"The best one is the brackish water shrimp." – Alzina Toups
Raymond Joseph “Joey” Fonseca, Jr. learned fishing—predominantly catfishing—in and around Bayou Des Allemands, a fisherman’s and bird-watcher’s paradise on the boundary of Lafourche and St. Charles parishes. Joey’s parents were Cajun, his mother of Canadian descent and his father of Portuguese heritage (the name Fonseca, he points out, appears oeventually raised his own four children. There, he grew up in thn the back of Lancers Portuguese wine bottles). They lived on the bank of the bayou, where Joey e legacy of the Outlaws of Des Allemands, fishermen of previous generations who devised a revolutionary system of catching catfish using paint cans and/or 55-gallon drums—as opposed to troutlines, or their own hands. These days Joey and his three sons, commercial fishermen all, lure their prey by sinking hoop nets into the bayou, a modern improvement on can fishing. Joey’s wife, Jeannie, hand-sews the boys super-strong bait bags for their birthdays to use in the hoop nets. The Fonseca men are also shrimpers, crabbers, crawfishermen, and alligator hunters, depending on the weather and the season. New Orleanians enjoy wild catfish from Outlaw Katfish Company in some of the city’s finest restaurants, and also if they are lucky enough to make it to the Crescent City Farmers Market before Jeannie sells it all.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Alzina Toups, owner Alzina’s Restaurant—Galliano, LA
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Monday, March 28, 2011. I am with Miss Alzina in Galliano at Alzina’s. Miss Alzina, if I could get you to say your full name and your birth date, that would be great.
Alzina Toups: Alzina Toups, and my birthday is August 16, 1928.
And can you tell me for the record what you do for a living?
Um, cook mostly.
We’re in the space where you cook and where you serve your food. Do you call this a restaurant?
No, it’s like a get-together place, like a kitchen, like your own home.
I couldn’t have said it better. I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit to start about your heritage—where your family comes from?
We’re Cajun; come from Nova Scotia. And my other family from my mother’s side, Lombas, they were [from] Portugal.
Can you describe for us how this restaurant runs?
I really think it’s like a get-together, like family, because if I do one family they don’t have no walk-ins. You understand what I’m saying? It’s like you book something for this family. I don’t mix them with another family so we don’t have no walk-in who comes. It’s only for that family. It’s private. And it’s like their home; they do whatever they want.
What’s the percentage of customers that you have who you already know?
It’s mostly people from out of town. I used to do bus tours. I really believe I did people from all over the world in this kitchen. And you know I do not advertise it; it’s by mouth.
How long have you been doing this?
Can you tell me a little bit about how and why you started doing this?
Well I worked with my husband, I want to say about 20 years. We worked together. I worked with him on his boat, our boat. So after he sold the boat, you know I wanted to keep on working. So my son—this was a welding shop, and he moved to a bigger place, so he told me, “If you want to convert this into a kitchen, I’ll give you the building.” So that’s what I did. I converted this into a kitchen.
You mentioned a little bit earlier that you lived on Grand Isle for a while. Where did you grow up?
In this area, Galliano, and then when my husband—you know, working on the boat, so we stayed on Grand Isle for a while and we’d [commute] from going to Grand Isle to Galliano.
What do you mean by working on the boats?
Shrimping. This is the reason I know quite a bit about seafood.
What was that life like? What were your days like?
What would you cook for yourselves out on the boat?
We had a refrigerator and all. We did shrimp, fish—well, it was so fresh, from the water to the skillet. You know the first day we always did étouffée, spaghetti étouffée. You break your spaghetti and not boil the spaghetti separately. We break it in the sauce.
Oh, can you describe that to me a little bit?
You make your tomato sauce, whatever you use, but we used the first shrimp from the trawl. We’d throw a trawl net, and from that we peeled the quantity we wanted to put in it. So, and we made the sauce and we add enough stock or water; so you break your spaghetti—or you used the short one, whatever [pasta] that you wanted—and you let it cook in there. It’s like a sauce.
That would be your first meal?
Yeah, the first meal—the very first meal, and all the fish were so fresh you could fix that right away. And it was still moving, the fish. That’s the reason I’m spoiled for my shrimp. Different areas, different taste—the shrimp.
Can you still tell when you get a batch in?
Oh yeah, I can tell from the East or the West or wherever it comes from—or brackish water. The best one is the brackish water shrimp. I really believe it’s different. Maybe where they feed is different—you know what the shrimp feed on, or the water, because it’s like a gray. They’re grayish color.
What is the difference in flavor?
The flavor, it tastes better. Sometimes the shrimp, they have like an iodine taste; so the little brackish [ones], they don’t have that.
I’m back with Miss Alzina. She was heating up some gumbo and some bread, and so now we’re going to eat while we talk. And while we were sitting here, I learned that her son now has a boat. Shrimping is sort of in the blood. How long has he had a boat?
I want to say about five or six years, maybe longer. Time goes fast.
I wanted to ask you before I knew about your son how the BP oil spill affected the shrimpers and the fishermen around here. And you were just telling me how his life changed for a few months. Can you tell me about that?
Well his life changed because they closed most of the water where you could go trawling. So they couldn’t go out, and BP came along with the “Vessel Of Opportunity” [program]. So many of the trawlers and the crabbers and the oystermen there worked for BP, which was money coming in, and I really believe BP treated them real good.
What was he doing exactly?
He was taking the men [to] work and bringing all the trash back. Every day. They worked from 24/7.
So we’re having a seafood gumbo. Miss Alzina does not eat salt herself for health reasons but she put some oyster water in there that makes it naturally salty. Can you tell me how you developed your style of gumbo? Is it like your mother’s?
From generation to generation. You can see the roux is not heavy. I used about a tablespoon of flour, so but I use quite a bit of onion and I just sauté, sauté until it gets real—that real color. I do that the day before. So it takes time to do it, so the next day it’s not as long. I don’t use smoked sausage in my gumbo because it takes away some of the flavor of the seafood. So I use like pickled meat. And then I sauté that with the onion until the onion, you hardly can see the onion; the next day I use oyster water, which I buy at the seafood market. And the oysters and the shrimp—I use brackish water shrimp and then the crabmeat, which the crabmeat, I peel it myself.
Do you buy the crabs alive or already boiled?
The shrimp—do you buy those with the head on and everything?
Yeah, head on, head on, and I peel the shrimp myself too. So it’s a labor of love.
You don’t shuck your own oysters, do you?
No. I used to but I don’t anymore.
So you sauté your onions until they’re pretty golden brown, is that it?
Golden brown and then I add a little bit of water to dissolve all that, the onion.
At what point do you add the flour?
It’s already made—I make a roux and I keep it in the refrigerator. And I add just what—just a small—about a tablespoon.
A tablespoon of roux. I thought you didn't use roux but I guess—
Sometimes, sometimes. I don’t ever use roux, but like the seafood gumbo, sometimes you have to use a little bit for the color.
When I ate here one night you said that there was no roux in the gumbo. But sometimes you do it?
Sometimes. You know when you make a big gumbo you can use a lot of onion but a small gumbo—it’s too sweet. The onions are sweet.
I see. What color is your roux?
It’s in-between. Not light and not dark, dark. It’s in-between. I want to say the color of a copper penny.
Do you think that not using the roux changes the flavor at all?
No, because you see you have all that oyster water. That’s where your flavor comes from—from that oyster water.
You don’t use any celery or bell pepper?
No celery, no bell pepper, no parsley, no green onion, none of that. No, because you know my family, that’s the way they cooked. [They] didn't have no supermarket or groceries and all. They had to raise their own meat and plant whatever vegetable they were using. So basically they used onion and some bell pepper; they used parsley, green onions, and all. But my family never put any of the pepper or the celery and all in their gumbo. And their gumbo tastes good without all that other stuff.
The shrimp in here [the gumbo] are pretty small.
Yeah, the brackish water shrimp, it’s some small shrimp.
Do they come with a shell on and everything?
The shell, yeah, and I peel that all myself.
When I arrived you had three friends visiting you, and one of them helps you frequently?
When they help you, do you pay them?
You were telling me that earlier. How many times a year do you have the church here?
Every seven months.
How many are there?
It depends. Sometimes we have between 12 and 20.
What did you cook them this last time?
This last time I had for the appetizers, I want to say I had the lump crabmeat patties with—I top it with Brie cheese and I put it in the oven. And we do the croutons and everything. All the bread [is] homemade. And we had the salad—we had watermelon over greens. Yeah, it was different, and it was the sweet and the sour; it was good, a combination of the watermelon and the green. And we do our own dressing and all. And what else? We had the soup—I really believe we had the chunky potato soup with the ham. And then we had the whole Cornish hen with a grilled slice of fresh pineapple—grill it with the grill. I always do cabbage. They love cabbage with pork. And then we had the fried rice. Put all the food on the table. We had fresh lima beans and what? Lo mein, because some of them, you know they’re foreigners, so we do some of their food sometimes. And what—I think we had another dish of something. I don’t quite remember. We might have had the potatoes in the oven. You know we layer the potatoes and with parsley and green onion. And we had the four kind of desserts. That’s my—I love to do desserts. So we had crème brulée; we had walnut tart, pie; we had the chocolate cake; and we had I think the coconut cake.
Wow. A lot of that food doesn’t sound particularly like traditional Cajun. There’s a lot of creativity in your cooking.
We have Irish priests; they love cabbage, cabbage and potatoes, so I try to accommodate each priest. This is the reason I have so much food because you know we like our Cajun food. And I’m sure they like their type of food. And over here they don’t—you know, most of them don’t cook their ways. Like we have priests from India that like curry, but another priest is from Malaysia. He likes curry. And sometimes I really bake him fish. They like it with the head on and all. Just fix it and gut them and just stuff them whole. So when I have a fish I like to do something like that.
How do you know how to cook some of the curries and lo mein and Malaysian-style fish?
Basically, you know, it’s like Cajun. Like we start [cooking] Cajun with the onion, pepper, celery. And then they add that curry. And people travel all over and they bring me all that—the herb, like the curry. They go somewhere—saffron.
And then they describe to you how to cook it?
No, I know how to cook it.
Do you research in books?
Uh-huh, and I have an herb garden for about 20 years.
Is that your herb garden in the truck?
That little truck is sentimental. When my daddy passed away I didn't want to sell the truck so I told them to bring the truck over here. You know it was in running condition. But now it’s not anymore. So at Wal-Mart I got 50 sacks of dirt and I poured it in the truck and then I planted all the—I have chives and thyme. When I need some I just walk out and whatever I need I just pick. It’s fresh.
I’ve called you a couple times. I called you when I was making a reservation to come here and eat, and then I called you to make an appointment for the interview. Were you writing it down? I couldn’t tell if you were writing down the time or if you were just remembering it in your head.
No, uh-uh. I remember. You know it’s in my mind. It’s a gift I’m sure.
Tell me about your granddaughter. We were talking about that.
I have two granddaughters. One of them is more interested in cooking than the other one. They both cook, but one of them, I think it’s in her blood. She comes and helps me over here.
What is her name?
Jenny. I’m teaching her how to do, like, the chocolate cake. And the walnut tart, the bread. I’m teaching her how to do the bread. And she likes to cook. She’s a good cook.
You were saying that she might take over this business for you.
I want to give her the kitchen. I want to give her the kitchen. Everything I have in the kitchen, I don’t want her to give me a red copper cent for it. It comes from my heart that I’m giving her everything that I own over here.
What kind of work does she do now? Does she work with food?
Yeah, they have a business that’s open 24 hours at [Port] Fourchon—24 hours a day.
Have you taught her how to make your gumbo?
Yeah, she knows now what I use for my gumbo because her son—she went to school, so I helped babysit him. And he was kind of finicky and you had to strain his gumbo and this and that and all. And he always said, “Mama, your gumbo does not taste like Maw’s gumbo.” So you know I told her, I said, “Jenny, they have secrets to gumbo.” She learned how to do it.
What were you straining out of his gumbo?
He only wanted the sauce. He didn't want like the onion and all of that. He ate only the sauce and the rice. He didn't eat the meat.
Or the seafood?
No, he doesn’t eat seafood at all. He’s 17. Seventeen, and he’s 6’4”.
I don’t want you to give away any secrets you don’t want to give away, but with your gumbo, what would you say is your biggest secret?
The time, the love. When you make a gumbo, I don’t go work somewhere else in the house. I stay next to it. You know I do things around where I’m cooking my gumbo, like chop stuff or do whatever so your onion don’t burn and so it’s not bitter. And every once in a while add a little bit of stock, a little bit of saltwater or whatever. Until it dissolves the onions and all. And I do that the day before. Sometimes, you know, it takes me three, four hours to do that, but I’m doing something else, so—. I don’t stay always stirring the pot. Put it on a low, low heat.
It takes you three or four hours to do the onions?
Yeah, do the onions, so it dissolves everything. And the next day I finish my gumbo.
So do the onions get real, real dark?
Yeah, dark, and you know you hardly can see they have onion.
Is that typical in this area, to not use roux very much?
Not too many people do not use roux. Uh-uh, not many families; just a few families that I know.
And why do you think that you [don’t]?
Because my mother-in-law and my mother didn't use roux. And that’s the way they cooked. It took them a long time.
So the second day, when your onions and your meats are together, how long does it take to finish it?
Maybe 35--40 minutes. Because I don’t cook my shrimp. You know I let it boil, and it’ll pick up the flavor. When I put my stocks, and then I put my shrimp, and the last thing I do is put the crabmeat and filé a little bit. Use real filé from people that I know that do filé.
Tell me about that.
It’s the older people that did that, but most of them are passed away. And that was a labor of love, too, because they had to pick the leaf. I knew one where I bought my filé, picked the leaf, put it in the brown paper bag, and go in the attic and tie it so it can dry. Then he did his filé.
We’re talking about leaves of the sassafras tree correct?
Sassafras, yeah. I’m sure he used a process[or] or a grinder, because it was very fine. And you know the flavor was deep, like you couldn’t put too much. And you know I used to buy four, five, or six jars whenever I bought it so it lasted a whole year. The flavor was deeper than what you get at the grocery.
Where did you get the filé that you used today?
It’s a man that came at my house and he brought me about a dozen jars that I bought from him.
How much does a jar of filé cost?
About between $2.50--$3, something like that. It’s a labor of love. You don’t get that much money.
Now when we were here eating for dinner, I don’t think that there was any filé in the gumbo. You had it on the side.
Some people like it a lot and some of them don’t. So I put it on the side.
It was your idea to make gumbo that night that we came. Do you make gumbo frequently?
They request gumbo as an appetizer. And people serve themselves three or four times.
Yeah, I know. We should say for the record that when you have these dinners, it’s a serve-yourself line.
Serve yourself, and if you want to go three or four times it’s up to you—as much as you can eat.
We also had requested the seafood lasagna, which I imagine is also a labor of love because there is a lot of crabmeat in there.
Because I peel my own crab, and peeling crab is not an easy job. It takes me quite [a while] because I don’t want no shell in it. I’m very particular. My friend told you the way they have to chop a certain way. So I’m particular for it. Everyone have a different way of doing things, but when they come onboard they respect my way.
How many crabs does it take to make lasagna?
I’ll get the large, the big select crabs. You saw how the big claws are, so a big crab, and I’m sure with about a dozen you get a pound of crabmeat. And you pay like $2--$2.50 for a crab, the large crab. And then I boil it myself. I don’t put nothing in it, just the water.
Where did you learn how to make that?
Basically myself. You experiment with food and you learn a lot. I make mistakes, I know, but you know I write it down on tablets.
So you keep your own cookbooks? I saw a stack of notebooks.
Uh-huh, yeah, I buy composition. I got maybe 20--25 compositions, and I just jot my recipe. Because once upon a time when I was younger I went by the older people, their ways of cooking, and didn't measure. That’s how I learned how to do bread from the old people. They did their bread almost every other day. You know they didn't buy bread, so they learned. That was their work, the older generation, they worked, those people. They labored.
I’ll say, for the record, that when we ate here, we had a lot of food. We had gumbo to start, and then we had roast pork and roast beef and a shrimp dish and a potato dish and homemade bread and jam, lasagna—all with fresh seafood. All with freshly picked crab. And then we had the most beautiful walnut tarts, and it was $35 a person. I can't imagine you made much money on that meal.
No, I don’t make too much money, but I’m happy. I’m happy; my conscious is clear.
How do you feel about the future of the seafood industry in this area?
Well we’re going to see—they still have a lot of oil. Even now some places, they have tar balled in their crab cage, so we don’t know if they’re going to close so many areas, where the trawlers can go. It’s their way of living, of their life, many of them over here. So we don’t know. I guess the future is going to tell it all. You know like we say time is a great healer? Time will tell. We don’t know what the future holds. It’s something nobody knows. We know the past, but we don’t know the future.
Do you have a feeling positive or negative?
I don’t know. Like the oyster[men], it may be years before they can get back into business. But we still have some oysters we can buy. The seafood—you know the shrimp, they swim. We don’t know where they’re at or what they do if the area is [contaminated]. It’s a big, big thing out there in the Gulf.
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