As Louisiana celebrates Creole Heritage Month throughout October, a Northwestern State University alumna is using her love of food, cooking, education and genealogy to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds.
Chef Sheri L. Raleigh is a chef, instructor, cookbook author and owner of Cast Iron Skillet Culinaire in Waco, Texas, a culinary edutainment service that provides leisure cooking classes and team building activities for small groups and businesses. While specializing in Creole cuisine, she has cross-cultural experience teaching community cooking classes for educational, healthcare and hospitality organizations.
“I believe that food tells beautiful, soulful stories,” Raleigh said. “When my students are in the kitchen together, the cultural biases fall away, and they don’t worry about socio-economic status. They embrace one another around a shared table.”
Raleigh is a 1982 graduate of NSU where she earned a degree in home economics/dietetics and institutional management. She earned a master’s degree in human relations and business from Amberton University in Garland, Texas. She began her career in healthcare, then moved into public education, working in school nutrition for 18 years, before pivoting to teach culinary arts in 2004. She also had a part-time job with H-E-B Grocery, Cooking Connections, and began collaborating with another H-E-B chef in hosting private chef events, which led her to establish Cast Iron Skillet Culinaire in 2012.
“This has been an exciting addition to my culinary journey. Two years ago, Waco Family Medicine approached me about establishing a culinary road show to assist with bringing employees together as a way to create a safe environment as they implemented major changes in the organization. In the beginning, it was met with skepticism, but as I gained their trust, they found out they really enjoyed the classes and wanted to know more about eating healthy. WFM has mobile kitchen that is taken to various sites. Cooking together removes barriers and opens up new lines of communication between the staff and clinicians.”
Raleigh’s interest in genealogy, a continuation of research begun by her cousin, piqued her interest in how food is an important element of family and regional history.
“The most important things to me are my faith, family, friends and food, of course! As I began to continue the family genealogy started by my cousin Theresa Amentor Rector, we began talking about food our aunts used to cook in Lake Charles. She suggested that I integrate the recipes into the genealogy.”
Raleigh grew up in Lake Charles, with parents from Loreauville and St. Martinville. Her research in culinary arts began with the history of Acadiana, going back to American Indians, the arrival of the Acadians, the Spanish and the Africans. Creole cooking has deep roots in West African cooking brought to the Caribbean and the Americas with the African diaspora. Similarities not only persist in the food, but often in language and other traditions. Creole heritage is international, she said, and Creole cuisine, like African cuisine, is about building and layering flavors.
In 2021, Raleigh developed “Gifts from the Ancestors,” an African foodways project that explores how West African foodways influenced Creole cuisine and along the way inspired two cookbooks.
“In February 2021, I was a part of the Southern Foodways Alliance Writers Cohort. After reviewing my cookbook proposal, one of the editors said he liked my stories, but felt my approach was too historical. He suggested that I explore two approaches to improving my proposal. One was to look at it geographically, by parishes. The second was to look at the ingredients and how they impacted the Southwest Louisiana foodways. I really loved the second one, so I revised the outline to reflect the ingredients that were in my stories.”
“Gifts from the Ancestors, Vol. One, Okra and Tomatoes,” is followed by “Gifts from the Ancestors, Vol. Two, Creole Celebrations.” Both are available in digital format at http://www.giftsfromtheancestors.com. She plans to have 500 printed copies of each by the end of January 2024. The cookbooks can also be accessed at http://www.giftsfromtheancestors.com.
Raleigh’s cooking blog can be accessed at https://www.castironskilletculinaire.com/