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November 26, 2007

Dispatch from New Orleans

Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber own and run a magical restaurant in Woodstock, Vermont called Osteria Pane E Salute ("Bread and Health"), where they produce spare and perfect artisanal Italian cuisine using local ingredients and maintain a cellar of fine Italian wines.  But that's not why Deirdre is guest blogging today.  She's a writer of the highest caliber on the subjects of food, life, travel, friendship, love -- you name it.  Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and won the Calvino Prize for New Fiction.  Her food writing was featured in Best Food Writing of 2005 and can also be found in Gastronomica, in their inspirational cookbook, Pane E Salute (with blurb by Nancy's hottie Anthony Bourdain), or at Deirdre's blog, Fuoricitta, where she'll tell you what they're growing, cooking and eating on any given day (complete with wonderful recipes!)   

                                         

Dispatch from New Orleans: Ain't It Just Like Livin'

by Deirdre Heekin

We're on the road.  My husband, Caleb, and I are traveling.  We do this every November and April, close up our small restaurant in the small village of Woodstock, Vermont and point ourselves North, South, East or West.  In April, we are always East.  We land in Italy for a time to eat, to drink, to be inspired.  In November, we could be anywhere.  We have found ourselves in L.A., Buenos Aires, Montreal, New York, Oregon, Paris.  This time we are in New Orleans.

We have long wanted to come here.  My family lived here years ago, and Caleb's aunt and uncle still do.  We are sad to have missed the New Orleans before The Storm, but we are happy to finally arrive, to see the proud and elegant city as she gets herself back on her pins.  The sections of town near the river are looking quite fine, houses freshly painted, gardens tended, the remaining live oak looking broad and powerful, thriving.  Other sections of town, those farther from the river, especially those in the infamous 9th ward, are still vacant and ghostly.  Windows are boarded up or are filled with jagged broken glass.  The water lines still exist on the sides of the houses.  The yards are wild with pink oleander, grasses and the climbing blue plumbago.  The stench of rot and mold lingers.  Walls are still marked with signs left from the National Guard.  1 Dead in Attic.

We've come to New Orleans on a pilgrimage: to eat, to taste Cajun, Creole and soul food renditions.  We compile a list, not of all the usual favorites and must-eats, but of smaller places, those who opened as little as ten days after Katrina because they couldn't stand by and stop cooking for their city.  They knew they needed to feed their people and all those who came to volunteer their help in those first harrowing months after the hurricane.  We've heard stories of Paul Prudhomme setting up in a parking lot with propane burners and cooking kettles of gumbo, or Donald Link opening Herbsaint with only six people when usually there is a team of 45.  We heard that old favorites opened for business even when it was nearly impossible: Upperline, Dooky Chase, then Brigsten's.  These are the places at which we choose to dine on our first visit. 

Dining at Dooky Chase is tops on our list.  It opened in 1941 in the first historical section of town to be inhabited by freed slaves.  We are eager to eat their classic dishes: fried chicken, red beans and rice, stewed okra, green beans with dirty onions. Leah Chase, daughter of the original Dooky, has been cooking at this restaurant since the Fifties.  We have always been awed and inspired by those stalwart cooks who keep at it day after day. 

But Dooky Chase is currently closed.  The message on their answering machine says they hope to re-open at the beginning of November, and in the meantime they are serving take-out.  We grab at the chance after an early lunch of fresh oysters and fried softshell crab at Casamentos (some days we have to eat throughout the day in order to hit every one of our destinations) and pick up a late lunch from Dooky Chase.

It is a charmed visit, one full of stories and good cheer, though as with many things in New Orleans these days, there is a melancholy note.  We walk in the side door and it's clear they have been under significant construction.  No one is about, and we yell, "Hello!  Anyone here?"  Someone shouts back from the kitchen.  We are greeted warmly and given a take-out menu.  We order.  We are offered a seat in the newly painted bar while we wait.  A handsome young man brings us water and iced tea served in glasses with lemon.  We tell him this doesn't seem much like take-out service.  He smiles genuinely and says, "Well, I'm hoping you'll come back again."

Like so many others, Dooky Chase has fallen on some hard luck since Katrina.  Two feet of water flooded the building, and they have been renovating and restoring ever since.  The restaurant is home to an extensive African-American art collection, and fortunately they were able to get the artwork out and into storage up in Baton Rouge before it was lost to the elements or to looting.  Leah Chase's husband takes us on a tour of the refurbished dining rooms.  Leah Chase is conducting an interview in a pretty yellow room with French chairs and pale yellow brocade.  She holds our hands in her own upon introduction and is enthusiastic about re-opening, but you can also tell that she is flat-out.  Finding employees seems to be the biggest problem facing the restaurant these days.  There are not enough people left in the city.  Too many have moved away because they lost everything, and needed to start somewhere fresh instead of waiting and waiting and waiting to pick up somewhere far behind where they left off.

Leah's husband takes us into the red room, the private green room, again elegant and old world as if it's still 1955, as if New Orleans might still be part of New France.  The Empire style would have made Napoleon proud.  When our fried chicken, and red beans and rice, and stewed vegetables, and fried shrimp sandwich are all ready, he brings us back to the bar with its bright green walls and black-and-white trim and a terrific painting of Louis Armstrong.  He notices that Caleb is wearing a T-shirt from Brazil and begins to scat a little bossanova number.  His voice is pure and tremulous and his smile is true.  He encourages Caleb to join in, and Caleb does so, tentatively at first, but then gaining momentum.  When they are done, we all clap, and Caleb asks, "Now, what if I'd been wearing my Italy T-shirt?"  And they are off again, the older black man and the younger white one, dipping and reaching for notes from that old classic, "Volare."  To fly, says that song in translation, I fear this dream will never return, my hands and my face are covered in blue, suddenly I was pulled away by the wind and soared into the endless sky.

We take our carefully packed picnic to Audubon Park and sit under a pergola at a table and lay out our treasure.  The dishes are beautiful in their simplicity and spicy, savory aromas; they need no translation as they are perfectly understood.  The fried chicken melts on the tongue, and the candied yams have sweet and texture.  We look out over the green park in the evening, at people jogging, mothers and father teaching children to ride their bikes, two friends walking a dog, the man who comes to feed the ducks.  Here's to the New Orleans of old, and to all that will be new.  Here's to the return of the people, and their unfailing spirit, because all that wind and rain and devastation can't take that away.

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Comments

New Orleans is my favorite city on earth and Deidre's description of her visit to Dooky Chase says it all. My husband and I visited almost a year after Katrina, and were delighted to find many of our favorite food places open again and folks genuinely happy to see us there. I figured that my best revenge against the administrations who left the city to die was to spend as much money as we possibly could to support the local businesses struggling to make it back. The best part of the trip for me was to listen to the stories of the people we met -- people who left during the storm and came back, and those who stayed. I felt like I was walking on holy ground. I cannot recommend a trip to this city highly enough. They need everyone's support.

Welcome, Deirdre, and thank you for this beautiful blog!!

Tis the season to think of others, and I love the way you're doing it. A crisis happens, and a lot of us are conditioned to send in that donation to the Red Cross and feel we've done our bit. The cameras leave, and we stop focusing on what's going on in New Orleans or Indonesia or Bangladesh. But by choosing to go there and do something as simple and natural as buy food in a restaurant, you've contributed to the recovery. It's the old adage in action -- give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

Deirdre!

What a great surprise to see you on the blog. Great post. We have family in N.O. and they were saying that the best thing people can do to aid the recovery is to go there for vacation. Can't wait to hear more about the trip.

Oh, and I want to echo Michele's assessment of Caleb and Deirdre's food as magical. If you're ever anywhere near Woodstock, Vermont, you HAVE to have dinner at Pane e Salute.

Thanks, Deirdre. My kids (as most of the regulars know) lived in New Orleans for three plus years, and were foodies extraordinaire. We visited restaurants off the beaten path and on, including Irene's, Pascal Manales, Vincents and Lola's. MY favorite place for lunch was Cafe Reconcile...a restaurant staffed by trainees in the food service industry. It's open again and I look forward to going back just for their red beans and rice. So many wonderful places getting back on their feet, and so many others sold or gone. I couldn't have thought of a better way to start a rainy Monday than to remember NOLA.

I went to New Orleans for the first time in August, for Heather Graham's writers convention and I want to go back every year. I'm sorry I never saw it before Katrina (The Float, as my then-toddler called it) but I can now watch it recover.

I love food writing. I learned to like to cook, after a long hiatus, shortly after getting married -- by reading MFK Fisher. Beautiful post.

From a Louisianian with relatives in and around New Orleans, I thank you so much for this blog, Deirdre. I do not thank you for the five pounds I gained while reading it, however! Your description of eating fried chicken at Audubon Park makes me want to cry.

I was in New Orleans in September and did my bit to help the economy by eating out every meal and buying locally made jewelry and Katrinkets at the French Market. We also went down to the River Road and toured Destrehan Plantation. The guide told us all of the local attractions are suffering, so please, everyone--go to Louisiana on vacation. Take a break from eating and tour an antebellum home, buy a voodoo doll, take a cruise on the river. You'll have a blast.

Deidre, it's only fair that we all go up to your restaurant, too. Next time I'm in Vermont, I'd like your best table.

Great blog!

Maryann! I am related to Pascal's Manale, home of the famous BBQ shrimp! It's very distant, but a cousin is a cousin is a cousin.

In a freaky aside, so is Melanie Vargas' evil (but fun) boss Bernadette. Well, she would be if she wasn't fictional. Weird, huh?

That's right! Ramona told me a long time ago that Bernadette was a distant relation. Which immediately gave me some deep insight into the character I had created. I always knew her power came from the dark side, but I never suspected voodoo until I knew Ramona.

Wow. I thought after an entire weekend of cooking and eating that I wouldn't be hungry - but now I'm starved!

What great writing and I for one think we need to add Pane E Salute to our TLC Road Trip.

Thanks for such a great blog!

Great blog. I'm staving now! Some of the finest meals I've ever put in my mouth were in N.O.

It still breaks my heart when I see some of the pictures of the wreckage there.

Okay gotta go raid the kitchen!

Le Bontemps Roulet, cher!

Having recently re-read all of James Lee Burke's "Dave Robicheaux" novels, and now this....:)

New Orleans is my second favorite city in the world (Washington, DC is # 1), and I remember it well. There was a bookstore that had actually once been part of the Underground Railroad, and was full of secret passages and hidden doors; it was on Carondelet, as I recall. No idea if it's still there or not, but it was an amazing experience to see....

ramona-how cool! I never got around to the BBQ shrimp (next time) but I love love love their bread pudding! That was my quest each time I visited...can't say I had any bad ones, but the one at Pascal's Manale had me planning my entire meal around it...I would take half the entree home just so I could have room for dessert! I think if I go nowhere else in 2008 I have to go back to New Orleans and do nothing but revisit the places I enjoyed so much, including Destrehan and Laura (which I know was partially destroyed by a fire but is now restored according my daughter) and the swamp tours and the zoo! And just watch life go by from Cafe du Monde. I could use a beignet about now :o)

I spent a month in NOLA in 1982, training to teach study skills and speed reading (and traveling to Nashville, Fayetteville NC, Kansas City, and Kingston, Jamaica during the school year. It was glorious fun . . .and there was this trumpet player . . .sigh! It was a low-paid, though interesting job, and sometimes I'd have just bread pudding and coffee for dinner (and savored it!)
I've been back for short visits, and I'll gladly sign on for a TLC field trip back! What a great place!

Maryann, thanks for reminding me of Cafe du Monde. My friend said his grandma used to take him for beignets after church, and his mother would be so mad because he'd have powdered sugar on his suit. and the Zoo!! I went right after a rain. There weren't too many people, and the animales were just coming back outside. I said "pretty bird" to a parrot in a tree, and it called back, "Bad bird, bad bird." It probably was happier at the zoo than it had been wherever it heard that phrase enough to repeat it. I REALLY want to go back. BTW, the trolly driver said that any place inthe French Quarter would have good bread pudding -- I think it's the law or something . . .

Maryann,as someone who lives in Florida's hurrcane zone, the damage done by Katrina to New Orleans filled me with horror. Thanks for the recovery update. These people have real courage.

What lovely writing -- thanks, Dierdre!

Thank you so much Deirdre for today's blog. I live about 20 minutes from downtown New Orleans. We were so lucky and had only minor damage to our home and no flooding. I have friends and aquiantances who lost EVERYTHING. The weeks and months following Katrina were horrible for all of us.
There were things we had to do without, like milk for an entire week. I spent hours on the phone and internet trying to locate dear friends, doctors and business people. Every day we were consumed with the news on TV and newspaper, pictures of so many homes and many of our favorite places destroyed, gone forever. The shattered libraries broke my heart. (Months later we drove out to Gulfport, Mississippi where I wept like a baby when I saw what was left of the public library, I remembered the beautiful upstairs reading room overlooking the beach.) Worse was the sad and sometimes angry faces of people displaced all over the country. We had to go back to work and school right away, which was actually a blessing. I had trouble sleeping and worst of all I could not read. I couldn't concentrate on a story long enough to finish a book. All I could think of was Katrina. It wasn't until the holidays, Thanksgiving we were invited to Oklahoma City to visit friends, that I began to cope with things. And finally several months later at Mardi Gras we all came together for just one day and partied as if to say not even the wrath of a killer hurricane like Katrina can bring us down. Then I felt I could deal with what had happened.
It has been over two years now. The area is slowly coming back. Thanks to the help of VOLUNTEERS, not governments, throughout the world. Some things are worse than before the storm, politics for one. Some things are better. But it will NEVER be the same. The city has a rich history of stories about ghosts and spirits. The spirit of Katrina will haunt the city for many years to come.
Yes. please do come and see us. I will be your personal guide. The storm did not take away the music, food and spirit of the city. And there is even more to experience beyond the city. We have the Gulf Coast which was totally blown away by Katrina, coming back, beautiful historic homes, food and music festivals, fishing and football. Yes, LSU was ranked number one until this past weekend.
Thanks again for blogging about New Orleans and thanks even more for letting me write about it. You have no idea how much this has helped.

Hugs to you, Annette. May the future be full of good food, good music, and good friends.

Wonderful blog today, Deidre. Your description of NOLA and food made me both nostalgic and hungry!

Well Deirdre and Caleb.....come back to Vermont soon...there is snow on the ground and I want to be where you are!

Bring us back some hot pepper sauce and also more tales to tell over the winter as some of us are still working in our inns and our customers are missing your wonderful restaurant - Pane e Salute.

From the big yellow inn in Woodstock we visualise your dinner as we eat home made minestrone soup!

Yes, a big hug to Annette. We're so glad you shared that, Annette. Our thoughts are with you and all the others who are still coping with the aftermath. You have our admiration not only for surviving but for sticking with it through all the bad times.

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I put you onto the New Orleans News Ladder today.
Please check out the site and say hello. Email in the profile.
Thanks again,
Bruce

I am happy New Orleans is coming back to life, truely I am. I am sad too. We have a great place we get supper from every thursday night, called Brothers.OMG the food is to die for, but after Katrina, the owners father came to Colorado Springs for safety. COULD HE COOK !!!! THE BEST GREENS AND HAM HOCKS, THE BEST BANANA PUDDING, AND THE SEAFOOD!!!!! I am not saying his son cant cook but let me tell you Pappy could!!!! He has gone home now, and we miss him soooooo much. If the food in New Orleans is anything like he served, I am taking my next vacation there!!!! SusanCo

Hello everyone! How great to hear so many voices, and apologies for not being able to play yesterday--bad weather, missed flights, unexpected delays--all came together to keep me from the computer. I know we're on to the next blog (and another wonderful one on Lipstick Chronicles), but I will add some other things today. Mostly I just want to thank everyone for the warm welcome, the interest in NOLA, and the delight in the food--thank you, thank you, thank you!

So, reading back through this terrific dialog, I just want to tell everyone to book a flight, or drive a car, or take a train, or hop a bus to New Orleans. The city is hungry for people. The city is up and running, and they need visitors. Sarah ST's relatives are right--that's the best thing everyone can do now is to go and visit, eat, tour, listen. So many people have left the city and it feels rather empty at times. Everyone we met said, "Tell everyone to come on down!" So, I'm telling everyone to come on down.

Annette--thank you for your words about your experience after the hurricane and the time it has taken to start to heal. I am always incredibly moved to hear the stories of those who stayed, and those who returned, and those who left because they lost everything. My family used to live in New Orleans, and moved only a couple of months before I was born, so I feel some kind of gut connection to and fascination with the city. This was our first trip and we went to my parent's old neighborhood where their house has already been leveled and another is going up. Several empty lots line their old street...The ghosts and spirits are surely alive and kicking.

David--How great to see you in the comments! We will be back at it soon at the restaurant, dressing up for the holidays, pulling together new menus, stocking new wines. The soup is brewing on the stove (as are the red beans and rice)...we look so forward to seeing you!

Dave Robichaud and Cafe du Monde. Bar-b-que shrimp and Destrehan Plantation. Caleb and I are steeped in the Dave Robichaud series (I worked on an HBO movie script years ago for Black Cherry Blues...)and eating the beignets at CdMonde were an ecstatic experience. I ate bar-b-que shrimp at every opportunity, and we did get out on the River Road to see Destrehan--a beautiful and eerie reminder of a South Louisiana past. There is so much to see, do, experience, that one visit will never be enough. Would love to see everyone at the restaurant! Or maybe in New Orleans....

:D where can you adopt dogs? location or website or to buy.

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