Story, photos and recipes by Cynthia Nobles
I’ve always thought it crucial that Louisiana’s youngsters learn about our state’s historical dishes and about the crops we grow that go into them. So does Consumer Sciences teacher Melissa Alleman. Melissa has been teaching at Iota High School for 7 years, and she is keenly aware that the younger generation is responsible for carrying on our unique food traditions.
Many of her students come from farming families. “Lots of them live on rice and crawfish farms,” Melissa says. “Some are tied to the cattle and shrimp industries.” For these reasons, she teaches different ways to prepare what they raise and harvest.
She invited me to watch a class she was teaching that focused on an important Louisiana crop, sugar. That day her students were making quick, simple king cakes. I tagged along as she meandered around her room full of sinks, stoves, and tables. Sparkling clean countertops were dotted with containers of colored sugars, icing, and plastic babies. At each stove, teenaged girls and guys were stretching canned cinnamon roll dough into ropes, as they merrily talked.
“I’m happy to hear them chattering,” Melissa said. “They’re socializing, and not on their phones.”
She answered a student’s recipe question, then mentioned to me a fall class she’d taught on wild game processing. She added, “Right before Easter I teach how to dye eggs. And we discuss the Cajun tradition of pocking.”
Melissa grew up in Rayne and began teaching in 1995, after she graduated from UL (at the time, USL). She explained that was also the year after most schools in the U.S. formally changed the class title of Home Economics to Family and Consumer Sciences.
Melissa’s credentials also include a ServSafe certification, and she certifies interested students. ServSafe is a National Restaurant Association training program that maintains restaurant safety standards. After Melissa’s students pass the certification test, they have met Louisiana’s legal teenage requirements to work in a restaurant as a ServSafe Food Handler.
Although I was there to learn about her focus on Louisiana cooking, Melissa reminded me that her class is about more than food preparation. Lectures added since my own high school years in “Home Ec” are talks on relationship building, family life, and parenting. Of course, there’s still sewing lessons, but gone are the days of painfully stitching together lined coats that no one would dare wear in public. Instead, she teaches basics that students will actually use, like hemming, patching, and sewing on buttons. (What I would have done for a teacher like Melissa.)
Practicality also dominates her cooking philosophy. “I don’t teach how to make cakes from scratch,” she says. “No one will go home and do that. Instead, we cook dishes these kids will actually make and eat.” Many of her recipes, like king cakes, start with convenience foods that can easily be doctored to taste homemade. “These days parents work. So I give my students easy recipes they can prepare on their own.”
One big exception to shortcut cooking is a 4-day lab she conducts on Louisiana’s “state cuisine,” gumbo. Day 1 is for making roux. On day 2, students simmer the roux in water with chopped onion, and they make that must-have side dish, potato salad. Day 3 is when chicken is added and thoroughly cooked, and on day 4, they add sausage, adjust seasonings, and cook rice.
Not all of Melissa’s recipes are for Louisiana food. But a large portion are, and those dishes typically come with a history lesson. “For example,’ she says, “I do a lab on rice, and we learn how it came to Louisiana. We also have rice comparisons. We evaluate tastes, cooking times, and nutrition data.”
Many dishes lead to discussions on Creole cuisine vs. Cajun. “I talk about Spanish and African influences in Louisiana food,” she says. “And we touch on the country style way of cooking in North Louisiana, and how it differs from the customary foods of Acadiana and New Orleans.”
She tells students not to forget to read labels, and to keep nutrition front of mind. She also stresses the importance of shopping local, both to help our economy and to “know what you’re getting.”
The class ended with proud students laying an array of small, colorful round pastries on a table. I was amazed at how fast those king cakes came together. I was also surprised at how this class (even the boys!) seemed to enjoy their work. In particular, I was impressed with the way Melissa Alleman manages to make high schoolers interested in cooking our traditional Louisiana food.
Makes 4 servings (recipe courtesy of Melissa Alleman)
2 cups peeled, raw shrimp
Salt and red pepper
1 stick margarine or butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1½ cups cold water
Optional: 1 can cream of mushroom soup (better over steak or noodles)
For serving: rice, noodles, or steak, and ¼ cup chopped onion tops
1. Season shrimp generously with salt and red pepper and set aside.
2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the margarine. Add the onion and cook slowly, uncovered, until onions are soft, about 7 minutes. Add shrimp and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
3. Dissolve cornstarch in cold water, then add to shrimp mixture. If using cream of mushroom soup, add it now. Simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and red pepper. Spoon warm etouffee over rice, noodles, or steak, and sprinkle with onion tops.
Chocolate Syrup on Bread (Chocolate Bread)
Makes 8-10 slices (Melissa Alleman’s mom’s recipe)
This old-fashioned childhood favorite is a specialty of south Louisiana.
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter
½ cup powdered cocoa
8-10 slices bread
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, bring all ingredients, except the bread, to a boil. Stir until the mixture starts to turn creamy, about 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and dip the bread slices completely in the warm chocolate. Place on a platter and serve warm.
Mini King Cakes
Makes 5 (recipe courtesy of Melissa Alleman)
1 can (17.5 ounces) refrigerated Pillsbury™ Grands! Cinnamon Rolls with Original Icing
2 tablespoons yellow colored sugar
2 tablespoons purple colored sugar
2 tablespoons green colored sugar
5 small plastic king cake babies (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Set the container of icing aside.
2. Separate dough into 5 rolls. Unroll 1 piece of dough and stretch it into a rope about 18 inches long. Fold the rope in half lengthwise. Twist dough into a spiral, and shape into a circle, with the ends touching. Place on prepared cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough pieces, placing 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet.
3. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes, depending on your oven. Spread icing on warm cakes. Sprinkle with colored sugars before icing hardens. Top each with a plastic king cake baby.
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Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.