It’s a fitful night. It’s hard to relax after the go-go of air travel, and my mounting excitement to see what the Big Easy has in store for me on Saturday. Also, I have a weird dream where, somehow, my baby girl is threatened by a puma covered with rabbits (or maybe tribbles?).
I pop up a few blocks to a café called Mother’s. On the way, I unwittingly walk the route of a Saints themed 5k. People walk past, decked out in their Saints fan gear, some halfheartedly running while most walk and jabber on. Later, I’ll see them, their numbers still pinned to their clothing, wobbling around the Quarter with hurricanes in hand.
As I approach the small brick building of the café, the kitchen staff and some of the waitresses are lined up on the ramp leading up to the door. They’re shouting support to the runners. “Keep goin’, baby! Keep goin’ a’ight, you got this!” In another place, with other voices, this enthusiasm might seem sarcastic. But here, it just isn’t.
Inside are a few tables. The walls are faux wood and hung everywhere with pictures of former patrons and proprietors. The grill is against the wall, separated from the rest of the diner by a waist-high partition and an L-shaped bar. You can hear the sizzling and frying, punctuated by the boisterous voices of the cooks, a line of black folks who fluctuate between socializing and business with practiced fluidity.
I order at the counter, and I’m handed my “coffee with milk” and an ice water. I choose my table and sit down. A golden-age waitress version of Uhura from Star Trek brings me my food after a short time and refills my coffee as well. She calls me “dawlin’” and, though I hear her repeat her terms of endearment with all of the customers like a recording, I still feel special. “I’ll be right back with ya, my babies. How we doin’, my babies?”
My “coffee with milk” tastes much creamier than milk, rich and nutty. I order a crawfish etoufee omelet. It comes with a biscuit and grits. The biscuit I eat with butter and grape jelly. It’s one of the best I’ve ever had, crisp on the outside and perfect, cotton-candy fluffy on the inside. Perfect grits. Great etoufee, though the eggs were a bit dense, presumably to hold the etoufee inside. The crawfish is fresh, I can tell. It lacks the gamey taste it gets when it sits.
After breakfast, I wander around looking for a Starbucks, but eventually I land back at the hotel. The desk in my room is too small and faces the wall, so I sneak into the bar area. On a raised platform away from the bar but towards the front of the building is a lounge area with cushioned red bench seats, small marble tables, and seahorses everywhere. I settle down in total solitude in one corner, giving myself a spectacular view of the street through the large windows, and try not to think about the 9/11 memorials in the lobby. This building, once a financial institution, touts itself as the “first world trade center.” Wilted white roses lay on the front desk over an American flag.
I write in my little nook, and it’s perfect. There’s free coffee down here and I’m alone. I write and watch people walk by. I watch a little violent rain storm, a toddler-tantrum of a weather event. When I get hungry, I pack it up and start walking towards the quarter.
At the Royal House (which is just called the Royal House, I’ve discovered, though I’d gone about for years calling it the Royal Oyster House), I recognize the tall chucker with the sprinkle of gray in his beard, so stark against the deep brown of his complexion. I come here every time I’m in New Orleans, and he’s only become more skilled. Oyster after oyster falls open before him, like so many lovers before Don Juan. His Cajun-looking partner glances at him every few moments for assurance, or inspiration. Yes, he’s very French-looking: pale skin, black stubble, dark eyes, curly oaken hair, slight frame.
The model ships are still docked in the corner over the front door. We nestle in its ancient bones, so many lively, unrepentant Jonahs, noting the places where old brisk join newer molding. The presence and absence tattooed on the walls, the scrimshaw of history evident.
This overlaid with bros and football flags and a TV over the bar, but these things can’t soften the marble and the beams, wooden, trusty, and nautical.
This is a city of excess, of course. Climate change may have dealt them a deadly blow with Katrina, but they run the air conditioning with all the doors and windows open in every bar and restaurant you see. Excess. Bukowski said, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
My raw oysters are cold, liquid velvet, the tenderness flesh. I can chew them delicately, waves against the coastline of my teeth. They, too, lose their sweetness when they aren’t fresh, and chewing them invites gagging. But these, oh, these are virgin and perfect. I drizzle them with regular and chipotle Tabasco sauce, and dip them in the lightest touch of cocktail sauce. Best to stay away from the horseradish.
A tall Louisiana original with a thinning, salt-and-pepper ponytail jokes, boisterous and echoing, with a table, his customers, the dude bros. Fat white Midwesterners roll by in open-sided carriages. They are everything David Foster Wallace feared in “Consider the Lobster.” Tourists are economically important but existentially meaningless.
A waiter in waist-length dreadlocks charms or scares some old ladies in tee-shirts and K-Mart pants. I’m glad he did it, no matter what the result.
When I hear other tourists talking, I hear myself. “Get me a Bloody Mary! I need my vegetables! We’re in for the duration. We love your city! Except for the humidity, of course.”
I order the Oyster Duo, which is half Rockefeller and half… something else, I can’t remember. The oysters are cooked in the shell with cheese and other ingredients broiled on top. I’ve never seen it come in a basket on paper like an order of fries. This dismays me. As well it should. A couple of them were gritty, and the whole thing was dry. The best part about this course was my decision to order an Abita Purple Haze.
I am purposely alone on this trip, but in the city that care forgot, people are friendly. This is not a bad thing, not at all. But I do have to spend energy on this trip deflecting people trying to talk to me because they think I’m lonely. I meet a couple in their 50s at the oyster bar. They see me writing and ask. I tell them I’m a food blogger. It’s not a lie. I’m here right now blogging about food, aren’t I?
Stay tuned for part 3!