Josephine Phillips Cormier raised eight children and had a 13-year career at Wal-Mart before she opened her eponymous St. Martinville restaurant in honor of her late father. While Josephine didn’t even start cooking until after she was married, she appreciated her father’s cookery, and the culinary heritage he bequeathed his family, from a young age. A field worker by profession, he performed boucheries, made his own boudin and tasso, and cooked for funerals and weddings in the community. When he passed away, Josephine made a commitment to carry on her father’s cooking traditions. Today, Josephine and her husband, Wilray, make good on that commitment by waking with the sun to put okra to smother, eggs to boil, and gumbo to simmer. On Wednesdays year-round, they sell out of their roux-free shrimp and okra gumbo—served with deep-fried chicken and potato salad—before noon. Chicken and sausage gumbo and crab and shrimp gumbo (both made with a peanut-butter-colored roux) appear frequently in the cooler months. Josephine has a quiet manner but she cooks with a point of view: she doesn’t like dark rouxs, slimy okra, or potato salad in her gumbo. And though none of her gumbos contain filé, she does keep some behind the counter for customers who ask.
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: Josephine Phillips Cormier
Date: August 20, 2008
Location: St. Martinville, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It's Wednesday, August 20, 2008. I'm in St. Martinville, Louisiana, at Josephine's Restaurant. And I'm going to let the owner pronounce her own name and tell us her birth date.
Josephine Phillips Cormier: Yes, my name is Josephine Phillips Cormier. My birthday is May 28, 1953.
Could you say in your own words what--what you do for a living?
Well for the last 15 years I've been cooking Cajun-Creole-style in this area—okra gumbos, red beans and rice, deep-fried chicken, fried fish, shrimps; doing working man's meals basically for 10:30 to 2:00 Monday through Friday.
When you say, Cajun-Creole: Are you Cajun-Creole or where do you fit in that? What--what is your heritage?
My heritage is Creole, but in this area there's a combination between Cajun-Creole and it's very hard to differentiate it. You really, it's the cooking is basically the same in this area, so most of—we--we just label it as Cajun-Creole cooking because it has—basically both heritages, you know, style of cooking.
Did you grow up in this area?
Yes, I did. I grew up in a small town named Parks, six miles from St. Martinville, and been here for the last 38 years. And we've been cooking—. My father was a cook; his family were cooks, and I think that's where we picked up the cooking style that we learned from my mother and my father and cooking. And when my father passed I made a commitment that I would carry his tradition on.
Was your father a professional cook?
In the early days I don't know if you'd call it professional. [Laughs] You know anybody that had a funeral or a wedding, his family would get together and cook their whole meal, like the--the rice dressing and the pork stews. And the sisters, his sisters, would do the cakes. They'd make the homemade cakes with the icing and everything, so they did the entire meal. And we were several in my family--my father's family that carried over the tradition. In fact some of us are still doing that as our professions.
What did you do before you opened this restaurant?
I worked at Wal-Mart for 13 years. I worked as a customer service manager and I did subbing at the Catholic school cafeteria for about two or three years after I retired from Wal-Mart. Before that I was a homemaker. I raised three kids of my own and five foster kids. So I was a homemaker before I went to work at Wal-Mart.
When I got married I didn't know how to cook anything. I lived with my grandmother until, oh I was an adult—well ready to get out of high school. I was in eleventh grade and we didn't do any cooking at my grandmother's because you know in the olden days, 6 o'clock they had their foods on--on the burners. And by the time you got off of school food was ready, and if you--if it was a Sunday you ate at 12 o'clock. So the elderlies always did the cooking so I didn't learn how to cook. And that's why I'm assuming the trait was there that I didn't use. And after--after I made that promise of trying to research some of the things that [my father] used to cook—experiment, should I say—some of the things that he and my mom showed us how to cook, I started experimenting with it like the okra and the red beans and the stews. I got interested in doing it and that was only, what? Sixteen years ago.
But I do have a--a big helper now, which is my husband. He does most of the cooking, you know. We've been working together for a very, very long time and he's recently retired, so it's just he and I that do it on a daily--Monday through Friday. We've run(ned) our own business for quite some time.
What's your husband's name?
His name is Wilray--Wilray Cormier. And he's a pretty good cook. He worked 34 years offshore for Kerr-McGee.
Can you tell me your—the different gumbos that you make here at the restaurant?
We do okra gumbo, we do the sausage and chicken, we do the shrimp and crab gumbo.
Tell me about this gumbo here that I took pictures of and that I'm going to eat for dinner.
Okay what—I use fresh gumbo; fresh okra—let me not say gumbo—fresh okra. And when I start it off I use a little bit of cooking oil. I got a cup of--half a cup of cooking oil. And that's usually—the amount that I cook in here is…you can call it a bundle or a sack of okra, on Wednesdays I'll cook. The okra—I take fresh okra and then we cut it; we slit it and we cut the okra and smother it down, and onions—.
Can you define what that means: smother it down?
The okra comes from the field—fresh okra, that's how we call it--fresh okra, and it's not cooked. It's just a raw vegetable. I use a Magnalite pot with onions, green peppers, garlic, celery, parsley, and onion tops. And I add that in, cover it for about an hour and a half, and then that's the smothering part. Once you cover it with the oil and all the ingredients, it simmers. It simmers, smothering. And after that I'll take some tasso, fresh sausage—smoked sausage, not fresh sausage--smoked sausage—and this okra. And I have shrimps--dried shrimps, and I add that to it after the—. The okra has a tendency to have a slime in it, so we cook until there's no more slime and then add the meats to it to enhance the flavor. And I'll add the seasoning—the salt, pepper. I don't use black pepper here, besides on the tables if anybody would want it. But that's a habit that I've never—I don't cook with black pepper. I'll use white pepper, the red pepper, the garlic, the onion powder, and towards the end I'll add fresh chopped parsley and onion tops to enhance the taste. But not—the okra gumbo usually takes me two and a half to three hours to cook.
So are you saying that with this gumbo you don't use a roux? It's just the okra?
No, I don't use the roux. I'm not--not on this. Now the--like when I'm doing the crab and the seafood gumbo I will add roux because the seafood doesn't take as long to cook down.
That's interesting—and also that you use tasso, which I love. Would your dad make that?
They made--they made their own tasso; a lot of times they did their smoked sausage. They did their own smoked sausage and the dried shrimps. I think it's just--it's a habit that we've picked up in watching our parents do. My kids, when my mom cooks okra they will leave my okra gumbo and go to her house because she cooks it better than I do I guess. And no matter how many times I've tried to cook it the way she does, I just—some things that I just can't cook as well as she does.
I have so many questions. The dried shrimp. Is there a range of quality of dried shrimp? Do you look for a certain size?
No; I look for a certain amount of quantity for money-wise. I use dried shrimps in smothered potatoes sometimes; I'll use it in…oh, I use dried shrimps in so many—in the mustard greens today because my customers like the taste of it. It enhances. The fresh shrimp does the same thing but the dried shrimp just gives it an extra pang to it, to the food.
What about, it didn't sound like you use any tomato.
Sometimes; not all the time. Oh okay, today there is a little tomato as you can see. I use fresh tomatoes. Especially in the summer months you have so many gardens that have these good juicy tomatoes and stuff. I'll add it.
When we were taking pictures earlier I had assumed there was roux in there because it's very dark. Does the okra brown a lot while it's smothering?
If it's put on the right temperature and it's covered tight, it usually gets to the color that you want. And I've heard this recently and I--I don't know where it comes from: there's different types of okra, and I think there's one that's called the ridge okra. That's the one that has I guess the ridges and that's the one that I've--I've gotten this year. And there's just the canning okra which is the straight okra, and there's a round okra. I just buy okra from my supplier and--and it's usually—I get most of my products like the mustards, the yams, from a local guy that sells it. I don't like canned stuff. If I have to I'll use—not any of my okra. I--this year I put up 25 bundles of okra. I have three freezers filled with just okra to--to make it for the whole year.
By bundle do you mean like those potato sacks?
Potato sacks, yes, six a week. We do it Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—two on Mondays, two on Wednesdays, two on Fridays. And when I get the okra I usually--we usually cut them and steam them from—and then I pack them in the freezer and every time I need them…Like today my okra was already steamed so I didn't have the long process of three and a half hours. I had more like maybe two hours because I steamed them for another hour and I added the onions when I started, but I added the meats—I got here at 7:30; about 8:30 I started adding my meats. By 10:30 it was ready to be served with no slime with a good taste.
While the okra is smothering do you ever stir it?
Oh yeah, you have to constantly and it's sort of like every 15 minutes.
Have you ever had—like you can get sort of stabbed by okra? It will sort of be a prickle?
When you're washing it. And--and that's the hardest part with the okra, for me, is to wash it and clip it; get the top and the bottom—the nerves or whatever you call them—get those out to put up. That's the part that I don't like doing, but I do them because when a product sells you do whatever you have to to put it out.
When you say wash, do you scrub them or do you just rinse them?
No, no, no. The guy that--that supplies me for them, he cleans them before. And in the commercial industrial sinks you put them [to] soak, and then you put them in a strainer—well, that's what I do. I rinse them three to five times to make sure—. And in one sink I wash them and I have the rinse sink and then I redo them over, and then we strain them before because when I'm cutting I don't like the slime there from the washing and stuff, so I let them drain in a strainer before I cut them.
I think after 25 bundles my hands would be bloodied.
I usually tape my--my finger because I use a short knife. And--and a good knife, you can sit in front of the TV and cut a bundle in an hour.
I sit in front of the TV after it's all cleaned and clipped and drained and I'll sit and cut it and watch a good movie or something; watch the news, let it steam for—sometimes it depends on the temperature and what I have to do. If I have housework I'll lower the temperature and give it--allow it more time to steam. Being in a restaurant with all the cooking that we have to do, we use steamers. So I'll--I'll put them in the steamer, and then a lot of times if you don't want to do that you can put them in the oven. And if it's in the oven you just put it—go about your business, wash your clothes, clean your house and in about two and a half--three hours it's ready to pack and put in the freezer.
Do you spread it on a sheet pan or do you—?
No, I usually use one of the cooking pans, like my large cooking pans, and that holds about a half a sack. And add a little oil at the bottom; no water. I don't do it with water. I'm only telling you the way I know how to fix those. And cover it with aluminum foil, and stick it in the oven for—well the temp is usually 350. And when the seeds are pink, that's when you know you don't have anymore slime in it. Some people like the slime; we don't in this area 'cause a lot of my customers, the first thing they say is, Does your okra have slime? After a couple of times they know that that's not the way I cook it.
And that's--that's how it's preserved. It can last through the whole season if it's packed the right way in a good sealed bag. It lasts the whole year for us throughout the next season.
Can you describe for me what you served with the gumbo today?
Okay, today we had deep-fried chicken. That's chicken with no floured batter; it's just we--we just seasoned the chicken real spicy and dipped it in a deep fryer for 19 to 20 minutes, cut some fresh onions and parsley and sprinkled it over and put it on the serving line. And I did potato salad with rice and gravy, a dinner roll and okra. On Wednesdays we do the deep-fried chicken with okra gumbo and the potato salad.
Can you refresh my memory what your other two gumbos are that you make in the winter?
Okay, it's the chicken and sausage gumbo, the crab and shrimp gumbo.
And are those roux gumbos?
Yeah, those are roux gumbos, yeah those are.
Do they get the same shade of roux?
We make our roux. I usually like to make a light roux, and you can always as you--before you add all your water when you're--when you're—like for the chicken and sausage, I usually add the roux with all the onions and everything, and if it's not the right color for it, for like a gumbo, I'll just let it cook a little longer before I start adding the water and everything to it. But when I make my roux I make a lighter roux 'cause I don't like a dark-tasting or a burnt taste to any of my rouxs.
Now when you make your roux, what kind of fat do you use?
I use regular--regular cooking oil, and sometimes it depends on the mood because you can make a dry roux. You can make it in a microwave oven or the oven. And the only thing is, you stir it a little bit longer.
Can you tell a difference in the end product?
I don't think so. I really don't think so. It comes out the peanut butter color, and it tastes as roux—yeah.
Do you use filé powder in any of your gumbos?
I have it here for customers but I never add it. I've never had anybody ask me for [filé with] the okra gumbo, but the chicken and sausage gumbo or the seafood gumbo they will ask for filé.
How much gumbo did you make today?
I made, like I said half a sack, and that's—you're asking like quart size?
Yeah, or gallon?
Gallon size. I'm a cook that never measures. I never measure anything. All I can say is that I made a half of sack of okra and added it to the gumbo, so a large Magnalite pot that is like--that holds at least five gallons [of] water—yeah five gallons of water, so that would be the amount of gumbo I made today. [Laughs] Everything is done by, I need a pinch of this and I need a pinch of that. Let me, today I know I need a half a sack of okra because I'm going to sell out. You know, I need X-amount to come up with X-amount of plates for today, so basically that's how we—very little measurement. And give a prayer to God; say, Please let it come out right. [Laughs]
Did you grow up eating a lot of okra?
Anything that you can grow from the fields, we grew up with it, especially okra. That's why I put up so many--so many [Laughs] bundles and so many sacks of okra because that's a product of this area that—you know, it's your big market. It's what you--that's your heritage whether it's Cajun or whether it's Creole in this area. Okra is our heritage.
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