“On my mother’s side, my grandmother would put rice on before she decided what she wanted to cook, and a gumbo was strictly a roux gumbo made from chicken carcasses.” – Lynn Anselmo
A singer-songwriter who spent his early adulthood on the road, Lynn Anselmo returned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and took over the family doughnut business in 1974. Under his direction, Tony’s Donut Shop transformed from a single wholesale donut operation to additional donut outlets plus a full-scale restaurant with a stage for musical entertainment. For 30 years, until the State bought the land and turned it into a highway, Lynn ran the Baton Rouge institution with his wife (also named Lynn). He baked his own bread for po-boys, he honed recipes for shrimp Creole and crawfish étouffée that still lure his daughter, Amanda, home for dinner, and he developed a recipe for a gumbo Ya-Ya that appears in his self-published cookbook, “Baton Rouge” Style. Lynn’s gumbo Ya-Ya is a Creole-style chicken and sausage gumbo that’s about as different from his mother’s Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo as it could be. He makes a lighter roux than his mother does, and he adds flamboyance with color—red bell pepper and slightly cooked okra—to offset the “gray”ness of the food he grew up eating around Baton Rouge. Lynn’s gumbo Ya-Ya is highly seasoned but not fiery—at Tony’s, the tables were always set with Louisiana Hot Sauce.
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: Lynn Anselmo
Date: October 16, 2008
Location: Prairieville, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Thursday, October 16, 2008. I’m in Prairieville, Louisiana with the Anselmos. And if I could get you just to introduce yourself—say your name and your birth date, please.
Lynn Anselmo: Lynn Anselmo—birth date is 1943, April 22nd.
Could you tell me where you born and raised?
I was born in Baton Rouge, Lady of Lake Hospital before they built the new one. It was actually on the lake. I’ve lived here pretty much all my life. Me and my wife had a little music group and we traveled for about six years on the road from Colorado to Florida playing in restaurants and what have you, and then in 1974 we had a mishap up in Colorado and decided that the road wasn’t the life for us [Laughs]. So we came back and bought my family business, which was Tony’s Donut Shop, and it was located at--on Chippewa Street at Plank Road. And 30 years later we--we closed it and retired. Yeah, we’ve had as many as five locations and as little as one location. We turned it into a restaurant and tavern, I think it was around mid-‘80s, and it closed as Tony’s Restaurant and Tavern. So now we’re just retired cooks; we have a--the new cookbook out, play a little music on the side; enjoy the good life.
What kind of music did you play and do you play?
Well we started out in folk music with the Peter, Paul & Mary/ Bob Dylan-type stuff. Naturally went into rock & roll and country, and pretty much crowd-pleasers. You know, all the time we were songwriting and that’s what we do now.
When you say you moved back to Baton Rouge and bought the family business, the business was in your family before then?
Yeah, my father started it in ’46 and he died in 1950 of a brain tumor, brain cancer, so my mother with four children took it over and she ran it to ’74 when I took it over. And it’s been—when I bought it, it was a donut shop doing wholesale business. We had one small retail counterfront, but basically it was mixing enough donuts to satisfy probably 100-plus customers seven days a week before 6 o'clock in the morning. [Laughs] It didn’t fit with my lifestyle. I was used to coming home at 5:00 in the morning. So we started changing it to retail. We opened three shops—two additional shops—and that went pretty good. We tried to open two more; that didn’t go too good. So we backtracked down to two, and then down to one, and then decided that —in the ‘80s—that we wanted to do--to cook more food. We wanted to do what we had seen on the road and so on and so forth. And I was baking bread at the time anyway so we started doing po-boys and did that and naturally gravitated to--to plates and table lunches and--and nighttime. All the time we had a little stage in the corner where people showed up and played, you know. So the—I guess it was the ‘90s that the music really took off.
Tell me a little bit about what it was like to grow up with your mom running a donut shop.
That--that was a difficult time for her. And I didn’t know about it at the time. I was seven when dad died. But the Holsum Bakery was the kingpin of bread and they--the bread men would come by and pick up pallets of donuts and bags—six to a bag, you know—and they would--they would distribute them on their route. I also remember doing the rodeos here in town. That was when the rodeos were real big. We used to bag them two to a bag, and Mama would come home in the ’50--’47--’46 Plymouth station wagon with donut trays full of donuts, just big aluminum trays full of donuts, and we, the kids, would sit around the kitchen table and bag them two to a bag. And then we’d deliver them out to the rodeo and they would go like hotcakes. I mean they would--they would really sell. But the business and growing up in Baton Rouge was—hell, I didn’t know Baton Rouge was over three blocks, you know. I mean I went to school at St. Anthony and the donut shop was right there on North 22nd Street at the time, and so it--it was a very small world. I could ride my bike around the world, you know. [Laughs]
Did your mom’s shop make just one kind of donut?
The glazed donut was the wholesale item and it also was the biggest retail item we had. We would box them in cake boxes or in cellophane bags from Unger, the bread man--the bag man. We did a chocolate-covered donut; we did honey buns. Then when--when I got in, I expanded the product line to cinnamon rolls and brownies and things of that nature.
Whose original recipe was it [for the glazed donuts]?
My father. He was--he was trained as a bread man for Holsum Bakery. He did the--the big, you know, multi-gallon doughs, and when he was laid-off from Holsum he went to work at a place called Duke’s Donut Shop. Well Duke was a fisherman and a hunter and he decided he didn’t want the second shop, so my father bought it from him and then Tony’s Donut Shop was born.
The original dough was handmade. It was six gallons of water, probably 50 pounds of donut mix, and then of course the yeast. We used a cake Budweiser used at the time. And you would mix that up and it would ferment. You would pour that onto the table and cut it into pillows. The pillows would be maybe eight or ten five-pound pillows; I don't know how many, you know, pillows--around the table. Well you would pat that out and cut it; that’s your first cut. Take the scraps, put it together from several pillows, and that would be your second cut, after it proofs, and then put that together again and that would be your third cut. So naturally the dough would be tougher, you know, from the first. And then the—of course the trimmings you would use for the--for the honey buns and bear claws. And then Grandma Anselmo used to come by and pick up whatever we had left to bring it home and mix it to make bread. [Laughs] They had animals so they would get leftover donuts for the pigs and they’d mix them, and then she’d take some of the dough and actually mix it with more flour—and the yeast was still active—and make these big Italian domes. They used to have--she used to have an actual wood oven in the back—you know what they call the honeycomb oven? Okay, well my cousin Lyman would build the fire in the morning and she would--she would rake the fire out and put the bread in there and go in the field and work, and come back and the bread would be ready.
Are both sides of your family Italian?
No. I’m French and Italian. My mother’s people are the Bourques from Gonzalez so we’re pretty familiar with this Prairieville area, you know. Cajun-French.
So your father’s family is from where?
My great-grandfather is originally from Sicily, and my great-grandmother, but they came over and bought some land on what is now Anselmo Lane. Just--it runs from Jimmy Swaggart’s ministry to Essen Lane. And he bought probably, I’m going to say 50 acres you know, and he--they raised livestock and had a garden and sold vegetables.
So with Cajun-French on one side and Italian on the other, I’m guessing there was some good food in the family.
Real good, but in my memory everything was pretty much gray. [Laughs] You know they--they had on my mother’s side, my grandmother would put rice on before she decided what she wanted to cook, and a gumbo was strictly a roux gumbo made from chicken carcasses, you know. It was--it didn’t have the sausage in it, and it didn’t have the tomato in it. It was a Cajun gumbo, what I would classify as a Cajun gumbo. My mother still makes that same gumbo, and as I got into food I--I just tend to go with the Creole cooking. It’s more flamboyant. There’s more taste involved and the colors, you know. The eye appeal is much better.
What makes it more colorful and flamboyant?
Well the tomato; the--the vegetables; the celery. Of course I use red bell pepper for the color; and the sausage—everything that’s in it gives it just more eye appeal, you know, than the gray gumbo I call it. [My mother’s gumbo is] cooked to death. I try to give a crunch to the vegetable instead of cooking it. The onions are cooked down more than anything else, but the celery and bell pepper still has a little life to it—.
[Laughs] And did you like your mom’s gumbo growing up?
I did; I still like it every Christmas Eve. Every Christmas Eve she cooks a big gumbo. She’s 88 now and she lives by herself on Airline Highway in a house that was paid for 30 years ago. And she--she still cooks a gumbo Christmas Eve every year and the whole family gets together and opens presents and eats gumbo and potato salad. [Laughs]
What color is her roux?
She makes a copper-colored roux and then cooks the onions down quite dark, and that gives it a--a dark-gray color, you know—brownish-gray, yeah.
The potato salad with the gumbo—is that pretty typical?
That’s very typical in our family. It’s--it’s traditional. I mean you have the rice in the gumbo, and actually they put the potato salad in the gumbo.
So when you make gumbo, you also serve it with potato salad?
Yeah, you’ll have some today. [Laughs]
What about the gumbo at [your] restaurant?
Gumbo was a big, big thing. We did, we called it the gumbo Ya-Ya, and basically the recipe you have is the gumbo that we did. And it pretty much was never labored. Every day the--you’d make a fresh pot and put the old pot in it, you know to recycle. But the gumbo was a big thing.
The gumbo Ya-Ya I’m looking at here [in Lynn’s cookbook] was—it’s basically a chicken and sausage gumbo?
Chicken and sausage gumbo with okra added. We never used filé. At times--my mother does. That filé is a condiment that you put on after. We don't use it as a thickener and we don't use it as—we don't cook it with the gumbo. It’s actually something that we add to the top after, just for a taste.
And what is that flavor? Can you describe it?
The filé: herb-y, musky herb-type flavor. Of course filé—I guess if you’re not from Louisiana you don't know filé, huh? It’s a round sassafras leaf and they still have an old man at the market, Baton Rouge [farmers’] market, that pounds it fresh every Saturday.
Can you take me through the process of making your gumbo Ya-Ya?
Sure. Actually we start in a cast-iron skillet with browning the meat first. I brown the sausage first and the rendering from the sausage I use to brown the chicken. I never take the oil out. I put the onions in after I’ve removed the meat. I put the onions in and brown it, the onions, in the rendering from the sausage and chicken. Then after the--the onions are pretty much charred on the edges I dump the rest of the veggies in and I get them to a point where they’re starting to brown.
The veggies are the celery, bell pepper, onion and garlic. But the onions come first; I like to get them a little darker than the rest of the vegetables. And then I--I put the rest of the vegetables in and when they start charring but they’re still crisp, I put my stock in. And I do the roux a little bit different: I--I build my roux on the side, and I guess this comes from the restaurant, and then once the stock and the meat—I put the meat and the stock in and bring it up to a boil and I put the can of stewed tomatoes in (that is very chopped up with the liquid). Once all this comes up to a boil, then I add my hot roux to it slowly to where I get the thickness I want. Then it’s--that’s pretty much the gumbo other than salt and pepper. You know, you get the heat from the sausage; it’s hot sausage. We use Manda’s exclusively. It’s something that I love; it’s hard to beat it, it really is. And that’s pretty much the gumbo. If--if I think it’s a little too red I might touch it with a little Kitchen Bouquet, but most of the time if I get the onions right, it’s done.
What about the okra?
The okra is the last thing. I cook the gumbo for 30--45 minutes and then I add the okra and cook it for another 15--20 minutes. I like the okra to be green; I don't want it to be black, and—but I want it cooked.
So do you add the okra in raw?
Yes, cut okra in raw—about two cups to, I’d say if I’m using, say, three cups of chicken stock to what I’m doing, I’ll use about two cups of cut okra.
What about your roux? Can you tell me what oil you use?
I use canola oil. Canola, all purpose flour, and I tend to be a little heavy on the flour to--to the oil [ratio], and I cook it down to where it’s pretty much a copper penny look and then set it off, and then it naturally darkens a little bit more than that.
How long does it take you to make your roux?
Not long at all. [Laughs] It [my technique] comes from the restaurant. Making a roux at the restaurant, your oil gets blistering hot; you throw your flour in and mix it. And if you--if you think it’s scorching, you take it off the fire and continue mixing. But I guess at home and this type of atmosphere, I would--it would take maybe 10--15 minutes; you know, at the restaurant, five. [Laughs]
What occasion do you make gumbo for now that you’re retired?
Any time, any time.
What about the gumbo recipe in [your cookbook]?
That’s a mock Ya-Ya gumbo—gumbo Ya-Ya. And I—who knows what Ya-Ya means? I mean John Folse said it, and he thinks it comes from the rice, but I have no idea what Ya-Ya means. But Herman Didee, he actually did a--he had the restaurant here, closed it, and opened a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado. I think when that folded he came back and done a little restaurant here. But he was--he was a colorful fellow and he loved the social scene. He did the gumbo Ya-Ya and I remember it being very good, very spicy. It was heavy tomato, chicken and sausage, and very spicy with a--pretty much the same roux you’ll taste today. It wasn’t a dark roux; it was more of a reddish-brown gumbo. And the gumbo—I asked him, you know, if he’d tell me--show me how he made his gumbo. And he showed me the secret to his gumbo. He said the secret is never tell anybody how you make your gumbo. [Laughs] And so I kind of put it together from what I remembered from his gumbo; that’s the recipe in the book.
Say, for the record, the name of your book.
The book is called “Baton Rouge” Style, which was the logo inside of our restaurant. We had it in neon over the bar: “Baton Rouge” Style. We--everybody wanted to do it New Orleans-style; everybody wanted to do it Orleans-style, and I like New Orleans-style—I do. But I’m in Baton Rouge; I mean it should be “Baton Rouge” Style, you know, so that’s what the cookbook is about. It’s about growing up in Baton Rouge. It’s about Baton Rouge-style cooking the way I do it. [Laughs]
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