Entries, Round 26
Posted 31 August 2005 - 07:37 PM
Posted 31 August 2005 - 08:27 PM
I grabbed a few people with me who had endured my attempts at "blackened redfish" back home, and we arrived at the restaurant as it opened -- along with several dozen other tourists. But, hardly a grumbling lot of irritable Yankees, this queue was filled with truly joyous people. Yeah, we knew we were tourists and K-Pauls was reputed to be more a national than a local phenomenon. But long before our family members had started calling us "foodies" with rolling eyes and NOLA celebrity chefs were using "Bam!" to sell product, we had finally arrived at this little temple to Cajun goodness eager for a powerful fine meal.
And, shee-it, we were in New Orleans, friend, not blue law Boston. One person in line realized that we could get beers in plastic cups from a bar down the street to drink while we waited, and everyone just started bringing back trays of brew and handing them out down the line. When it was my turn, I walked down a bit further to a raw bar and ordered a pile of oysters and shrimp -- for some insanely small amount of money, a buck a dozen or so -- to bring back as well. I had not before and have not since enjoyed such a festive occasion with a group of complete strangers.
When we finally were seated, we were treated to a fantastic meal. I had my first good bread basket in life at K-Paul's (the jalapeno cheese bread was remarkable, in particular), and, avoiding all things blackened, I consumed my and my companions' dishes -- a gumbo for sure, some jambalaya, who knows what else -- with a beer- and cayenne-fueled fervor. After the dinner plates were cleared and before my pecan pie came out, I went out the back of the house, though a long corridor exposed to the outdoors, passing the kitchen to my left, to the bathroom.
On my way back, the dark, overcast evening skies finally burst open. I had seen a Louisiana rain storm a couple of days before, as I drove the 24-hours straight through from Providence to NOLA, crossing I-10 over Lake Pontchartrain, and it was no New England spring shower. I had pulled over because, after a few quarter-cup droplets thudded on the car, I suddenly stopped being able to see anything out the windshields or windows. While this night's shower wasn't nearly as voluminous, thunder and lightning were booming and snapping all around the restaurant, animating the sky just beyond my extended fingertips.
I paused, briefly, at the kitchen doorway, and, emboldened by pleasure, asked if I could watch for a while. "Sure, but there's nothing much to see," said one of the many line cooks standing behind the massive ranges that shot blistering flames around the skillets and into the air. I watched as these focused pros tossed food and caught it, plated fillets and chops and who knows what all, and never missed a beat. There was just so much to see; here were people juggling three, four, six dishes at a time, while I struggled at home with a single cast-iron beast and burning roux. I was rapt as, suddenly, with transformer-busting crack, the kitchen and the surrounding restaurant went black.
And this is the image of New Orleans that has stayed with me these two decades, that I have recalled so often over the last few, harrowing days: in a darkened kitchen lit only by the explosive gas flames licking pans and pots, amid a downpour drumming on the roof and incessant chatter, barking, and laughter, I watched the K-Paul's kitchen soldier on, with a greater sense of energy, confidence, and purpose than I could fathom, utterly devoted not merely to the patrons out front but to the foolhardy insistence that they sure as hell were not going to let Mother Nature show them who's boss.
Posted 31 August 2005 - 10:33 PM
The city has little bits of itself scattered all over the country, and some will not go back. They will bring a little New Orleans with them, where it will multiply and grow. There will be neighborhoods of folks from New Orleans everywhere. Medians all over the country will be the neutral ground. Snow cones will now be widely known as snowballs. Crawfish will be sold outside of Louisiana in greater quantities.
Food is a touchstone to our past. It is often a source of comfort and familiarity. It's important to the culture and people of any region. I made red beans and rice tonight, even though it's a Wednesday.
They taste bitter now. I couldn't eat it. I couldn't remind myself of it that much. Media reports are one thing. That comfort food thing brought it too close to home. I'll never be able to make Bananas Foster again without feeling the sting of the memory.
All that's left are memories, and I can't stand it.
Posted 02 September 2005 - 02:23 PM
I think about happily slogging through otherworldly humidity, drawn into the Old Absinthe House by the music coming out its open doors -- blind Brian Lee and the Jump Street Five! They were incredible! The nice cocktail waitress hustling to bring vodka gimlet after vodka gimlet and Old Fashioned after Old Fashioned. I learned in New Orleans that if it is humid enough and you keep moving, you can drink vodka gimlet after vodka gimlet. Course I was high in other ways too. We grooved on Brian Lee and Miss Maggie and his incredible musicians a long while but eventually hadda go, and I learned in New Orleans that one can get her last vodka gimlet to go in a plastic cup if she do desired.
I think about getting in on the train and running straight to the Central Grocery for a delicious muffeleta, because of having ripped through Calvin Trillin's food-related books shortly before. I don't know what it's like nowadays, but the guy made our sandwich right before our eyes, plenty of olive salad, and we pulled a Dixie beer outta the machine, and it was all so good. We found we liked Felix's better than Mr. Trillin's beloved Acme for oysters, although nobody's gonna be kicking Acme outta bed for eating crackers neither. We just found it so comfortable to sit at Felix's and accumulate a tippy stack of dented bent aluminum trays, from dozen after dozen after dozen. And maybe a soft-shell crab po' boy in there, too.
Like Chris, I remember the oysters being ridiculously cheap. And also like Chris, I had gone deep into Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen before getting the chance to go to K-Paul's, and, (like Chris) once there, against all expectations, it was the bread basket that blew my mind! I love the jalapeno cheese, but I sat there at the table extra happy, because I knew, I knew, at home in my copy of the book was the recipe for those rolls made from Paul Prudhomme's Mother's White Bread in our bread basket, which were something like the Platonic ideal of white bread rolls. Ineffable.
Sharing our table (all tables were shared, and no reservations accepted, at that time at K-Paul's) was an American girl and her French boyfriend who lived together in Paris, where we had recently visited, and so conversation flowed, even though they insisted on informing us about some pesky self-imposed dietary restrictions I can't remember clearly, but which the Old Man and I did not let rain on our parade. Turns out over there in Paris this girl was also cooking wildly through CPPLK, which was why she brought her boyfriend there this evening. And, our sweet young very-pregnant waitress told us her husband was one of the Neville Brothers. I ate mirlitons with andouille and Cajun béarnaise, and the Old Man feasted on blackened prime rib, a dish we'd seen Chef Paul prepare on PBS sometime earlier and which had sorta seemed like a dream, and was now a dream come true.
One day we had arranged to meet a friend of mine from school who worked for the museum there on Jackson Square, and he emerged wearing a by-God blue seersucker suit, and took us to Mr. B's where I think I had soft-shelled crab and I think it was fabulous.
Before we got back on the Sunset Limited to go home, we bought Zapp's potato chips and the Central Grocery's olive salad and another sandwich for the trip, and garlic-vapored up our small compartment like mad.
Posted 04 September 2005 - 07:45 PM
In running through the city of New Orleans in memory, I see streets. New Orleans. . . more than any other city, is made of streets. Streets that demand attention, streets that co-operate with each other in a secret plan to lead a persons feet onward and onward, round and through the city. Streets with distinct personalities, each one. Wide boulevards link medium size thoroughfares which link cobblestone paths which tie into paths through green places. Streets that either burst at the seams with music, life, smells of food and laughter. . .or streets that are just ready to burst with life should the right moment be found.
The streets of wealth in New Orleans do not hide their face from the poverty so very near by. . .and the streets of poverty have a richness of their own variety.
What made it so in New Orleans? The music? The bars? The idea of Mardi Gras all year long?
It could be the aromas of the foods alone that made of New Orleans a place that nobody would or could ever help loving. The boulevards, the roads, the paths, the avenues, they all sang with the aromas of food. Rich food, spicy food, food that caressed the soul in the same way that the sultry sweat of the heat on the sidewalks would melt one almost in place while wandering those streets.
You walk slowly in New Orleans, unless you are crazy. There is too much to see, smell, feel, hear. Can you taste the coffee? Can you smell the pastries and breads? I can. I even imagine that I can smell the steamed crawfish, their shiny little heads nodding together in a chiascuro brightness, dumped out rolling out in a rosy gathering of happy jollility on that battered wooden picnic table covered with its generous swath of thick brown paper, the yeasty toast of smell of the pitcher of beer literally making my tastebuds seem to jump right out of my mouth. . . at that small shack alongside the highway out of town.
The place that was New Orleans is still there. It is there in our tastebuds, our minds, our songs. The place that is New Orleans is still there, for it was a sort of magic that made it. It grew from that particular place on earth to be what it was, and what a Fabulous Prize it was, too. And soon, when the land reclaims its own after the floods, when it heals as it does after a field is burned, the seeds that are New Orleans will push up from the blackened soil again. Strong seeds, seeds as vital as they were before if not more so. For how could it be otherwise? For New Orleans has the magic of Singular Place, and it is a place that will always be one magnificent gift, one Fabulous Prize. Just wait and see.
Posted 07 September 2005 - 08:29 PM
I’ve been there only once, sadly, about 10 years ago, for an academic conference. Not exactly debaucherie. But I went a couple of days ahead of time to get a taste of the city on my own. I don’t have vivid memories of any single meal or experience. What I remember is drifting about in an environment that seemed somehow mysterious and full of shadows. I didn’t seek out “name” restaurants but always stumbled on delicious food. After dinner, on my own, the clubs I wandered into somehow had great music, and I always felt like I was among friends.
What sticks in my mind, though, was my last night there. End of day drinks with an academic acquaintance and his partner, who invited me to join them and local friends for the evening. And here it starts. A quiet drive through dark city neighborhoods bordered by cemeteries. Tropical plants and twisted climbing vines everywhere. More cocktails, in a humble shotgun house with unfamiliar architecture, vivid color and art that made it feel straight from a Tim Burton movie. People I’d never met but who made me feel like part of the family. Great seafood in an unpretentious neighborhood place that looked onto the dark waters of the Gulf, everyone sharing food and drink like it was Thanksgiving. Later, dancing to zydeko in some dive gay bar and never lacking for a partner, though I was probably the only straight person there. The ride back to my hotel in the back of someone’s SUV, everyone full of jokes and stories and these strangers laughing at my lame contributions. At the hotel door, hugs goodbye from people whose names I can’t remember and that I haven’t seen since.
I’ve been thinking a lot about them this past week and pray that they’re okay.
Posted 11 September 2005 - 02:01 PM
Posted 13 September 2005 - 05:53 PM
Nicole had a grandmother who lived in a tidy area on the outskirts of New Orleans. While her husband babysat, Nicole, her cousin Mary, and I drove into the city, and fell into the magic of New Orleans and Mardi Gras. We had no plans, other than to eventually make our way to Grandma's house to sleep. Fortunately, Grandma was away for the week. She would have been less than enthused to find her house full of people, which it was, by the time we ended up there.
In the meantime, we explored and savored the city. We drank multi-colored tall hurricane drinks, and walked from bar to bar, collecting strings of beads, and laughing at what some people would do to get them. We watched in fascination as people in front of us stopped at one of the many helium vendors, and paid money to essentially do drugs on the street. We ate red beans and rice out of little paper cups, sold from street vendors for a few dollars. We danced, and sang along with the band, and met people, and somehow they ended up following us home to Grandma's.
The next day, when everyone went their separate ways, we returned to the French Quarter, and started anew, energized by rich chicory coffee and sweet beignets from Cafe Du Monde.
Mardi Gras, and New Orleans was a blur that lasted for several days, and etched itself in my mind forever. The music, the food, the comraderie, and the feel and smell of New Orleans is indescribable. I've been saying for the past 15 years that I couldn't wait to go back. But I haven't yet, and that is something that I truly regret. My heart goes out to this city, and I wish them a speedy recovery.
Edited by pam claughton, 13 September 2005 - 07:22 PM.