Born in Opelousas, raised in Lewisburg, and prepped at Grand Coteau’s Academy of the Sacred Heart, Imani Guillory-Fruge’ is a St. Landry Parish original. The only child of Marie Yvonne and Elbert Lee Guillory, the former Senator, Imani was the model student, garnering numerous scholarships, awards, and honors in academic excellence and civic involvement. While attending Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, the Cajun Belle seemed destined for a career in law, perhaps even politics.
Growing up Guillory, Imani admits a perfectionistic streak, being goal-oriented and driven, and a bit of a planner. Major life decisions were not left to chance, but carefully charted and diligently pursued: “I always had a path, and robotically pursued my goals, never exploring other options. I thought I had it all figured out.”
Imani’s overnight success as an accidental chef and the owner of her own business, Cajun
Mama, surprises no one more than Imani herself. Over the last two years, her life has taken an abrupt and fascinating turn. Imani has experienced firsthand that, sometimes, life is what happens while one is making other plans. The surprises have been life-altering and challenging, but always brought joy and blessings in their wake. Imani now takes life “one day at a time” and wouldn’t have it any other way.
EARLY LESSONS FROM LIFE
As a senator’s daughter, Imani was raised not only with certain advantages, but also with certain expectations. The Guillory's were “world travelers and explorers” with a zest for life, and enjoyed bringing their little girl on their travels to distant, exotic countries like Egypt and China. Although Imani often missed a lot of classroom time, she learned life lessons abroad, observing firsthand how other people, and especially other children, lived. She saw how difficult or unfair life could be, but was also enriched by exposure to different customs and values. For a bright and curious-minded little girl like Imani, travelling the world was fun and exciting. Only retrospectively did she begin to plumb the richness and depth of these experiences.
“YOUR BLESSINGS DON’T COUNT, UNLESS YOU SHARE THEM”
Imani’s parents were always quick to point out how fortunate she was, but being merely thankful for one’s gifts was not adequate. One had to give back, because your blessings don’t count, unless you share them. Using one’s gifts to help others fulfill their own potential — service — was the only meaningful response.
“My parents are giving, compassionate people who taught and led by example. They instilled in me the conviction that there is no greater calling than serving others. Mom was always organizing charity events and belonged to several non-profits. One of my favorite expressions is ‘Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.’ For me, this saying exemplifies my parent’s social ethics. I hope to follow in their footsteps, and put their example into practice.”
Both sides of Imani’s family value education and have degreed professionals: teachers, lawyers and nurses. For Imani, pursuing a higher education was “never a question.” Early on, she set a goal of becoming an attorney so that one day she could champion on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. She was on her way to fulfilling that dream when she enrolled into law school at LSU. In Baton Rouge, she also immersed herself in political activities, becoming a Session Intern with the State of Louisiana Senate and House of Representatives, and also by managing the Social Media and Networking Team for her father’s 2009 and 2011 political campaigns when he ran for Senator.
LOVE FINDS IMANI
While attending law school, Imani met her future husband, Jason P. Fruge, an engineer in the oil and gas industry from Cecelia. The two were introduced through a mutual friend, and felt an immediate attraction. Imani began daydreaming about sharing a future with Jason, and their relationship quickly became serious; however, she remained committed to finishing her J.D. and establishing a career.
In 2014, Jason moved into Imani’s Baton Rouge apartment. They made a home together, and set a wedding date in 2017. They thought that they could not have children, so it would be “just the two of us.” Imani counted herself lucky to have found the man of her dreams.
“He is my rock. I never stop telling him how lucky I am to have him.”
Jason and Imani had their next 5 years carefully planned: After law school graduation, she would take a year to get a postgraduate legal degree, specializing in taxation, then work for her father’s legal practice. Her father expected that Imani would take over his office someday. Jason would continue his path as an engineer in the oil industry, and work his way up in the company. They had it “all figured out.”
A NEW LOVE STEALS HER HEART
During her final year in law school, and over a year after Jason moved in, Imani noticed she
wasn’t feeling quite herself. Suspecting a gallbladder issue, she set an appointment at Lourdes for pre-op screening, in preparation for a quick gall bladder removal surgery. It was an early January morning, exactly one week before her final semester at LSU law school commenced. Graduation was May, so scheduling the procedure well before class started was perfect timing.
First, Imani met with the nurse who performed the gallbladder ultrasound. Gently smiling, the nurse rendered her diagnosis: Pregnancy! Imani was 36 weeks along, and her baby due in three weeks on January 21. It was not unusual for Imani to skip her period for months at a time, and she did not “look” pregnant. The few pregnancy symptoms she had, she explained away. After all, she wasn’t supposed to be able to have a child! Imani and Jason were nearly speechless with shock at the news, but Yvonne Guillory knew exactly how to handle the situation, and was ecstatic at becoming a grandmother.
Then, another surprise. Three days later, Imani went into intensive labor. After an emergency
C-section, she and Jason welcomed their healthy baby boy into the world! Little Jason Paul Fruge, III, appeared on scene, transforming his parents’ lives forever: “The first moment I held him in my arms, my entire life instantly changed, “ Imani recalls, “Every cell in my body wanted only to love and take care of my baby.”
The Dean at LSU Law School advised Imani to sit out the semester, and conclude her studies
the next semester. The Guillory family was in full support. But against the Dean’s advice,
Imani decided to graduate that spring. Grandma “Nana” Guillory stepped in to watch over her
first grandchild while Imani finished school.
Imani awoke every morning at 4:45 a.m., pumped breast milk, then got dressed and ready for the hour commute from Lafayette to Baton Rouge to be in class by 8:00 a.m. Some days, she didn’t make it home until 6 p.m. She would study and do as much work on breaks as possible, so that she could spend time with her little one when she got home. Nana took care of him all day, so he was in great hands. “Still, he wasn’t in my hands,” Imani regrets. “I missed out so much on his first months of life, because of my dedication to finishing school. As difficult as it was, I kept reminding myself that I was doing it for him!”
Making the decision to finish law school after having a baby was one of the most difficult times of her life, but with the support of her husband, friends and family, and their many prayers, she made it through.
Little Jason Paul was five months old the day Imani graduated, and she refused to leave him again to pursue another degree, or go to court every morning and work 60-hour weeks. Her new little family needed her at home. “I refused to leave my family behind. Never again will I make him wait. A career in law will always be there, but my son won’t always be a baby, and I want to have as much time as possible with him in these early years. I won’t miss another moment.”
NOT IN THE PLAN
After graduating from law school, Imani and Jason agreed that she would be a stay at home mom, and defer her career as a necessary sacrifice for the betterment of her family:
“I’m not missing anything. I have a full, robust family life. Taking care of my family is my priority and passion. I prepare all of our meals, run the household, make our travel plans, and get to
spend every day with my son. For the first time in my life, I am happy, and experience a fulfillment I never thought was possible. Jason is my rock. He’s too wonderful.” Imani began spending every moment making a comfortable, loving, and happy home for her “guys,” and it was during this time that the idea of “Cajun Mama” was born.
FOOD IS LOVE
Being Cajun Mama allows me to express and share my love for my community. I know all of my customers personally, their daily lives. I’m there to help them celebrate their major milestones, but also the small things, too. I love having that one-on-one connection with them.
One quiet December morning, as baby Jason Paul slept peacefully in her arms, Imani started planning her day. Christmas was around the corner, and her thoughts turned to holiday gift ideas.
Imani decided to offer her homemade quiche pies as gifts, and posted on Facebook that she
was taking orders. The first day, she received 60 orders. She was shocked by the response:
“I never expected it!” The “Loaded Cajun” was born, and has remained her number one
Imani had planned to sell pies only for the Christmas season, but orders came pouring in through the New Year. She then decided to stop taking orders after New Year’s – but then Mardi Gras came. The Cajun Carnival was her next creation, loaded with homemade boudin from her grandmother’s boudin recipe and topped with spicy cracklins. Other than Facebook postings, Imani has never advertised, and credits her success completely to word of mouth.
STIRRING THE POT
Imani knew how to stir a pot since she was a small kid, and spent a lot of time with her parents in the kitchen: “Mom and dad were excellent chefs, who loved preparing meals, although they had different tastes in their choices of cuisine. My maternal grandmother is the ultimate Cajun grandmother. My mother is also very traditional, whereas dad is experimental, preferring fusion dishes. Our spice and herb cabinet could have been a room of its own. Everything was made from scratch, nothing from a box.”
For the first few months, the Guillory's observed their daughter’s fledgling business with mild disbelief, and dismissed it somewhat as a hobby, but once her sales went nationwide, “that was the turning point for them. My family’s reaction was ‘WHAT? Your whole life you’ve planned for career in legal and community service — now suddenly you have a cooking business?’ Their initial, casual reaction turned into to amazement — we all were taken by surprise by the success. It was never planned. They began to realize this was serious.”
To keep pace with demand, Imani rents a commercial kitchen. After her family falls asleep, she goes to work. Putting on her favorite music, she prepares each pie by hand, hand-cutting the meats, chopping the vegetables, and seasoning the batter. In a 4-hour period, she can bake around 200 pies. Most of the ingredients are locally sourced and always fresh. During Lenten season, Imani offers seafood pies, The Big Cajun Catch. Local orders taper to about 130-150 per week, but nationwide orders are usually double, averaging at about 200-250 per week. After Lafayette, Dallas is her second largest market, with California closing in at third. Orders also come from the Midwest, Arizona, and even Alaska.
I’M NOT BEING A GOOD SAMARITAN, JUST LET ME FEED YOU
When the great flood of 2016 devastated Acadiana, displacing thousands and leaving
countless others destitute, Imani wasted no time reaching out to her community, and
turned to Facebook once again, taking food orders and home addresses from the hungry.
Imani, with the help of her mother, cooked hundreds of plate lunches, which she, her
husband, father, and brother personally delivered to residents in Youngsville, Scott
She recalls one woman who had taken 8 people into her home, and 3 more people
staying in an RV in her front yard. Imani brought them a three-day supply of food.
“They cried and I cried with them. They called me a Good Samaritan. I told them,
‘I’m not being a Good Samaritan, just let me feed you.’”
Although she has deferred her legal career, Imani has found an alternate, yet simple and
profound way to make a difference in the lives of others. The experience was touching
and transformative, and she began to appreciate the social impact and value of her
enterprise. “I was grateful to help the few people that I did.”
Cajun Mama sponsors local charities and donates pies to silent auctions, and has
been a food sponsor for Acadiana’s premiere fundraiser, The Hearty Party! for Camp Bon
Coeur, a non-profit residential summer camp for children.
“I don’t want to give this up. My parents are still waiting for me to hit the courtroom, but right now, I can’t give them an answer as to when that day will come. Being a work at home mom allows me to spend time with my baby. He never leaves my side. Someday, I‘ll get back to law, probably when my son grows old enough to want his space! In the meantime, I can be a good mother, wife, and still give back to my community.”
Article By: Marisa Olson
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