An essay of mine was published last month in South 85 Journal called Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans. A personal essay taken from a chapter in my yet-to-be-published memoir, Mise en Place, Memoir of a Girl Chef, and I’m excited to have a chapter out there among readers. (Thank you South 85!) I had read the essay in front of one of my writing groups (just to test it out, before submitting) and got some drop-jawed wows and you- were-so-braves.
Actually I was quite messed up in 1987 when I revisited the city that had, a few years earlier, lured me into its fine recesses of food, drink and love. Then it broke my heart, ground me to a pulp and sent me packing with a big boot stuck in my ass. I came back for more. And that’s what the essay’s about. Happy to write it nearly thirty years later.
But. . . New Orleans.
More than any human love affair, this city has knitted its way through me with indestructible yarn, probably the color of blood.
Of which I was unaware in 1989 when I moved back there with hubby number two and no one would hire a non-indigenous white girl chef.
I wound up in Florida, my beloved city spitting me out again. My attitude back then: fuck you, New Orleans, I’m now in the land of Jimmy Buffet and palm trees, who needs you.
And aside from a few business trips (when I was always in charge of bar selections) that was it.
Well, not really. I threw great New Orleans food fests at my house, making brown roux for seafood gumbo while rocking to Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi Rollers; searching far and wide for crawfish tails and rabbit to complete my feasts; cooking up vats of Jambalaya for eager guests; triggering the smoke alarm with blackened fish; so happy to satisfy my love/hate for the city in this way. Once Amazon became a thing and I had a computer, I ordered CDs of my beloved Radiators, Meters, Marcia Ball, Professor Longhair, Steve Riley, Louis Armstrong.
New Orleans, a distant song in my heart, occasionally revived by food and music.
In 2005, I cried for a week, turning away from televised images of the flooded city and people camped at the Superdome, where I had seen the Rolling Stones on New Year’s day in 1982. This time, my heart breaking FOR the city instead of BY the city.
Then one day in 2010 the city spoke back to me.
My twenty year old daughter, after travelling Europe and living in New York, (no, I don’t know how she got that way) expressed a desire to live and attend college in New Orleans. I’ll never forget the moment she told me that. I was standing on the driveway, clippers in one hand, handful of weeds in the other. I bent to grab more weeds and hide the rush of glee on my face.
When she was four I’d gotten her a Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys children’s cassette. That must’ve done it. Well, maybe the gumbo did it for her. Or maybe it was the sheer look of bliss in my smile each time I’d lay out my garlicky, spicy spread for hungry friends or whenever I rocked out to Cajun music while making roux or mopping the floor.
Then the planets lined up. A generous scholarship came forth from Loyola. She took a solo trip there and loved it. We went together and she turned 21 at the Three Muses on Frenchmen Street. She began to love oysters, the Chartroom and all of my eighties existence I showed her. Later she discovered the millennial stuff and loved that too.
Best of all: I got to go and visit!
Jazz Fest after thirty years. The places that had changed, the places that had not, the new depth of the city I experienced through my daughter’s generation. Enjoying new local music–Lynn Drury and Grayson Capps. One night the two of us sat in an Uptown bar looking at the man who had broken my heart (referred to in my essay as That Man –– I know, creative) awed by coincidence and strangeness, unable ––no unwilling––to approach him. Deciding on that barstool, staring into my daughter’s beautiful smile, to keep him as the mystery in my writing, not to spoil the horrendous magic of my early twenties with some sort of dull and awkward conversation. The aftermath of that horrendous magic is the aforementioned essay, when I’m searching for something unknown in my personal desert, back-dropped by the luscious city of New Orleans.
I’ve let go of my disdain for all that had happened to me, especially the mental explosion one sultry day in October,1983 when I gave up on That Man, lost my job, my car and my home, wandering the streets penniless and homeless, wondering what was next. (Note to younger self: Life came next.)
The depth of love I have now for the city is part of my emotional tapestry. I own all three seasons of Treme. I’m reading Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge and will follow it with Wendell Pierce’s memoir The Wind in the Reeds. I love reading about New Orleans. I love talking about New Orleans, I love taking people there. I love writing about New Orleans.
New Orleans reminds me that I am blessed to not have lived the perfect life. That the past is a murky pond of excitement, trauma, love lost, discontent, personal failures and accomplishments. And this is where I go fishing for stuff to write about.
I am never without fish.
Especially stuffed with Creole crab stuffing with sauce meuniere…
Laissez les bon temps rouler!