I get Bergeron’s pecans…I have 60 pounds of pecans that were delivered. They deliver them in no time. [Y]ou call one day, and you usually get them the next day. However, with – it's a little slower since the storm getting delivery of that. – Francis Chauvin
Listen to this 2-minute audio clip of Francis Chauvin talking about the different kinds of pies she makes. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.] What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
DATE: November 3, 2005
LOCATION: Mrs. Chauvin’s home – Hammond, LA
INTERVIEWER: Laura Westbrook, University of New Orleans
LENGTH: 56 minutes
PROJECT: Gulf Coast Foodways Renaissance Project/Hurricane Katrina
Laura Westbrook: Here we go—it's November 3rd and this is an interview with Mrs. Francis Chauvin at her home outside of Hammond, Louisiana. The interviewer is Laura Westbrook, and Frances is making pies this morning with help from Faustina Cook. I'm going to just sit this here until we need to move it.
Francis Chauvin: Okay.
The first thing I noticed when I come to visit your house, other than how wonderful it smells, is that this house seems to have been created just for you and the things you do. How did this place come to be?
Well, I drew up the floor plans the night before we started it.
We lived in Hammond and we had this land, and the sewage backed up, and we had to move in with seven kids to the Holiday Inn after being on a two-week vacation, and a fellow came and said, “Well, when are y’all going to start your house?” I said, “Tomorrow!” I drew up the floor plan that night. And we didn't know what the rest would look like; it took us a while to get that. But we had a place for all of our furniture, and all that we had in the other house, so that's how—and no architect, so—and here's a picture of me putting a roof on and all our children helping us—helping. We had carpeting and family and friends did a lot of the work. It was fun.
Had you had an idea in your mind already of the ideal house—?
Well, we knew we wanted some kind of a barn-looking thing because it was on the farm. We got these beams out of the barn across the street and this big piece of cypress came from a friend out on Blood River; he gave it to us and we left it in its natural shape and that—that became the bar.
Now you say you grew up in—in Welsh, Louisiana?
Uh-hm; and went to school in Welsh and Fenton, F-e-n-t-o-n, and my husband was from the Napoleonville.
And so your—your husband, what did he teach when you met him?
He taught English and History and Algebra; he taught me that.
So you had—you had him as your teacher for three classes?
Yes, over a period of a year and a half. And he was 10 years older than I, but we had—he got into the radio business after teaching school and that was the most interesting place to raise children.
I'll bet it was. And the kids worked there with you?
Uh-hm; as they grew up they—they worked for us. And two of the boys are still morning men at the two local radio stations right now.
What are the main changes that you've noticed in this region in terms of like community life and that sort of thing from the time you were growing up near here?
Well it's always been a cultural place, a lot—like with the college; we have a wonderful college and with—with a wonderful music department and English department and we have Fanfare [arts festival in Hammond] and we get top people down. In fact, Coach Carter, who they made the movie about, is going to be here tonight at 7:30. He was supposed to be here last week and ended up in the hospital—so he will be on stage talking to the kids about achieving more in life and making good grades. The Fanfare is wonderful—it's in the month of October and they have top people—Katherine Stetson; oh they just finished the Sound of Music. In fact it's—no it goes through Saturday—the production and they get—they have—every year they have people from New York that come down and they put on plays and they did Annie four years ago and my granddaughter was Annie. She has a beautiful voice, Neely Durham, and she had the part of Annie in the production but all the productions are—are top notch. So it's—it's a real good—we have a Hammond Culture Department downtown and we renovated the downtown area, a lot of the places and it's become—.
Yes; they've done a very good job with that. Now what about, in terms of culture in the area, that comes from—that's more related to communities rather than things that come from outside? Are there things that were always special to you growing up, local celebrations or that sort of thing?
Well see I—I—we moved here when I was about what—about 25 years old, so they have always had a lot of cultural things at the college. Now see all these productions, they're—they're put on from New York but they're local people in the productions.
Uh-hm; yes, so they all—the college has just been a wonderful place to—to live and raise children here.
Now, how about holidays and things like that in your family? Do you have special ways—I mean you certainly, with your pies, make other families' holidays special.
We are—always had—I mean the whole family; there's 33 in the family now and they always come plus several extra people—boyfriends and girlfriends as the grandchildren get older. We've always had a whole lot of—of people around and we fix a traditional turkey and a lot of everything—way—way too much food. But—and then of course the pies, but my husband was a very good cook, a very good French cook, and so he would make certain things and I would make other things.
What were his specialties?
Sauce Piquante, and gumbos, and he could make gravy out of almost nothing, and—and it would be very good.
Uh-hm; and what about your specialties?
Yes; well I cook roast, rice—rice and gravies—like my grandmother would. John did teach me a lot of the brown gravies and all and I fixed chicken spaghetti but not the Italian way. It's a—a—well it's Frank Davis' recipe—a lot of Frank Davis' recipes that the children have seen or I've seen on television and it's a [Phone Rings]—. Can you stop that?
—make pies and I teach them when they're young, but we had a two and a half year old boy last night that's not going to be invited back until he's at least three. [Laughs] Oh yes; I hardly ever baby-sit, but both families needed someone last night for a little while, and he got into the flour, and had it everywhere. He said “I'm big now! I'm big now!”
[Laughs] Now, your dining table seats eighteen. When you were growing up, what was the family like? Were there lots of people around, the way there are now?
Yes; my mother was one of thirteen children. And—anyway I had thirty-nine first cousins and every third Sunday was our time to go to—my grandfather was—her [Frances’ mother] daddy was an invalid from crippling arthritis, and we would go to the house. We'd go see them in Benton, Louisiana, every third Sunday because there were too many to all go at once, and they'd cook and we'd wash the dishes in the bathtub, because there were no dishwashers then. Then my daddy's family—he was one of three, but my grandmother's family had double first cousins and had eight children and there were a whole lot of people—so every Sunday we were at someone's house or they were at our house; so. And now Sunday—we always cooked for everybody and they're here unless they're away—the two granddaughters are paying tennis all over the South now. They're thirteen years old, and unless there's a ballgame they go to or something, they're here for Sunday dinner. And if they don't come in at noon and they have someplace to go, they usually come at night and eat.
Oh my goodness. Now how did you—when did you first start cooking? You were saying that that two year-old isn't going to be allowed in the kitchen until he gets a little better. When were you allowed in the kitchen?
Oh my grandmother had the patience, and I was the first grandchild, and she taught me how to do this when I was about nine years old. She also taught me to sew. I make everything that I wear—all my clothes. I made all my husband's shirts and the shirts that he has on in the pictures and all—I made his shirts, but the pies—starting with the pies, our—our son, Tim and [his wife] Laurie live across the street. They were on the Downtown Development Board and they wanted to get a market started—something to renovate, I mean to rejuvenate, downtown and they had a few people. Tim said, “Momma, why don't you do something—be a vendor?” I said, “What could I do?” He said, “I don't know; cook something or make some cookies or pies or something,” so I started making the pies and selling them, and Richard McCarthy and someone else from the market in New Orleans came up and tasted them, and they asked if—they asked me if I would go down there. And my son was already selling flowers down there—Tim Chauvin, and Laurie, have Petal Farms—so I started going there; that was six years ago. So I've been going ever since.
What were you first experiences like cooking? Were you an immediate success or did you hit a few bumps along the way?
Well I don't know.
When you were learning, say, with your grandmother?
Oh I—I don't remember anything.
Do you remember what the first thing was that they allowed you to start? Did you start with biscuits or—?
Yeah; I would make biscuits, but also the pie crusts, and cookies and all and—and my, let's see. Then I started making—learning how to make milk gravy; that's what we made over—over that way. We had rice every meal, because my daddy and grandfather and brothers were all rice farmers and we had a lot of rice, but my grandfather had a truck patch so we had all our fresh vegetables and boiled peanuts and watermelons and all that. So we—we were always used to eating a lot of fresh vegetables.
And did you help with regular family meals or just special occasions?
No; I didn't. Well I married at eighteen, so I was busy going to school, playing basketball and all but I—I didn't help, but I learned how to make homemade cinnamon rolls too when I was very young and they're so good.
Those must have made you very popular. [Laughs]
Well back then most everybody did things like this. [Aside to Faustina, who is pouring filling into pie shells] Okay; I need it 'cause it's one and a half measure.
When you were growing up was there a place in—in your town that served as sort of the social center of the community?
Well because we lived out in the country and the people were—I was able to drive. I learned to drive when I was about eleven or twelve and I would go pick up people on Sunday evening and bring them back to my house, and we would make hot fudge and all, and dance to records, and so—because there—Fenton was a very, very small place. I think the population was about two hundred, three hundred, so you either went to a ballgame at the gym or someone's house.
Now I have a guess, but what is your favorite thing about making the pies and—and going around and selling them at different farmers markets and places?
Because of the repeat customers that—because I make each pie like it would be for my family or best guest and all, and I make one recipe at a time. Let me show you the—what I have already mixed up. I have 12 bowls—in fact Johnny has taken a picture of them—those little clear bowls there and I put them out there, but if you double the recipe—see all the—I can put these—go ahead and mix them up and then I put water and then roll them out; that's what I did this morning, to try to keep ahead on that. But it takes a lot of time to do all that but if you double the recipe the crust does not come out the same. It's tougher.
And see my—my crust—I'm known for my pie crust and anybody—I mean you can put anything in the middle but it's the crust that makes the pie.
So the thing that you really enjoy about it, one of the things that you enjoy the most, is kind of getting to know the repeat customers?
Oh—oh yes; yes and I miss—especially miss all those that were down in New Orleans—Saturday customers. I was there longer than the Tuesday market. I'd go every other Tuesday and every Saturday.
Yeah; what's most challenging about doing this?
Hmm; I don't know. [Laughs]
You're up to it, whatever it is.
Yes; I—I just do what's—what I need to do that day.
Uh-hm; what about since the storms have hit the Gulf Coast area, have you found that your business has changed already?
Oh yes; well, for four or five weeks I didn't bake pies because I had no place to sell them, and then Darlene [Wolnik, with the Crescent City Farmers’ Market] called and told me that we could go to the Baton Rouge market and they would let us in there. So I made the trip over and took my friend Lucy Mae with me and we found out that we could both go and we're sharing a table over there. They've been very nice to us and welcoming us and all, so—.
So the Crescent City Farmers Market has been looking out for its vendors and trying to help them find new places?
Yes; uh-hm, right. They told us to contact them, so our first Saturday was scheduled to be [the weekend we were hit by Hurricane] Rita—I mean Rita's Saturday, so we had to cancel and I had a lot of my pie stuff made, but I can keep my stuff in the cooler for about the week before I bake it. I don't bake until tomorrow because I want the pies to be real fresh.
Be just fresh.
But I—it takes me a couple days to put them together and I put them in my cooler.
Now, what about gathering the ingredients that you need to make the pies? Have you noticed that the availability of your ingredients has changed a little bit up here?
No; because right now I'm using the peaches that I put up this summer. That was one thing; I was in Destin, Florida for twelve days and my sons had to go to Baton Rouge to get gas to keep generators going. I had two of the great big chest-type freezers—one full of blueberries, and one full of peaches, and another one full of blueberries and peaches. The peaches came from Chilton County, Alabama and they do sell them at the Crescent City Farmers Market, and the reason he does sell them there is because I was his best peach customer in Hammond. He's been coming to Hammond—he has five varieties of peaches and been coming to Hammond for twenty-three years and he started asking about the market, so now his family goes to New Orleans [to sell at the market] but they're his peaches. And the blueberries are raised by a fellow from Mandeville and he raises them up in Chattawa, Mississipp—Chattawa Farms is the name of it. And he drops the blueberries off at my house on his way home after they're picked fresh, so I use the freshest ingredients. I get Bergeron’s pecans who happens to be my son-in-law's cousin and I've been to his home. And anyway you see I have 60 pounds of pecans that were delivered. They deliver them in no time; so—you call one day and you usually get them the next day however with—it's a little slower since the storm getting delivery of that.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.