Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Squirrels, Cracklins, and Alligators - Louisiana Leads the Way

Squirrel at Alexandria Zoo - This one's safe.
 With our national chain restaurants and fast food franchises, it’s often hard to be surprised by menu offerings.  But in Louisiana, regional food experiences are available for the asking.   Recently, I joined four  other travel writers to explore Alexandria/Pineville, Louisiana and its environs.  They were from California and Arizona and more familiar with sushi than cajun, thought squirrels were for parks and alligators for swamps,  and had never tried cracklins.  All that changed on our trip.

We arrived in Alexandria, Louisiana on the first day of squirrel hunting season for which some school districts have been known to acknowledge by letting out classes.  At the luncheon tea room, The Cottage, a large table of women dressed in camouflage laughed about the men in their construction company office taking the day off to hunt, allowing the ladies to dress much more casually.   Last night’s  football game was called the Squirrel Bowl as it is the only game played on a Thursday rather than under Friday night lights so that players can hunt the next day.

Penny Dartigo showing off freshly made cracklins
No squirrel was on the menu and none will be.  It is considered a game animal and restaurants are not allowed to prepare it.  The question then was how to cook that squirrel you bagged.   Several residents couldn’t really answer including our native guide.  But at the Pie Festival in near-by  LeCompte, Penny Dartigo, a food truck owner from Grant Parish with pig tails and a nickname of Lady Bug,  said simply - smother it in gravy.  To do that, sear the squirrel, add onions and water, and make a roux, she explained.   “I made roux before I made rice.  The secret is to keep stirring.  Don’t stop until it’s almost burnt.”   She learned this growing up with her “grands” as a little girl standing on an apple box in front of the stove.  Lady Bug was right about the gravy as the cover story for October’s Louisiana Kitchen & Culture magazine made reference to the “chicken of the tree” and printed a Cajun Squirrel Gravy recipe. 
Terry Fogelman stirring cracklins

Lady Bug’s boyfriend was cooking cracklins behind the food truck and drawing an eager crowd.  Some even waited outside the chain link fence for the chance to buy it freshly cooked.  Called by turns a jambalaya pot or cracklin pot, the cooking vessel is large, black, filled half-way with oil, and heated by propane.  Terry Fogelman patiently stirred the bubbling pieces of pork fat with skin attached advising us to listen carefully for the crackle - like Rice Krispies - indicating it was done.  The dish is served as a snack in a small paper bag and was more appealing fresh than those commercial products sold in plastic bags in grocery stores.  

Stuffed Alligator Above salad bar at Tunk's Cypress Inn
Alligators hang out more in southern Louisiana but their meat is popular throughout the state.  It’s in such demand that the price has escalated.  At Tunk’s Cypress Inn, a wonderful restaurant outside of Alexandria on Kinkaid Lake,  blackened alligator is served as an hors d’oeuvre.   Owner, Jimbo Thiels, took time out from cooking and listening to the LSU football game to lament the rise in cost from $3/lb  before to $9.50 a pound today.   He buys from an alligator farm where the animal was first raised for its skin but now is grown for the meat.  
Deck around Turk's Cypress Inn on Kinkaid Lake

With his Louisiana drawl, Mr. Thiels talked easily of the various bow and gun hunting seasons including those for wild alligator, ducks, and, of course, squirrels.  He said his son could take us gigging for frogs, best found in rice fields when draining,  and he would be happy to introduce coon hunting.  Knowing that most of our crowd was from California, he admitted they never served anything organic except by accident.   Mr. Thiels then gave his mental recipe for cooking squirrel with the same roux requirement as Lady Bug’s but he adds onions, bell peppers and tomato sauce.   When asked how it tasted, he kidded with a straight face, “like cat”.   It was no surprise his 35 year old restaurant is a favorite for family gatherings,  Mardi Gras parties and receptions.

Alligator at Alexandria Zoo
I realized how pervasive alligator offerings had become when eating at the Lucky Palace in Bossier City, a Chinese Restaurant with a first class wine collection.  On a drive from California, owner Mr. Lim liked the size of Shreveport/Bossier City and opened his innovative restaurant in a modest motel.  If there’s such a thing as Cajun fusion, this restaurant is a leader, offering Asian Cajun BBQ Shrimp, crawfish rolls, and soft shell crab with duck eggs yolk.  But it was the Alligator with Garlic Sauce that made me smile.  Clearly, alligator meat has arrived.

While my previous experiences with Louisiana offerings were probably more extensive than my traveling companions, I enjoyed watching their willingness to try it all.  And  the  pride and ease with which the cooks used native animals, ingredients and family recipes simply confirmed Louisiana’s reputation for unique cuisine throughout the state.  Now, if they could just figure out alligator sushi for my California friends.


Alexandria, Louisiana Offerings for the Tourist

Tunk's Cypress Inn

LeCompte's Pie Festival

Lucky Palace Restaurant

Monday, October 14, 2013

Italian Restaurants and Albanian Owners - A Good Fit in America

Benny and Nada Mehmeti
When Bari (Benny) Mehmeti and Neire (Nada) Mehmeti bought Cappizzi’s Restaurant in 2001, I thought it interesting that we had an Albanian family in Paris who owned an Italian restaurant.  I didn’t realize this was happening all across the country.  Albania has a long history with Italy since they are across the Adriatic Sea from each other.  Mussolini annexed Albania to Italy in 1939 but had to return it in 1945.  Two other countries have large populations of ethnic Albanians - 92% of Kosovo and about 25% of Macedonia.  Since many ethnic Albanians spent time in refuge camps in Italy before immigrating to the U.S., they picked up the food and even the language.

Benny’s history certainly bore out this scenario.  By ethnicity an Albanian, he grew up in what was then Yugoslavia but is today Macedonia. Benny always liked America.   When a cousin returned to visit from the USA with tales of earning $100/week, Benny decided to escape to Italy to a refugee camp.  From there he made his way to Chicago where he joined his brother and uncle and began his now 44 year career in the restaurant business.  He started as a dishwasher at a Greek restaurant, progressed to busboy and then bartender.  When enough money was saved, he bought a diner with his brother.  Thus began 20 years of buying and selling restaurants, living in Dallas and Chicago, and finally in 2001 purchasing Cappizzi’s in Paris.

I asked him about the number of Albanians owning Italian restaurants.  He said if you see a small Italian restaurant, there’s a very good chance it’s owned by an ethnic Albanian.  Many Albanian immigrants  entered the U.S. in New York where they first worked in Italian restaurants.   Traditionally, the restaurant business is an obvious but challenging place for a new immigrant to start.  Once they learned to cook Italian food, they began buying their own restaurants.  The dad would cook, the mother  worked out front and the children helped where needed.  For Albanians, the Italian restaurant industry has been equivalent to Indians owning hotels, and Vietnamese working as nail technicians.

The original plan was to stay in Paris for five years but the Mehmetis  were so well received they stayed.  The restaurant quickly attracted a following thanks to Nada’s incredible smile and warm nature.  She never forgets a face and is always offering a helping hand.  They built upon the business that had been started by the two previous Albanian owners. Benny began to coach soccer, a sport he played wherever he lived.  He was so successful that their son, Ilme, is now the captain of the PJC soccer team.  Benny is a familiar presence at Ilme’s games, decked out in one of his 34 hats.

I decided to talk to other Italian restaurants in the area to determine if all were owned by ethnic Albanians. In Clarksville, Alek and Aurora Lleshi own the downtown Italian Bistro, rated the number one restaurant in that town  on Trip Advisor and featured in Texas Highways magazine.    Alek’s family has a strong connection with Italy as his parents lived in Florence but they are native Albanians.   Alek is eager to make you feel welcome. His speech is filled with appreciation for his family and how well  received they’ve been in Clarksville.  The restaurant has a loyal following who enjoy the food and Alek’s attention.

Johnny Dervishi
Roma Restaurant in Hugo just opened this year and is already popular.  It is owned by Beoijna Dervishi and husband, Luigi Dervishi, and by Luigi’s brother, Giovanni (Johnny) Dervishi, all ethnic Albanians.    Johnny is the youngest of seven children and the ebullient talker of the family.  He and his brother immigrated from Kosovo to New York and followed the now familiar pattern of working in an Italian restaurant there.  Johnny would make 300 to 400 pizzas a day.  Using family connections (Mrs. Beoijna Dervishi is Benny Mehmeti’s niece), they bought a restaurant building in Hugo and set up an Italian shop.  Members of their extended family own Roma restaurants in Durant, Idabel, and DeQueen, Arkansas.  Johnny described this area as if it were a franchise territory.

What I enjoyed in meeting these families was the consistency of their respect for the United States.  Two of them described their life here as “being reborn”.  All thanked God for their families and opportunities.  “God Bless America”  said Johnny Dervishi many times.  And I say, “ God Bless Albanians”  for their enthusiasm and contributions to America.

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