Don’t waste your time searching for an alligator recipe in the first cookbook from James Beard Award nominee and “Top Chef” fan favorite Isaac Toups. You won’t find one.
“Chasing the Gator,” Troups explains in his introduction, is a metaphor for how he cooks as a “100 percent Cajun, born and braised.” Toups honed his professional chops working in high-profile kitchens run by luminaries like Emeril Lagasse. But the soul of the cooking that defines his two wildly popular New Orleans restaurants – Toups’ Meatery and Toups South – can be traced to the swamps and forests of the Atchafalaya Basin where his ancestors settled some 300 years ago. That’s where he learned to gig frogs, bag mallards and help his daddy make gumbo “so damn good it might make you cry.”
It was there, too, that he learned to weave a colorful tale peppered liberally with humor. Former Southern Living editor Jennifer V. Cole brings that distinctive voice to life as she tags along with Toups on a rowdy, roux-thickened journey into the rich and rustic culture from which he came.
Cajuns, we quickly learn, pride themselves on resourcefulness, using every edible part of what’s available to them. Toups spares no graphic detail in describing what goes on at a community “boucherie” – the process of taking an animal from “live to eating” that was once beloved part of Cajun community life and is now making a comeback. It begins with a prayer and a pistol.
If you don’t have the stomach to learn the rest, flip on over to the recipes. For the bold and the blood-thirsty, there’s Hog’s Head Cheese, Boudin Balls and Sausages (calling for 100 cloves of garlic and 12 feet of natural hog casings), and Trotters and White Beans – a mess of white beans flavored with pigs’ hooves. For the rest of us, there’s Double-Cut Pork Chops with Cane Syrup Gastrique, and Roasted Vegetables in a Bacon, Sherry, and Mayonnaise Vinaigrette (I made both, and they’re easy and delicious).
There’s plenty of other stuff I’m salivating to make: Pickled Fennel brined in rice vinegar, Herbsaint and spices to balance the richness of Braised Lamb’s Neck with Braised Back-Eyed Peas; Confit Chicken Thighs over Laquered Collards; Maw Maw Toups’ Gulf Seafood Couvillion, a rustic stew of shrimp and finfish served over Crab Fat Rice.
From the salty prose to the compelling recipes to the stunning photographs by Denny Culbert, “Chasing the Gator” is a riveting reminder that if what you know about Louisiana cuisine is limited to the tourist-packed restaurants of New Orleans, you’ve barely scratched the surface.
“Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking” by Isaac Toups and Jennifer V. Cole (Little Brown, $35).
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.