The localvore: Southern comfort

Written by Ruth Rhodes July 18, 2009 09:41 am

For most Del Norters, July means watching fireworks under foggy skies, lazing on the river, and puttering about in the garden hoping for the right combination of rain and sun. But for my family, July is vacation month. After the parade on the Fourth, we packed our bags to visit with my husband’s family. They live outside of New Orleans. In the heat of the summer, the whole clan gets together for “Camp Ramsey,” a kid and family fest that involves swimming, boating, jet skiing, treasure hunting, and of course, some serious eating.

Visiting my in-laws can be both a delight and an exquisite torture. It is a joy to be with such wonderful people — even more so now that I have a son who is truly and deeply loved by extended family. But being a food person — and a picky eater — I often feel like a dog, straining at the end of his leash. Regional food is so close but yet so far.

My in-laws are “healthy eaters,” fit and active; I ought to be grateful. But it’s a blessing as well as a curse. Because my idea of a vacation is letting myself eat a few naughty, local calories: soft shell crab “po-boy” sandwiches, sweet potato pie, and deep fried catfish. I don’t want to waste grams of saturated fat on mere hot dogs or potato chips. But this isn’t my house and I’m not in charge. That’s the torture bit.

But for my husband’s family, healthy eating means substituting deliciously sinful products for their less fatty but even less tasty cousins. This usually means that we dine on turkey bacon, butter substitutes, and spray-on dressing. And they don’t dine out.

Now I can hear the critics already: “What an ungrateful daughter-in-law!” And they’re right. I probably should have sat down with my husband’s people long before the marriage and said, “Listen. I am terribly in love with your son and I think you’re some of the most interesting, thoughtful, kind people I’ve ever met. I’ll do just about anything to remain in your good graces. But we really need to talk about the corn syrup in your fat-free half and half.” Somehow, my food snobbery never really came up. They already knew I was a liberal Yankee; pointing out more of the deep geography separating us seemed like overkill.

This summer, I was steeling myself for the visit, but to my surprise, things have been different. It started with a treat from my sister-in-law and niece: fresh, hot beignets from Café du Monde for a treat the day of our arrival. Not long after, we had a meal of crawfish etouffee and steamed rice. I offered to help in the kitchen and made a huge salad with the most delightful commercial dressing I think I’ve ever had: La Martinique French Vinaigrette. It’s all the rage with my extended family.

I was more assertive this time, too, and helped with the shopping. I treated the clan to sweet Alabama peaches from a roadside stand, along with a Washington Parish watermelon that was as sweet and cool as the farmer claimed. I made the grown-ups lunch one day: sautéed fresh local eggplant with tarragon right out of the spice garden. It made a good alternative to hot dogs and went well with some Texas tomatoes that another in-law brought from her sister’s place.

My husband also played his part. The first Crescent City tuna boat came in the day we left, and we brought frozen fillets in our suitcase and grilled them up for a family meal (in my view, it still counts as local if it flies in your luggage).

We leave for home tomorrow. It’s been a sweet trip — in more ways than one. We bonded with swimming, with good conversation, and at last, with food.