In Her Footsteps

Kwame Onwuachi traces his grandmother's journey from Louisiana to Texas, one meal at a time.
By Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein
January 15, 2021
Illustration of Kwame Onwuachi and his grandmother Cassie Phillips
Kwame Onwuachi and his grandmother Cassie Phillips
| Credit: Typography and illustration by George McCalman / Based on photography by Cedric Angeles

My earliest memory is not inscribed in my mind in words, but as flavors. I was a toddler, in the kitchen of my apartment in the Bronx. It was just after Christmas—the tree was still up—and my mom served my sister and me shrimp étouffée for dinner. Shrimp stock that had simmered in a well-worn soup pot on the stove infused the dish, along with crawfish tails and crawfish fat. I hadn't been to the sea, but I could taste the sea in it. I didn't know what the trinity was—the onion, celery, and pepper that form the base of so much Creole food—but I could taste the trinity in it. Those flavors—buttery, silky, rich, deep, multileveled—were set into me like scrawls on wet cement. Today, they still mean one thing to me: home.

Children think their first memories are the start of their story, but as adults we learn that isn't so. That knowledge isn't always easy. For Black Americans, it's especially uneasy. For many of us, our ancestors have often been overlooked, their stories either actively erased or simply deemed not important enough to be taught to us in schools. But in my childhood kitchen, the past spoke volumes through the food we ate, and I learned at an early age that those flavors had a history. I knew that my mom's étouffée recipe came from Grandma Cassie, a woman bursting with warmth, with a syrupy Southern accent, who drove to New York City from Beaumont, Texas, with a suitcase full of boudin and frozen crawfish tails at Christmastime. But it wasn't until I was in my 30s, last winter on a trip down to Louisiana with my grandmother, that I fully understood where that story came from.

Illustration of Kwame Onwuachi and his grandmother Cassie Phillips
Kwame Onwuachi and his grandmother Cassie Phillips
| Credit: Illustration by George McCalman / Based on photography by Cedric Angeles

I met Grandma Cassie at the Lafayette Regional Airport. I was wearing my Malcolm X hat, given to me by her husband, Winston, with whom I had recently traveled to his home in Trinidad and Tobago, and I noticed she wore hers, too­—her X was in a lovely bright pattern. Our route would start in a small town called Mamou in Louisiana, where my grandmother was born, and end in Beaumont, where she grew up. She was excited to be going back home with me, her only grandson.

So much is made of the city of New Orleans, it is easy to forget that far from the Lower Ninth Ward and Tremé, the state is made up of small towns and vast stretches of bayou and forest. Driving north from Lafayette to Mamou, wetlands stretched out on either side. Hardwood forests fuzzed the horizon. Swallows and kites zipped through the air. Houses were ranch-style, modest and set back from the road. Most businesses were gas stations and farm repair shops. It isn't an unfriendly place, but not one overly concerned with what you think of it. This is a Louisiana you have to work to know. It's a place where the best food isn't in restaurants but in homes you need an invitation to. Thankfully, I had Grandma Cassie.

No flavor goes to waste in this étouffée— even shrimp shells are used to make the seafood stock. If using shelled shrimp, ask for 6 ounces of shells from the fish counter, or choose a high-quality fresh stock.

Credit: Illustration by George McCalman

Mamou is a town of about 3,000 in Evangeline Parish, which bills itself as the Cajun music capital of the world. Though my great-grandmother Momo, a French-speaking restaurateur, lived in Ville Platte, when my grandma was born, Momo had to travel to Mamou, 12 miles away, because it was the only town in driving distance with a maternity ward for Black women.

The next morning, we hit up the courir de Mardi Gras in Mamou, a procession to kick off Mardi Gras season. It was early on a Sunday, and the shops on the tiny Main Street were mostly closed. Grandma and I headed toward a group of revelers, asking a passerby where the start of the parade was. "Oh," said the man, older, white, and friendly. "You're looking for the other Mardi Gras." He directed us to a parallel parade, starting a few blocks away, and nearly all Black. We joined at the start of the procession, finding a spot on the No Limit Southern Riders float. This was a far cry from the glitz and glamour of New Orleans. The floats were simple flatbed trucks with a few streamers and plywood barriers on the side. The route moved through the small town, slow and gentle enough that onlookers sauntered from their porches to the roadside, approaching with plates of boudin, a mixture of rice and pork stuffed into sausage casing, steaming in the cold morning. We gave them beads; they gave us a link or two, and I think we got the better part of the deal. Each bite of boudin burst with flavor, an alchemy of the rice soaking up the pork juices, made even more flavorful with the addition of liver; house spice, a blend of paprika, garlic, onion, pepper, and more that varies from cook to cook; and, of course, the most sacred of all Creole seasoning, the trinity. We got off that float an hour later stuffed and headed to a chicken run, which is exactly as it sounds: chicken and children squawking in equal volume as one tried to catch the other. We watched, eating plates of cracklings, red beans and rice, and fried shrimp.

The subtle spice of Biscoff cookies helps to balance the sweetness of each deca- dent layer of creamy custard and fresh bananas in this tall and impressive banana pudding for a crowd.

Get the Recipe: Biscoff Banana Pudding

Credit: Illustration by George McCalman

But soon, Grandma and I had to move on. We had a date in Beaumont, Texas, two hours west. As we drove on the highway, crawfish ponds blurred by. My grandmother told me about her mother, Momo, real name Emily Phillips, a woman who, with her husband, a preacher, ran a restaurant out of their home in Beaumont. That's where hospitality entered our bloodstream. Grandma Cassie told me about her life, too, most of which I knew, some of which I didn't, about the journey out of the South to Chicago when she worried about where she—a single Black mother with three young children—might be able to stop to spend the night and how often that was just pulled over by the roadside.

By the time we arrived at the small house where my grandmother grew up and my uncle Herman still lived, it was dusk. Uncle Herm and cousin L.G. were standing in the driveway. L.G. approached and enveloped me in a hug so big my feet lifted from the pavement. "My brother! My brother!" he shouted. Inside the kitchen, Aunt Yolanda was putting the finishing touches on her banana pudding. Uncle Herm, Grandma Cassie's brother, was tending to a shrimp and okra stew. White rice was steaming from the cooker and from ham hock–studded red beans on the stove. And next to those beans was a soup pot full of shrimp stock, the makings of an étouffée that I immediately recognized.

These flavors of home had been stewing in Beaumont well before I tasted them as a toddler in the Bronx and, before Beaumont, in homes I don't know stretching back through time. The next time I made them, I would remember that I, as chef, wasn't cooking for myself but for all those who came before—and for all who would follow.

Kwame and Cassie's South

Illustrated map
Credit: Illustration by George McCalman

If traveling to these parts via New Orleans, check in to The Chloe, a 19th-century mansion that's been converted into a hotel in the Uptown neighborhood. There are 14 ridiculously charming rooms showcasing local art and fun vintage touches, a lush garden, and a restaurant serving up contemporary Creole dishes (rooms from $256). In Mamou, turn in at the Hotel Cazan, a boutique hotel in the heart of Cajun country (rooms from $100).

Dormant through the week, Fred's Lounge comes alive only on Saturday morning, when local Cajun musicians take the stage and Bloody Marys flow from 8 in the morning. The fiddles, washboards, guitars, and accordions that fill the tiny stage barely leave room for musicians, but there's also space for dancing. (420 Sixth St., Mamou)

Locals line up to feast on The Sausage Link's spicy freshly stuffed boudin, crab burgers, po'boys, fried pickles, gator balls, and more. There's nothing fancy here, and along I-10, there are plenty of other boudin joints, but this one is among the most delicious. (2400 E. Napoleon St., Sulphur, Louisiana)

DJ's Boudain, a boudin processing plant, isn't that much to look at (unless you're a USDA hound), but DJ's is a local boudin legend, and the small retail store here—where the hungry can avail themselves of smoked boudin, smoked jalapeño boudin, and delicious boudin balls—makes the trip worth it.

At the popular Krazy Cajun Cafe in Mamou, just across the street from Fred's Lounge, the Friday special gets you a heaping plate of silky shrimp étouffée plus two sides (go for the mashed potatoes and the corn). True, the best food in Louisiana is served in home kitchens, but Don Secia's modest restaurant—packed with LSU memorabilia—is so homey, and the étouffée so delicious, this is a necessary stop for any hungry visitor. The shrimp po'boys are legend in these parts.

Hours and availability may vary due to COVID-19.

Video Credits

Senior Producer/Director: Zoë Engongoro and Jen Lomeli
Senior Producer: Evan Kleinman
Editor: Edwin Clavijo