Tradition, History & Cooking

By Kevin Tankersley

Inspired by West African cuisine, Chef Raleigh teaches cooking techniques and recipes that shaped Cajun and Creole foods.

Pictured: Photo by Breanne Johnson,

Creole chef Sheri Raleigh’s Louisiana roots run deep.

Her mother and grandmother are from Louisiana, the southwest and south central parts of the state.

That’s where Raleigh grew up, and she went to college in Natchitoches. She shares that heritage in her cooking classes, offering lessons in Creole and West African cuisines, along with other culinary courses such as knife skills, and one covering the five mother sauces of classical cuisine.

Raleigh moved to Waco in 2013 and brought her business, Cast Iron Skillet Culinaire, with her. She offers hands-on cooking classes where participants take an active role in preparing a meal. Raleigh leads the cooking and talks about the history of each dish as the meal progresses. In February, Raleigh will host seminars on Louisiana Creole and West African cuisines. Those classes will happen each Saturday of the month, and will take places at branches of the Waco-McLennan County Library. The Feb. 4 session will be at the Central branch; Feb. 11 at East Waco; Feb. 18 at West Waco; and Feb. 23 at the South Waco library.

WACOAN: Tell me about your business, Cast Iron Skillet Culinaire.

Raleigh: Cast Iron Skillet Culinaire is what I termed a culinary ‘edutainment’ business. We specialize in group cooking experiences that enrich [peoples’] cultural food background. And we also do team building classes to help foster better relationships through food because I feel like food builds bridges, and it paints a soulful story for the participants. They get engaged in that and it leads to other friendships and deepening their relationships. Our 10-year anniversary was September 12.

WACOAN: Has the business always been in Waco?

Raleigh: No. I started out in Houston. I was a culinary teacher for eight years at Lamar Consolidated ISD. I formed a partnership with Braman Winery [Richmond, Texas]. They gave me an opportunity at their new tasting room, which was ironically right around the corner from the high school, to do my first food and wine dinner. So that was the beginning of it.

WACOAN: When did you move to Waco?

Raleigh: I moved to Waco in 2013 and I brought [the business] with me. After learning the city and doing some networking, I was invited to meet Karyn Miller Brooks, who was the owner of Gourmet Gallery, and I began teaching there with Karyn and Rachel Solano. That was a very good experience. That propelled the business forward.

WACOAN: What drew you into the food world in the first place?

Raleigh: Well, I kind of have always been in the food world. My grandmother, Adele Raleigh, was the one who fostered that love of food in me for my formative years. And then as I began cooking, around 8 or 9, my mom and I used to cook more together. I think at first she had to gain trust. She was in the hospital one Easter, and I told my dad, ‘You know, Mom doesn’t like that food,’ so I decided to cook Easter dinner and take it up there to her. I did a roast in a browning bag. That was so elementary, but it turned out good. After that, she trusted me more in the kitchen, and we cooked together a long time.

Then the women at New Sunlight Baptist Church were always cooking. They had a big kitchen. [It was] a lot of friends and neighbors, and it just progressed from there. When I went to Northwestern [State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana] after graduating from high school, I went into business because I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I never thought of putting those two together because it just wasn’t offered. But then after a semester in business, I decided crunching numbers was not for me. I switched my major to dietetics and food and nutrition. That’s what I graduated in, and I’ve been in that industry in some capacity all my life.

WACOAN: You talked about growing up with your grandmother. Where was that?

Raleigh: That was in Lake Charles. Her family is from St. Martinsville, Louisiana. My mother’s family is from a little town called Gueydan, Louisiana. It’s in Vermilion Parish. But it’s all right there together. When I refer to the “heart of Acadiana” in the book, that’s where it is. There are six parishes or so in that cluster. Acadiana has 22 parishes. And so when you think of Louisiana that way, Louisiana total has 64 parishes. It is in southwest Louisiana, moving towards south central. Calcasieu Parish, in Lake Charles where I grew up, would be considered southwest, because we’re right on the Gulf of Mexico border before you cross into Texas. You get to Vidor and then Orange and Beaumont and Port Arthur. We’re at the heel of the boot, as they say. So those other parishes are up Interstate 10, going towards Lafayette.

WACOAN: Tell me about your cookbook, “Gifts from the Ancestors.”

Raleigh: Well, it’s been a labor of love for the past 20 years. I started out doing more like a community heritage site. And I mentioned the ladies from New Sunlight and some of the other women I used to cook with, like Willie Mae Ryan. We used to call her Aunt Willie Mae, but she really wasn’t my aunt. She was a caterer in Lake Charles. I was collecting recipes from them. They put out a cookbook, which I still have an original copy of, and it’s really tattered, but I made copies of it. I took some of those recipes and just curated some of [them], kept practicing them, testing them. That’s how it was starting out. But when I moved to North Carolina in 1995, I began working with a cousin of mine who lived in the Washington, D.C., area, on the genealogy for the family. She began working on genealogy in, I think, ‘87, but she was to the point where she just wanted to get it digital. She wanted to get it on the computer. I was working with her on it, and we just formed a stronger bond over genealogy. She said, ‘You know, you ought to think about incorporating some genealogy in your work, telling the stories and making it more of a family heritage.’ I took that idea, and I had to put it aside for a while, raising a family and all that. But my sister Josephine Simon, who the book is dedicated to, started typing the recipes for me because some of the ladies were handwriting things. She typed up just about everything, so that made it easier when I came back to it to say, ‘OK, these are the things that I would like to include.’ The original book has about 100 recipes. But for the smaller digital version, I just chose to do select recipes from that. And my plan is to release another one in June for Juneteenth. It’ll have about 42 recipes. This one has 25.

WACOAN: How did you go about choosing which recipes to include?

Raleigh: For this one, I wanted to focus on okra and tomatoes. That was the catalyst for it. In February of 2020, I was invited to participate in a writer’s workshop with Southern Foodways Alliance [at the University of Mississippi]. It was a super intense, long weekend. When the editor, John T. Edge, read the story about the okra and tomatoes, he said, ‘Well, Sheri, I think you need to look at your table of contents and decide if you want to go in chronological or if you want to go by ingredients. I think the historical facts are great, but that’s not why people really pick up cookbooks.’ So I broke the table of contents into ingredients that relate directly to the region where I grew up and what I’m speaking about in terms of the history of it: okra, of course, and tomatoes. That’s how that came about. But that was very good advice. It made the book flow a lot better.

WACOAN: The book is available in digital form, right?

Raleigh: I have not done any printed copies. I’m going to do a little bit more research in price comparison for that in the spring. My hope is to find someone who can do the printing at a reasonable cost and release it in a paperback form in the spring. There’s the young man who’s doing my graphics work, Jeremy Goodie. He did my website logo for ‘Gifts from the Ancestors.’ He did all of the work for my Juneteenth event in Houston in June. He’ll start working on the next volume. I’m hoping that the next volume will be released digitally and in print, and then get the other one printed.

WACOAN: You teach classes as well, don’t you?

Raleigh: I teach private group classes. I also teach at MCC through Continuing Education. In 2017, Dr. Brandi Ray asked me if I would consider teaching an African cooking class. She already had someone teaching Cajun cooking at the college and she didn’t want to have two Louisiana-based cuisines. I said, ‘Let me research it.’ I called on some friends in the industry. I had met a chef from South Africa. She doesn’t call herself a chef, but she’s a food culturalist, and she’s from Nigeria. And then I reached out to chef Pierre Thiam to ask him some questions and do some research. He was very amenable and said, ‘Yeah, get my book [and] use whatever you need for the class.’ That was the impetus for that.

I started looking at comparing Louisiana Creole recipes with West African recipes. For example, our shrimp creole and their West African ginger shrimp are kissing cousins. We both use a tomato base-type sauce, but we use a little roux in ours and they use coconut milk at the end. They use scotch bonnet. We use cayenne pepper. But when you start looking at the food in a forensic way, you find out a lot of similarities. I guess ingredients changed because those enslaved Africans that were here didn’t have some of those ingredients that they had. So they adapted. Some of them did get to go to France to study, and that’s where the Creole sauces and all of that originate from. People always ask me, ‘Is Cajun cooking and Creole cooking the same thing?’ No, it’s not. A lot of people try to use it synonymously, but it really isn’t. Louisiana Creole is heavier on the sauces and the refined cooking aspect of building flavors through ingredients and seasonings. Cajun has savory dishes and one-pot dishes, but it’s more rustic where the Creole dishes are a little bit more refined.

WACOAN: If somebody wants to take one of your classes or host a class, what could they expect?

Raleigh: Typically when I do a class, I find out more about the client and what their expectations are. What do you hope to do? What’s your group about? I’ve done several group classes here in Waco. I’ve done classes in people’s homes. And I like to go look at the kitchen where I’m going to be. That gives me an idea of how to set things up, because I want them to have a very good experience.

I give them two menu options to choose from. We start off with an appetizer. I may do a signature cocktail, depending on their preference. Then we go into the main entree, and we will have a dessert and always have lagniappe, which is a little something extra for them to take away or utilize in some way. I put them in pairs or groups and really get them immersed into the cooking experience. I’m not there to do a cooking demonstration or cook for them. They’re part of the experience. It’s hands-on all the way. The appetizer may not be, depending on the time factor or what we have to do.

Usually I’ll have it prepped enough where they can participate in that or a few of them can participate while the others are getting their area set up and doing their mise en place [a French culinary phrase that means “putting in place”] for the recipe. We’ll eat the appetizer. We’ll have a wine tasting or beer tasting or whatever it is that complements the meal or their signature cocktail, and then we’ll go into the actual main entree prep.

WACOAN: What are some of the cocktails you like to serve?

Raleigh: In the classes that I’ve taught, I’ve done the French 75, which is champagne-based. It’s a Louisiana cocktail. The Uppercut, if I can get Sazerac. For Juneteenth, I created a cocktail using pineapple tea which the food expert from Nigeria [shared] with her permission. I call it the Zanana cocktail because in Creole, zanana is pineapple.

WACOAN: Is it pineapple and tea, or a pineapple tea?

Raleigh: It’s a pineapple tea made strictly from the peelings of the pineapple. You boil that tea down and add ginger and cinnamon. You make a ginger water to go in it and then [add] some cinnamon sticks and reduce it down and strain it. You can serve it just like a hot tea or a cold tea. I put brown sugar in it but if you don’t want any sugar, you don’t have to because the pineapple has some sweetness to it. And then for the cocktail, I use rum.

I’ve done wine pairings. When I was at Braman, that’s what we did.

I cooked at Balcones (Distillery) here and did some classes for them. I did a Mardi Gras class and then I did a Cubanismo class, which focused on Afro-Cuban food. They did the cocktails for that, but it was wonderful. We had a good time.

WACOAN: It seems that in making the pineapple tea, that’s good use of something that would normally just be thrown away.

Raleigh: Exactly. Yes. And West Africans and Louisiana Creoles are synonymous with that. My students can tell you that I was a stickler for not wasting in the kitchen. Nothing goes to waste. If they’re doing their knife skills, we’re saving all of those scraps so we can make a vegetable stock and reduce it down and freeze it and use it in a future recipe. The running joke with my students was, ‘Don’t waste your product because you don’t get a do-over with her.’ If they spilled something, I’d say, ‘You know, that’s 25 cents worth of this or 50 cents worth of that.’ One of my former students posted recently that she did a recipe and broke it down in cost. She put it on her Instagram and I commented, ‘Who taught you that? Hmm.’

WACOAN: The recipes that you do in your classes, can folks prepare those themselves later?

Raleigh: Yes. And [working] hands-on with them prepares them to cook it at home. They get copies of the recipes and that allows them to have that confidence to cook it at home. With the West African recipes, those are strictly hands-on, too. Then we all sit down and eat. But these are things that they could replicate at home. One lady told me, ‘You know, that West African sweet potato peanut soup, we’ve now adopted that as our New Year’s soup because it has greens in it and all of that.’ So, people find that if you take the intimidation away, and make it fun, they soon take those barriers off themselves. I always ask why they’ve come to my class. In knife skills class recently, I had a lady who said, ‘Well, my husband fusses about my knife skills. I want to be more competent in the kitchen.’

She did great. It’s just that she had that fear of being criticized, so she stopped trying. It comes with practice. I don’t do perfect knife skills either. But it comes with practice, being confident and using a knife. We talked about the fact that if you do that, you make your cooking experience better because now your life is easier.

WACOAN: What are your best memories from cooking with your grandmother?

Raleigh: My grandmother wasn’t a big talker, and it was primarily because she didn’t speak English well. She was very self-conscious about that. She and her sisters, all the aunts, they all spoke Kouri-Vini, which is the Creolized French. She wouldn’t talk as much, but she would show. She would do something and then say, ‘Do this like this.’ Very few words. But I guess what the more traditional cooks would say, and it’s a term coined by [American anthropologist] Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, is vibration cooking. You’re cooking with them, you’re replicating what they’re doing. Then they’re giving you the thumbs up or thumbs down. I had some of the ladies in the community cooking class at Waco Family Medicine, because that’s what I’m doing now. We had diverse cultures in that group, and I said, ‘You know, we learned to cook from our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers. They would cut their hand with a small knife. But you’re learning how a larger knife can help you be more efficient, and it’s faster.’

[My grandmother] had this one little knife that she would use. She was really patient in showing me how to do things. She had a little garden in the back. We used to pick figs, and she grew different vegetables in her little backyard in Lake Charles. So those are the memories that I have of her. She used to cook a lot for the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. During fair time, she would make tons of popcorn balls and sugary popcorn, and the dining room table would be full of things like that. Pecan candy, candied apples, all of this stuff. I don’t know how she churned out all of that in her little bitty kitchen, but she did.

WACOAN: My wife grew up cooking with her grandmother, and one of her prized possessions is a spoon that was her grandmother’s and is flat on one side from scraping the bottom of a cast iron skillet.

Raleigh: A cast iron skillet is definitely the queen of the kitchen. I still have her tea sets. I have her little china cabinet. Lots of things from her. I don’t have some of her dishes and pots. Some of those got lost in transit. She came to live with us when I was about 12, when she was not able to live by herself and moved in with us. My mom was so nurturing with her. She brought her refrigerator because she didn’t want to get rid of it. My mother said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m gonna bring your refrigerator over here.’ And she would do herbal medicines and things like that. ‘Take two tablespoons of this for your cough,’ and that kind of stuff. So we kept her refrigerator until she passed.

WACOAN: If someone wants to find out more about your classes, where can they find you?

Raleigh: I have two websites. I have one for Cast Iron Skillet Culinaire, which is more my blog, but they can message me through there. They can also go to, and they can sign up and request classes. They can reach me on Instagram at ChefSheri1913.

WACOAN: Is that the name of your book?

Raleigh: Yes. So many publishers told me that’s not a good name, and I needed to find something catchy, but I just couldn’t move away from it. I decided to do a survey amongst people who had taken my classes. That name ended up being the one they chose. And so that’s how I stuck with it. The volume of this book is ‘Okra and Tomatoes, 25 Recipes from the Heart of Acadiana.’ I’m focusing on that culture and heritage, and then my future work is going to focus more on Creole celebrations because we love a party. We can turn anything into a party. I’m going to focus on seven celebrations and do it more from a menu, so the person who’s cooking can do the whole menu for that celebration from start to finish, appetizer to the drinks. And I think that’ll help people incorporate that into their cooking.

WACOAN: What are the celebrations?

Raleigh: I’m going to do the traditional ones, Christmas and New Year’s, but I’m also going to do Mardi Gras. I’m going to do what we call a Creole soiree and explain what that is. In the ‘50s and ‘60s during segregation, there were limited social gathering places for the Creole and African American community.

So what people started doing

was start social clubs, and my parents were members of a social club. The social clubs would put them on a Bonne fête, a good party, and they would go from house to house. You might start off at our house for cocktails and appetizers. And then later you would progress — it was a progressive dinner — you would go to [another] house for your main entree, and then you would wind up at someone else’s home for dessert. They would play cards, board games, chess and checkers and all of that kind of thing. They would get all dressed up. I remember my best friend and [myself] helping her mother and my mom get dressed. That was their way of having a social event, besides the zydecos at church, the French dances. My dad was part of the Knights of Peter Claver, and they used to put on dances and events. So that’s the Creole soiree, and we’ll have a menu for that. Then I’m going to do Juneteenth, and that’s my nod to Texas because I’ve been living in Texas since 1983, when I graduated from Northwestern. I’ve lived in Houston, Dallas and now Waco.
WACOAN: What would be on that Juneteenth menu?

Raleigh: The Juneteenth menu is going to focus on the traditional fried chicken. I want to do a rice and beans dish. Of course, the red velvet cake and a strawberry cocktail. I’m going to do the cocktail recipes soft or hard, because everybody doesn’t drink. You don’t want to intimidate and say, ‘Oh, well, I gotta have alcohol.’ I want it to be complementary. If they don’t want to include a spirit, they don’t have to. And of course, a nice watermelon salad or watermelon dish because those were the things that were less desirable in some regard. There was some controversy during Juneteenth about the watermelons because some depictions are not flattering towards people of color with that. But when you learn the history of it, and I shared that with them, that was the way the sharecroppers earned the extra money because that was something that other cultures didn’t really want to eat. Sweet potatoes and watermelons and things like that became a way they could increase their wealth and farm that on the land and sell it. I remember growing up in Lake Charles, there was a gentleman who would come through the neighborhood and he would shout, ‘Watermelon man,’ and he had beautiful watermelons on the back of his truck. The ladies from the neighborhood would come out there and pick their watermelon and visit and go back in the house. And we’d have people bringing greens, which is also significant.

WACOAN: Greens is something that was often discarded.

Raleigh: Right. I did a class at Waco Family Medicine. It’s a prescription program with the World Hunger Relief Farm. They bring the food the doctors prescribe to patients to receive a prescription box. And the classes are geared to teach them how to use those vegetables in a better way. If I receive something [like sweet potatoes] but all I know is how to make candied sweet potatoes, that’s what I’m gonna make. But if somebody teaches me how to make roasted sweet potatoes with other flavors and seasonings, and not all the sugar and butter, then I’ve learned a new way to do it. The last class, they brought in beets, and I love beats. I could see the class looking at those. There were red and candy cane beets. I just sliced them and said, ‘Since this is the last class, I’m gonna do you a little lagniappe.’ I did the beets and added the tops so they could taste that too. I put them on a plate and offered them, like I’m in a restaurant. And they were like, ‘What did you do these beets? They’re so good.’ It’s just teaching people a different way to cook. They may have tasted beets as a child, and they probably were horrible. It’s like people don’t want to eat okra. I invariably will have somebody in class say, ‘Oh, I don’t like okra. It’s slimy.’ But it’s all in the way it was cooked and presented to you. You didn’t like that because you didn’t like that texture. It wasn’t that you didn’t like okra. You didn’t really get to taste that, or you didn’t get to taste the beets. I just sautéed them in some olive oil and did a chiffonade cut on the tops and tossed it. I put a little bit of strawberry vinaigrette over it and topped it off with some smoked salt.

I was sharing with them that smoked salt works really good because Chef Pierre introduced me to using smoked salt. Each week, we have a different menu and topics for discussion, and they get to take the produce home and really enjoy it. We have a mobile kitchen, so it’s like they’re coming to a mini farmers market. It’s not like somebody’s just handing you a box and saying, ‘Here.’ They get to pick what they want and shop for what they want. It’s been very enriching to see that.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Raleigh: I guess in terms of my family and food, I’ve always centered it around that, even with my kids. That first event I did with Braman Winery, one of the guests said, ‘You know, tonight reminded me of an old Louisiana cafe.’ My daughter did the menu for me. She was the hostess. My son was waiting tables and my other daughter who lives here, Amiah. We always cook together.

I think [we’re] passing that heritage on to people, younger people, the younger generation. They want to know about their culture and other cultures, too. They’re very open.

So in terms of me teaching, my slogan is to uplift, enrich and educate.

If I can do those three things, then I feel I’m successful.

Raleigh’s recipes below are from her website, and are used with permission.

West African Ginger Shrimp

3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can (28 ounces) petite diced tomatoes, drained
1 can (13.66 ounces) coconut milk
2 tablespoons tomato paste.
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold water
1 pound uncooked shrimp (31-40 per pound), peeled and deveined
Hot cooked rice
Minced fresh cilantro, optional

Place garlic, ginger and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook and stir for 5-7 minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, coconut milk, tomato paste and salt; bring to a boil.

In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and water until smooth. Stir into the tomato mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook and stir for 1-2 minutes or until thickened.

Add the shrimp. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 4-6 minutes or until shrimp turn pink. Serve with rice and, if desired, cilantro. Makes 4-6 servings.

Zanana Cocktail

1 pineapple, well-washed with crown removed
10 cups water
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cinnamon stick
6 to 8 whole cloves
1 (4- to 6-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
8 ounces of golden rum

To make the pineapple-ginger tea, peel the pineapple by slicing the peel in strips from top to bottom. Reserve the peels and core.

Place the pineapple peels, base and core in a large stock pot or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Add the brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon stick, cloves and 8 cups of the water.

In a blender, combine the ginger with 1 cup of the water. Blend on medium until thick and the fibers are broken down, about 30 to 45 seconds.

Add the ginger mixture to the pot of pineapple peels.

Bring to a boil for 12 to 15 minutes.
Reduce the heat and let simmer for 35 to 40 minutes, tasting at the halfway mark. Then press down gently on the skins to break up the flesh and release additional pineapple flavor.

Turn off the heat and let the juice cool. Once cool, pass through a fine sieve, strainer or cheesecloth. Discard the solids.

Pour into a decanter or pitcher and refrigerate. The tea can be made the day before.

To make the cocktail, pour 1 cup of pineapple-ginger tea into a cocktail shaker. Add 1 ounce of rum. Add ice and shake well. Pour into a wine tumbler or cocktail glass. Garnish with a pineapple slice. Repeat to make additional drinks. Makes about 8 drinks.