My cooking inspirations reflect a collection of memories, stories, family recipes, celebrations and traditions. My earliest memories were of my mom, Alice Walker Toca, in the kitchen, lovingly preparing home cooked meals every day for us to share at our family table when Dad came home from work. Exotic smells wafted from simmering cast iron pots of stewed chicken, red beans or gumbo. Paneed veal and home made French fries or mom’s meatballs with fresh creole tomato sauce tantalized our senses. These sights and scents were as mesmerizing as the sweet heavy air of the southern magnolias, wisteria and mimosa in bloom.
I received my first cookbook, “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls,” when I was about ten years old. I think that I attempted every recipe in the book from the Easter hat cake and the clown cupcakes to the pigs in a blanket. My favorite however, was the Raggedy Ann Salad, which was more of an assembly process than cooking. This is when I first started to understand the importance of “presentation.”
Summers at my paternal grandparents’ house in Clermont Harbor on the Mississippi gulf coast with my cousins bring back food memories of fresh boiled crabs caught that morning from the pier or fried croaker from Bayou Caddy served with grits for breakfast. My grandfather, Popee, Sidney Toca, always needed help from the grandchildren or “cochons,” as he fondly referred to us, cranking the ice cream maker to produce his unforgettable Creole cream cheese ice cream.
My maternal grandparents lived next door to us for many years in Metairie. Grandpa grew many of his own vegetables. I remember hearty farm style meals with black-eyed peas and homemade corn bread. Grandma excelled in satisfying his sweet tooth and ours with homemade fudge and divinity.
On Fridays, we typically observed the “no meat” Catholic tradition of New Orleans and headed to West End for boiled seafood at Swanson’s. For many years, we went to my grandparents’ home with our cousins for Sunday lunch. This was no ordinary lunch. Maw Maw, my grandmother, was in the kitchen all day producing her famous veal roast, grillades, jambalaya, red bean puree or pineapple upside down cake, elevating a common lunch to haute cuisine. I do recollect that there were a few things I was not adventurous enough to try at that age, such as blood sausage soup and hogshead cheese. I grew up learning these recipes and rituals in the kitchens of my mother, grandmothers, aunts and family friends.
My life in Covington is rich with many friends who enjoy cooking and if they can’t cook they at least appreciate eating good food. Our table is vast and our invitation list is endless.
My Covington girlfriends love to dress up, experiment with new cuisines and share their love through good food and good cooking. We celebrate food and our friendship with theme parties dedicated to iconic chefs like Julia Child, favorite dramas such as Downton Abbey, or recent travels to Greece, Turkey, Norway and other parts of the world. We feed our hearts, we feed our souls and we understand that a bowl of “powerful healing cauliflower soup” may be the best way to say that we are here to share life’s burdens with one another.