to run your pressure up.

I serve my squash over noodles. I like shells, I don’t know why. You can put it over fettucini, that’s good too, but my personal favorite is over shells. And don’t overcook them!

This dish is something I kind of made up trying to impress my first wife [laughs]. Did it work? Yeah, it did. So I’ve been using it ever since. I keep on making it. I made it for my second wife. That worked too. Even better! We’ve been married four years this November, but we’ve been together 16 years. Now, she cooks! My wife is Spanish, from Honduras. She cooks very well, and her mother, my mother-in-law, lives with us, so I ain’t missing no meals. She cooks leaner than Creoles or black folks cook. The culture is different, and she sticks with her culture. We eat all fresh, and I prefer that now. We don’t eat corn out the can, we don’t eat peas out the can. Maybe some string beans once in a while, but most everything is fresh. That’s the way we do.

When I was growing up, my younger sister did most of the cooking. She’s a fantastic cook. My mom cooked a lot, but you know, mom worked a lot too, so my sister always took over. A regular Creole family; we ate red beans and rice every Monday. You knew you was going to have spaghetti on Wednesday. Friday was always fish, trying to adhere to the religious thing, but we weren’t religious in that aspect, it was just a cultural thing. Seafood on Saturday, but it was all fried; fried fish, fried this, everything was fried. The smoked sausage was fried. I haven’t had a hot sausage sandwich in so long, I dream about it sometime. Trying to stay away from that kind of stuff. Your body changes, and the hot sausage don’t sit on you like it used to. That was one of my favorites. I used to play at a club called Fourth Edition and this little guy, Speedy, was a cook. One day I asked him, ‘Make me a Big Al Special.’ And he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Take that hot sausage and deep-fry it, then take it out, cut it open, and put it on the grill. Put it with some grilled onions, some American cheese, and mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup, and hot sauce, and lettuce and tomatoes, and extra pickles.’ That’s a Big Al Special. On French. Oh, God. I can taste it now! [laughs]

I used to go to Norway. One of my best home-cooking experiences was in Norway, when I stayed with someone and not in a hotel, and this couple could really cook. One dish she did was lasagna, and it was just stacked. The ground meat was so real. The next morning when they left for work, I had to call them and say, ‘You want any more of this lasagna? Because I’m going to kill this for breakfast!’ But when I came back a couple of years later, they’d upset my world. They’d turned vegetarian on me! Vegetarian lasagna! With eggplant! Oh, shit.”


Big Al Carson’s Creole Squash

1 lb Bryan’s smoked sausage
1 onion
1 green bell pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow squash
2 medium zucchinis
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup broth, water or white wine
1 (14.5-ounce) can whole tomatoes
1 pound peeled shrimp
1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning

Slice smoked sausage about 1-inch thick. Chop onion and bell pepper and fry, with sausage, in olive oil. Slice squash/zucchini into 1-inch thick chunks and sauté in sausage mixture with butter for 5 minutes. Add liquid and the can of tomatoes, breaking up the tomatoes a bit with a cooking spoon. Season with Tony Chachere’s and simmer, covered, for 10-15 minutes. Add shrimp and cook until they turn pink. Serve over pasta shells.

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