Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance VP Eric Cormier Talks About Food, His Creole Heritage And Getting His Writing Groove Back
By Karla Wall
For former American Press reporter and columnist Eric Cormier, now a vice president of strategic development and policy at the Chamber SWLA/Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, food has been not just a passion but a way he connects to his Creole heritage.
As a child and a teen, Cormier says, he struggled with the cultural and racial nuances of life as a child of Creole and African American parents. As he puts it, it was difficult “to find my place in the world.”
“I’m a child of Creole and Black parents,” he says. “I’m a child of parents raised during the peak of segregation. It took years for me to figure out why I felt a little uncomfortable and to understand why my parents felt the way they did about certain things — why they didn’t want me to see this or hear that.”
Food, he says, both solidified his understanding of his cultural heritage and bridged the gap between his heritage and that of others. Food, he adds, was and is the safe zone and the great common denominator.
“When you’re cooking, everything else is set aside,” he says. “When you sit down to rice and gravy or barbecue, you drop all pretention. All the talk is about the recipe and the food. Those people you didn’t know or maybe had issues with, when you share a meal with them, they become colleagues. I don’t care who you are or if you don’t speak the same language, if you’re sharing something cooked on a grill, you have smiles all around. Take the recent hurricanes, for example. What brought the community together? Feeding people.”
Cormier grew up in a food-oriented family. His father, like his father before him, was a Kansas City Railroad employee, and he also worked evenings as a cook at Papania’s Italian restaurant in Lake Charles. His father’s parents worked in cafeterias during the 1920s and ‘30s.
“My dad would take me to Papania’s and I’d hang out in the kitchen with him and watch and learn,” Cormier says.
Cormier also learned a great deal about what he calls “cast iron pot cooking” from his grandmother, who was raised in Cloutierville, La. One of the dishes he remembers cooking with her is a wonderfully simple Creole rice dish.
“She’d cook what we called red rice,” he says. “It was rice with tomato sauce or paste, water, onion and garlic. I tried to make it over and over when I was older, and I stopped trying because I could never get it like hers.”
He also still judges others’ cooking skills using his mother’s crawfish etouffee and smothered beef or chicken as a measuring stick.
Food and cooking were so much a part of Cormier’s life that he gave serious thought to a career as a chef. His parents, he says, discouraged the idea.
“They told me it was long hours and hard work,” he says. “And you see that so many people try that career and lose everything they have.”
So he decided to pursue one of the other passions in his life: writing. He graduated from McNeese with a bachelor’s in Mass Communications, and he spent time in high school and college working for local radio stations LA 99 and KYKZ 96. He ended up at the American Press, where he put in long hours and worked hard for 15 years doing investigative reporting and covering local government.
But American Press readers may best remember him for his food column, which started when, about five years into his career at the paper, he covered a barbecue contest. Oddly enough, he didn’t end up writing about the winner or his food. The column focused mainly on the equipment used by one of the competitors.
“This guy had a grill made of two 18-wheeler brake drums,” Cormier recalls. “He had a hydraulic system for it. He smoked chicken on this ‘Tim the Tool Man’ grilling monster.’”
That kind of backstory interest would color all of Cormier’s columns. As he puts it, “the story is the dish, the chef, the bartender, the waiter, the place — that’s the story. Most of today’s food writers are into tearing down the food. I didn’t feel that was my job. The market takes care of the bad food and service. My job was to tell the story — to connect to the culture and the history.”
The column, and the traveling and research he did during that period of his life, exposed him to different cuisines and cultures, and brought his own culture and heritage into focus for him.
“Food writing brought me close to my cultural heritage,” he says. “I learned an immense amount about Louisiana and international Creole culture because of food writing.”
A New Direction
But with time, Cormier says, writing, even writing about food, began to lose its appeal.
“I got burned out,” he says simply. “I’d been writing since I was 16. It was just time for a change.”
He took the job at the Alliance, a job he says has him doing a bit of everything.
“I write policy, I’m involved in business recruitment, and I’m involved in government relations and fundraising. In the Chamber world, you do a little bit of everything,” he says.
His background with the American Press covering government entities has been put to good use in this position, he says. Even his knowledge and love of food, as well as his knowledge of the local food scene, has helped him at the Alliance.
“It’s a running joke between me and George (Alliance CEO George Swift) that when we go on recruiting trips or host businesses here, I pick the restaurant,” he says. “People in parish government are always asking me what food trucks are good to eat at. I also recruit restaurants and franchises for the area, and (his food background) helps there as well.”
Coming Full Circle
But, like most art forms, the urge to write doesn’t just go away. And Cormier says he’s been dabbling with getting back into it.
“I’d like to get my chops back,” he says.
He’s done some writing for trade journals, he says. And in the last year or so he’s written for Renaissance Publications, which publishes myneworleans.com, Acadiana Profile and Louisiana Life. “(Publisher) Errol LaBorde has been good enough to offer me a few articles,” Cormier says.
And those articles have focused, not surprisingly, on food. So far he’s done a personal essay on the importance of food and cooking in his life; a cover story on Louisiana restaurateurs (including Luna’s Dave Evans) and their battle to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and the hurricanes; and another cover story on the growing taste in South Louisiana for authentic Mexican tacos.
Cormier says he’s “happy to get back into the journalism game. To get the joy back in writing.”
He says one of the projects he’s thinking about is a cookbook.
“I’m not a chef, but I love to cook, and a cookbook is something I’d love to put together,” he says. “And I’ll continue to do magazine work, to see where it takes me — where the journey goes.”
For Cormier, food is a connection “between us and the rest of the world.” It’s how culture is defined, celebrated and passed on through generations. Writing about food has helped him find and solidify his identity and to embrace the cultural identity of others.
“There are all kinds of influences, and no one size fits all,” he says. “We all live in a big, beautiful world and we’re all just trying to find a life in it.”