As a young mother, Cheryl Gaillot would always give her toddler son Chip an empty aluminum pot and a big wooden spoon so he could “pretend-cook” alongside her.
The game proved to be time well spent.
“My son, to this day, can cook, and sometimes he’s a better cook than I am!” said Gaillot, 52, a cafeteria food technician St. Anthony School in Gretna and a 20-year veteran of School Food and Nutrition Services, which prepares meals for 82 Catholic and non-Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“Even when I babysat my nieces and nephews, if I was making meatballs, I would pull those little chairs up to the table and I’d say, ‘OK. We’re gonna roll the meatballs,’ or ‘You crack the egg,’” Gaillot said. “You have to start them off young and let them do these kinds of things so they learn.”
Gaillot attributes much of her own love for cooking – and eating – to her Larose-born paternal grandmother, a woman of Cajun French heritage who would floor the family with dishes made with ingredients from her home garden.
“I remember picking lima beans, cucumbers, snap beans, tomatoes. She made her own fig preserves,” said Gaillot, recalling how the fresh-is-best rule also extended to the hens used in her grandmother’s celebrated chicken and sausage gumbo. The birds were captured from her yard, plucked and cooked in the darkest of rouxs until the meat fell off the bone.
Then there was her grandmother’s dirty rice, described as “killer” by Gaillot.
“She would actually hand crank – with the old machine that you put on your counter – the chicken livers, the pork, the ground meat,” Gaillot said. “She would let us crank the machine, too. Everything was from scratch.”
During meatless Lenten Fridays or any time of year, Gaillot turns to her family by marriage, reproducing two specialties her late mother-in-law, Rosemary Cooley, prepared for her own family of seven children.
“I try to bring back memories for my husband by cooking certain things that his mom cooked – I always make him taste it to make sure it tastes like his mom’s,” said Gaillot, sharing her relative’s recipes for mirliton casserole and crawfish stew for this issue of Holy Smoke.
“The stew is is so simple to make,” Gaillot said. “(My mother-in-law) was so meticulous about cutting her onions. She liked them diced small.”
The mirliton casserole contains two types of bread: day-old French bread that is moistened and wrung out before being added to the vegetable mixture; and Italian bread crumbs, which take the casserole to its desired “semi-dry consistency.”
“It was sort of like a stuffing she was making,” noted Gaillot, who shared two additional meatless favorites: the School Food and Nutrition Services recipe for shrimp étoufée, scaled down to a family-size batch; and summer squash penne pasta, featuring a sauce of heavy cream infused with eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, Portobello mushrooms, garlic and Parmesan cheese.
“You can also add seafood to it. If you want to add crabmeat, crawfish or shrimp, you can,” Gaillot said.
Although she is a lifetime resident of Westwego, a seafood-rich city on Bayou Segnette, Gaillot said she shied away from making seafood and okra gumbo until she learned a trick from her St. Anthony cafeteria manager Gilda Marshall: how to “de-slime” the gooey vegetable. Marshall taught Gaillot to add two capfuls of white vinegar to a pan of chopped fresh or frozen okra before placing it, uncovered, into a 350-degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes (while stirring regularly).
Caters to all tastes
Gaillot’s career in School Food Services includes 10 years each at St. Rosalie Middle and Archbishop Shaw High. Hired last fall as the cafeteria manager at Academy of Our Lady, Gaillot left after just three months because she missed being part of the hands-on cooking in the kitchen.
She jumped at the chance to work at St. Anthony when a cooking job opened there last November. The busy cafeteria staff prepares daily breakfast and lunch for St. Anthony’s 268 students, arriving at 6:15 a.m. and departing at 2 p.m.
“I cook for the kids,” Gaillot said, noting that St. Anthony is the first place at which she is cooking for grades pre-K through 7. Their favorites include red beans, white beans, meat sauce and lasagna, all made from scratch. Fresh bread is baked daily in the cafeteria, with the talented staff even making king cakes, cookies and salad croutons from scratch.
“You have to watch the spices that you put in for the little kids,” said Gaillot, who also has observed that younger students tend to inspect the ingredients in their food more frequently than high school teens do.
“Some little kids don’t want to see any green,” she said. “Now the boys at Shaw – those boys ate! If they didn’t like something, they told you!”
A lifetime parishioner of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in Westwego, Gaillot continually is struck by how Scripture is replete with stories of people gathering around the table and clamoring for nourishment. So it makes sense to her that her parish’s faith formation talks, led by Father Buddy Noel, also are full-on potluck dinners.
“There is a bonding power through food. It’s a family thing to me,” Gaillot said, mentioning the Gospel story of The Wedding Feast at Cana, where Christ’s first miracle unfolds.
“That (wedding at Cana) was a meal-based thing. You know what I’m saying?” Gaillot said. “It’s all about being around the table, breaking bread together,” she said.
“It’s all about sharing!”
Beth Donze can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.