By RANDY RUDDER
There’s an old saying in south Louisiana that’s meant to establish the authenticity of a Cajun: “Who’s your mama, are you Catholic, and can you cook a roux?” Well, Leland Rutherford got a lot of his Cajun recipes from his mama and his Aunt Elza back in Creole, La., he used to be Catholic (he now attends a non-denominational church), and he can darn sure cook a roux.
Leland knows there’s a lot more to great Cajun cooking than just a good roux, though. You can’t order your seafood and spices from just anywhere; you have to get them straight from the heart of Cajun country. Rutherford makes regular trips to the Bayou to purchase his fresh shrimp, oysters, crab, and boudin sausage. And of course, you have to be sure to mix in a healthy dose of love and the wisdom culled from several generations of great cooks with every batch of jambalaya, shrimp etouffee, or gumbo.
Rutherford was born in Lake Charles, and raised in Creole, La., and spent most of his working career on the oil platforms off the Louisiana coast, seven days on and seven days off. On his off days, he would go alligator hunting or operate his shrimp boat. (The popular History Channel reality series “Swamp People” is filmed just a few miles from Creole.) “I had a nice shrimp boat with bunks and a kitchen and everything, and I would run that shrimp boat for seven days,” Leland said. “We would sell the shrimp at the market down in Cameron (Louisiana), and then I’d tie the boat back up and I’d head back out to work on the platforms.”
After he retired from working offshore, Leland even dug his own lake and stocked it with thousands of crawfish so he would have a continual supply for his culinary leanings. “Where I come from, the men do most of the cooking,” Leland said. “I would always cook for family or friends, or boil up a pot of duck gumbo at the duck camps.”
Rutherford often visited his daughter Dena and her husband, David Pinkston, who lived here, and eventually decided to relocate to Middle Tennessee. Rutherford’s wife of 41 years, Carolyn, passed away of cancer several years ago and he is now married to Jean.
When Leland first moved here, he purchased a home with nine acres on Bass Lane just off Lebanon Road. “When we got up here, and I got through remodeling the house and cleared off the woods, I got to praying about stuff, I started to see some doors open to maybe sell some shrimp here,” he said. “I noticed that it was hard to find fresh shrimp here in Middle Tennessee. Everything was frozen and came from other countries. And every time we would go back (to Louisiana) we would bring back shrimp with us. People would come eat with us and people would start saying, ‘Man, why don’t you bring back some shrimp for us next time you go, so we would. So we went to Georgia to go to school and we got our wholesale-retail license.”
Leland eventually built a storage facility on the property, with several freezers, and began selling shrimp and oysters and crab meat to local customers, largely through word of mouth. Then he built a concession trailer to sell Cajun food at the Wilson Country Fair. It was so popular, he decided to park the concession trailer across from West Elementary and sell his shrimp Po Boys, gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice to passersbys. Here again, the demand for his Cajun dishes became so popular that Leland began considering possible retail locations. He recently chose a spot in the Cool View Plaza across from the Hickory Hills subdivision on Lebanon Road in which to open his new restaurant. Leland plans to keep the storage building and the concession trailer running even after the new retail location opens, and Dena and David will continue to operate the business with him. David was a manager of several Nashville area Panera Bread locations and has a degree in business, so he and Dena will continue to lend their expertise in food service management for the company.
There will be a few new menu items at the new location, like alligator, boudin burgers, blue crab, and locally caught Cajun catfish, but the other favorites, like the gumbo and jambalaya, will remain. Rutherford still travels back and forth regularly to the Gulf to purchase his supplies, sometimes bringing back as much as a ton of shrimp at a time. He purchases fresh alligator meat from Hammond, oysters from Bayou La Batre, Ala., boudin sausage from Dry Creek, La., and shrimp from Delcambre.
Leland loves to tell stories of his days growing up in Creole, and of his family traditions, and does so in that unmistakable Cajun accent (he says some customers come by just to hear him talk). Like the story of his aunt Eve, a widow, who used to spend weeks before Christmas making homemade fruit cakes and hand-delivering them to neighbors and relatives, just to bless them. “And my other son, he still lives back in Creole, and he does a lot of cooking down there still, for church events and things like that. He’s got a big ol’ black pot with a paddle,” Leland laughed. “He was telling me the other day he cooked jambalaya for about 700 people down there. He had to cook five of those big ol’ black pots to feed ‘em all.”
So which dishes are the chef’s favorites? “Gumbo and jambalaya are some of my favorites to eat and to make, too,” Leland said, “because you can make pretty large quantities pretty easily. I also make a great Cajun spaghetti and etouffee, and we always have homemade potato salad and a corn on the cob or another vegetable with the meals. I love crab, too. The crab meat we get is blue crab, and it’s the real deal, too. We get about four of those really big jumbo shrimp and we stuff them with that crab meat, roll it up in some good batter, and deep fry ‘em,” he added with a big grin. “Man, that’s some good eatin’.”