For the owner of the Creole Lunch House, rice is the grain of life.
Growing up just outside Lafayette, Merline Herbert fondly remembers her mother cooking rice each and everyday to serve for lunch. When her family couldn’t get a heaping helping of rice, they suffered. She recalls taking a family vacation to Tennessee, where people ate potatoes and salad as a side dish, instead of rice. For three days the call of rice and home beckoned. “Next time we come here,” her father bemoaned, “we are going to bring the rice pot.”
There is no rice cooker at the Creole Lunch House, no microwavable grains. “We cook rice the old way,” she says, “on the stove.” She maintains a confidence in the virtues of the rice pot.
Herbert learned to trust her pots as a young woman, cooking alongside her mother at home for her four siblings. Cooking rice, smothering meat with onions and peppers, simmering beans, and stewing greens. Instead of entering the restaurant business right away, she worked for over two decades in the public school system, working as a middle school teacher, advising future teachers at the university level, and acting as a principal.
Too restless to enjoy retirement, Herbert, with her husband’s prodding, opened up the Creole Lunch House in 1983. She brought to the menu the same smothered dishes and sides that she had been cooking for most of her life. Meatball fricassee on Mondays and Wednesdays. Stuffed baked chicken on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fricasseed chicken dished up everyday. And rice and gravy served everyday.
Herbert makes sure never to run out of prized starch. “We serve rice with everything but root beer,” she likes to joke, “and that’s because it’s too sweet.” When the occasional customer asks for potatoes, she informs them that this is rice country — we eat rice here. Sometimes other, carb-conscious patrons, will ask to skip the rice. “Where you from?” she teases. “What’s the matter with you? You can’t eat without no rice. It’s not going to work. My meat is not going to stay on that plate.”
The Creole Lunch House is also justly famous for their stuffed breads. These are fresh-baked, fist-sized rolls, loaded with sausage, cheese, and jalapeños. Another version comes packed with crawfish and gooey cheese. Since introducing her Creole’s Stuffed Breads in 1985, Herbert has had a hit. They are sold throughout Lafayette area hospitals and lunchrooms. The rolls might be more recognizable for attendees of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Herbert has personally dispensed her breads from a booth since 1991.
Today, Herbert might not go to the extremes of traveling with a rice pot, but she is never far from a bowl of rice. Before returning home at vacation’s end, she drives straight to the grocery, where she picks up some meats to tenderize in gravy and a bag of rice.
Rice makes lunch, rice makes the meal, and at the Creole Lunch House, it is always time for meat and rice.
Rien Fertel is a Louisiana-born and based freelance writer and professional historian. He’s written on food and travel and books for Oxford American, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, Spirit, Saveur, The Local Palate, and other publications. He calls New Orleans home, and lives part-time in a hundred-plus-year-old church in St. Martinville, Louisiana. More info can be found at www.rienfertel.com.
Denny Culbert is a freelance photographer living in South Louisiana. He is also the co-founder of Runaway Dish, a culinary non-profit dedicated to supporting and documenting Louisiana foodways. He has shot editorial for such publications as The Local Palate, Southern Living Magazine, Vice-Munchies, New York Times and many more. More info can be found at www.dennyculbert.com.