When I was a child, we would always have large Italian family gatherings on Sundays in Marrero, Louisiana — or for the big holidays, in Thibodaux. Our family name, Rouse, was taken by my great grandfather when he immigrated to the United States from Sardinia, Italy. Our original family name in Palma. Being an Italian family, we always had more pastas, sauces, grilled vegetables, baked fishes and homemade stuffed artichokes lining stoves, countertops and tables than any 10 families could ever eat. But we sure tried! Of all the foods in all the family feasts, the thing I enjoyed the most was a homemade anchovy bread that my parents made. I can still remember the dough being kneaded and rising, and the childhood anticipation of seeing it stuffed with anchovies and chunks of Romano cheese. It was topped with olive oil and Parmesan. There is something about homemade food that can bring you back to a place, make it as real today as it was 40 years ago. That anchovy bread was always my favorite part of the day.
We would usually have it with my father’s spaghetti, and I used to enjoy dipping it in the sauce and eating it that way. Not everybody liked it, but I’d even take it home and eat it just like that the next day. I loved it hot or cold. When I make it myself today, I use more anchovies and Romano than most people might put in it! I love the flavor of the salt and cheese. Nowadays, when we make it, we use Pillsbury Hot Roll Mix and make the bread according to the recipe. It is a good replacement or alternative for French bread.
For those Sunday meals, there was one long table in the house, with 20 people crowded around it — all talking, laughing, reaching for a bowl or plate of whatever was being served. And that’s the way we did it: as a family. We ate together and shared together. We did that throughout my parents’ lives, and even now, after they’ve passed, we still have those meals— and when there’s pasta, we always have that anchovy bread.
When my family talks about my late father, we always come back to a few things. How hard he worked. (My dad could do anything, from farming to the store’s electrical work.) How, for 60 years, he and my mother would go dancing every Saturday night with a few other couples in Thibodaux — how they loved to dance! And of course, my father’s love of cooking.
Oysters were a staple in the Rouse household. My dad would get them from Poochie, [a close friend of his, and uncle to my niece Ali on her mom’s side. Poochie got his name, Ali says, because he was sort of fluffy-looking as a newborn, and when he was still in the hospital, everyone said he was a little poochie; the name stuck for 60 years. That, and his real name is Ulysses, and as he grew up, he never wanted anyone to call him “useless”!
Poochie’s work took him up and down Bayou Lafourche. Everybody knows him — he has a wonderful, larger-than-life character — and everyone loves him — and he would always show up at our house with these sacks of oysters. Like a lot of Italian men his age, my dad was fearless in the kitchen, and would come up with all sorts of ways to prepare the oysters. They turned up in different spaghettis. He fried them, grilled them, made oyster and artichoke dip with them. Of course, he ate them raw with different homemade dips like remoulade, or with Tabasco and horseradish. He would sometimes sit on the porch and shuck them and eat them, and I remember him offering me a freshly shucked raw oyster when I was a kid, and my responding with an emphatic and unambiguous “No!” These days, I can’t get enough of them! Among the many recipes, my father made an oyster rice dressing that became a holiday tradition. We still prepare it every Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Get the recipe at www.rouses.com)
Mom always cooked when he had to work, but when he was home, she always cooked with him. When she wasn’t side-by-side at the stove with him, she was sitting at the table peeling things. They were a cute couple cooking together, especially when they cooked for the holidays.
Over the years, we preserved as many of Dad’s recipes as we could. There was one, however, that eludes us to this day. It was an oyster and broccoli soup. The ingredients, as I recall them, included chicken broth, fresh garlic, broccoli and pasta, and he would season the soup to taste. At the very end, he would add fresh oysters. It was a simple dish, and probably one that he improvised and — having found a winner — continued cooking throughout his life. On a cold day, there was nothing better. I remember my nephews, Chris and Nick, eating it one day toward the end of my father’s life. It was one of the last meals he made when he was healthy. I remember them sitting at that table, and I happened to be there and, I mean, you didn’t often see young kids eating oysters in a soup. It was that good. And try as we might, we still haven’t duplicated it quite yet. It is a lost piece of Rouse family history. My sister Cindy jokes that the recipe isn’t really forgotten, because we never knew it to begin with!
My dad was a well-rounded cook. He spent his life in the food business, and he found great joy in the garden or behind the stove. He loved to watch his family and friends eating, loved to make sure everybody had food. He always served everyone before he made his own plate. And if more guests arrived and there was not enough food to go around, he’d be right back in the kitchen, adding more and more to the pots to make sure everyone left full, satisfied, and with a little more joy and a few new memories that they didn’t have when they’d arrived. It’s the sort of family spirit we try to keep going at home and in our stores today. That’s my father’s real legacy, and one we hope will live forever.