Six Days Before Christmas, 2018.
The smart-phone app that directs my driving to difficult-to-find destinations worked when I tried it out a couple of months ago. But today, it refused even to accept the address I sought. Michael and Denise Wagner–the excellent musicians who direct the choir to which I belong–live sort of far out up a very dark highway. Even after I drove past the place several times, I never saw it. I couldn’t call them, either, because my phone won’t let me make a phone call if the car is at speed.
On Sunday, they told me how much they missed my presence. I had promised to bring some Champagne. I would make this up by singing in two vigil Masses on Christmas Eve, in addition to the main performance on Christmas morning.
Christmas preoccupied my mind from that day onward until the day after the big holiday. I am making daily trips to Rouses Market for ingredients needed for several dishes I will make for the annual Christmas feast at MA’s big sister’s house. No matter how long my seemingly comprehensive list get’s, I will discover ingredients missing. And I’m only making three dishes: the root beer-glazed ham, shrimp remoulade, and a cheesecake.
Example: MA got her hands on a batch of shrimp the right size for shrimp remoulade. As on Christmas morning, I was still missing crab boil, lemons for juicing, Creole mustard (how long has my kitchen lasted without that?) and garlic (ditto).
The days are filled with activities and errands. On Friday, I made the trip into town for the radio show, after which I stopped at the Lakeview restaurant Cava. There I was asked to sample the food at a small private buffet hosted by a friend. Cava owner Danny Millan also wanted to spend a few minutes with me, talking about the packed-house success of Cava and his plans to open a sports bar soon. A few people wanted to have their photos taken with me. Then I found myself singing a duet on “Seafood City” with its ninety-something author Al Scramuzza, who is famous for his television commercials touting his boiled crawfish. To wit:
Seafood-a City is-a very pretty
Down on Broad and St. Bernard.
Stick with Al Scramuzza and you’ll never be a lose-a .
Eighteen twenty-six North Broad.
Then I fought my way through miles-long traffic on the North Shore. I was supposed to meet with Mary Ann for a performance of The Messiah in the gigantic auditorium of First Baptist Church in Covington. But between the Cava stop and the traffic, I was going to be barely on time for the second half of the program. I gave up and went home, leaving MA in the company of her oldest brother. Big families are always doing favors for their siblings and (I will now invent a new concept) siblings-in-law.
Handel’s Messiah is a long trip from Seafood City, in more ways than one. The day was a brilliant example of how MA gets the most out of a day.
Saturday, December 22, 2018. Breakfast And Dinner.
Through a quirk of the calendar, I don’t have a radio show until next Wednesday. I enjoy hosting the thirty-three-year-old Food Show every day, but getting four days off is a welcome mini-vacation.
I fill today with a lot of shopping, mostly for food. I have the Mars in mind for gifts, but MA–as she always does, on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas tells me that she would prefer to take whatever I would have spent her (I never know how much this will be, and don’t care) and distribute it to worthy entities. ML’s take on this gives me credit for helping her finance the house she is renovating. Otherwise, I am under strict orders not to give the Marys anything else.
That program doesn’t apply to me, say the Marys’ elves. They have filled my stocking every day with packets of offbeat coffees. That’s a perfect stocking-stuffer for me. I also have some bigger gifts, but we’ve been so busy that as I write this, I have not opened them. That’s too busy. Otherwise, MA pleased me by going to Mattina Bella for breakfast with me.
The day continued with a party hosted by Daniel Lelchuk, second chair cello player in the Louisiana Philharmonic Symphony, the most important music society in the area. Dan has also guest-hosted my radio show several times. He has become a friend who laughs at my jokes and has a sense of sophistication.
Mary Ann pulled together a handsome basket of various beers after learning that Dan and most of his friends and musical colleagues have a preference for beer over other beverages. That said, Dan impressed me–he always does, especially in light of his youth–by mixing a perfect Negroni cocktail. Which involves having Campari in the wet bar, which not many people do.
Dan made a big fuss over the fact that he made a batch of shrimp remoulade using the recipes in my cookbook Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food. He went so far as to make both a red and a white versions of remoulade sauce. As I have professed for a long time, the red version–whose color comes from tomatos and paprika–is the better of the two, and also the rarest. White remoulade has taken over almost everywhere except re Grand Dame restaurants like Galatoire’s, Antoine’s Arnaud’s, Tujague’s, and the memory of Maylie’s. Dan’s execution of the red remoulade was so good that I resolved red remoulade at the Christmas evening dinner for which I am cooking a number of dishes. Who’s copying who in this instance?
Dan’s party was entertaining, even though there were only two musical pieces played by the attendees. One men, whose name I didn’t catch, played a Melodica. That’s an intriguing musical instrument that looks like a detached piano keyboard and sounds like a harmonica or a small accordion, played by the musician’s lungs. I have a recording of Steve Allen (the first host of the Tonight Show) playing a melodica. I almost bought one right there.
The only other musical performance among Dan’s guests came from me, on the roof of the Krauss Building. “Rodgers and Hart,” Dan said. “It seems we stood and talked like this before. . . “but who knows where or when?” I sang. It’s my favorite song. Once I performed it on the stage of Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room, backed by a five-piece orchestra addressing a full house.
All this was a great ending to a day in which I almost got run over by a car. I had to run to get out of the way. It was the first time I ran since I broke my ankle six years ago.
Cava. Lakeview: 789 Harrison Ave. 504-304-9034.
The Upperline was the first non-French Quarter restaurant to sign up for the Reveillon promotion. That was years ago, and they’re still back every year since, with an unambiguous holiday flavor. In four courses, you have a rich list of options. And almost all of these dishes are regular offerings! One ould almost say that it’s Christmas all year long at JoAnn Clevenger’s delightful bistro.
The price is $46, with upcharges up to $56 on a few items.
Four courses, $45-$56
Glass of Madeira Wine
With spiced pecans
Turtle Soup With Sherry
Original Fried Green Tomato
With shrimp rémoulade
Crispy Louisiana Oysters Saint Claude
Duck and Andouille Étouffée
Louisiana pepper jelly
Watercress, Stilton, and Pecan Salad
Sautéed Fish Meuniere
Grilled Fish Piquant
With hot and hot shrimp
Slow Roasted Duckling
Garlic port or ginger peach sauce
Rack of Lamb
With Madeira mint
Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée
Honey-Pecan Bread Pudding
Uptown: 1413 Upperline.504-891-9822. The snowflake ratings are for the Reveillon menu, not the restaurant in general. Dishes marked with the snowflake symbol ✽ are my recommendations.
December 26, 2017
New Year’s Eve:
The First Day of Christmas
Today, various people gave their various loves a partridge in a pear tree, a song for the Christmas tree, a Japanese transistor radio, and a crawfish they caught in Arabi. I woke up this morning thinking about this song (which has till January 6 to run, even if you’re quite done with it already), and how I would write the words from the perspective of a New Orleans cook and eater. The results are below.
On the first day of Christmas I’d like to cook for you:
A filé duck-andouille gumbo.
On the second day of Christmas I’d like to poach for you:
Two eggs Sardou.
On the third day of Christmas I’ll sugar-dust for you:
On the fourth day of Christmas I’d like to cut for you:
Half of a muffuletta.
On the fifth day of Christmas I’d like to fry for you:
Five soft shell crabs!
On the sixth day of Christmas I’d like to roast for you:
Six char-grilled oysters.
On the seventh day of Christmas I’d like to flame for you:
Seven bananas Foster.
On the eighth day of Christmas I’d like to grill for you:
Eight links of sausage.
On the ninth day of Christmas I’d like to steam for you:
Nine cups of rice.
On the tenth day of Christmas I’ll slow-simmer for you:
Ten cups of red beans.
On the eleventh day of Christmas I’ll barbecue for you:
Eleven jumbo shrimp.
On the twelfth day of Christmas I’d like to dress for you:
A twelve-inch dressed hot roast beef poor boy.
This is the first day of Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage first celebrated in 1966. It runs through January 1, with glad tidings every day and gift exchanging on New Year’s day. The word Kwanzaa is from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” We who enjoy the unique pleasures of Creole cooking ought to note this holiday, regardless of our backgrounds. Without the African influence on our food, it would be nothing like it is, and not nearly as delicious.
Today is Boxing Day, a holiday in England and the Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, and a few other countries. It is traditionally the day on which servants were given their Christmas gifts. So it’s was the day the chefs and waiters got their bonuses. The origin of the name is not agreed upon, and none of the theories are interesting enough to go into.
On this date in 1865, the coffee percolator won a patent for James H. Nason (sometimes noted as Mason). The percolator automates the task of pouring hot water over coffee grounds. It works by isolating a small amount of water near the heat source, so it will come to a boil quickly. When it does, the boiling forces the water up a tube to the top of the pot, where it spilled into a compartment filled with ground coffee. The water then percolates through the grounds to brew the coffee. The percolator has fallen into disrepute among coffee purists, who note that toward the end of the process brewed coffee is boiled as it cycles through the system. I think this effect actually adds something to coffee. But then again, I drink coffee and chicory, which coffee purists also decry.
Annals Of Food Writing
Today in 2005, a man who inspired me to search for fabulous, little-known restaurants passed away. He was a sixty-four-year-old comic strip character named Steve Roper. His serial adventure strip had been in newspapers since 1940. Roper was a magazine reporter and photographer who covered the tough stories, so he was always involved in high adventures. When I was about ten, one of the episodes intrigued me. Roper’s boss asked him to show the new fashion editor around the city and take her to dinner. The woman was beautiful and sophisticated, and was disdainful of Roper’s apparently rough lifestyle. Especially when Roper drove her to the back of a warehouse in a bad neighborhood.
She was on the verge of panic when Roper knocked on the door. A maitre d’ in a tuxedo opened it up, welcomed Roper as a regular customer, and walked them through a spectacular dining room to the best table in the house, set with flowers and fine napery. Over the next few strips, the fashion editor was astonished by the food, service, and wine at this unheard-of location.
“Not too many people know about this restaurant,” said Roper. “And the management likes it that way.”
Then and there, I decided that the ultimate restaurant would be one that not only served great food very well, but which was not well known. I’ve looked for such places all my career, and taken delight in finding them. All because of Steve Roper.
More Career Influences
Today is also the birthday (1921) of Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show and a major influence on my broadcasting style. As is the case with many early television stars, Steve Allen’s work is largely lost, so his genius is not widely realized. Hi-ho, Steverino. . . Another hero of mine came to an end today in 1954. The Shadow was the first radio drama I ever heard, when episodes from the 1940s reappeared on radio in the early 1960s. The stories about the man who could cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him grabbed my young imagination when I was ten or eleven.
Onion Spring, Texas is in Big Bend National Park, well out in the trackless wilderness some twenty-five miles northeast of Terlingua. It is one of those miraculous places in the desert that seeps water most of the time. Plants and animals around there are unique to that spot, surrounded as it is by an unforgiving desert. (I am telling you this from a great deal of experience hiking around Big Bend.) The nearest food is at the Basin, where the park’s lodging and restaurant is located, about twenty miles away.
Maillard reaction, [MY-YARD], n.–When you brown a steak, toast a slice of bread, or make French fries, you are employing the Maillard reaction. It’s named for a French scientist, who defined it in 1912 in his studies of proteins. The Maillard reaction is often called caramelization, which it resembles. It’s a different process, though, and even though it involves sugars it’s a more complicated reaction than the oxidation of sugar you see in true caramels. We leave the details to those who are interested in chemistry and focus on the aroma-and-flavor aspect of the Maillard reaction. It’s what gives us crusty breads and seared steaks, and the array of delicious flavors and aromas that result. Apparently they’re so luscious because the molecules created are unstable, and as they break down they spin off new sensations. A trend in cooking lately (notably sous vide methods) attempts to minimize the Maillard reaction. That strikes me as truly nutty.
It’s Roast Beef Poor Boy Day. In many homes, prime rib is left over from the Christmas feast. Even the scraps of that are the makings of a great sandwich, to say nothing of the gravy. In the spirit of the season, we refrain from insisting that it be a poor boy sandwich. Philly cheese steaks, subs, hoagies, and French dips all qualify for fulfillment of your obligation on this day. However, much more about the New Orleans roast beef poor boy is in our Recipe section.
Remember eating emu? The big, flightless, ostrich-like bird appeared as a special on menus around town in the early 1990s. It’s a red meat, very low in fat, and seemed to have enough promise that emu farms were started by many people persuaded that it was soon to be a big business. It all collapsed on this day in 1997, when it was reported that emus were running around free in Texas, where many of the failed farms were. Problem: no taste, tough texture. I didn’t like any of the samples of it I tried. Didn’t any of these people eat the stuff first? Dishes made with emu and ostrich have been turning up on a few menus around town lately, but I don’t think they’re exactly taking off.
Speaking of exotic foods, on this date President Bill Clinton signed a measure banning the practice of capturing sharks, cutting off the fins, and throwing the now-helpless fish back into the sea. The fins were destined for Asian markets, mostly for shark’s fin soup. Which tastes like nothing to me.
Annals Of Food Writing
This is the birthday of Alan King, a stand-up comedian whose greatest popularity was in the 1960s through the 1980s. He wrote a book in 1991 with New York restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, entitled Is Salami And Eggs Better Than Sex? It begins this way: “As life’s pleasures go, food is second only to sex. Except for salami and eggs. Now that’s better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced.”
Music To Drink By
The song Escape–better known as The Pina Colada Song–is about a couple in an evaporating relationship. They find one another again through a personal ad, in which the guy asserts his liking for pina coladas, the taste of Champagne, and other first-date issues. It made Number One on the pop charts today in 1979. Rupert Holmes was the singer.
Elisha Cook, Jr., an actor who appeared in The Maltese Falcon, among other movies, was born today in 1902. . . Susan Butcher, a multiple winner of the Iditarod dog-sledding race in Alaska, hit the Big Trail today in 1954.
Words To Eat By
“It may not be possible to get rare roast beef, but if you’re willing to settle for well done, ask them to hold the sweetened library paste that passes for gravy.”–Marian Burros, food writer for the New York Times.