In 1998, Steve Hartman, a reporter for CBS News, had an award-winning feature series titled, “Everybody Has a Story.” In this news series, which ran until 2004, he would sling a dart over his shoulder to a place on the national map. He would then travel to whatever town it landed on and randomly pick out a name from its phone book. If the person agreed, he would then interview them about their “story.” His approximately 100 stories ranged from a five-year-old boy who floated balloons up to his deceased grandmother, to a woman from Louisiana who still did her son’s laundry. That newscast can be likened to the stories which flavor our favorite dishes at holiday time and connect us to memories of people and places we hold dear.

Especially during the Christmas season, chance meetings with friends and strangers alike provide ready opportunities for sharing stories of time-honored holiday dishes. Such was the case when, upon admiring a pastry at a local supermarket, I found myself engaged in a conversation with another shopper who had stopped to do the same. As our conversation began, I learned that her name was Lilla Bacque, and years ago she had acquired a recipe from her mother-in-law, Rae Bacque, for buttermilk cake, a favorite of her husband’s. This cake, crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside was eagerly anticipated for birthdays, holidays and special occasions. As Lilla explained, the cake was so coveted by family and friends that her sister had a way of slicing the cake to make it last longer. In the years that have passed since receiving the recipe, Lilla states that she has made hundreds of cakes, to the delights of many.

In a recent phone call to Nelwyn Hebert, I found she and her sister Andy Delaune in the process of making fruitcakes. Upon inquiring as to the origin of their recipe, I learned of a story from their childhood. As they described it during a recent visit, the sisters had grown up in Patoutville next to the sugar mill. Their neighbors, George and Ruth Smith had three sons, and all had become good family friends. Every year Ruth would make fruitcakes, and visits to the Smith house at Christmas always included servings of her delicious cakes. In March of 2020, before the COVID-19 quarantine struck, Newlyn and Andy decided to reconnect and visit one of their sons, Mike, now living in Houma. It was there that they learned that Ruth’s treasured recipe for fruitcake was still in existence and being made yearly for Mike by a friend. The friend shared the years-old recipe with Nelwyn and Andy, and upon purchasing the ingredients for the cake, the cashier asked if they were making fruitcake. When they affirmed that they were, the cashier decided to do the same, and the recipe was shared once again. Moistened with grape juice rather than liquor, these delectable cakes have now found their place in Nelwyn and Andy’s Christmas food traditions, while reconnecting them with fond childhood friends and memories.

At breakfast after Mass one morning, friends, and long-time New Iberia residents, Paul Sr. and Juanita Gulotta told me of a recipe that Junaita’s mother, Hazel Broussard, made at Christmas. The dish was eggplant dressing and it had become a family favorite which was indispensable at every holiday meal. It was so popular, that their son, Paul Gulotta Jr, a retired New Iberia Cardiologist, decided to learn to make it himself. On his first attempt, he spent hours in his grandmother’s kitchen taking notes on the process, however it never resulted in the delicious flavor of his grandmother’s dish. He then decided to use a new approach to replicating the delicacy. As he described it, he spent a day with his grandmother, shopping with her at several stores to find just the right kind of eggplant, green or light purple with small seeds. Only Lou Anna oil in a Magnalite, not black iron, pot was used for sautéing. Returning home with her, he watched and filmed her as she prepared the delicacy. His grandmother sometimes added oysters to the eggplant dressing, if they were available from Musemeche’s small store on Robertson Street, or she would add first-cut pork chops, cooked until very tender, along with seasonings and rice. The recipe from this labor of love was gifted to all his siblings one Christmas, and though the current dish made by family members bears a close semblance to the taste of the original dish, Paul Jr. feels that it would again require being made by his beloved grandmother, since deceased, on that same gas stove, in the same pots, containing the same hand-picked ingredients to fully measure up.

Social media is a wonderful tool for connecting with friends when distance and circumstances keep them apart. It was through a post on Facebook that I learned of a traditional family Christmas pastry that was being made by a school nurse friend, Paula Apa-Hall, from Oregon. In reaching out to Paula she told of her family’s Italian roots dating back to her grandparents who came to this country from Italy in the early 1900’s. Since arriving in their new homeland, her family has been making pizzelles, an Italian cookie composed of a batter of flour, melted butter or oil, eggs, vanilla, anise and lemon. Made on a hot iron, similar to a waffle iron, this light cookie with delicate designs is prepared every Christmas by siblings and cousins who come together in the process. Paula was privileged to be given the card bearing its recipe from her eldest aunt, along with the iron pizelle maker that had been shipped to her by family in Italy.

No matter what your story is this Christmas, be it a story of family-favorite foods, or cherished time spent with friends and loved ones, I hope it is filled with all the sweetness of candy canes and sugarplums and memories to last a lifetime. Merry Christmas!

CATHERINE WATTIGNY embraces the “jour de vivre” as a wife, mother and grandmother, inspired by her prior nursing experience with a new focus on good mental health for all.

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