Food, culture and memories are woven together into this extraordinary cookbook, revealing the heart of chef Melissa Martin.
- Story by Scott Naugle
The dozens of recipes, photographs and stories found in Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From A Disappearing Bayou, reveal the heart of chef Melissa Martin. Born and raised in South Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish, Martin’s memories are braided with taste.
“I grew up with leftover gumbo in the fridge and an oil rig drilling just outside my window. I didn’t know it was special to eat cold crabs for breakfast and be surrounded by water and bayous, ibis and pelicans, receding land and dying cypress trees. I also didn’t know I was Cajun,” explains Martin.
The chef has lived in Louisiana for most of her life, although after Hurricane Katrina, she relocated to Northern California and worked in several top Napa Valley restaurants. In 2014, she opened Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans, where she serves a family-style Cajun dinner supporting local fishermen and farmers.
In Mosquito Supper Club, Martin begins with the staples of a “Cajun Larder.” She details and explains the need for bay leaves, cane sugar, file’ powder, hot sauce, rice, salt pork, shrimp, leaf lard, garlic,
“We Cajuns don’t cook with a lot of garlic,” to the pots and pans that are best, “Cajuns hold the Magnalite aluminum pot in great reverence.”
The first section of recipes begins with shrimp, as it should, for a chef that grew up in Chauvin, Louisiana where “the bayou is a watery main street” and “shrimp nets, booms, and paupieres frame the sky.” Martin underscores the ubiquity of shrimp, “The one thing that has not changed over the years is the food we prepare with shrimp.”
One of these recipes is shrimp boulettes. The accompanying photograph shows them jumbled and disorderly in cast iron serving pots, presenting a symphony of fried enticement. The image resonates with the sound and smell of frying oil, the hiss of bell pepper and cayenne. The pans of shrimp boulettes rest on a worn plank suggesting a family gathering on the bayou, laughter and boisterous children, mothers and grandmothers in talking shrimp and survival on the murky waters.
Through recipes accompanied by the insights of Martin, we learn that food is the first ingredient in the album of family history and memory, framed around smothered cabbage or a mess of greens.
Cajun women work hard and are exacting about their recipes. After the birth of her baby, Martin’s mother exclaimed a few weeks after she delivered her eight-pound son with a midwife, “that it’s easier to deliver a baby than to make pecan candy.” Martin goes on to say that “I forgive her for that one.”
In remarks before her recipe for Eggplant Fritters, Martin laments, “Growing up, I was taken aback that Cajun celebrity chefs were men. The Cajun kitchen, the one place that belongs to women, was being used as a springboard to once again put men on top.”
She explains that she learned to cook from the women in her life and the collection of “spiral-bound Cajun cookbooks” that were put together by women’s church groups to memorialize recipes and pass down through the generations.
Photos of Martin’s recipes are kept company by depictions of the Louisiana coast; Pickled Okra, Maria’s Seafood Dip, Monday’s Red Beans, Duck Jambalaya, and Fried Oysters on Toast and fishermen, boats, and the bayou at sunset, all captured through the masterful lens of Denny Culbert.
Martin lived with her parents for three months in Chauvin while writing this book, “surviving her mother’s endless pots of coffee” and lovingly referring to her father as “the fish-whisperer.” Familial love sticks to the pages like biscuits to ribs.
The final recipe in Mosquito Supper Club is for Blackberry Dumplings: “Make the blackberry stew…Make the dumplings…Make a well in the center of the mixture and crack the eggs into it…Eat the dumplings warm as is or serve with a scoop of ice cream.”
Pause a moment and imagine this, early evening, around a table with a few friends, wine waiting to cleanse the palate for the next spoonful.
Here lies the magic of Melissa Martin and her Mosquito Supper Club, the spoonful between taste and memory.