Mike Collins, 70, was born and raised down the bayou in Lafourche Parish, and his signature dish, Old-Fashioned Oyster Dressing, certainly shows it.
“I was brought up with a simple life philosophy, use what nature gives you,” Collins said. “(We) drank water from a cistern, used an outhouse and bathed in a galvanized tub. Food was very important, and we ate from the bounty of fish, shrimp, crabs, oysters and local vegetables.”
Collins worked in education for 35 years and is currently working with Rotary as a Past District Governor.
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“The only culinary training I had when I helped my mom or dad prepare meals and preserve food, ” he said “Our grocery store was the land, marsh, gulf and bayou. My parents taught me how to find the food, preserve it, and then prepare a meal using it.”
The Courier and Daily Comet asked Collins about his favorite dish, and about his thoughts on food and cooking in general. There are the edited answers to our questions.
How important is preparing good food to you and your family?
I feel like preserving the way my generation lived by cooking traditional dishes is my contribution to my children and my community. I realize now how precious our food resources were to us before grocery stores and big box stores made it so easy for us to find food for meals. I taught my children how to find food in our environment and how to prepare it. They in turn are teaching their own children how to make a roux, peel shrimp, prepare venison and much more.
Do you like to be creative with recipes and invent your own, or do you prefer to cook traditional favorites?
I love traditional favorites like gumbos, Redfish Courtboullion, bouillabaisse and jambalaya, but I also love getting creative. I combine Cajun spices and foods and turn them into something entirely new. For example, after I harvest beganoes (an oyster snail) or conchs, I combine ingredients to make a Cajun-flavored chowder much like the clam chowders I ate when visiting the Northeastern U.S. I put Cajun spins on dips, gravies, and sauces we use with traditional and creative recipes.
How has your cooking and eating changed during the pandemic?
I am cooking more out of necessity because of the closures of restaurants and limited visits to the grocery stores. I am also using more of my preserved foods, whether they come from my home canning supplies or from my freezer. I use this opportunity to get more creative with my dishes. I grow spring and winter gardens, so I have typical south Louisiana vegetables and seasonings in the yard and utilize them for both traditional and creative cooking.
Do you have a family cooking memory that is special to you?
When my wife’s parents and my parents were alive, we had the family Thanksgiving celebrations at our house every year. Between her family and my family, we would have over 50 guests, mostly relatives and some friends. I would begin preparations for this meal over a week in advance. I would prepare the traditional fare of turkey, rice dressing, sweet potatoes and ham, and also a Cajun feast that included a shrimp, crab, and sausage gumbo served with potato salad. We also had boiled shrimp, boiled crabs, and oysters, raw oysters, oyster dressing, and charbroiled oysters.
The best part of preparing all this food, was not so much serving or consuming the meal itself, but the time our immediate family spent together preparing. I would sit with my dad opening oysters and listen to him tell me about doing this very thing with his own dad. My son sat next to me, learning how to open oysters and mostly learning about his heritage from his grandfather. In the kitchen, my wife and I, my mom, and my daughters prepared the food for cooking. Of course, my mom was the center of the conversation as she talked of her life growing up on a houseboat and living off the land. She taught my children to appreciate the life we have and to be proud of how they were being brought up to preserve their heritage.
Old Fashioned Oyster Dressing
- 3-4 lbs. ground chuck
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 1 pint fresh oysters, in liquor
- 4 shallots, minced
- 1 cup raw chicken livers, chopped
- 3 slices bread, chopped
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In saucepan, boil oysters in liquor for 10 minutes. Remove oysters from liquor, saving liquor, and chop oysters.
- In large skillet, add ground meat, onions and shallots. Cook down without browning. Add chopped oysters, parsley, and garlic.
- When mixture begins to cook, add chicken liver.
- When oil begins to accumulate in skillet, dip bread in oyster liquor and stir into mixture until mixture becomes creamy.
- Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Do not all mixture to stick to bottom of skillet. Add a little water at a time in order to keep mixture creamy.
You can stuff chickens, turkeys, or ducks before baking. This recipe is also good for stuffing pastry such as tiny pie shells for appetizers.
Louisiana is known for great food, especially seafood. What about living in south Louisiana inspires your cooking?
Simply put, the freshness of the seafood we can get is extraordinary. Our next meal can easily be swimming this morning and on our plate this evening. My wife and I have traveled across the states, through Europe, Canada and Mexico and have always noticed the great difference between our Louisiana seafood and that in other places.
Much the same happens when we serve fresh seafood. One of our Canadian friends once asked us what she was eating as she chowed down on boiled shrimp. She literally said that she had eaten shrimp before, and this was too good to be shrimp.
What may be considered exotic for so many people around the world and country, is an everyday indulgence for many of us.
What advice would you have for someone who is interested in the art of cooking?
If someone is interested in cooking, they need to invest their hearts, talents and their time.
My seven granddaughters have all helped prepare and cook meals with me. I showed them how to cook roux for gumbos, fricassee, jambalaya and other traditional south Louisiana meals. They showed me how to cook tacos, wraps and pizza. Whether it was me helping them or them showing me something, it is a shared experience that I hope will be a loving and pleasant memory for them long after I am gone.
If you know of any friends or family members who are excellent cooks, and who may be candidates for a future Cook of the Week feature, please email their name and full contact information to [email protected].