Chef Isaac Toups on Growing Up Cajun and the Best Collards You've Ever Tasted
Chef and Louisiana native Isaac Toups' impressive debut cookbook, Chasing the Gator, is a love letter to Cajun country, his birthplace and the inspiration for his New Orleans restaurants. In this excerpt from the book, he shares how being Cajun shaped him into the hard working, fun loving person he is today.
My mama’s side, the Carts, were hardworking people. They dug rice canals, picked cotton, sewed their own clothes, and did odd jobs like cutting down trees and hauling wood. They worked hard because they had to, and they could make anything out of nothing. That was especially true for food.
Maw Maw Cart could go into the woods and find every edible plant within a mile. She kept fig trees in the backyard and made fig preserves. If someone caught a turtle, she’d cook it. Turtle eggs, too. They kept chickens. And they always had gardens full of tomatoes, squash, beans, watermelons, peppers, collards, turnips, radishes, fresh herbs, and flowers. My parents still keep gardens today—two of them. Because Mama won’t let Daddy near hers. (I don’t blame her.)
My grandparents, Eva and Lester, grew up without refrigeration, so they were experts at preserving food: pickling, salting, canning, smoking, curing, and drying everything from vegetables to meat. If they had a good year in the garden, they picked the harvest and put it up for leaner months, or shared it with their neighbors. Meat was precious. When Maw Maw Cart was raising five kids, she didn’t always have enough money to buy meat. So she’d make long gravies to stretch what they did have. Paw Paw Cart, the breadwinner, might get a piece of meat at supper, but my mama and her brothers and sisters got roux-enriched gravies over rice, seasoned with pan drippings.
One time, after my parents got married, Mama and Daddy were driving to my grandparents’ house and met a man alongside the road with a bunch of chickens. The man’s dog has gotten into his neighbors’ chickens while they were out of town and killed them. Rather than let the meat go to waste, he was flagging folks down to give it away. My dad went into the yard and gathered as many chickens as he could carry and took them to Maw Maw Cart. She immediately took them to the backyard and started burning the feathers off and gutting them. That’s good eatin’!
There was no meal in the Carts’ home like Sunday dinner—we call it dinner, not lunch. Sundays back then were for church and visiting family. After Mass, everyone would congregate at my grandparents’ house, or at an aunt or uncle’s house, around a mess of food. Even in the leanest times, they managed to feed a crowd.
When you walk into a Cajun house, there are things that just always happen. You will be offered a drink. You will be fed. Most of our meals are eaten at the house. Even today, when we go visit, Mama is offended if we say, “Let’s go out.” The first question you get asked when you walk in my mama’s house is, “Are you hungry?” Hospitality is in our bones, whether we’ve got much to share or not. There was a train track that ran behind the house and Maw Maw Cart would even come up with something to feed the hobos—the bona fide kind with an actual bandana on a stick—who showed up at the back door. She never turned anyone away. Though the hobos did have to stay on the back stoop.
After Sunday dinner, they’d break out the fiddles and guitars and drag the furniture to the edges of the living room to create a dance floor. Mama would crawl under a bench and watch all the feet two-stepping around. My grandparents have both passed on, but they danced right up until the end. Every weekend, even at ages 83 and 90, they’d pack a little flask of salty dogs, get in the car, with Maw Maw Cart driving, and hit up a Cajun dance hall where bands like Joe Simon or Aldus Broussard and the Louisiana Cajuns would play.
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I grew up a little differently. We cooked and ate the way we did more out of tradition than necessity. My father was a dentist, a busy man, a workaholic. But he liked to garden and hunt and fish. He didn’t make pickles or beef jerky because he had to. He made them because he liked it. It put him closer to the land. That connection to where you come from is a Cajun mentality instilled early on. We had a pig, horses, geese, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats—a little bit of everything. Again, we didn’t have a farm out of necessity. But to daddy, it was important, and he expected us to work and earn our keep. I guess that’s why my work ethic is what it is today.
Quite frankly my dad’s pickles probably cost more than a jar at the store, given the cost of his tractor and his time. But to us, buying pickles is no fun. I continue to make my own pickles and hot sauce and jams because I like it. It makes me feel Cajun. It reminds me where I came from.
I also call these braised or sticky collards. I put a full pound of meat in these greens. My preference is for equal amounts brisket and bacon, to get that smoked barbecue flavor from the brisket and the fatty goodness from the bacon. But if you have some leftover sausage to throw in, that would be cool too. Leftover piece of pork roast? Sure. What you use doesn’t matter as long as you have a full pound of meat. That’s what makes the collards so good. They go great with any pork or chicken dish, and are the best collards around.
Serves 6 to 8
1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil, like canola or grapeseed
1 large onion, sliced thin
10 cloves garlic, crushed
½ pound bacon, diced into ¼-inch pieces
½ pound brisket (cooked), chopped into ¼-inch cubes
2 1-lb bunches of collard greens, destemmed and torn into pieces about the size of a dollar bill and cut in half lengthwise
12 ounces dark beer (porter or stout)
2 cups chicken stock
¼ cup cane syrup
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoons black pepper
½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
Heat a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes. Add the oil and heat until shimmering, about 1 minute. Add the onion and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown. You want good caramelization on the onion. Add the crushed garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Add the bacon and brisket and cook for 1 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fat begin to render.
Add beer, stock, cane syrup, salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Give it a good stir. Reduce the heat to medium and bring mixture up to a simmer. Add 1/3 of collard greens and stir. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes. Add another third of the collards, stir, cover, and cook for 10 more minutes. Add the last third of collards, stir, and cover. Cook for 45 minutes over medium heat. (We’re intentionally cooking pretty hot because there’s a lot of liquid in the pot and you’re ultimately steaming the collards to break them down.)
Uncover the pot and give it a good stir. Reduce heat to medium-low, keeping at a low simmer, and cook uncovered for 1 ½ hours, stirring every 10 minutes. Stir them often because you want the syrup and stock to really adhere to all of the greens—really lacquer them. There won’t be a lot of water left at the bottom of the pot when these are done, only about a cup of liquid total. They’ll be sticky and meaty and incredible.
Recipe and text excerpted with permission from Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking; photo by Denny Culbert.