On this last, most extravagant weekend of Mardi Gras – or Carnival, to be precise, since Mardi Gras is only one day, Fat Tuesday – I went “home” to New Orleans for a mixture of business, pleasure and parade traffic. After so many years of going there for weddings, baptisms, graduations, divorces and funerals, it’s a bit hard sometimes to tell what I’m supposed to be feeling. Yet with all the purple, green and gold of the Carnival season swirling around me, I knew I was feeling… a lot.
As it turned out, I was eating a lot too. When I wasn’t holed up at the small, graceful Whitney Hotel (in the 1909 building that was home to the first Whitney National Bank), I was taking camera and appetite to the streets. This meant a mandatory muffaletta at Central Grocery near the French Market, and this also meant an original spin on the French galette du roi, or kingcake, at Croissant D’Or. Kingcakes have evolved from this puff pastry filled with almond paste, but it’s nice to travel through time once in a while. And speaking of traveling through time…
Needless to say, I love New Orleans’ Old Guard restaurants, starting with the oldest, Antoine’s. It was here, after years of hearing about my parents’ dinners without us kids, I asked to be taken for my 16th birthday. And it was at nearby Arnaud’s that I was hired to write the first of my many restaurant cookbooks, researching until the owners themselves called me with questions about their history. And it was at Brennan’s around the corner, only a handful of weeks ago, that I toasted with champagne the reopening of an indispensible New Orleans classic.
I remember… sitting in K-Paul’s at that small table by the kitchen with chef Paul Prudhomme and watching as cook after cook brought him things to taste. “Nah, John,” he’d say, glancing at me over a forkful of pecan pie, “this crist just ain’t quite right.” Over time I got to know Chef Paul pretty well, and over time he got to know me – finally telling me I should become a food writer. “You be good to food,” he advised, “and food’ll be good to you.” And I remember the pleasantly scruffy bar at Tujague’s. In fact, forgetting what year it is, I was caught unawares by a black-and-white photo tribute on the wall to my late friend Steve Latter. On behalf of his restaurant, every few months, Steve would invite me in to drink and eat with him, always like he wanted some company, always forgetting to ask for media coverage. I liked him so much, I gave it anyway.
Block after block, the memories… I remember strolling through the French Market with my parents on Sundays, all of us dressed up for Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, my navy blue toddler outfit covered in powdered sugar from beignets at Cafe du Monde. The produce always looked better in the French Market, as did the long-gone fresh fish and meat, than any of it ever did at the A&P. And of course I remember music everywhere, somebody always playing something. It is amazing to me that virtually everything I remember from that life is still available. It seems all those wonderful things should have disappeared by now, along with the faces of so many who have. But they haven’t disappeared.
And finally… It’s important to remember, as the city cascades toward Fat Tuesday, that for every all-too-public New Orleans there is an oh-so-private one, one you can glimpse only if you stick your nose through open doorways and wait for your eyes to adjust to the shadows. I ALWAYS stick my nose through open doorways, whether it’s to glimpse the numberless inner courtyards where real lives have been lived for centuries or to gaze through bars at the small, lovely garden behind the Cathedral. Jesus gazes out from here over, well, everything. Yes, it’s worth remembering that Mardi Gras is a religious holiday. In other words, God doesn’t need to save us from Mardi Gras. God GAVE us Mardi Gras. Not to mention… a thousand and one Memory Lanes.