Although Jeremiah and Ashleigh Russell attended the same high school in Knoxville, Tenn., the two didn’t begin dating until Ashleigh was earning her music degree at Carson Newman College and Jeremiah was a student at the state university.
That was 1998. Two years later, they were married and off to Kentucky, where Jeremiah attended college, earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s. From there it was on to Baylor, where Jeremiah picked up another master’s, then to Louisiana State University, where he worked on his doctorate. With each new home, Ashleigh used her degree to land jobs as a music teacher.
While living in Baton Rouge, La., their first daughter was born. "Jeremiah wrote his dissertation and kept Elizabeth during the day while I worked," Ashleigh said.
While living in the heart of Cajun country, the couple enjoyed getting to know the people and culture and, of course, tasting all the delicious foods.
"Baton Rouge is like no other place we’ve ever known," Jeremiah said.
Once his post-doctoral fellowship was completed in 2012, Jeremiah — now Doctor Russell — was offered a position at Jacksonville State University, where he is an assistant professor. By this time, there was a new addition to the family: daughter Catherine.
"We were excited to finally be able to settle down, buy a house and make lifelong friends," said Ashleigh, who currently serves as the choir director at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and is the music teacher at Sacred Heart School. "Moving every few years made it hard to put down roots."
Once the couple was established in their new community, they decided to host their first party. With fond memories of their time in Louisiana, it was only natural for them to choose Mardi Gras as the theme. This month, they hosted their Quatrieme Carnaval Annual des Tigres — Fourth Annual Carnival of the Tigers. The party has grown bigger and more festive each year.
"Jeremiah and I enjoy putting the menu together and doing all the cooking," Ashleigh said. "We plan it all out a month in advance."
Red beans and rice, jambalaya, muffulettas and fried boudin balls are all included in the celebration, as well as Ashleigh’s signature dish, corn and crab bisque, which has become a favorite among their friends.
While Ashleigh works on the bisque, Jeremiah puts together a pot of traditional Louisiana gumbo that requires enough patience to stir the roux for 30 minutes or more until it takes on that perfect dark color.
Therese Prudlo and her daughter, Monnica, serve as the Russells’ prep cooks, chopping cup after cup of the Cajun trinity: celery, green peppers and onions.
For decorations, the Russells depend on their friend Robert Pate. "This year, I asked him to paint a one-of-a-kind canvas," Ashleigh said. "He also creates beautiful mantel pieces and gorgeous arrangements."
After each party, as the Russells are cleaning up, they will find Mardi Gras masks and colorful beads that have been left behind by guests. "Nothing gets thrown away," Ashleigh said, with a laugh. "We just incorporate those things into next year’s decorations!"
And what Mardi Gras party would be complete without king cakes? "Our neighbors Bert and Carol Oelschig bring one to share, and Therese helps me make the rest," Ashleigh said. "Our recipe has evolved and gets better each year."
For the perfect finishing touch, the Russells make a run to Georgia to pick up the one thing that can’t be had locally: a keg of beer. But not just any beer. "We want our party to be as authentically Louisiana as possible," said Jeremiah. "And that leaves us with only one choice —Abita."
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