Rouses Everyday - September & October - page 26

f all the pre-meal traditions common to the Gulf Coast’s
food culture — a dozen oysters to kick off a meal, a
cup of gumbo — I have a pronounced weakness
for the seafood house cracker basket.
To outsiders and first-time visitors to the Gulf
Coast, the presentation — a red plastic or
wicker basket filled with cellophane packets
— seems almost comical. It’s a low budget
stand-in for a proper breadbasket with butter in
foil-wrapped squares or single-serving tubs. Most
friends just ignore the cracker basket as they sip their
first beer and wait for their crack at peak-season crabs or
a mountainous fried seafood platter.
Me? I dive straight for the packets and return to childhood,
because I know that there’s magic in a Gulf Coast cracker basket.
Any self-respecting cracker basket has a few different options from
which to choose — standard saltines (two per pack), a fancier
version (Captain’s Wafers are always a favorite, maybe “Whole
Wheat” for the health-conscious crowd), and brittle Melba toast
if you’re lucky. The cellophane wrappers crackle to the touch and
often require a little bite at the edge to tear open. Once the crackers
are freed from their protective skin, you slather them with butter,
or better yet, scrape the cracker through the room-temperature pat.
The first bite is always glorious. It’s one of the few places in the Gulf
Coast food canon where blandness is a virtue. The saltine (
start with a saltine) is basically a flavor-neutral square of pure crunch,
that when smeared with buttery, creamy goodness is the prelude to
other, more flavorful kinds of crunch — spicy onion rings, golden
fried shrimp, cornmeal-crusted catfish,
oysters still tender in the center. In a way
it’s just like the endless baskets of tortilla
chips that kick off a TexMex feast – a
signal to the brain and the palate that
there’s something good coming in just
a few minutes.
Froma restaurant owner’s perspective,
the tradition represents the epitome
of dining-room practicality —
"My love for raw oysters started with saltines. The oysters
were really just an excuse to eat crackers and cocktail sauce
(after an appetizer of crackers and butter)."
—Ali Rouse Royster
individual packets don’t go stale like bread would, and the basket is
a little salty lagniappe that encourages a little pre-dinner thirst to
makes a cold beer seem
that much more
For many, it’s a bit of pre-meal nostalgia for a time when eating out
was a special occasion rather than a standard fact of life. A nod back
to those times when big families would push three tables together
and feast on fried seafood straight from the gulf. A memory of
how Aunt Gracie used to love those little rounds of Melba toast
(“You remember, the ones that had a little bit of garlic powder?”)
The feeling that the skinny Captain’s Wafer seems just a little more
decadent than saltines, and how they tasted with the little salad that
Mama used to order instead of a fried shrimp plate.
For a lot of us, it’s that kind of memory that makes us reach for the
little cracker basket. Just to pass the time. Just to make a few more
crumbs before dinner arrives …
Cracker Basket
Pableaux Johnson
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