I still haven’t finished with the coffee.
Why do they drink chicory coffee in Louisiana? They don’t drink it in most other places in the US. Turns out there’s some history, the same kind of history that makes New Orleans seem more like a European city than a US city. Chicory is native to Western Europe, but naturalized in the U.S. It was grown around the Mediterranian Sea.* I read all about chicory, but mostly what I got out of it is that it’s related to endive, and both the part of the plant that grows above grown and the root is used for food. It’s the root that’s roasted and ground up and added to coffee. Although adding it to coffee is more commonplace in the countries north of the Mediterranian, where they developed a taste for it, the Dutch developed the best blend. According to Wikipedia, “Medieval monks raised the plants and when coffee was introduced to Europe, the Dutch thought that chicory made a lively addition to the bean drink.”
Anyway, the Spanish, Italians, French, and French Canadians all came to New Orleans, apparently with an established taste for chicory coffee, and it was easily naturalized into the multinational port culture there, where the French and Spanish settled early on, and Italians came soon enough. Cafe au lait and beignets is a staple of late night partyers, people-watchers, tourists in buses and a pied. What has been served there for more than a century is cafe au lait. You can get it black, and no one will act as if that’s odd, but not many pallettes can tolerate the bitter, sweet, strong stuff that is brewed to stand up to what in A Confederacy of Dunces is called in the urban patois of New Orleans, “berled milk.” My brother, who used to design the drills for offshore oil-wells, and visited them during that career, thought the brew is to the taste of the wildcatter Cajuns who operated the off-shore rigs, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of Cajuns who drink it black.
I took my elderly parents to Morning Call for coffee and donuts in the 1990s. Both of them normally drank standard American brewed black coffee. I persuaded my mother to get the cafe au lait, but my dad insisted on having it black. He could hardly stand it. It just became something to suffer, but my mother drank her cafe au lait, but I don’t remember that she liked it. Neither would touch the beignets. At Morning Call, you dust the beignets yourself at the table from shakers that are always clogged with confectioners sugar. You can burn enough in calories just getting a good portion of powdered sugar on your donuts to make up for what you eat. The sugar gets all over the table, the Jefferson Parish ballroom dancer’s finery, the coffee, the chairs, the floors. Mopping up sugar is a constant process at Morning Call and at Cafe du Monde. It gets all over everyone except Mr. Hennessey. The best is to get a bag of beignets to go. The server puts about a cup and a half of powdered sugar in a lunch-sized brown paper bag, 3 hot beignets, gives it a shake and puts it in your hands, where the bag is too hot and greasy to touch. But it’s wonderful. If Morning Call were operated like a streamlined Bain operation with a gimlet-eyed fixation on the bottom line, the sugar bill would be cut by 95%. It’s harder to estimate how many customers would be lost. It’s an excess and a staple of New Orleans to have way too much powdered sugar.
I’ve heard New Orleanians say that Morning Call was the original Cafe du Monde, but that’s not true. Two great coffee sellers established coffee stands in the French Quarter in the area of the French Market in The coffee stands in the late 1800s. Cafe du Monde, established in 1862, was the first. The second, Morning Call, was established in 1870 by Joseph Jurisch, a Czech immigrant. Morning Call had a better location at the opening to French Market, and Cafe was always in the place it is now, a little further west on Decatur Street. Both establishments were always open 24 hours, and every day of the week except Christmas. I like to imagine the navvies of old, come or consigned to dig the canals, stopping for coffee before work. Or the sailors from far away lands come to shore, drinking all night, and showing up for coffee at one of these stands before going back to ship, docked just out of sight, except for the stacks, over the levy right behind Cafe du Monde and the French Market.
Although Cafe du Monde was first in 1862, Morning Call had the better location, and it stayed there for over a hundred years, pouring chicory coffee, berled milk, and dishing out heavily dusted donuts until 1974. French Quarter real estate had been cheap for centuries, but in the 1970s a more lively tourist trade picked up in the French Quarter, and the French Market was a popular destination. The owners of Morning Call refused to pay the hiked-up rent, and after 104 years in the same place, they picked up their marble counters and mahogany arch and put it inside a hole-in-the wall strip mall across from Lakeside Mall in the suburb of Metairie. It remains busy and well run and in the same family as the original owner, Joe Jurisch.
* Mediterranean is an interesting word. It’s Latin etymology from medius and terra means in the middle of the earth. Imagine the land mass of Europe and Africa, and of course, the Mediterranean Sea seems to be in the middle of the earth. New Orleans is a middle earth sort of place, where chicory coffee would easily become the coffee concotion of choice.
The first principle of understanding Ignatius’ New Orleans is that New Orleans is the Center of the World. The rest of the world knows that it isn’t, but that doesn’t change reality. New Orleans is the Center of the World, and Ignatius is the center of New Orleans–like the nucleus of an atom, or the God particle or something. Ignatius is a metonymy for all New Orleanians and all people who understand New Orleans. The world Ignatius inhabits is a medieval, carnivalesque, utopian place–not utopian in the way the word is usually used–to mean ideal–but utopian in the more original sense of not being a fixed place–and utopian in its inclusion of everyone.
When Ignatius and his mother duck into the Night of Joy bar on Bourbon Street in their dash to evade Patrolman Mancuso, Ignatius pugnaciously orders the bartender to serve him a chicory coffee with boiled milk, opting for the educated elocution of “boiled” as opposed to the white ethnic, to use Walker Percy’s term, locution “berled” that Irene Reilly uses. We don’t know that until later in the book. A careful reader would realize that Toole had cleverly glossed the native Yat accent through Ignatius, so that even a reader who’d never heard the accent–and most outsiders who do hear the accent don’t know what a Yat says when he says “berled”–would be able to figure out that “berled” is boiled. Like berled in earl.
It’s outrageous for Ignatius to order coffee at a Bourbon Street hole-in-the wall bar, but if the bar would have had coffee, it would be as likely that it had chicory coffee as coffee. Ignatius’ demand is ridiculously out of place, but at the same time, it is peculiarly correct culturally. He settles for a Dixie 45 beer, like his Momma is having. Ignatius is a pure product of New Orleans culture, which he doesn’t question, resist, or criticize. Ignatius embodies the possibility that the pure product can only exist a little uncomfortably with the world outside of New Orleans. He accepts the peculiarities of being a New Orleanian–eating different food, drinking different coffee, thinking differently, and being in the world differently from its other inhabitants–completely. New Orleans doesn’t need to change, no more than Ignatius thinks he has to change. The world has to change around both of them. Anyway, New Orleans doesn’t really have to change itself because change is periodically imposed on New Orleans through the upheavals of wars, political systems and scandals, corrupt businesses, reformers, and various acts of God, such as the Hubig’s Pie Factory fire. (Read “Nothing Left But a Grease Spot” in the archives.)
Before sitting down to write today, I made a cup of chicory coffee with nearly boiled soy milk, an adaptation I spent months perfecting for my digestion’s sake. It’s as close to the chicory cafe au lait people drink in Louisiana as it’s possible to make, without using actual whole cow’s milk. This is important. This is the only coffee I drink at home anymore. I buy 20 or 40 pounds of it from Rouse’s every time I go to New Orleans. A pound lasts three weeks if I have only one cup a day. I became acculturated to the coffee in New Orleans, where I only had it a few times a week. It took years to transition from the black coffee I used to drink daily to the chicory cafe au lait and soy milk concoction I now drink every day. It is stout enough with soy protein to substitute for meals.
Tourists nearly always go to the Cafe du Monde across from Jackson Square for cafe au lait and beignets served on tables sticky from powdered sugar being swirled around between seatings by waiters wearing uniforms they wore in the early part of the 20th Century. But, the locals say that the real coffee place is the Morning Call coffee stand, which stood at the entrance to the French Market for over 100 years. In 1974, when the city’s terms for renewing the license for the site didn’t meet with the owner’s requirements, the family-owned business moved the antique marble and walnut appointments from their century-long moorings in the French Quarter, giving up the lion’s share of the tourist coffee and beignet business to the rival Cafe du Monde, and moving to a little hole in a strip mall in Metairie near the Causeway.
The coffee stands were longtime French Quarter rivals, both serving the same limited menu of chicory coffee and beignets, orange juice, and white and chocolate milk. Both have extended their menus in the past couple of decades to include iced coffee and soft drinks. Morning Call also serves gumbo and jambalaya. Cafe du Monde, with the slightly less desirable Decatur Street location, opened in 1862. Morning Call opened in 1870. Cafe du Monde has been more aggressive at marketing. It now even has a gift shop. These places are coffee stands–not coffee shops, and they appeal to both local and tourist trade. The experience of sitting at either one to read the paper and have a cup of coffee is nothing like the experience of going to a coffee shop. You need to wake up to where you are when you go to one of these coffee stands after a night of drinking and walking around the French Quarter or dancing at the Jefferson Ballroom, for those of a certain age. At the Cafe du Monde, you could be sitting in the very chair where Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, or Walker Percy sat, and doing the same thing–observing the fluid stream of humans between peeks at the Living Section, and sips of rich, thick coffee. The very same thing in the very same place Ken Toole must have watched people countless times, you are invited to do. To have wifi would be a travesty of a proportion that would betray the “lack of theology and geometry,” to say nothing of a “sense of taste and decency.”
At the Morning Call in July, I never even wondered whether there was wifi. It never crossed my mind until this moment. When I lived in New Orleans in the early 1990s, I drove to Morning Call at midnight every Saturday night, picking up the Sunday Times Picayune before going in to order cafe au lait and beignets from one of the waiters I still saw there last month. At the entrance to the kitchen, a man sits on a backless counter stool by the cash register, making tick marks in a little notebook. If you wanted a take out order, you could tell him, and he’d call a waiter over to take your order, who would bring the coffee in a covered styrofoam cup, and the beignets in a paper bag with about half a pound of powdered sugar in it. If I had my coffee in, I would lift out the Living Section, sip coffee, and watch the aging merrymakers in their dancing clothes fresh from the Jefferson Ballroom struggle to keep dustings of confectioner’s sugar off their finery. It’s okay to drink cafe au lait in the middle of the night in Louisiana. It won’t keep you awake when you get the chance later to drop into a cool bed.
The man sitting at the counter making tick marks was one of the pretty much interchangeable Hennessey Brothers. The Morning Call is still in the same family that started the business in 1870. That was Joseph Jurisech, and the business has been run by succeeding generations, or those married to them, from the day he went into business. The Hennesseys are the current generation running the place, probably in exactly the same way Joe did in 1870. Only the cash registers seem to have changed. Except for what’s replaced because of breakage, they’re probably still using the same dishes.
Even though the Cafe du Monde has had the dominant market position for forty years, another one of those cultural dislocations is about to take place in the market stand coffee business in New Orleans. The City of New Orleans, with FEMA financing, approached Morning Call to open a coffee stand in City Park in the old Casino Building across from the Museum of Art. City Park itself was a WPA project, and still bears the markers of public projects of the era. The aesthetic of the park includes some distinctly socialist-looking signposts, but the Casino building is all old New Orleans, with floor to ceiling paned windows, shutters, a black and whtie tile floor, and roof shape reminiscent of the old Morning Call market stand.
I’d stopped in late in the afternoon after spending the day in the Toole archives at Tulane, and Bob Hennessey was sitting at the cash register making ticks in his book. He is friendly, or happy to leave you in peace. Whatever you want. That day I wanted to poke and prod, and find out what I could about his business. He obliged generously, and let me take pictures. The employees, familiar faces all, were perfect subjects, ignoring the camera or posing for it like pros. Their images are already part of a history of images of people and coffee in New Orleans that has yet to be written, and they seem aware of it.
Hennessey, a tidy, fit, and appropriately reserved man, showed me the photos of the new place on his iPhone, the only sign of technology in the place, although I suspect there’s a computer in an office in the back. Tehy’re building replicas of the marble counter and arch, and copying the interior details for the new place, which they believe will open in late September. He hopes they do well there, and it seems like a good idea, but it means they will have to adapt to a new way of doing business–aggressive marketing, computerized record-keeping, taking credit cards, and offering an extended, but still limited, menu. I remember that he mentioned popcorn, but forgot what else he said would be on the menu. This is a 24-hour a day business, manned by a family member all the time, keeping tick marks in a black book, that they reconcile to cash register receipts. They have prospered for 40 years in this little place, doing things the way they always have, with a trusted family member overseeing operations all the time. I wondered if he will be happy with the new work, with expansion, with being competitive when they’ve gotten along so well for so long knowing exactly who they are and what they are doing. I would like to know who came up with the idea? Who from the City thought this up, put the proposal together, and brought it to them? How did they make it attractive to the Hennesseys?
In A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole’s Ignatius refers to a two-page thesis that resides in Tulane University’s Howard Tilton Memorial Library on the third floor in the rare books collections. The third floor there houses part of the regular university stacks, some private study offices, the office for information literacy, and some library personnel offices, but the special collections are not housed there–if they ever were.
Taking fiction for truth, I stumbled blindly out of the heat and humidity to the Tilton Library third floor first. I love sliding around the confusing streets of New Orleans. If my brain were a muscle, New Orleans is imprinted there in it’s muscle memory. Partly, I know my way around the streets and byways, and partly I inuit them. The campus of Tulane is one of the New Orleans places I both know and feel. I taught there for a year in 1995/1996, and going to the campus yesterday, I was on autopilot. I went immediately to Pine Street, slightly off campus, where I parked my car when I worked there. But, to go to the library, I wanted to pull into the street parking within the campus gates right next to Tilton Library–where I discovered that the collections and rare books are housed in Jones Hall, directly across the street, not where Ignatius claimed his two-page thesis resides in Tilton Library. So I re-hoisted my gear and tramped across the street.
I love being in library archives, and despite the respect and care I try to give what I go through there, I’m pretty sure I screw up the order every time I visit a collection. I don’t mean to, but it gets confusing. Half my time is spent figuring out what folders to return items to, despite all my care, mental notes, and attempts to follow the good practices the archivists share for the use of archival material.
And, like the lady in the old New Yorker cartoon who claimed she wanted her son to work in a bank because “It’s so nice and cool in a bank,” Special Collections was like being in a nice and cool bank. Outside, people were dying in the heat and humidity, but I was nearly alone in a big, cool room in a library I love.
I briefly went through two of the boxes in the Toole Collection. Getting into those items is a joyous experience. I loved seeing the items that, at the time they became the property of Ken Toole, were just the ordinary things belonging to a schoolboy in the 1950s and 1960s, but now have a super-real quality. Everything is a clue to living the very particular life he lived. Everything, or almost everything, is something he touched without thinking they would become historical artifacts. A lot of Toole’s mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, is everywhere in the collection.
The mere fact that she kept all these things, and kept them together enough to be donated for this collection, is nothing short of a miracle. What would be the detritus of most people’s lives, are special because of her mother’s devotion to the idea her son was a genius. But, whether he was or not, she kept, apparently, everything of his she could get her hands on. Mothers everywhere do this, and it is humbling to become conscious of just how much it means that any mother does such things. It’s miraculous, really. The Toole artifacts survived three hurricanes; Besty, Camille, and Katrina; numerous evacuations, and countless floods. The first year I lived in New Orleans, several feet of water flooded St. Charles Avenue, and I watched the children of the gentry excitedly catch catfish by hand out on the avenue. They survived the heat and humidity of this wet place, the vicissitudes of the comings and goings and purges of spring cleanings, changes of heart and fortune, the furies and temporary passions of family life, and now they reside in relative safety on the second floor of the Jones Building on Tulane campus. Archivists will protect them as well as they can before every evacuation. They’re as safe as they can be in the place they belong. And anyone can go there and touch Toole’s past.
It was apparent from my brief visit, that the archives still have much to yield. My project is limited, though, and the first thing I was struck by were the photographs of Toole in costumes. Any child’s upbringing in New Orleans is influenced by the distinct, local culture of Carnival, Momma, cooking, music, local theater, school theatrical productions. This influence is apparent in some of the photos of Toole as a child dressed in costumes. This was not typical of most children in America. For most American kids, a photo in costume for Halloween–that’s it. Here are a few of the photos of Toole as a child in costumes. The masker. In the last of these, Toole appears to be standing on Canal Street. One of the archivists identified a streetcar in the right side of the photo, and the Roosevelt Hotel is the tall, modern building in the background. Note the streamers on the ground, suggesting the photo was taken after a parade passed.
When a few years ago I first heard Mick Moloney talk about Ned Harrigan, the half of the famous early 20th Century team of Harrigan and Hart, who lived to an old age, enjoyed a brilliant career as a showman, and the esteem of everyone who knew him, I thought of Rick Delaup. Delaup has become the Harrigan of the 21st Century. The original Harrigan was the Harrigan of the song:
H, A, double-R, I, G, A, N spells Harrigan
Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me
Divil’ a man can say a word agin’ me
H, A, double-R, I, G, A, N you see
Is a name that a shame never has been connected with
Harrigan, that’s me!
Last night I saw Rick’s latest Bustout Burlesque show at the House of Blues on Decatur Street. It has become the most entertaining, the most genuinely New Orleans experience to be had in New Orleans. This show is the experience people go to New Orleans hoping to have, but they stumble drunk down Bourbon Street instead because most don’t know about the series of sold-out variety shows Rick produces in New Orleans. The show is an all-out hit with locals and the few visitors who know about it. Over the years, I’ve seen the show grow from rough to polished. It’s ready for Broadway. But it would never be on Broadway. Rick took the show to Las Vegas once, but if you want to see it, you pretty much have to go to New Orleans.
This sign sits beside the HOB box office on performance nights. Rick managing things in the line waiting for the doors to open, below.
Below, after the curtains open, the jazz band plays briefly to bring the audience to attention for the show to start.
The multi-talented Athena sings and dances.
Dr. Sick was the emcee and performed a variety act.
Go Go MacGregor.
Go Go on her bed of nails.
Ashley, the contortionist.
Taking their bows.
Rick and friend Tabitha between shows.
Before he knew where in the building the Hubig Pie Factory fire started, Rick told me first thing when he got up Friday morning that, “Hubig Pies burned to the ground last night. Nothing left but a grease spot.” Later in the day, the news reported that the fire started in the fry area at about 4:30 AM–not making Rick prescient, but where else would a fire start in a fried pie factory? I was a block away from the Hubig factory just hours before the fire. If I had remembered that the factory was in the vicinity where I was photographing, I would have wandered over and gotten a shot. I would have wanted a photograph of that sign, anyway. I drove past it many times when I stayed in the Bywater one summer. At night, the spectral ghost of the blue neon against the pale brick building created quite a good effect. The factory was right in the middle of the working class Marigny neighborhood, surrounded by colorful, shuttered, and mostly rundown shotgun houses with tw0-step front stoops.
Hubig pies are important to Rick because they provided a good supply of them for the goody bags for the performers in the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. The supply of pies was so ample the first three years of the festival, that I got quite a few, too. Hubig’s was generous in providing pies to New Orleans events as promotion and diplomacy, despite the Hubig pie boy lapse in the K Doe effigy episode. Hubig’s certainly weren’t stingy–they believed in the baker’s dozen, plus some. That generosity contributed to the good will that has now left New Orleanians more grief-stricken, and perhaps even more fearful, because of the pie fire than the four murders that took place later on the day the factory burned down.
After the New Orleans Burlesque Festivals, most of my pies ended up in my suitcase and traveled back to the beyond of the Midwest, where they eventually got eaten, flattened as they were. The American diet has become a chemistry wizard’s concoction of ingredients that appeal to the palette and make non-processed food unpalatable by comparison, but Hubig’s used no science. They had everything any Southerner knows you need to make food taste good–fat and sugar. Hubig pies were fried and coated with white sugar icing. The only thing missing is bacon, and, who knows, with the current trend for combining bacon and chocolate and other sweets, maybe Hubig’s was about to come out with a bacon-chocolate pie. They vowed to come back, so maybe they still will.
It’s interesting that Hubig’s, which has been in New Orleans since 1922, started in Texas. The New Orleans operation was an adjunct, but outperformed the Texas business, prompting Hubig’s to close the Texas enterprise and focus on New Orleans. Now, why did Hubig’s pies succeed in New Orleans, but not Texas, where people also like to eat? I heard one of the people on a news interview after the fire say that it was a good product, that you could hold it in your hand, making it perfect for lunch. For lunch?! Surely even in New Orleans it’s uncommon to have a Hubig’s pie for lunch. But you know the local news, and how imprecisely people talk when they’re eulogizing an institution they once took for granted.
I won’t be able to see how Savory Simon is represented now, and by now I mean the day before yesterday, because I never found time to run to the store to buy a Hubig’s pie before the fire. Now there’s not a Hubig’s pie to be found for hundreds of miles. I will endeavor, however, to drive over to the location and photograph the grease spot.
“Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins,” Ignatius tells his mother, Irene Reilly, for the umpteenth time, as they wait in the safety of the Night of Joy bar on Bourbon Street. They’d tucked in there to avoid Patrolman Mancuso, and drank a couple of Dixie 45s while waiting. In one simple sentence with one subordinate clause, Toole, in the voice of Ignatius, referred to the titles of the most famous literary works of two of the most brilliant writers in the English language: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and T. S. Elliot’s apocalyptic poem, The Wasteland.
After my last cup of coffee Wednesday night I hurled myself in the 2000 pound missile that is otherwise my car, into the black void of the Causeway toward the north shore. Taking off in the black of night across the Causeway always feels like an act of sheer faith, because you have to believe that the 23 mile bridge will continue to be ahead of you. Aside from occasional taillights ahead, or headlights on the parallel bridge coming toward you, there is little to console you alone in your car in the black night except faith or habit. When I first lived on the North Shore in the 1990s, I had neither, and I often panicked, long after midnight, going north on the causeway, which would be devoid of the signs of humanity, except for the engineering it took to build the structure that you can usually see about 40 feet of on a clear, dark night. On foggy nights, you can’t see taillights ten feet in front of you, and the authorities often close the Causeway to wait for the fogs to lift.
Toole’s exquisite little sentence evokes this modernity-caused angst. The engineers built the Causeway, but Lake Pontchartrain is just deep enough to conjure the kind of wonder in its travelers that brings up images of an automobile graveyard below the Causeway. It would tell future archaeologists all about the Causeway–when it was first opened to traffic, socio-economic profiles of its travelers, and since you can drive with alcohol in your car, the plastic daiquiri cups, probably down there forming their own plasticene layer in the Lake anyway, would tell on that, too. Only about ten feet of water washes across this probable graveyard, which is about the only one below the surface of the ground, or water, in the New Orleans area.
This sentence also orients the reader to the mindset of the New Orleans locals. The rest of the world may see New Orleans as a center of sin and licentiousness, but there is a hardy, Catholic-centered strain of morality here, too. Many New Orleanians, who wouldn’t seriously consider living anywhere else, do see the world outside the city limits as potential cesspits of corruption, terror, and moral iniquity–and worse, endless boredom. Dorian Greene’s fear of the prospect of having to return to Nebraska to live, is an expression of the New Orleans-centric way the rest of the world lives.
Toole goes into some development in describing the two century-old, 3-story French Quarter mansion, complete with a third floor for spinster tantes and slave quarters, that Greene’s Nebraska farmer family bought for him sounds exquisite, although it was an abomination and an offense to taste and decency in Ignatius’s mind. In the 1950s, such a house in the dilapidated condition most French Quarter buildings were in in the 1950s could have been bought for a song. Toole says the house had 3 foot thick walls. It was the kind of building built by the French with means in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The structures with thick walls, high ceilings, and shutters were built to maximize the movement of air, keep the air as cool as possible in the New Orleans summers, and as warm as possible in the mild, but often humid, New Orleans winters.
Greene could have decorated it for a song in the 1950s and early 1960s, and ended up with an elegant New Orleans pied a terre. Ignatius thought the house was an abomination, but it sounds beautiful to me. It sounds something like the kind of French Quarter house that Lindy Boggs owns, only more elegant. It also sounds a bit like the Pontalba, the place where Irene Reilly crashed into the iron post holding up a balcony at St. Ann and Chartres Streets, which is certainly part of the Pontalba. The Pontalba, however, was originally built as townhouses, with places for shops on the first floor. In general, this might have provided Toole the inspiration for French Quarter buildings in general, but not be a building that actually exists in the French Quarter. However, I’m not certain. I plan to walk the area tonight.
A soy latte, my second for the day, this one for supper on the drive across the Causeway–and straight to Union Station in New Orleans–the place from which Ignatius launched himself on a ScenicCruiser across the dark and dangerous beyonds outside New Orleans, over primordial swamps, to The Medieval Department at LSU. It’s hard to imagine universities even having such departments these days–even the Classics departments have been given cement shoes for the last couple of decades. The station today looks much as it would have in the 1950s.
An Oprah Winfrey period piece production added a mote of verisimilitude to my photo excursion. Cars from the period Ignatius roamed the city were parked in the old turnaround, waiting for shooting to begin.
Inside the terminal, which was built as a hub for bus and train traffic, I looked for the “coloreds only” signs for the restrooms that were still visible when i first saw the station about 1989. I found a man who’d worked there for 32 years. He told me there were never racially separated restroom facilities, and that the Oprah crew were re-creating separated drinking fountains. I remember restrooms marked for “colored” chiseled into the concrete of the place, but our memories play tricks on us.
The Union Terminal is a grand old place, with huge black marble slabs, and while the streets around the place is undergoing renovations, the building is much the same as it was when I first saw it, and still much of it is as Ignatius would have seen it when he began his treacherous 60 mile journey to Baton Rouge. When I first drove over the swamps, I was afraid, too. It never seemed that structures, such as pylons supporting causeways poked into the swamp would be overtaken by nature, perhaps before I reached dry land, and cooked into the general slew.
More on my evening of shooting–even the things I dread the most: Bourbon Street, and the other Quarter locations mentioned in Toole’s book–tomorrow. Monday I plan to go to the Tilton Library to look at the Toole collection. I am mostly interested in the photographs because the focus of my ruminations is the culture of the 1950s and 1960s, not Toole. Tomorrow, a cogitation on the representation of Ignatius under the Holmes clock. Here, thanks to Oprah, are some cars to put you in the mood.
My day ended at Morning Call, where I had the de rigeur chicory cafe au lait, and, heaven forefend–beignets–in Metairie before getting on the Causeway to drive back to Covington. They don’t even serve anything else there. And coffee means cafe au lait. You can put sugar in it at the table, but if you order it black, thinking it’s like the restaurant coffee you get in the midwest, you can’t be prepared for the tar-colored and consistency chicory/coffee blend they will, with warning, bring to the table.
The faces of the employees and customers haven’t changed in this place since I started going there on Saturdays at midnight in 1990 to get a Sunday Times Picayune, a cafe au lait and greasy paper bag of beignets to eat at home while looking through the paper. One cup at midnight didn’t keep me awake, and while I waited for them to prepare it, I watched the old ladies and gents come in after an evening at the Jefferson Ballroom. They’d be wearing something like old people’s versions of prom outfits, ladies in full skirts blooming out from the waist, and gents in oddly colored and tailored dress jackets. They’d primly dust the powdered sugar from their finery, unwilling to give up the custom of coffee and beignets at midnight after the dance, however sugary and sticky it might make their later good night kisses.
Tomorrow, Ignatius’s Paws, or perhaps more on the Morning Call, which is really, to me, the Midnight Siren. And then, fat people abound. Ramblings on those might appear anytime.
Rounding out my taxonomy of NOLA fatties is Paul Prudhomme. Prudhomme gave America a cuisine. Before he made Louisiana cookery famous, and the techniques available to anyone, American cuisine was hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and some kind of Sunday dinner of fried chicken or chicken fried steak, a Swiftian, contradictory term for a “dinner” offering I only ate once, mashed potatoes, boiled to a tenderness near rot, and a sweet dessert.
The many parvenus who’ve come since Chef Paul owe much to him, and his wonderful first book, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984). He developed that rapid-fire method for cooking a roux, demanding concentrated vigilance, organization and preparation, and the ability to detect the state at which a roux reaches that perfect state to gird the sauce for the meat it is meant to accompany. Chef Paul’s book provides a feast of fine photographs of the different stages of roux. Traditionalists may turn up their noses at this departure from the traditional long-cooking roux making, but damn me, when I get that roux going in my whole Iowa neighborhood, if you close your eyes, you’d think you died and went to South Louisiana. Not that most Iowans, bred on German fare that, first and foremost, must have no flavor, would touch the stuff. On the rare occasions I cook, the smells bring back memories of walking through New Orleans neighborhoods at 5 in the afternoon, inhaling the exhiliarating odors of meals being prepared, and wondering just what they were having for supper that made me want to knock at the back doors and beg for food. I learned to cook Louisiana food out of self interest, and maybe self preservation.
I am beginning to feel like I’m doing the theory for a before and after weight loss gimmick because I am going to post a photo of Chef Paul before and after he lost weight. Here is Chef Paul before in a photo from his first book, presenting for you the standards from the Louisiana kitchen–boudin, pickled meat, shrimp, crawfish, berries, nightshade vegetables, potatoes, yams, shrimp, crawfish, and fish. The only thing missing is the butter, lard, and sugar.
But now Chef Paul has shed the weight. He looks much more healthy, and thinner–it is possible to read even more of Louisiana in his face–the dark skin, the knowing smile that also conveys benign good will, and the coarse, once dark hair. He just has that “look” that is so typical of many native New Orleanians (Prudhomme is from Opalousas), and other people from South Louisiana.
One last word about Chef Paul, or New Orleans culture, is that the title “Chef” is like an earned doctorate. People append the honorarium here when speaking of any of the entitled chefs–Chef Susan Spicer, Chef Emeril Legasse, Chef Leah Chase. Among the few New Orleans celebrity chefs. And in almost every native household, there is a cook in the kitchen whose productions rival those of the chefs. It is said that a–well, I’ve only heard the word “man”–that “a man can’t be elected to public office if he can’t cook.” That accounts for the ubiquitous jambalaya at every outdoor event of every kind, political or not.
The celebrity chefs came after Chef Paul, but the everyday cooks were a fixture in household in New Orleans when Ignatius was stuffing himself with foot-long hot dogs. A Confederacy of Dunces doesn’t mention much about what was produced in the Reilly kitchen other than Irene’s bottles of muscatel, and the ever-present French drip chicory coffee on the stove next to a pot of “berling” milk. MacLaughlin mentions that the person Ignatius was based on had a lifelong yearning for hot dogs because he was denied them as a boy, and something like this is the only explanation, other than propinquity, to explain why, in New Orleans, anyone would crave hot dogs rather than shrimp po-boys, red beans and rice, crawfish pie, or any other new Orleans staple, including a Hubig’s pie.
This is the French drip coffee maker that has been in use in homes in South Louisiana since the 19th Century. It isn’t a French press, or an Italian drip style coffee maker. Boiling water is poured into the top chamber over the grounds, and the coffee drips rather quickly over a steel plate with holes. I have no idea what dented up old pot Irene Reilly “berled” her milk in, but she would have made the chicory coffee in one of these. The coffee and “berled” milk are poured at the same time into a single stream in equal proportions into the cup it is served from. This is the coffee you buy with beignets at Cafe du Monde, or better yet, at the remnants of the old Morning Call next to the news stand in Metairie, just south of the entrance to the 23 mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville and the North Shore.