Michelle Watson was a sheltered young woman from a small Texas town when she married her high school sweetheart, Richard, in 1980 and went to meet his grandparents. She had grown up in Wichita Falls, on the Texas-Oklahoma border, and although Richard's grandparents didn't live that far away, to Michelle it might just as well have been another country.
It was not far from New Orleans, where the young couple went for their honeymoon. That's when Michelle first encountered Dutch, Richard's grandfather, who wasn't Dutch at all but Cajun.
"He had that real thick French accent and would call me 'cher', and for the longest time I wondered what he was saying," recalls Michelle with a laugh. "I had never been exposed to that culture before, and it was hard for me to understand him. "Of course" she adds, "he probably had a hard time with my Texas accent."
Dutch (whose real name was Adam) had worked in one of the shipyards. Despite being a diminutive figure in his early seventies when Michelle met him, he was not a person to be dismissed lightly.
"At first he intimidated me," Michelle confesses. Especially since her husband was one of Dutch's favorite grandchildren. "Dutch was concerned my husband would starve to death because I didn't know Cajun Cooking," explains Michelle, laughing. "He'd say to my Mother-in-Law, 'Poor Ricky - Michelle can't make a roux."
I'll bet you can't make enchiladas, Michelle recalls thinking.
Dutch was right: Michelle didn't know how to make a roux, a base used for much Cajun cooking. "It's a thickener for dishes like gumbo," explains Michelle. "You brown flour and oil to a particular color. I considered it a gravy, though Dutch would probably have been insulted if I had called it that."
Roux aside, it was food that quickly broke the ice between Dutch and his new granddaughter-in-law. "I soon learned to aapreciate the finer points of Cajun cuisine," says Michelle. She especially loved the seafood jambalaya and crawfish étouffée that Richard's grandmother made. She would go with Richard's grandparents deep into the bayou, in Dutch's boat, where she learned to catch crabs and later cook them.
Michelle had another culinary skill. Being Texan, she knew how to order a Collin Street Bakery fruitcake. "I decided to show Dutch some of the finer aspects of Texas cuisine," she says.
All worries of roux went by the wayside the first Christmas Michelle had a DeLuxe Fruitcake delivered to Dutch. "You can keep sending those fruitcakes," Dutch advised her. "I'd certainly take another one."
Just as Dutch was Michelle's introduction to Cajun culture, she was his introduction to a famous taste of Texas. A new family tadition had begun, and it flourished.
The fruitcake became their unspoken bond - he with his gumbo-thick Cajun accent, she with her Texas lilt - a conversation between just the two of them that needed no words. They now understood and appreciated each other immensely. When he called her cher, Michelle now knew it was a term of affection ("dear"), and so could laugh when Dutch informed her that her American-blend coffee "tasted like rabbit pee". He wanted only the traditional Cajun chicory coffee.
But the fruitcake needed no improvement. If anything, it was a little too good.
"My Mother-in-Law told me Dutch would hide the Collin Street Bakery fruitcake when company was coming," says Michelle. "He'd put a real cheap fruitcake into the Collin Street tin. That way he could save the good stuff for himself."
Dutch has since passed away, but Michelle still sends a Corsicana fruitcake to Jefferson Parish, for her Fater-in-Law. Like father, like son - he also hides it to keep for himself, Michelle reports - "although he doesn't substitute a cheap one," she adds.
Michelle, meanwhile, still doesn't know how to make a roux (but her husband hasn't starved to death). When she cuts into her own family's fruitcake, she thinks of Dutch. "Food is such a part of that culture," says Michelle. "Dutch savored that fruitcake. That was his teat and his alone. It was one of the ways he savored life."