The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Charmaine Neville

New Orleans Jazz Singer Charmaine Neville. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Photo by Elsa Hahne

“You know, we have a law in Louisiana. If you live here and you can’t cook, we make you move. That’s just written law. The way I learned how to cook was from everybody. I learned things from the Jewish lady around the corner, the Irish lady down the street, the Italian lady in the next block, the Vietnamese lady, the Brazilian lady, the German lady. You learn from everybody. You know what’s going to be on the menu every day of the week, but you also knew that even though your mama is cooking red beans and rice and the Italian lady across the street is cooking red beans and rice, hers is going to taste different, so you go by her house. Everybody makes spaghetti sauce, but it’s going to taste different. This person might do just tomatoes, ground meat and seasonings; that person might do chicken and eggs!

Everybody had a day of the week to cook for the family and I was eight when I did my first meal. I lived with my great aunt, it was during the summertime and we were somewhere in Mississippi, not far from Jackson. It was all kids, because you know your parents leave you in the summertime with somebody in the country. My sisters, my cousins, the neighbors! That day I had to catch a chicken, wring his neck, pluck him, cut him up, batter him, fry him, make macaroni and cheese; I cooked greens, I made cornbread. As a matter of fact, it was strawberry cornbread. What else did we have? Well, gravy and mashed potatoes and she might have showed me how to fry okra that day too, so that was the meal that day.

Strawberry cornbread. I’ve been making it my whole life, and you make it easily. You make your regular cornbread and you take your strawberries and wash them and slice them and fold them into the batter so the bread does not get pink. You want the regular color cornbread but you want the strawberry slices to be throughout it. You don’t want pink bread.

I love to feed people. After Katrina, on Fridays, I had the fish fries in my backyard. Nobody had kitchens, and the first thing I did was I got my kitchen together. When people had money, I asked for a donation, and that helped someone get floors for their house or get an electrician to come or get a moving van, buy rugs, whatever. I had people come help me too. One lady made this great, great tea and she would come all the way from across the lake and bring tea every Friday. Another friend of mine from down in Chalmette would bring salads. Cooking and feeding the community helped me a whole lot. It made me feel normal.

My idea of opening a restaurant started 18-19 years ago. I have always wanted to have a spot where all I did was make people feel good. I’ve got a spot on St. Charles Avenue, on top of the St. Charles Tavern. I’m only going to do full kitchen cooking for special occasions. Otherwise it’s going to be jazz, desserts and coffee. Booze, of course, I’ve got a bar—you have to have a bar. I’m going to be open as much as I can and just try and make the best of it. I’m definitely going to be open for Essence Festival. Every night during the week, I’m going to have music. I’m the waitress, the cashier, the bouncer, the dishwasher and the cook. I’m everything, and I can do it. Just getting it rolling is the thing. I’m making deep dish apple pie with three crusts, triple chocolate bread pudding, and of course regular New Orleans bread pudding—my daddy told me, ‘Look, you’ve got to have real bread pudding! I don’t want this chocolate stuff!’—butter pecan pound cake, your mama’s jelly cake, banana pudding, strawberry cornbread, sweet potato pecan pie, lemon squares, lemon-lime velvet cake, rum cakes, seven up cakes, better-than-sex cakes—normal and ordinary New Orleans desserts. Desserts galore. Mrs. Katz, this lady who used to live around the corner from me made an apple butter cake, so of course, I got her recipe. All of my recipes come from different neighborhood people. The only thing I won’t have is anything with coconut. I’m allergic, and I can’t touch it.

My kids grew up with, if you don’t eat all your dessert you go to bed without dinner. I love desserts and I’m the quintessential chocoholic. I always wanted to do an ad for some candy store where I’d make a dress out of chocolate, with a bite out of it! I’ve dreamt of that for a long time. Some candy company, call me!”


Charmaine’s Chocolate Strawberry Short Cake

“I love strawberry short cake, so why not make a chocolate strawberry short cake?”

4 oz chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup boiling water
2 ¼ cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup milk
2 cups strawberries, sliced
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 shot glass Godiva Chocolate Liqueur

Grease two baking pans, and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour boiling water over chopped chocolate and cocoa. Stir until melted. In a separate bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. In another bowl, beat butter and sugar until smooth; add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla. When chocolate mixture is cool, mix everything together, adding milk. Pour batter into baking pans and bake for about 40 minutes. Cool.

Whip cream, adding liqueur towards the end. Mix strawberries with about a third of the cream and place between layers. Cover cake with remaining cream. Enjoy with a  tall glass of cold milk.