In April 2018, the Society had it’s annual meeting in New Orleans. Along with the amazing architecture, history and music there is the food, wonderful, glorious food. One of the attendees, Susan Hecht, a self described non-foodie, shares her travels through the gastronomy of New Orleans.
Follow the Food: Whereby a non-foodie recounts the annual Manuscript Society adventure through gastronomic anecdotes
Wednesday, April 18th
Platters piled with Danish pastry and muffins covered the sideboard. I scanned our hotel’s continental breakfast, then asked the concierge, “Where can I get eggs?”
“Eggs?” He stared at me.
“You know, scrambled eggs.”
Oh,” he laughed in relief because he thought I wanted raw eggs in their shells (to decorate, to throw?).
Two doors down, Stanley’s Restaurant offered fluffy scrambled eggs. Background jazz (food for the soul) featured a lone trumpet’s monologue riffing a story of hardship and hope that echoed New Orleans’ history. This year is the city’s 300th birthday. Anticipation filled the air. Strolling out of Stanley’s, I watched musicians amble toward Jackson Square cradling their instruments. A pristine white tour bus turned the corner, “Celebration Tours.”
I bumped into a group of Manuscript Society spouses out on the town while the Board Meeting plodded away down the street. They whisked me to the 1850’s House, a Louisiana State Museum that reflects mid-19th century New Orleans prosperity. The Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba originally owned the house and was the first to decorate her balconies with the cast-iron railings now charming visitors to the French Quarter. Her wealthy father was a Spanish colonial landowner during the years Spain controlled the city, 1763-1800. Back to my food quest, I noted that the elaborately set dining table area was now furnished with a set of Senator John Slidell’s china and six-inch tall sugared Easter eggs. We all remembered similar eggs from our childhoods, frosted in pastel swirls with panoramas of tiny florals and animals too pretty to eat.
Later we walked along the Mississippi River where waves of immigrants had arrived, sailing in for adventure, fleeing hardships, or dragged in captivity. Each wave eventually integrated into New Orleans’ culture and workforce. Photos in the 1850 House illustrated how African-American kitchen slaves brought in 1719 were replaced one hundred and fifty years later by young girls escaping starving Ireland.
Speaking of hunger, Bill Meyers led us to lunch. On the way, we prowled through a pralines candy store. The clerk explained that the recipe, originally brought from France in the 18th Century, had been enhanced by local cooks. They replaced the traditional almonds with Louisiana pralines and added heavy cream. She offered us a good size sample, a crisp confection whose abundance of sugar shocked my teeth.
Bill brought us to the Central Grocery and Deli on Decatur Street. The sign announced, “Since 1906, Imported Gourmet Food, Home of the Original Muffuletta.” What was this Muffuletta? A muffin-like pizza, a little pasta?
No, the Sicilians had introduced a huge sandwich of salami, ham, Swiss cheese, provolone cheese, mortadella sausage and a special olive salad on Italian muffuletta bread. As we waited in the crowded deli, the local spices enthralled me: Slap Ya Mama, Dis ‘N That, and Magic Swamp Dust. Finally, the clerk handed over our prize. Big and heavy as an oval brick, the Muffuletta fed all 5 of us. I opened my mouth wide for the geological formation: creamy cheeses, hardy meats, and last, a tang of olive salad between crispy bread topped with sesame seeds.
Later in the afternoon, we couldn’t resist the green and white awnings of the famous Café du Monde, “pleasing customers since 1862.” Our waiter was a kamikaze pilot zipping around the small, crowded tables with his tray. With his accented English and short stature, I’d bet he’s Vietnamese although I didn’t ask. In a flash, he brought us two platters with three beignets on each and our coffee orders. Beignets are sinfully simple squares of deep fried pastry doused in powdered sugar.
I decided New Orleans’ food contains no calories and no consequences.
On Wednesday evening, the opening Reception and Auction took place in the lovely yellow Beauregard Keyes House.
After filling a plate with reception goodies I tried a new mix for me, grits piled in a plastic cup covered with grillades, pieces of meat in a Creole gravy which tasted like good stew on porridge. I ate while wandering around the National Historic Landmark built in 1826. The first of the house’s two famous occupants was the Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Portraits of his relatives grace the walls. The novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes restored the house in 1948. She went on to publish 29 books, and in a nice twist to the Confederate way of life, Keyes wrote her best in the slave quarters.
Heading to the back gallery for wine, I learned that on that very spot in 1908 the wine merchant Corrado Giacona shot 3 members of the Sicilian Black Hand, an extortion ring. Luckily, without any violence, the Manuscript Society’s live auction brought in over $3,000.
Thursday, April 19th
In the handsome auditorium of the Williams Research Center, we heard two distinguished speakers. Richard Campanella of Tulane University fascinated us with “An Historical Geography of New Orleans.” Afterwards, Ed Bomsey summed up New Orleans present geographical position as “Temporary Terra Firma.” Archivist Sally Reeves told us stories on the preservation of the notarial records of the area from 1735 to 1970 and confessed that “My heart is with the bound volume.”
It was, however, in a booklet Alfred Lemmon gave each of us that I found my next story not involving food per se, but a fascinating gulp.
In the 2007 “Guide to the French Colonial Records of the New Orleans Notarial Archives 1733-1767,” Ann Wakefield recounts the following story told in a French Colonial document. In 1735, a New Orleans Clerk had “a female visitor who was audibly distraught over the contents of a legal document pertaining to her late husband’s succession. She reacted to the Clerk’s reading of the document by tearing off a bite-size portion of the page which contained her signature, putting it in her mouth, and swallowing it. She was trying to grab the rest of the document as the Clerk forcibly expelled her from his home.”
After our morning lectures, we bused over to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. As we shuffled to the back room for lunch, I noticed a blue and white Corning ware set similar to one of my 1966 wedding presents. I veered between delight and dismay when I realized this set, which I still use, is now in a museum.
Lunch was tasty: Shrimp Salad, Jambalaya with chicken and sausage, and a Banana Foster, another new dish. I’m not an ice cream fan, but this combination of bananas, vanilla ice cream, and a warm decadent rum sauce made me grateful that New Orleans had been the major port for Central American bananas in the 1950’s, and an enterprising chef, Paul Blange, invented the Banana Foster.
My favorite exhibit was draped in black satire. A table was set up with models of moldering food and a sign:
Katrina Deli (limited menu)
Starters: Mold Mold, Levee Leak Soup, Oysters Hepatitis-B
Entrees: Pigs in a Blanco, Chicken Fly Rice, Bush Baloney Sandwiches, Crawfish Evacuee, Red Beans and Maggots, Chicken A La Fema (will be delivered to your table in 6-8 weeks)
Sides: Insurance Adjuster Hot Potatoes, State Farm Dirty Rice, Cauliflower au Rotten
Desserts: Sludgesicles, Energy Blackout Cake, Heckuva Job Brownies, Baked Disaster, Furniture Upside Down Cake
I had other favorites too, especially the decorated tributes to local chefs such as Leah Chase, “The Queen of Creole Cuisine,” who had made the big time with their culinary talents.
As I searched for a memento in the small gift area, an odd 6-inch utensil shaped like the Eiffel Tower caught my eye. Another museum visitor said it was an absinthe spoon and admitted she bought the same one in Paris for twice the price. “You put
absinthe in a glass,” she explained. “The paddle sits on top with a sugar cube and chilled water is poured over the sugar to sweeten the absinthe.” I vaguely remembered descriptions of this ritual and the delicate, licorice-flavored result. I don’t drink much but I read, and absinthe appeared in Hemingway, James Joyce, and Jean Rhys. Sipping this green drink in cafes seemed wildly sophisticated to my college-self exploring the work of English speaking writers living in Paris between the wars.
We bused over to the Louisiana State Museum’s historic Old U.S. Mint and heard a brief presentation of the Colonial Records Project that has managed to survive two major fires and a hurricane. Everything in New Orleans is part phoenix.
My cousin Allan Stark and I managed a dinner reservation in Mulate’s: The Original Cajun Restaurant, which is perfectly geared to tourists. The food is fine, I was very happy to eat a plain vegetable pasta and Allan liked his “Famous Catfish Mulate’s.” The entertainment is the draw. It’s good fun! With a Cajun band (drums, accordion, and violin) and three pairs of old-timers kicking up their heels on the dance floor, it’s easy to start clapping in rhythm. As one of the dancers played the washboard and another the spoon, I learned the difference between Cajun and Creole food in Mulate’s flyer. “Cajuns were French descendants who settled in South Louisiana from Lafayette to the outskirts of New Orleans. They cooked with what the land provided and kept it simple but delicious. Creoles were descendants of the French, Spanish, Caribbean, Indian and African who settled in New Orleans. In the city, the cultures mixed as did the influences. The Creole aristocrats were able to use both imported and local ingredients in their cooking.”
Friday, April 20
We split our morning sessions at Tulane University between death and jazz, a fitting balance for a New Orleans day that was more about food for the soul, than food for the body. In the Southeaster Architectural Archives, Kevin Williams lectured on the general holdings, then focused on the Weiblen Builder’s cemetery work from 1900-1940. A display included tomb models with original watercolors, and bronze relief art of grieving figures available from a catalogue for those who wanted a perpetual mourner at their graveside.
Curator Bruce Raeburn introduced us to The William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive. Started in 1958 with Ford Foundation funding, the Archive is now “the leading research center for the study of New Orleans jazz and related musical genres.” Among the center’s jewels is the recent acquisition of The Louis Prima Collection which includes everything from recordings to apparel as well as funding for a Fellowship and concerts. Also, the archive is proud of the 2,000 reels of oral history interviews ”that document the stories surrounding the emergence of jazz in new Orleans from the late 19th century forward.”
Collecting stories in the late 1950’s wasn’t easy. The young researchers who started Tulane’s Oral History Project bumped up against Jim Crow laws. On display was a much handled letter issued by the New Orleans Department of Police. It allowed the university students to enter a Negro’s house for the purpose of research. Without this letter, they would be committing an unlawful act.
Before we left, Mr. Raeburn played the first jazz record, the 1917 Victor Recording of the Dixieland Band’s version of “The Livery Stable Blues” on a beautifully preserved wind up record player. What a delight!
We bused through Uptown New Orleans to Audubon Park and the Audubon Clubhouse Café. Our group sat on the club patio screened with a wide, 3-sided view of the picturesque setting. Two stately palms graced each side of the stairs leading outside to the great expanse of land, originally a plantation.
Our first course for lunch was Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo. Gumbo, the official cuisine of the state of Louisiana, is a flavorful soup-stew. The first course was followed by baked chicken and vegetables, and a creamy bread pudding.
Instead of busing back to Tulane University, I joined Allison Hopper on a Nature Food for the Soul program. It was a perfect afternoon to stroll around the park. Surrounded by oak and crepe myrtle trees, we passed a WWI monument, a lagoon, joggers, and dog walkers. We easily chatted about the demands of balancing creativity with daily life. Similar interests and life perspective added to our easy comradery.
Muriel’s, the restaurant next door to our hotel, was completely booked for the evening, so Allan and I walked on in search of dinner. What I love about the French Quarter at night is the bustle of people and the fine musicians playing on the corners. Boutiques with original art make window shopping fun. We passed the Jamie Hayes Gallery where earlier I found a tee shirt combining two of my favorite things in a design named the “New Orleans Jazz Cat.” The round blue cat festooned with musical notes and a small red heart on his chest, seemed the perfect symbol of the French Quarter.
With a bit of Louisiana luck, we found a table at Kingfish Kitchen & Cocktails. I had an excellent corn and crab Bisque and Black Drum fish tacos (a popular Louisiana catch, not black but the color of sole). When I asked our young waiter if he was a student, he smiled. “Not of school,” he said, “but music.” He’d moved with a rock ‘n roll band mate from Arizona. “I’m learning about jazz, about spontaneity,” he beamed.
He directed us to the “sweet boutique, Sucre” for dessert, a French candy box of a store. I chose three squares of their rich, unique chocolates out of the display also filled with colorful macarons, perfect pastries, and a double row of home-made ice creams from which Allan chose a scoop of peanut butter.
Later on after dinner, I sat alone outside in the hotel courtyard and thought about ghosts. Strolling back from the restaurant, we had passed several Ghost Walks, guided tours that pointed out the French Quarters’ nefarious characters who had died untimely deaths.
There’s a ghost next door at Muriel’s restaurant. A man killed himself after losing his house in a card game. I’m not sure how his ghost shows himself. No one has heard of a ghost at our hotel, the Place D’Armes. The printed history states that “nearly all of the hotel’s buildings are believed to have been constructed between 1820 and 1880, with two of the seven buildings build in the 1960’s.” I guess everyone just went about their business as a gunsmith, an apothecary, or undertaker without much drama.
The night was peaceful, the courtyard quiet. Then a quick scent of mint hung in the air. A ghost? My brother, Michael? He had passed away in November. If it’s true spirits live on, he definitely would be here; he attended every Manuscript Society function for almost 20 years and I sorely missed his keen eye and wit. During the previous Manuscript Society trip to New Orleans in 2006, we took a short riverboat cruise up the Mississippi. Michael ordered a Mint Julip, his first. We all marveled at the muddle of real mint leaves in the glass. Michael was very content that afternoon, basking in the shade, sipping his Mint Julip like a true Southern Gentleman.
Saturday, April 21
The interesting morning lectures held no food tales. Dr. Florence Jumonville introduced us to “Edgar Alexander Parsons, A Born Bookman.” Parsons became known for establishing the first local library and was its long-term director.
Ed Poole spoke on “Movie Memorabilia,” and the importance of film history. Even though a conservation movement was started by Will Hayes in 1926, by 1993 50% of films were on the way to being lost, and a 2013 account determined that 90% of silent films had deteriorated beyond repair. Saving this vital art form and its memorabilia has become an important enterprise Poole explained. He also displayed a number of vibrant movie posters that brought us back to the movie theaters of our youth.
Our morning continued at “The Founding Era” exhibition put on by The Historic New Orleans Collection. My favorite artifacts were the Native American bear-paw moccasins with intact nails, and the collection of 15th century Mississippi pottery that reminded me of Pre-Columbian works. Among the terrific maps and charts, boat models, and manuscripts, a plain 19th century mortar and pestle sat on display. Sister Saint Francis Xavier, an Ursuline nun, used it to mix medicines. The Ursuline nuns schooled the young women brought over as brides in house management and cooking. Did one of these young women whip up the first batch of American pralines?
At lunchtime, thirteen of us scoured the streets for an eatery with a large table. We finally filed through an unpretentious bar furnished in dark woods to the back banquet room. In 1856, a French couple had founded the neighborhood Creole restaurant. Tujaque’s quickly attracted distinguished visitors. Entertainers from Cole Porter to Harrison Ford, politicians from Roosevelt to De Gaulle have signed the guest book. When Bev Hill said she was ordering the Beef Brisket with Horseradish, one of the Tujaque’s original 19th century lunches, I decided to honor both the history of the restaurant and my own past. The tender beef served with mashed potatoes and broccoli complete with a horse radish sauce that could clear one’s sinuses reminded me of many holiday meals prepared by my mother and grandmother.
After lunch, Allan and I decided to take a carriage ride through the French Quarter. We waited in front of Jackson Square with a lovely view of St. Louis Cathedral’s three distinctive steeples. Tourists swarmed the area. Artists displayed their work against the cast iron fence. Toward the end of the block, I noticed a large garbage bin marked “Mule Manure!” What goes in must come out.
An empty carriage soon arrived. Buck the mule steadily moved us through the traffic and we peacefully rode along the French Quarter’s residential areas. We passed neighbors chatting on the doorstep and the Ursuline Convent where Sister Saint Francis Xavier mentored the young women. Dating from 1752, it’s the oldest surviving French colonial building. When we saw a praline shop, Allan mused about the box of 12 pralines he’d purchased on the 2006 trip. Every once in a while, he ate one. They lasted for years.
The walk to dinner meant negotiating groups of revelers. Bob Hopper pointed out three middle-aged women with large neon-orange drinks they held up as beacons. Let the good times roll, “Laisez le bon temps rouler,” never seemed so apt as the ladies unsteadily, with their drinks sloshing, made their way down Bourbon Street.
Arnaud’s Restaurant was opened in 1918 by a French wine salesman, Arnaud Cazenave with a “commitment to serving quality Creole cuisine.” Crystal chandeliers illuminated the luxuriously appointed banquet room. Dinner began with a light Asparagus and Brie Soup and ended in flames as the tuxedoed staff served the Flamed Strawberries Arnaud. Either Gulf Fish Hefner or Filet Mignon was eaten in between.
I’m glad we ate first. The Manuscript Society Board surprised me when they conferred the title of Fellow of the Manuscript Society on my brother Michael. I knew that Michael would’ve been very touched to be honored in this way. He loved manuscripts and certificates.
There was no time to feel sad. Our speaker, jazz clarinetist Dr. Michael White was an inspiration. He played for us, and he told us a brief history of New Orleans jazz that reminds us “life is precious and we need to celebrate to the fullest.” Without self-pity he recounted his personal losses from Katrina, his house, his collection of musical instruments, everything. He played “Summertime” in a way that made me want to simultaneously laugh and cry it was so beautiful, so full of life’s essence.
Walking home through the streets of the French Quarter, we swung in the middle of celebration. Several corners were as crowded as freeway rush hour traffic. No one moved; no one seemed to care. Everyone was in the moment.
Back in Southern California, I’m eating salads topped with California’s state foods, avocadoes, almonds, and artichokes. But at night, dreams of jambalaya, beignets, Banana Fosters, gumbos, and grillades over grits chewed to a background of steamy jazz will forever haunt me.