Here in South Louisiana, food holds a place of prominence in our daily lives. It seeps into our conversations, connects us with family and friends, and sometimes reconnects us with past acquaintances, while affording us the opportunity to know that person even better.

Such was the case when a friend, Albert Mestayer, told me of a delicious recipe for Eggplant Parmesan. It was from his friends, Steve and Norma Larson, both retired from the Iberia Parish School Board, who had taken a complicated, but tasty recipe and simplified it into a dish which had become a favorite of many. After several emails and conversations, I acquired more than a recipe. I learned of the proud heritage of his, and many other New Iberia families from the Bayou Chene area.

In our conversation about the recipe Steve was sharing, I learned that he had found a recipe for Eggplant Parmesan, but it was very detailed and time consuming. In wanting to simplify the recipe, he and his wife did what many experienced cooks in our area do, they improvised. Having a long list of ingredients for making the marinara sauce, they skipped that step and used their favorite jarred marinara sauce. They also used their own techniques in the preparation of the dish. In addition to acquiring a flavor-packed recipe, I gained insight into an interesting history lesson upon asking him what led him into the joy of cooking. He began by explaining that his father and mother were both excellent cooks. His father baked carrot cakes and sweet potato pies with sweet dough crusts. Those talents trickled down to him, his bothers and sisters. Now that he and his wife are retired, they have had more time to perfect their own culinary skills.

Steve shared that the culinary heritage which he received from his mother, a teacher, came by way of Bayou Chene. She traveled to this small community located in St. Martin Parish in the Atchafalaya Basin to teach at their one school. His great, great grandfather, Carl Peter Larson was born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States, settling first in Utah. From there he made his way to Bayou Chene in the late 1860s, and with many other families made a home in the area. A U.S. Post Office, church, school, and merchandise store was built in this small community along the bayou where access to the school was by boat, there were no cars or roads, and electricity was limited. Crawfish were not seen as a delicacy as they are today, instead being used by the fishermen for bait. Steve himself lived in this community until the age of four.

Other New Iberia families, such as the Currys, Cases, Crowsons and Stockstills can date their heritage to the Bayou Chene community. New Iberia resident Mike Stockstill told of his mother from St. Martinville who traveled to this small community to teach at the school and do missionary work at the Methodist Church. It was there she met and married his dad. She brought with her an Acadian family recipe for crawfish bisque, introducing the community to the true value of the crustacean. The crawfish bisque recipe is still treasured and cooked today by his family. Mike also told of how white beans saved the people of Bayou Chene, for it was one staple that could be found on tables with large families, along with fish, which were plentiful. With three boys of his own, he favored making white bean soup to satisfy their appetites. In many restaurants in St. Mary and lower St. Martin parish, white beans are the usual accompaniment to fried fish.

The community experienced occasional flooding, but none like the 1927 Flood which devastated a large part of the community. The community rebuilt, but the population dwindled, and with the closing of the post office in 1952, most of the residents left

Though the Bayou Chene community is no longer, our New Iberia community is enriched by its families, and we can be thankful for the historical and culinary heritage which they share with us today.

The following recipe is of the Eggplant Parmigiana shared by Steve and Norma Larson.

Norma’s Eggplant Parmigiana

4 medium eggplant (about 3.5 lbs. total), sliced horizontally

2 Tbsp. salt, dissolved in enough water to cover eggplant slices while soaking

¼ cup all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil for frying

1, 8 oz. bag shredded Mozzarella cheese

2, 6 oz. bags of shredded Parmesan cheese

3 eggs, lightly beaten

24 oz. jar of your favorite marinara sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Rinse and slice eggplant into ½ in. horizontal slices

Soak in salted water for about 30 minutes

Rinse and pat dry on paper towels, then place in zip-top bag with flour and shake to coat.

In deep, heavy skillet heat ½ inch of vegetable oil to 375 degrees F. Fry the eggplant in batches for about 1 minute on each side, or until golden brown. Allow to drain on paper towels.

Spread small amount of marinara sauce in bottom of 8x12 inch baking dish. Arrange a layer of eggplant slices in bottom of dish, spoon ¼ of beaten eggs on slices.

Top with a layer of mozzarella cheese and generous layer of Parmesan cheese.

Spoon layer of marinara sauce over all, and repeat layering until all ingredients are used.

Bake approximately 35-40 minutes until golden brown on top. Serve warm. May also be refrigerated and reheated the next day, allowing the flavors to blend.

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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