While traveling through my family’s ancestral home of Vacherie, my brother and I recalled the stories of my grandparents’ home where cooking was a daily activity. I was fortunate to have my “Maw-Maw” live with me for a long time growing up, and have fond memories of her simple and delicious cooking.
But Maw-Maw surprisingly admitted she was actually not the best cook in the family. That honor was given to her sister, Cleona, known to all of us as Aunt Cleo. Aunt Cleo could cook anything, and was especially gifted at baking. Cakes, pies, tarts, it didn’t matter, Aunt Cleo could make it and make it simply delicious.
So as I drove toward Labadieville through Vacherie, where these women grew up, I remembered being told that it was Aunt Cleo who made the best tasting tarte à la bouille.
Tarte à la bouille is French for “burnt milk tart,” and can be described simply as a custard pie. But to me this dessert was a symbol of the love a long deceased great aunt had given to her family.
For those who have not enjoyed this treat, imagine the best-tasting sugar cookie that makes up the pie crust, along with the silkiest custard filling, topped with a lattice design crust covering. The experience for us is a taste-bud time machine, each bite taking us back to my grandmother’s warm kitchen with the echo of Aunt Cleo’s cooking.
And so it was that I journeyed to the one place that used the pure ingredients that I knew from a long time ago.
Most family cooks get away with substitute ingredients today, but the volunteers at the Labadieville Knights of Columbus Hall are committed to the pure recipe of the “bouille” by insisting on the use of real ingredients — butter, cream, milk, sugar and eggs. Every Thanksgiving our family friends, Terri and Mauri, reserve several tarts that we pick up and distribute to our family and close friends. The Labadieville KC makes and bakes 1,300 to 1,500 pies for their yearly fundraiser.
The good men and women begin their baking efforts at four in the morning. We were struck by the almost military efficiency of the activity. The rolling out of the crust, the mixing of the custard and the baking of the pies all had separate teams to maximize the production. But there was an obvious camaraderie and deliberateness in the people making the pies.
There was no rushing or skipping steps. The members of this community were truly having a good time while making a delicious pastry for families to enjoy.
We knew no one in the hall, yet everyone we encountered greeted us like family or a close neighbor. Their love and fellowship was evident. We thanked them and packed the pies for our deliveries back home.
In any other place, traveling more than an hour to pick up a carload of pies might be seen as a senseless excursion. However, during the holiday season we reflect on our blessings, and every year we can be thankful to relive priceless family history and experience of a truly great homemade dessert.
And as I drove back home through Vacherie I realized that the Labadieville KC Hall made the tarte à la bouille with the same family recipe as our Aunt Cleo — with pure genuine love.
Advocate readers may submit stories of about 500 words to the Human Condition at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Advocate, EatPlayLive, 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810. There is no payment, and stories will be edited.