Chapter OneJean's Kitchen: Finding the Right Pot
Jean assigned every meal a different pot. Eggs could be scrambled in the frying pan but not in the black cast-iron skillet that was used for heavy-duty frying or to make her favorite roux. No one dared stir anything other than the assigned meal in one of Jean's pots, pans or skillets. My mother taught me how to cook with grease.
I was born on December 15, 1959, at 8:53 A.M., Donna Lease Brazile, in Charity Hospital in New Orleans. I was the third child. My older sisters, Cheryl and Sheila, had arrived in 1957 and 1958. Two years later, in 1961, my parents, Lionel and Jean Brazile, had my brother Lionel Jr., whom we called "Teddy Man." My mother gave birth every year after that, until there were nine - six girls and three boys. The doctors at Charity Hospital tied something in a knot in October 1966. I am sure my father lit a candle and read a novena to St. Michael before the procedure was completed.
Hot, sweltering hot, that's my hometown of Kenner, Louisiana. Back then the city of Kenner was a bedroom enclave located in the suburbs of New Orleans, about a twenty-minute drive west of the historic French Quarter. It was a small town and the neighborhood in which I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s had the feel of a closely knit village. Kenner is bordered by Lake Pontchartrain to the north, the Mississippi River to the south and an unnamed nest of swampland to the west. Along with the terrible heat and scorching humidity, God blessed us with daily showers - enough rain to wet the sidewalks, quench the thirst of our vegetables growing out back, and moisten our beautiful rose bushes in the front yard, but not enough to alter the blazing temperature. After one of those delightful showers, Kenner turned into a reptile farm, overrun with frogs, turtles, snakes and other small, ugly creatures.
I grew up afraid of these swamp creatures (about the only living things that managed to terrify me), especially after a nice downpour. When the coast was clear and the kids were allowed to go out and play, someone would scream and holler "snake!" and panic would set in all over the house. If my father was home, he would go to his room and pull out his old rusty gun, a Colt .45, and shoot the slimy creature, all to the delight of my brothers and sisters and me. My mother never bothered to come to the door to look at the reptile. Instead, she'd yell, "Get y'all asses back in the house."
In Kenner, where you lived in relation to the railroad tracks was your destiny. My family didn't just live on the proverbial "other side of the tracks." No, we lived behind two sets of tracks. The middle-class Blacks lived between the main highway - Airline Highway - and the working poor, like my family, lived behind the double railroad tracks. So in a way, if you really do the math correctly, we lived behind three sets of tracks pushed up against the banks of the Mississippi River.
We lived at 529 Filmore Street, and every now and then the train heading from New Orleans on the way up north or west would stop and people in their cars had to wait for the train to pass. White people would be stuck on our street and we would sit on the porch and study them. We studied their cars, their hairdos and their demeanors. We wanted to know if they were afraid of us, and we tried everything we could think of to get them to talk to us, but they never even looked our way. Back then, Kenner was about 30 percent African American and 70 percent Caucasian. Segregation was fading as law but was still in place as practice. There was definitely a White Kenner and a Black Kenner.
The airport when I was growing up was called Moisant, but it was later renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport after the world-famous jazz trumpeter who was one of Louisiana's most famous sons. Everybody in Kenner, just about, had some connection with the airport. Whites lived in its immediate shadow near Williams Boulevard, the center of commerce and Kenner's main street.
But on my side of town most folks were poor or working class. My mother did domestic work for the Hilberts, starting out at about fifty dollars a week and topping off near the end of twenty years of service at maybe one hundred dollars, without any Social Security or other benefits. My mom started work at 7:00 in the morning and got off at 4:00 P.M. She had to clean, cook and get Mrs. Hilbert's children ready for school. Some of Mrs. Hilbert's children thought my momma was their momma because, in fact, she raised them. My mother went to work with a group of other women in our neighborhood, Miss Lois Jean and Miss Beulah, all of them domestic workers who cleaned and kept house for the wealthy White families who lived uptown, around St. Charles Avenue in the city. St. Charles Avenue was a beautiful area of stately homes that had once been plantations, with streets lined with trees dripping with moss. The men in my neighborhood were often day laborers or longshoremen. I grew up around men and women who worked long and hard with their hands and who never had too much to show for all their hard work, except an occasional new car.
There were men like Mr. Jumel Gant who lived next door to us - he was a bricklayer. My parents didn't have a car, so every time my mother was about to give birth, Mr. Jumel, who somehow was always home, would take my mother to the hospital in his truck - after he'd go and get her a pack of Salem Light cigarettes. The only time my mother smoked was right before and right after she gave birth. And Mr. Jumel was always there. He was there for the birth of at least seven out of the nine kids, including me, always getting my mother to Charity Hospital on time. There was also Mr. Paul Davis who lived across the street and drove the yellow school bus, and Mr. Joe Daigs who was a preacher and owned the corner grocery store on Filmore Street. Mr. Joe sold penny candies, pickles, pigs' lips, soft drinks, cold meats, aspirin and liniment for the older folks. He also owned a yellow school bus and had a church, the Community Missionary Baptist Church, up the street from our house. Although Mr. Joe and his wife, Mrs. Mary, had no children of their own, they were like surrogate parents to all the kids in the neighborhood. These were the people who made my part of Kenner often feel like one big extended family.
Poverty was a fact of life when I was growing up. Poverty meant we ate government "commodity" food, like yellow cheese, canned meats, grains, peanut butter and other surplus items. It meant my paternal grandmother, Grandma, made all the clothes for us kids, and I mean everything except our underwear! My parents never told us we were poor. We never discussed it, because they could usually make ends meet between paychecks or borrow from someone in the family. If we lacked something important, we got it when they got paid or during the holidays when our aunts and uncles would pitch in. We learned to wait and that patience was a virtue. We learned to do without and it never bothered us or consumed our daily existence.
One way to somehow feel rich even when you weren't was to cook delicious meals and share with other families in the neighborhood. My mother or Grandma would prepare a big pot of red beans and rice every Monday (laundry day), along with ham hocks, smoked sausages, garlic, onions and bell peppers. After we cooked the rice and made lettuce-and-tomato salad, the neighbors would bring over their plates and talk about their day at work. Cooking was therapy for women and men alike. The cook got a chance to work out his or her private blues and talk about the local news and politics. I enjoyed sitting in the kitchen helping my mother or Grandma cook up dishes and listening to the gossip.
When times were bad, especially around the holidays, we could always find something to prepare for dinner by fishing in the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain or one of the many local gutters. Catfish, trout, croakers, crawfish or plain old shrimp - my mother would just batter it up and fry it in the old black skillet. It always came out spicy good and tasty, especially with some Cajun hot sauce on the side. Life seemed to revolve around cooking, sharing meals and telling great stories about the old days. We learned so much in the kitchen about life listening to those stories from our parents or grandparents about growing up in the South.
We had little, if any, money. Not only did my parents not own a car, they didn't even have driver's licenses. We caught the bus everywhere or walked. To visit our maternal grandparents, our mother instructed us early on how to get around Kenner and New Orleans. For the nine of us, learning how to catch a bus downtown was a big deal. Back then, the hour-long bus ride out of Kenner using the Jefferson or Airline Highway, along with a transfer to one of the uptown buses on Claiborne or Tulane Avenue, became a major highlight of my life.
If we were lucky, our mother, who was raised "in the city," would call up her dad or one of her relatives - like Pa Henry, Cousin Sullivan, her sister Aunt Gwen or brothers Uncle Johnny, Uncle Floyd or Uncle Douglas (and one of his many girlfriends) - to come pick up all nine of us, plus my mother, and drive us to her mama's house on Valence Street, between St. Charles Avenue and Freret Street in New Orleans. If we traveled by car, I, as one of the oldest kids, had to sit close to the window. Once in position, I had to allow two of my younger siblings to sit on each knee. We never complained about being packed into a car. It was great to leave Kenner to see our relatives in the city.
Poverty affected nearly every part of my childhood, even my mother's attitudes about playtime. As soon as she came home from work, she forced all of us inside the house. This seemed like a contradiction. How could we enjoy our childhood while forced to stay inside most of the time? If it wasn't the scorching heat or the unpredictable downpours, my mother was afraid that we would get hurt from playing rough games or catch a rare cold during the winter months. She made it clear that we could not "afford to get sick." This bothered me no end as a child. If we did get sick, Grandma would take out one of her old homemade remedies and force it down our throats, and she also believed in taking the necessary precautions, like castor oil in the late summer to rid our bodies of toxins. Another favorite was using spiderwebs to heal a deep cut or placing a piece of fatback in our shoes to avoid swelling from a rusty nail or splinter. The fear of having to go to Grandma for a remedy was enough to scare me and my siblings into good health most of the time, or at least keep us from complaining of being sick.
We couldn't waste money. We couldn't mess up our school clothes or our play clothes. Our mother made us aware of the fact that we could not waste anything because there were people even poorer than us, which we couldn't believe. Gluttony was a sin my mother preached against all the time. She set an example of generosity, even under pressure, by feeding the neighbors' kids even when we didn't have enough for a second helping of corn bread and collard greens or shrimp jambalaya. My mother never missed an opportunity to tell us we had to learn how to share and give back in order to receive God's blessings. We were poor, but it wasn't the kind of poverty that made us go out on the street corner to beg for money or become a ward of the state.
We lived paycheck to paycheck, even with my father working two and sometimes three jobs. We had no rainy-day fund or savings account, but we had credit - lots of credit - with various corner stores. We managed because my mother was extremely disciplined and raised us to be quite frugal. Living in Grandma's house also helped. Grandma was a rock. She was always there to pitch in and help my parents fill the gap.
I didn't care much about toys - we couldn't get what we really wanted anyway until they were on sale. Instead of store-bought Easter baskets we used shoe boxes and filled them with boiled eggs, chocolate, candy and treats. Sometimes, to get a little extra money, my mother would take out a loan for five hundred dollars and pay it back at 20 percent interest. With terms like that, we kids simply did without. We learned at an early age the thing that was most important - family.
There was one Christmas when we got lucky. The driver of a Schlitz beer truck was speeding down Filmore Street and didn't see the train coming. Attempting to avoid hitting the train, the truck driver slammed on the breaks, hit a nearby post and landed in the ditch. Fortunately no one was hurt, not the passengers, the train conductor or the driver of the truck, but cases of beer spilled out all over the tracks. The train had been carrying bags of flour, which were also now spilling out. Word spread like wildfire and everybody brought wagons, bicycles, boxes, anything they could rustle up quickly to haul off their share of the beer and flour. That was a good Christmas. Aunt Adele and Pinkey, my father's older sisters, came over to get a couple of cases of beer. The adults had beer and the kids had buttermilk biscuits and we all felt like the richest people on earth.
Our home was built in 1947 by my father's older brother Ebbie and his friends. My dad's father, Grandpa Louis, had purchased the lumber from the Holloway Home Wrecking Company, which sold used wood from Camp Plauche Barracks located down the road in Harahan, near the river. It was an old, two-bedroom white wooden house. My parents paid most of the bills and made all the repairs while Grandma kept up the property taxes and kept the phone in her husband's name. Aunt Ethel, my father's oldest sister, and her family built the second home in 1956 next door. Aunt Ethel was also my godmother and she treated me as one of her own grandchildren. Her only child, Ethel Mae, and her five children lived at 531 Filmore with Aunt Ethel. This made us - the Brazile and Henderson clans - one gigantic extended family.
Early on I slept with Cheryl and Sheila, my two older sisters, in the bottom bed and Teddy Man and Chet, another brother, slept above us. And the baby of the year would sleep with my parents, plus the baby to come or the baby who had just been born. My grandmother would always allow one of us to sleep with her. I eventually slept in my grandmother's wooden four-poster queen-size bed with her until I was about twelve. Sometimes my little sister Lisa, whom we called "Little Red," would squeeze in with us or anyone who felt sick and needed Grandma's special medicine.
The center of the house, maybe even the soul, was our bouvetroire, or den. In Louisiana lingo, the bouvetroire is the room in the house where people go and kick back, relax, get their groove on, drink beer and spend the evening telling tall tales and lies. Children were allowed to sit and watch TV, but if company came we had to depart. And as hard as my father worked, when he was home, he played music all night long in his bouvetroire. If he was in a good mood, sometimes he would let us kids come in while he listened to Otis Redding, The Platters, Sam Cooke, Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin - all the records that my mom had bought on Canal Street or Uptown on Magazine Street. Music and laughter filled the house on those nights. My parents loved showing us off and our visitors would watch us dancing and showing off for their entertainment.
Being a good Catholic, my father had his altar right outside his bouvetroire, in a little alcove. There was the altar and there were two tiers so you could kneel and pray before it. It was a little scary, but no one dared drink or curse in front of the altar. My father built it himself from looking at some religious magazine. It was a long, narrow piece of wood covered with a nice piece of linen. He had all sorts of statues of St. Anthony, the Blessed Mother Mary, St. Michael and several crucifixes all throughout the house. With twelve mouths to feed, Lionel Brazile needed all the prayers and all the help he could get. Prayer was a daily act for all of us. It was mandatory.