As a single dad with four teenagers to feed every day, oral surgeon Tooley M. Towns began cooking out of necessity.
“When I started cooking on a regular basis, I got better and better and got to where I liked it,” he said.
Now, some 20 years later, he often invites up to eight friends to his Baton Rouge home to share some of his favorite dishes, which include south Louisiana standards and the Mexican dishes he grew up eating in El Paso, Texas.
“I started learning to cook with Vernon Roger’s Cajun cookbook. That was my first cookbook,” Towns recalled. “I tried all the dishes. My Mexican food, my mama taught me how to do that. I was born and raised in El Paso and everyone there eats Mexican food. My mother was a good cook and she was from New Orleans. She moved out there (to El Paso) when she was about 8 or 9.”
Towns, who has lived in Baton Rouge since 1972, supervises surgical residents on a part-time basis at Earl K. Long Medical Center. He retired from his private practice three years ago, which gives him plenty of time to go fishing at Lake Borgne below New Orleans or to spend time at his hunting club’s rustic deer camp in the Atchafalaya Spillway.
“I’ve been in the hunting club for 36 years. You can only get to it by boat. That’s what makes it so special,” he said.
“A lot of my dishes are made with venison, and I do a lot of stuff with fish and crab,” he added.
Towns grew up deer and dove hunting, which influenced his decision to do his surgery training at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital.
“I loved to hunt and fish and you can do that year-round here,” Towns said.
He also wanted to get to know his mother’s family better.
After doing his residency at Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Towns went into the Army and then returned to Baton Rouge to set up private practice.
A divorce left him with three children, ages 14, 16 and 17, at home and another in college.
“I learned to cook mostly by trial and error. I’d see a recipe in Southern Living or The Advocate that sounded good and I’d try it,” he said.
He often prepared big pots of food on the weekends and divided it into smaller portions for serving during the week. His Venison Meatball Spaghetti is his children’s favorite dish “although they ate everything.
“There’s always a big green salad with every evening meal in this house,” he said. “Every kind of vegetable you can think of goes into it and I use a vinaigrette.”
The children also helped out.
“My two boys cook a lot. My two girls do not. I tried to teach them, but it did not work,” Towns said. “I don’t do gourmet cooking. I like the simple things, sauce piquante, jambalaya, courtbouillon, the everyday dishes people here eat. I’ve never baked anything like a cake. I make bread pudding once in a while.”
Towns keeps his weight down by trying not to eat too many carbohydrates, working out at the gym and swimming.
“I do eat rice with sauce piquante and courtbouillon. I like to cut sweet potatoes into big steak fries, salt and pepper and roast them,” he said.
He said he also cooks vegetables in a barbecue wok on the grill. “I use it for broccoli, mushrooms, asparagus, sliced red onion. I mix everything with olive oil and red pepper flakes and put it in the wok on the grill.”
Redfish is his favorite fish “both to catch and to cook and eat. Broiled redfish is the best thing.”
Asked if he ever regretted not returning to his native Texas, Towns responded, “It’s impossible not to like south Louisiana. I’ve enjoyed the people more than anything.”
Besides, it won’t be long before his two young grandsons are ready to learn to hunt, fish and cook with their granddad.