A Meal at Alzina's
Nearly eighty-four, Alzina has the white hair and saintly smile of an old-world grandmother. She’s short and soft-spoken, the gliding vowels of her accent hard to hear over the voices of a granddaughter and four church friends who have come to help. But a woman who can debone a chicken in four minutes does not need to shout. “I can’t do nothing without her supervising,” says her friend Debra Pitre as she waits for Alzina to show her how to slice pears for a salad. “She wants it done her way—and she has her special way.”
Alzina recruited Pitre to her kitchen with a xeroxed copy of a prayer. In turn, Pitre gave her the affectionate nickname of Al “because she orders people around like a man.” Her children call her Chief. She has asked a bishop to kneel and hold a dustpan to expedite cleanup. Regulars know that if they arrive early, they will wait for their meal. “We run out of iced tea?” says another friend, Kathy Sandras. “They’re going to drink water.”
Where a main street would be in any other town, Galliano has a rail-straight stretch of the 110-mile Bayou Lafourche, its calm waters floating trawlers and flanked by highways populated by work trucks and oil tankers. Before dams and levees, this western fork of the Mississippi River routinely flooded surrounding fields as it flowed toward the Gulf of Mexico, making the land particularly fertile for growing sugarcane. Suburbs have swallowed most of those farms, but a few local stores still sell fresh cane syrup.
Alzina grew up in a quieter Galliano, on a little farm with pigs and chickens. Both her father, a Cajun fisherman, and her mother, a Portuguese immigrant, cooked. She has fond memories of their spaghetti and says she can taste her mother’s food to this day. The first part of her adult life was spent on a shrimp boat with her husband, traversing the waters between Texas and the mouth of the Mississippi. That’s where she learned to debone a fish without breaking the skin. “I saw so many things on that boat that no one can take away,” Alzina says. “So many fish, the sunrise, the sunset, the dolphins.”
If Alzina could have her way, she would have been born in the 1800s. Her favorite vacation was lodging with an Amish family in Pennsylvania, where she spent most of her time picking corn and apples. When not in her restaurant, she can usually be found at church or the grocery store, or crocheting at home, in the white cottage where she raised her two sons, just across the street from the restaurant. She refuses to buy a cell phone—“You think I want someone to be calling me when I’m doing something?” Her motto: “Simple life, you happy.”
Which makes sense when you consider Alzina’s food. Even her dried herbs originate in the garden rather than the store, her pasta is handmade, and her produce, shrimp, and crab come from local farms and fishing boats, season permitting. “She’s been doing for the last thirty-five years what all our chefs here have been preaching about for the last ten,” says Ryan Hughes, the chef at Johnny V’s Bistro in New Orleans.
That’s not to say Alzina’s food is unsophisticated. When Hughes, who is classically trained, spoke with Alzina after dinner at her restaurant, he found she knew many of the pastry techniques he’d learned in France. “She was doing the exact same thing,” he says. “She just learned it on her own.” Before Hughes and his sous-chef left for the drive home, she shared her black-eyed pea jambalaya recipe. “I give the chefs my recipes when they come,” Alzina says with a shrug. “We not just running a business here.”