Louise Perez

Louise Perez

Isleño And Italian Foodways
by Carolyn Ware

Louise Perez is known throughout Louisiana and beyond as a master of both traditional Italian American and Isleño cuisine. Growing up in an Italian American family in Poydras, in St. Bernard Parish, she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. Italian families in the community often raised their own calves, pigs and chickens, but meat was not always a part of everyday meals. Her family usually ate "a chicken, maybe, on a Sunday" and pork in the winter after killing a hog, but otherwise depended largely on vegetable dishes. Her father was a truck farmer, and Mrs. Perez says that "We lived onvegetables, ourselves," which were picked fresh from their fields. Family meals typically included dishes like stuffed artichokes, smothered turnips, corn soup, and potato soup.

At the age of seventeen, she married Irvan Perez, an Isleños from Delacroix Island. Through her husband's family, she learned about Isleño culture, language, and foodways. Irvan's mother and grandmother taught her how to cook traditional Isleños dishes like wild ducks, caldo, rice custard, crab casserole with squash, and jambalaya.

Mrs. Perez is especially well known for her caldo, a thick, nourishing soup traditional to the Isleños. The soup begins with white beans and pickled pork, and vegetables like corn, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and sometimes squash are added later in the cooking process. She believes that "Cooking is like an art," and so feels free to sometimes improvise even on traditional recipes. She notes that she uses more vegetables in her caldo than did her in-laws, for example. Most Isleños women on Delacroix Island did not have gardens and ate fewer vegetables than she was accustomed to. Another change she has made is to cook the sweet potatoes separately in a small amount of broth, since otherwise they tend to get soft and fall apart in the soup.

The caldo takes about two hours to prepare. Before it is served, the whole vegetables are taken out of the broth and arranged on a platter, to be added to the soup as it is eaten. Mrs. Perez says that although "A lot of people had the idea that you only had soup in the winter," she cooks it all year round, pointing out that she just turns on the air conditioning in hot weather.

Louise and Irvan Perez lived on Delacroix Island for twenty years until the community was virtually demolished by Hurricane Betsy. Today they live in Poydras, on land only a block or two from her girlhood home. Their house is usually full of their children and grandchildren, and their table is crowded with family and friends, especially for Sunday dinner.

Mrs. Perez continues to cook her specialties not only for her own family but for festival-goers throughout Louisiana. With her husband, a renowned dècima singer and carver, she has travelled widely to promote the Isleño culture and cuisine. She has demonstrated Isleño and Italian cooking at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, the Natchitoches- NSU Folk Festival, and the Louisiana Folklife Festival, among others.