John Folse begins his cookbook, Hooks, Lies & Alibis with a forward describing his boyhood along the Mississippi River, a boyhood stamped indelibly with the place of river, wildlife, fish, swamp and bayou. It is the story of a Cajun boy growing up along the twenty-foot high levee fronting his home in Louisiana’s St James Parish, a marshy land where bar pits along the river caught the overflow and filled with spoonbill catfish, channel cats, garfish, gasperou and sweet Mississippi River shrimp. For John Folse and his five brothers these bar pits were both a playground and the birthplace of an entrepreneurial spirit. Even as children the six boys earned a few pocket dollars with the sale of their fishing bounty from the bar pits and bayous.
By age twelve Folse had graduated to working his lines and traps on the mile-wide mighty Mississippi. But the river was a source of play as much as fishing ground. Folse describes it this way…
‘What we loved most about the shrimp season was that the Mississippi River water was warmed by the June sun and the monkey vines grew long and strong from the willow trees that leaned into the river. A trip to Disneyland could not compare with swinging monkey vines into the river back then. Swimming and swinging were always the payback for a job well done raising shrimp boxes. (Mamere’s stuffed eggplant was just a bonus.) Although we had been warned often of the many perils of swimming in the river, we always enjoyed a dip in Old Muddy. And, the fact is, we couldn’t deny our guilt when asked, “Have you been swimming today?” because our mud-stained Fruit of the Looms gave us away.’
From the river the boys moved into the swamps beyond the cane fields in back of the house. They poled their pirogues into these swamps to a spot where the big gators lived, looking to exercise skills handed down from their father. Following their father’s lessons the boys tied a six-inch steel hook to the end of a quarter-inch thick cord rope and baited it with half a chicken. One boy climbed a willow tree angling over the marsh and tied the cord with hook and bait to a thick branch dangling two feet above the water. In time an eight to ten foot gator leapt with a swish of its tail into the air grabbing the bait and swallowing the hook. Later, poling the bayous of home, the boys learned of the early summer bullfrogs. Excellent in the kitchen pot, they were also a source of income, shipped around the country to biology labs looking for specimens.
Apart from fish, the swamp-floor pantry provided big and small game, game birds and crustaceans, all of which were eaten more often than fish in the Folse household. Crawfish and channel catfish were the two staples, though crawfish did not become popular on Louisiana tables until the late 1950s. For the Folse’s, crawfish was a delicacy. It was Crawfish Bisque on Easter Sunday, Daddy’s River Road Crawfish Stew on Mother’s Day, and late in summer boiled crawfish with corn and potatoes was a common dish.
Folse tells a salty tale about cleaning a large channel cat…
‘Daddy said the head and skin were important because they added that wonderful gelatinous texture to the stew. He removed the gills and whiskers from the catfish, and then, with a Brillo pad in hand, scrubbed the whole fish under running water from the cistern. The slime that protected the fish’s skin had to be removed, and there was nothing better than Brillo for this task. Daddy also claimed that the skin kept the tender meat from falling apart during the two-to-three hour cooking process.’
From a small piece of land in Louisiana’s St James Parish, land strategically located between the river and the swamp, John Folse was bathed in a culture and cuisine that he came to make known worldwide. Mention his name in some circles and heads are filled with mouth-watering thoughts of Louisiana Cajun cooking.