Patsy Younghouse's grandmother has a recipe for everything--including grizzly bear. Younghouse is a Louisiana native, former farmer, mother of six, ex-deputy township clerk for Oak Park, and proprietor of a distinctly idiosyncratic restaurant called Memere's, the Cajun word for grandmother. That's appropriate, since it is her own memere's Cajun and Creole recipes that set Younghouse's eatery apart--that and things like her willingness to serve alligator and rattlesnake. Since the passing of Cafe Bohemia, few restaurants have offered such exotic cuisine.
When Younghouse opened Memere's a little more than two years ago, Cajun cooking was hot: Paul Prudhomme's face was everywhere, the garrulous Justin Wilson was the darling of PBS, and cooks who had never been closer to New Orleans than Orleans Street were blackening redfish--or what they passed off as redfish--with abandon.
The foodies have moved on, but Memere's is flourishing, serving gumbos, roosterfish, and red beans and rice to a regular crowd who come in from as far away as Lake Forest. "Cajun and Creole are what I was raised on," says Younghouse. "Things go in and out of style, but good food is good food."
Memere's occupies a double storefront at 22 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park, just a few feet west of the Chicago line. With its painted tin ceiling, an eclectic decor that includes everything from an oak-framed mirror to ceramic masks hanging on the walls, and lidless mason jars used as water glasses, it might be in danger of becoming Clark Street cute; but it's saved by the scuffed wooden floors, the grease-spotted typing-paper menus, the mixed clientele, and the staff--most related to Younghouse, supplemented by the odd friend of the family. Her mother, who didn't speak English until she was in the first grade, works there. "My whole family's still in Louisiana," says Younghouse, "except the ones here with me--my memere, my aunts, my uncles."
Then there's the food. "The difference between Cajun and Creole food is that Cajun is basically like country-type, eat-in-the-kitchen-type food, and Creole is eat-in-the-dining-room, more delicate, formal-type eating--it's Sunday food," says Younghouse. "Cajun is good, basic, hearty food. You fix a lot of it for a family, and it goes a long way. The red beans and rice [a staple side dish at Memere's] is a good example. There's that difference in Cajun and Creole music, too. We like to play both. Creole is more like zydeco, with a lot of accordion--good dance music. Cajun is more country music--all those old sad things about love gone wrong. There's a lot of fiddle in Cajun music."
Memere's supplies come from sources as varied as the menu. Younghouse serves a great deal of seafood from her open-to-view kitchen: shrimp, roosterfish, catfish, and the ubiquitous redfish. Some fish and other offerings come from Louisiana. "Memere's sister's family is in the meat-packing business, and they send the sausage up, or Mom goes down to visit and brings some back. I've got a good supplier for wild game--the bear, the venison, the snake--a little bit of everything. I'd like to get some possum; legally it's hard to get. I don't care for squirrel, but rabbit's great. We have alligator and crawfish all the time. Snake and the other stuff is on an as-we-can-get-it basis."
The alligator she serves is raised on farms in Louisiana for its leather. "But the meat's getting popular. People expect it to be tough, but actually you've got to cook it very carefully or it falls apart." Quail and pheasant are also farm raised and served "when the seasons come around. Birds are tricky; you can't do much with them in the spring." Quail cooked in whiskey, she reports, is a good seller.
Grizzly bear was on the menu in December after her game supplier called. "[He] said, 'I've got 30 or 40 pounds of grizzly bear sirloin, and do you want some of it?' I took it all, and I sold it in two weekends. One fellow came in all four nights of both weekends and had it. I expected it to be gamy, but it's not. I was surprised it was as tender as it was, but it cooked faster than a beef roast. It was very, very good. I told my supplier that we'll take any more he gets.
"Rattlesnake--we have that relatively often. It's a good seller. It's good meat, very tender. It's got a lot of bones in it, but it's a pretty dish, and it's really kind of tasty. It, frankly, looks like a snake lying there on the plate, but once you're past that, it's fine."
Like the recipes for gumbo and catfish and shrimp creole, the recipes for bear and alligator and snake all came from Younghouse's grandmother. She's had to learn to translate them. "She never measures anything--it's all a pinch of this, a coffee cup of that." Memere is now 89, Younghouse says. "Her biggest complaint right now is that she has arthritis in her knees and she can't scrub her own floors anymore."
For the unadventurous palate there is standard American fare: hamburgers and cheeseburgers at lunch; steak, prime rib, and pork chops at dinner. Most of the entrees are not on the menu, but are recited by the casually dressed server. Memere's has a selection of imported and domestic beer and wine. Younghouse says she sells a lot of Dixie beer, imported from New Orleans, at $2 a bottle. Because this is a southern-style restaurant, real iced tea is available even in January. Because it is a Louisiana-style restaurant, there are two kinds of hot sauce on the table. A plate of cinnamon-roll slices is on the house. The mismatched wooden tables and chairs are comfortable; small children are accommodated with armchairs fortified by telephone books.
Lunch, served from 12 to 2 Monday through Thursday, offers sandwiches and what Younghouse considers "smaller portions" of Cajun and Creole specialties, usually for $6 to $9. The large bowl of incendiary soup (featuring small shrimp, vegetables, rice, and various unidentified floating objects) that's guaranteed to peel the top two layers of skin from the lips and clear the sinuses precedes the main course, but would have been sufficient in itself for the smaller appetite. Dinner (from 5 PM to about 9) ranges from $9 to $15, and it is on this menu that one finds the alligator.
It's not there all the time, however, and if you want something specific it is advisable to call first (524-2150) to find out what Younghouse is serving that day. "I would get tired of cooking the same thing all the time, so I change the gumbos and the side dishes. I take customer suggestions. If people call and say 'Hey, we're coming for dinner on Saturday. Can you have some quail, can you have some rabbit?' I try to have it. We're cooking anyway, so why not?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.