Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. A reason for Catholics around the world to let their hair down, to enjoy drink, merriment and opulence. To let the good times roll one last time before a period of fasting and reflection as they prepare, spiritually, for Lent and Easter. I personally prefer to celebrate Borrowed, but that is just me. What better way to prepare for this time of reflection and the eventual Passion of everyone's favorite Higher Power Jesus Christ than to get shamelessly drunk, eat sickly sweet King Cake and hope you don't choke on a baby and flash your tits for two-bits worth of shiny green, gold and purple plastic beads. Laissez les bon temps rouler, indeed. Especially if you are down in the Crescent City on the banks of the Mississippi.
New Orleans is a city where I have had the pleasure of attending three Jazz and Heritage Festivals. To try to describe New Orleans in a few short sentences would be a grave miscarriage of literary perplexity. I could describe it in paragraphs never ending but I could never approach the feelings a person experiences traversing the narrow cobblestone streets in the French quarter in those antique neighborhoods as themes of Civil War battles and occupations, vampires, artists driven mad by absinthe and above ground crypts paying homage to Marie Leveaux with dark looking trinkets bones and Triple Xs. I tried but those concepts can only be felt and experienced.
I love New Orleans I had a great time. The third time we went with my daughter who was about 4 or 5 at the time, she loved it. We saw some great music and had some wonderful food. When we were sans child, we did do the Bourbon Street scene drinking high octane Hand Grenades and Hurricanes keeping the fire rolling along with a little help from Dr. Hoffman.
Yes, we threw our share of beads to the ladies up in the patina smudged wrought iron balconies that night. We also went to a bar, which I insist was run by a vampire. Behind the bar I found my self face to face an older woman who had a white, pallid complexion contrasted with deep and darkened eye sockets. She was smartly dressed in clothes which could have been just as fashionable in the late 1800s. Her striking appearance was accentuated by the presumption that she had not been exposed to the sun's warming, rejuvenating rays in quite some time. Perhaps so long that you have to go back decades to a point in her life when she was the sexiest girl on the stage. Now, her main concern was to make sure all of the customers had a drink in front of them. The drinks were served in those little 4 ounce glasses that are usually used for tomato juice in those road side diners. The Diners where the equally seasoned waitresses, who do not have an aversion to the sun, call you "honey" or "dear" after meeting you for the first time. Those glasses were not meant to be nursed either. I gathered the expectation was you were welcome as long as you were drinking.
The bar manager's other concern was to make sure her dancers, male and female, were not smoking crack and having sex with the guys who were in town for the Software Convention out back in the private "champagne room." This was obvious when she bellowed in a hoarse and nicotine soaked voice to a young muscular male dancer,
"What the fuck did I tell you about smoking crack with the customers in the champagne room?!"
As if he cared. She rolled her eyes and shook her head and let it go as she eyeballed the mid-western convention goer. She shook HIM up that is for sure. He was geeking and sweating at her bar. She barked at him, his drink still half full. "You ready for another one?!" Practically daring him to refuse. He nodded yes, obviously more concerned about getting tossed out and arrested. Than having to explain to his wife that he got caught smoking crack with a nude black 19-year-old boy. Oh the shame. But that can happen in any city can't it?
That is Bourbon Street, but that is not New Orleans to me. New Orleans is all about good food and even better music. Good food happens at a little shack on a side street where a wooden panel is hoisted up indicating that the local hero is serving gumbo and mudbugs. Good music happens on street corners where groups of 5 school boys and girls are playing their horns and listening to each other. Learning, practicing, knowing that if they have the chops they will be playing with a local Krewe in a Mardi Gras parade, sooner than later.
I was first exposed to New Orleans when I was about 24 years old. It was Mardi Gras and I was the Head Chef at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton Massachusetts. That night we had a big band coming in. Maybe Buckwheat Zydeco, It could have been Queen Ida or Dr. John or maybe even Boozoo Chavis. Who ever they were, they had a sizable band with a horn section and I had the responsibility of feeding them.
Say what you will about then Iron Horse owner, Jordi Herold, but he always treated me with kindness, respect and took advantage of my youthfulness to open my eyes to new and interesting things both in the world of music and food. Much of the time we would talk about the menus for upcoming shows and tailor the food to the style of music. So, obviously, for this show I was doing some Cajun food. I had the K-Paul cook book at my disposal as well as Jordi's elaborate and careful descriptions of the food he obviously loved. Had I known then what I know now...I shudder to think of what I produced that night. I mean it was good, but I could have been better, more authentic. Regardless of my inexperience, the food was a hit that night. Jordi and his faithful customers John and Judy Bodnar, my culinary fans to this day, enjoyed it. For the band, I made some jambalaya, red beans and rice, BBQ pork ribs and some boiled mudbugs...crawdads. Jordi always like to impress the bands with my cooking prowess.
So, the opening band was on stage. I was in the kitchen flirting with Donna Broderick, a lovely young hippie chick from UMASS, when I saw a very large black man squeezing through the tiny space between our ice cream freezer and the service bar, into the kitchen. He spoke with a voice which was like pure gravel. He had a southern drawl laced with a bit of a French accent. He had a buzz on. His eyes were pretty glassy and he had some whiskey on his breath. He was a horn player in the band. He had a bowl of the jambalaya I had made and was picking at the pieces of sausage and shrimp as he spoke. He never stopped eating as we talked.
"You the chef?"
"Ya know, dem ribs and this heah jambalaya are real good." He continued to picking out the sausage with is meaty greasy fingers. "Yep, dem ribs was real good..but the red beans and crawfish, that shit was all wrong."
I was taken aback and perhaps even insulted but I gave this stranger the benefit of a doubt. He had that kind of energy that is both soothing and electrifying at the same time. A suspicion which was confirmed as I watched him on stage later in the show. I wish I remember his name.
He continued with the Jambalaya, holding up a piece of meat.
"What's this, kielbasa? It's real good. I'd use some andouille in it, me too. But dem beans and rice, Mannn....and the crawfish...You never been to N'awlins, huh?"
I admitted that I had never been there. My trips to Jazz Fest were to come about a decade later.
"Next time you make beans and rice this is whatchoo gonna do...First you take your trinity (onions, celery and green pepper) cut a good amount and divide it into two. Sautee em real good in bacon fat until they get nice and brown, add some garlic...don't burn it...git that caramel going on the bottom of the pan. Add your dried, soaked beans, not the canned ones you used. Then some bay leaf and a coupla good smoke ham hocks and stock. Just cover dem beans a little bit you keep adding stock slow like its gonna make its own gravy, ya know.
Then you simmer it until the beans are tender about an hour and a half maybe longer. Then you git that trinity you had left over cause the the one you put in they aw-ready gone to liquid. Take out the hocks get the meat offa dem. Now sautee the trinity getting dem nice and brown again, add the meat from the hock and a little stock to git that flavor off the bottom of the pan and add that to the beans. Now you season with some cajun spice and little thyme and you all set. Now, you git you rice, keep em separate not like you did mixing 'em. Pour the beans on top the rice with some nice blackened chicken or sausage. Oh yeah!"
The way I made it was totally ass backwards.
Wow, did he take me to school. He went into an equally intense description of how to do the crawdads, driving home the point that if they are frozen, there is no point. I thanked him. And watched a great set of music.
The next day, I rounded up all of the ingredients and made a pot of red beans and rice. It was like magic, every step made sense. and it was the best pot of food I had made in a long time. When I was in New Orleans, I went to a cooking class. It was one of those touristy type things but the chef was good. He had good knife skills and he was fat, so you know he knew his shit. Sure enough, he made red beans and rice, just as my mystery horn player had described. The chef used stock in his beans and rice, but he did add, "when I make this at home, I put in a coupla smoke ham hocks.
Laissez les bon temps rouler.
Don't forget to go to church and get some dirt on your forehead tomorrow.
For the rest of the Lenten season you will find me making clam chowder with out bacon...ugh!
That's enough to keep me...
Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.