A few times a year, my wife, Monica, fires up the holy trinity of Cajun cooking (bell pepper, celery, and onions) in a skillet, and I know that bliss is only a few hours away. I’ve heard for years that smell is the most powerful of our five senses for reviving emotion-laden memories. You will hear no dissent from me. A burning candle in a church takes me back to my pre-teen years, as an acolyte in Baton Rouge, when I had to stretch and stand on tiptoes to light and extinguish each candle on the altar.
The smell of that holy trinity in the skillet may be the most powerful of all, for it reminds me of my father, Lester LeBlanc, the oldest of nine children in a Depression-era family. Dad learned to cook from his mother, Marie Yetta, who worked for many years as a cook at various boarding houses in south Louisiana. Dad never lost his love of cooking, but he enjoyed it most when cooking for large groups of people, or for strangers who had not partaken of Cajun food.
For years, however, Dad’s love of cooking was in suspended animation. He offered to cook for our parish, but the lay leaders of the time brushed him aside. This was in the era before the cartoonish Justin Wilson and the celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme made Cajun cooking into a fad. Perhaps Dad’s offer of cooking a pot of jambalaya or gumbo felt a bit too downscale in the late 1960s.
Dad finally reconnected with cooking through his tenacity. For a few decades, he worked as the curator of the 19th-century Old State Capitol building in Baton Rouge. It was a white-collar job that involved supervising janitors, overseeing maintenance, and opening the building as a Civil Defense shelter during the occasional hurricane.
At some point in the capitol’s long history, someone saw fit to create a small kitchen on the ground level. Working in a job that left him with generous spare time, Dad began to cook in that kitchen. When tourists from across the world would stop to ask about the aromas pouring forth, he offered samples of whatever he was cooking for the day, whether it was crawfish étoufée, jambalaya, or pralines. They praised his cooking, and Dad beamed.
I did not learn Dad’s love for cooking, but I often helped him. I would clean crawfish shells, or chop vegetables with a large Hobart food processor that Dad bought. More than anything I enjoyed washing all the pots and utensils Dad used in cooking.
Dad and I had an often-fraught relationship. I learned to fear his temper and yelling when I was young and he was drinking frequently. Once, when Dad was arrested for drunken driving, I was relieved that he would spend the night in jail instead of arguing with Mom. Their arguments usually ended with Mom retreating to the master bedroom and weeping.
The other tensions between us were more mundane. I was a pampered and lazy child who did not study enough and had to be hounded even to practice piano. I complained when my playmates had color TVs and we did not. I wanted a two-story home with a swimming pool out back. I hated to mow our suburban-sized lawn. I think only my mother’s stubborn indulgence spared me from spankings. Dad sometimes threatened to send me to military school. Looking back on it, I would send myself to military school, or to some other institution that teaches discipline and etiquette.
My relation with Dad changed radically when our family came to an evangelical experience of Christianity. After years of attending services faithfully, one by one we connected Jesus’ death on the Cross with the redemption of our souls. Dad stopped drinking, and his temper diminished radically. More often I heard from the gentle and wise father who had been there all along, obstructed by the scar tissue of an impoverished childhood and Army service in World War II. Despite the random idiocies of being a teenager in the United States, I now enjoyed spending time with my father.
As he cooked at the Old State Capitol and I helped him, we worked in concert on tasks that brought joy into strangers’ lives. Eventually Dad began taking paid jobs to cook for groups: at wedding receptions, at Louisiana State University during football season, or during a downtown rhythm-and-blues festival. When Monica and I were married on Oct. 2, 1988, Dad cooked a large cast-iron pot of chicken-and-sausage jambalaya for the reception.
About a year later, we moved from Baton Rouge to Colorado Springs. In 1992, Dad’s history of heart disease caught up with him and he died at 72. Mom, Monica, and I were with him as he died. I stroked his arm and told him what a good father he was.
Today, when the aroma of jambalaya wafts through our home, it’s as though Dad is visiting for the day. The only thing that compares to it is when he appears unbidden in my dreams. Even when they are dreams of peril, I wake up happier because I have seen and heard my father again.
A few years before Dad’s death, Mom worked with him to adapt his jambalaya recipe for smaller servings. It was not an easy task because Dad used an intuitive method and cooked for servings of hundreds rather than a dozen. I have lost count of how many times I have shared this recipe with friends. I love hearing of how they cook this meal in Dutch ovens, or treat it more like a soup, or supplement it with seafood. I love that the recipe works just as well with kielbasa as it does with Manda’s sausage from Baton Rouge. I love all of this because I know Dad would love it.
There may be no jambalaya in the afterlife, and I leave that in God’s hands. I expect that the food at the Supper of the Lamb will surpass anything I am capable of imagining now. Still, I hope that within the economy of heaven my father still spreads joy through his cooking. That was when he was most fully alive.
Douglas LeBlanc is an associate editor of The Living Church and a member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. His other posts are here.
The featured image is of a chicken and sausage jambalaya at the LeBlanc household.