Cast Iron Chef: Jolie Meaux

Photo by LeeAnn B. Stephan

  •   A series spotlighting the diverse perspectives of women who are making notable contributions to our culture.

Jolie Meaux collapses in an adirondack chair on her Freetown front porch with two sweaty glasses of ice water. It’s 92 degrees outside, and she’s fresh from the kitchen. Wearing a faded floral top, jean shorts and Chuck Taylors, she blends seamlessly into the piles of flower-printed demitasse saucers and other collected antiques she’s planning to resell in her Etsy shop or at ongoing thrift sales.

Meaux is nothing if not resourceful. A Realtor by day, and cook by just about any other time, she claims to get inspiration for recipes even in the midst of a deep sleep. Wiping sweat off her brow, the former bartender opens up about how her lifelong passion for food led to the launch of her successful blog, Porch, Wine & Gravy.

At the forefront of our conversation is her recent experience cooking for Anthony Bourdain while he was in town filming an episode about Cajun country for his CNN show Parts Unknown. The episode will air Sunday, June 17, but the show — and Jolie’s experience — have taken on a new significance after the news of Bourdain’s tragic death last Friday. She shared a postscript via email after his passing about the impact he left behind.

How did you end up cooking for Anthony Bourdain?

It’s a weird story. Our friend Toby Rodriguez called and asked if we were home, and didn’t tell us why. I’m wearing dollar-store camo pajama pants — it was so cold — and I had these nasty slippers on and some dirty sweatshirt because I’d been cooking all day. I’d made four soups. (I never cook small.) So he brings the local producer over, and I don’t know she’s coming. I just open my my door, and I’m sweaty, and I’m covered in all the soups in my dirty, dollar store camouflage. I introduced myself, and I said, “Are you hungry?” And she said, “Yeah, I’m starving.” And I said, “Well, I have four soups.” And her face was like, what? And then she was like, “I guess I’ll sample two.” So we got to know each other, and then when the bigger producers flew in, she called me because they wanted to have a nightcap before going to the hotel. And I said, “OK, well I don’t know what to tell you, but it’s Sunday at 11:50, so you’re not going anywhere. There’s nowhere to go, but you can come to the porch.” So they all came to my porch. And the next day, I got a call to cook lunch. And they said, “What do you want to cook?” And I said, “I’ll make court bouillon to make the boys happy, and I’ll make shrimp stew for me.”

What was that like?

I knew this was important. Even if I wasn’t going to be on screen, I was going to feed Anthony Bourdain or someone in his general vicinity. I was not going to mess this up. I made shrimp stew for days. I made a triple backup of everything. I had backup potato salad, I had 12 gallons of shrimp stock, backup shrimp, backup eggs, I had backup roux. I was afraid I’d freak out. It worked out for the filming because the outside was kind of hectic. People came in the kitchen, and I wanted to kill them. But it turned out great. I think it just lent to them being able to film more, and then it was time to eat and they came running into the kitchen and were like, “Your food, is it ready?” And I looked at them and said, “Of course it is, I’ve got backups for my backups.” And then all of a sudden they sit me at a table with Anthony Bourdain right across from me. He’s exactly how I expected him to be. He asked me about the food. I told him, “I wanted to make you something that was traditional.” I made it exactly how I remember my family making it. I made very old-school shrimp stew.

Can you share a little of your thoughts and feelings about the recent news of his death?

Other than my children, he was the most important person I have ever cooked for. I count myself among the millions of fans he had around the world. I was just lucky enough to get the chance to cook for him and experience his expert wit and sharp intellect in person. It will be a memory I cherish my entire life. His death reminds us that there is no perfect life, and all the money and fame in the world can’t erase inner turmoil. Although he has left us because of his pain, he leaves behind a vast collection of works that bring others joy.

How did you get started working with food?

I’ve been cooking since I was a small child. I’ve always been the “mama” in my group of friends. I’ve always had dinner parties and have always been the place people go when they are hungry. It’s a stress reliever. Some people do yoga; I cook. I grew up kind of messed up, so all my good memories focus around food. When everything is going great or awful, I go to the kitchen. I cook to celebrate. I cook to forget. I wanted to go to culinary school, and I got accepted, and then life took a different turn. So I read every book from every school and taught myself. I have an insatiable knowledge for learning.

In your opinion, what role do women play in our Cajun food culture?

A very ignored role. I’m a little frustrated with the fact that there’s a lot of focus on men — men hunting and cooking, men cooking over black pots. And I do think it’s amazing how many men cook here, but if you think about who cooked your food most the time during the week, it was your mother or your grandmother. Your Mawmaw or your tante did it. At funerals, when people bring the food, it’s not the men, it’s the women. Women cook a ton in this culture. If you don’t think women had much of a contribution, then why does everybody name their restaurants after their grandmothers? Your memories of sitting in the kitchen, the smell of coffee and something cooking and who always made you eat whenever they came to your house? It was your Mawmaw. I just think it is kind of a sad thing that there’s not more focus on the female contribution to the food here.

Were you at all surprised this past year with everything that came out about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry?

I did 20 years in the service industry between waiting and bartending. You experience a lot of horror stories. There are very few females in the kitchen, so a lot of people who are harassed are the waitresses. The females in the kitchen, those to me are like warriors. I don’t know if I could’ve taken it;, it’s very “boys club” back there.

Is there anything in your opinion that could make it better?

The hard thing a lot of people who haven’t worked in the service industry don’t get is, they’re a little irreverent, they always have been. It used to be a rebellious person’s field. You were the misfits. I really do think it’s the heads of the ships, that’s who needs to change it. That’s who need to say, “We can all joke, but there’s a line here.” You have to change the rules. A lot of it is really inappropriate and makes women feel really terrible. You don’t want to lose your job, so you keep your mouth shut. It’s so easy to replace someone in the service industry, especially in places like New Orleans. I dealt with things that, if I even heard my daughter had dealt with, I would go into a flying rage. But I had a great job, and I knew I couldn’t mess that up, or I’d have to start at the beginning. It’s better now I think. The new generation is different. They were raised a little differently. They’re more empowered. The lessons that have taken us so long to learn, like to stand up for ourselves, they’re just doing it. It’s awesome to watch. Hopefully this generation will change some things.

Meaux ladles sauce into a pan of eggplant parmesan.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?

I love Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. I love how it’s written, because to me it’s the food I already knew how to make, but I couldn’t explain it to people. Of course there’s Talk About Good, that just makes you feel very nice on the inside to read the recipes — it’s all your Mawmaw’s recipes — even the ones with the mushroom soup and the lard. I’m not going to do it, but I like to read about it. I love weird islands cookbooks — we just got one from Barbados done by their version of the Junior League. I’m reading Edna Lewis right now, and that’s amazing.

How long have you had the blog?

The blog is just over a year old. Everybody was like, “You should have a restaurant.” But I’ve worked in the service industry, I know what it takes to own a restaurant. I started in real estate to leave a very bad marriage. Then I was a single mom with three kids — how are you going to start a restaurant? I’m constantly cooking. I’m always thinking about food. I dream about it. I get recipes while I’m sleeping. People bug me all the time for my recipes, and I had everything written down in these old composition books. These are the recipes that I started writing down in my teens and kept going over the years. These are what I planned on passing on to my girls. So with the blog I thought, let’s do it this way. I think about it like, even if it’s not successful, I’ll have something to pass on.

Do your kids have an interest in cooking?

I have three girls, 13, 12 and 6. We are a strong group of females — we’re extremely close knit. It’s funny;, they don’t cook. Well, they do know how and I’ll catch them. Like yesterday, they knew how to take a pomegranate apart, that they needed to float the seeds in water. They know all the tricks, they just pretend they don’t. They’re extremely spoiled because they eat better than most kids.

How long have you been in Lafayette?

My whole family is from the Abbeville area, then we moved in junior high off of Verot School Road. I was here for college, but then I traveled a lot. I moved up and down California and then lived in New Orleans. I felt I needed to see something different from Lafayette. I love my family, and I was proud of my Cajun heritage, but as a kid I was like, “I know there’s more out there in that world. I want to see what it is.” I want to go see beaches. I want to learn how to surf. I want to take a train in France. And I had a really wonderful time, and I got to eat different food and cook Cajun food for a ton of people who were shocked that it was what it was. I would make rice and gravy in California, and their minds were blown. I came back here about six years ago. I had two babies, and I was pregnant with my third one and honestly New Orleans was great, but after Katrina a lot changed. It got very expensive, and I was having an hour commute to take my kids to school. I got my car stolen. I got robbed in a Winn-Dixie parking lot. It was just enough. I had fun in New Orleans, but I thought, “This doesn’t make sense anymore.” I’d been out of Lafayette for a long time, and it was a strange adjustment, but the girls love it, and it’s just a more helpful, healthy community for us.

What’s your go-to summer recipe to cook when it’s really hot outside?

It’s cucumber-tomato salad. It makes me think of growing up. All of us remember there was a cucumber-tomato salad with dinner because it’s what your grandmother had in the garden. It was at all the church functions. The fact that it’s not part of plate lunches as much anymore makes me sad. It’s such a good dish.

About the Author

Marie Elizabeth Oliver is an independent journalist covering culture. She previously worked as an editor at The Washington Post and Better Homes & Gardens. Her work has also been published in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Parents, ElleDecor and Acadiana Profile.

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