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Rats! A former food editor writes for ‘Native Tongues: The Food Edition’

By Chris Bynum

Have you ever stared into a plate of nutria in its own juices?

If you’ve never poked fork into swamp-vermin fricassee . . . (she leans toward the audience and makes it personal) you are, well, a culinary coward. You’ve merely waded into the juices of Louisiana cuisine. You’ve never really taken the plunge.

I certainly didn’t order it off a menu 40 years ago, of course, but when I was food editor for New Orleans’ evening paper, I was obliged to taste just about everybody’s cookin’. That’s how I ended up with a dead rat on my plate at a supper table in New Iberia.

I became a food editor about the time Julia Child was gaining fame for dropping slippery chickens on the floor. I’m not comparing myself to Julia, of course. No way. Simply pointing out that a certain amount of awkwardness in the kitchen can be charming. But I wasn’t AWKWARD in the kitchen: I was ABSENT in the kitchen . . . a single woman known to settle down with a tube of Pringles and a Fresca when the pantry was bare. (Don’t groan at me; I once knew a food critic who cleansed his palate with Hubig’s Pies.)

My equivalent of dropping a chicken on the floor? The day New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne called with a question about New Orleans cuisine.

Actually his secretary called me.

“This is the New York Times. Please hold for Mr. Craig Claiborne.”

I waited. Mr. Craig Claiborne skipped the hellos and went straight to the chase.

“What is the difference between cream cheese and Creole cream cheese?”

(Silence from me. He repeats.)

“What is the difference between cream cheese and Creole cream cheese?”

I flat didn’t know. Didn’t grow up here. When I went to my first crawfish boil, I thought I had arrived too late, and that all that was left was the garbage thrown on top of newspapers.

What is the difference between cream cheese and Creole cream cheese?

The only way I knew to save face was to put on my best Suzie-secretary voice and tell the esteemed Mr. Craig Claiborne that The States-Item food editor was out to lunch, and that if he were on deadline, he might just want to call the food editor at The Times-Picayune.

It wasn’t a total lie. I was on my way to an assignment courtesy of the tourism board in Sportsmen’s Paradise . . . heading over the Achafalaya Basin to Bayou Teche for that mmm, mmm good nutria supper. Actually, to report on the succulence of rodent flesh because chefs at that time were being encouraged to offer nutria as a delicacy . . . . because we were being overrun by the damn things.
Cook it, and they will come. Eat a rat; save the wetlands.

And how, you may well ask yourselves, did this come to be? Well, Louisiana lore has it that a breeding pair of nutria was shipped up here from South America for the McIlhenny’s menagerie on Avery Island. And when a hurricane blew through, the pair escaped. Well, the happy couple must have been very much in love, because their descendants now live in every state in the union. Even in Canada.

So there I was, settling down for a swamp-rat supper, smoothing the napkin in my lap and smiling at the Robicheaux family.

(Long pause)
Now my dilemma. I’M A VEGETARIAN. What are the odds!? A black woman with a soul-food background who doesn’t eat — much less cook — meat. Call it disqualification for the job, if you will . . . but I’m not the only New Orleans food editor who had culinary quirks.

Chris Bynum is a former newspaper food editor and still a vegetarian.


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