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Food + Cooking

Lonnie Holley: Artist, Visionary, Shrimper

Published in Gourmet Live 06.29.11
Molly O’Neill visits with an Alabama artist who is a self-professed instrument of ingredients—his barbecued shrimp recipe might prove him right

Lonnie Holley cooks the same way he makes art. There are no recipes, no drawings, no plans. There is hunger and the burn to make a difference, there are ingredients and found objects. Holley, who is 61 years old and a resident of Harpersville, Alabama, picks and scavenges, and then he stands back. He listens until the foraged booty tells him what it wants to be.

It can be decades before he understands what message that, say, a bundle of metal fencing, a stack of twigs, some Mardi Gras beads, and an American flag are trying to deliver. Food, on the other hand, announces itself immediately. He doesn’t mind rodent gnawing, rust, or mold on his art supplies, but Mr. Holley, a 61–year old visionary artist whose work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the White House, is not one to let edibles rot.

“You reach out and grab whatever there is,” he said, “It’s a summer day and there are eggplants or tomatoes. It’s a lucky day and there is chicken or crawfish. It’s a hog–killing day and there is sausage, maybe peppers and onion, okra. When rice is in the air, that is jambalaya day. You can’t change that. You can change how you respond to it.”

Most days, Mr. Holley hunts, gathers, and cooks for his 15 children as well as assorted neighbors, artists, and art collectors and anyone else who wanders by. His approach is simple. “You just stay out of the way and let the cooking move through you,” he said.

What moves through Mr. Holley is fiercely, urgently, and devotedly American. He is convinced that anything is possible and that the best is yet to come. Were there a museum for culinary magic, he’d be there, exhibiting his own gumbos, soups and stews, jambalaya, dirty rice, and barbecued shrimp. No two batches would ever be alike.

Holley cooks in order to be fully present in a particular moment. This may be why his iterations of familiar New Orleans specialties wake you up, rattle your preconceptions, and make the world seem bigger.

“You pull a little of this and a little of that, whatever you can find and you build, just like you do a building, a sculpture, an installation, a painting,” he said. “You build layers.”

The immediacy of his found–ingredient cooking helps explain the power of Holley’s riffs on Cajun and Creole classics. But ingredients are only part of the story of any icon of American regional cooking. Ingredients describe a particular place, its land, its weather, its bounty and surfeit. The form and flavor of the dish, on the other hand, carry the history of the people who lived there, where they came from, how they made do, what they aspired toward.

When new life is breathed into a “classic,” it’s usually because the chef survived a mythic American challenge and lived to cook about it. Holley is no exception. An Alabama native, he was the seventh–born of 27 children. He lived in a series of foster homes, spent time in the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, and ran away to New Orleans when he was 14 years old.

“I slept where I could and worked in restaurants—that’s where you could get jobs,” he told me. “I learned to cook by inhaling and sweating, listening and being hungry. Then cooking taught me that I am an artist.”

Mr. Holley’s studio is also a storage space for the materials that he scavenges for his assemblages. Towers of magazines and newspapers, mountains of auto parts, door frames, window frames, vinyl records, broken dolls, fishing gear, pottery shards, aluminum cans, glass bottles, mannequins, taxidermy, prosthetic devices, desktop computers, and a Goodwill store’s worth of shoes and clothing rose before me, like walls around an ancient city.

“Hello?” My greeting disappeared into the thick, walls of other people’s stuff. Any sudden move, I feared, could topple it all. I inched forward along the narrow warren that wound through the warehouse. Waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I tested the floor with the tip of my sandal before committing to the next step.

Gradually, I became aware of order in the chaos, a system organized by shapes, color, material, and function. There were narrow breaks in the walls that gave way to open dens, each containing a work in progress. Holley was standing in one such cul–de–sac. He was gazing at an American flag that flapped branchlike from a trunk of rolled fencing.

Early–July sun had heated the low–lying warehouse to the temperature of a slow–bake oven. Holley was shirtless and appeared to be in a trance. Then, as if a month had not elapsed since we last spoke, he turned toward me, stared over his half–glasses and continued to tell me the story of his art and his cooking.

“My sister and her children were burned up in a fire in 1970. We did not have money to make the right send–off, couldn’t even afford headstones for the babies. I was sick in my heart. There was a foundry near her house and in their trash heap I found this soft sandstone–like block. They’d used it in metal casting and then throw out. I carved the headstones out of it. That is why people call me the Sandman.’ That was the beginning.

“Nothing is trash, there is art, there is eating. If you take what you find, the art moves through you. It is not your business; you are the tube, the wind tunnel, the empty pipe, the land that the wind sweeps up. ” Holley tossed his head back and opened his arms like a tent–revivalist about to perform a healing. The beads in his long dreads jingled like tiny church bells. “This morning there was shrimp hanging from the sky,” he exclaimed.

I could almost see them clinging to the hoisted nets as blue claimed the dawn sky, the shrimp that the watermen had left behind. I could see Holley shaking the nets, and catching the left–behinds in a pail. I knew that he’d cook the shrimp in a way that would make them impossible to forget. His cooking, like his art, is all about redemption and gratitude and joy.

“There’s nothing like shrimp day!” he cried, “all that richness, that sweetness, all that glory.”

Barbecued Shrimp

Makes 10 to 12 servings

Lonnie always makes this over a wood fire, but the shrimp can also be cooked over medium–high heat in a cast–iron skillet, or broiled. However, they will not have the same crispy shells or smoky flavor.


  • 5 pounds extra–jumbo shrimp (16 to 20 per pound), in the shell
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon hot paprika
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 12 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon African Bird Pepper or cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 2 cups cooking oil, preferably coconut or vegetable
  • 2 lemons, quartered, plus more for dipping sauce and garnish
  • 1 pound (4 sticks) of butter
  • Hot sauce, if desired


  • Rinse the shrimp and set them aside. Combine all of the spices in a small bowl.
  • Combine the cooking oil and one half of the spice mixture in a large bowl. Set aside the remaining spices to make the dipping sauce. Add the shrimp to the bowl and toss to coat well. Cut the lemons, squeeze over the shrimp, tossing in between each addition. Add the squeezed lemon quarters to the shrimp and toss well. Cover and refrigerate for four hours.
  • Prepare a wood fire. While the fire is getting ready, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a cast–iron skillet. Add the reserved spices and cook over love heat, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the remaining butter, reduce heat to low. When the butter is melted, transfer the mixture to a dipping bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon, if desired.
  • When the coals are ready, use tongs and work in batches to arrange the shrimp on the grill. Cook for 2 minutes each side and serve, in the shell, with additional lemon and hot sauce, if desired. Some people eat the shells, others peel and discard.

The recipe in this story has not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.

Molly O'Neill is the author of seven books including Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball , The New York Cookbook , and One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking . Her e-book, This American Burger, the first in a series that documents individual dishes and the people who prepare them, was just published by New Word City.