French Quarter: 721 Burgundy
A tease line on the front cover of the first edition of “The Underground Gourmet” said that a good meal revealed in its pages could be had for twenty-seven cents. I burrowed through the book and found the source of this “best underground meal in town” to be Buster Holmes, on the corner of Orleans and Burgundy.
In this, and in several other reviews, Collin made the most audacious recommendation in his very bold book. He said that white people were missing out on some great, essential Creole food if they failed to dine in restaurants owned by African-Americans, in black neighborhoods, with dining rooms full of black people.
Though I was still in my teens, most of my life had been spent in segregated society. I remember complete racial segregation–separate bathrooms, separate parts of the bus, and that kind of stuff. No African-American kid shared any of my classrooms–not even in my first school, St. Augustine, founded by free people of color, in a well-mixed neighborhood–until I reached high school.
But 1970 was a liberal-minded time. Even Nixon now seems liberal, compared with today’s conservatives. And black culture, then as now, was very cool among young white people. One of my English courses covered African-American writing exclusively, even though it was billed as a generic American-literature class. Which seemed like a good idea to us. It goes without saying that we all listened to black music. As Collin said in one of the history courses I took with him, “Why would anyone listen to Perry Como when you can listen to Aretha Franklin?”
Still, going to a black restaurant was a step over the line for most whites. It was one thing for black people to enter white institutions. It was quite another to reverse the process.
So it was exciting. And we white boys showed our excitement. Probably a little too much. I suspect we came across as patronizing. We made an absurd show of delight over food that was actually very familiar to us. After all, Creole cooking–although it’s usually credited to the French and Spanish colonizers of New Orleans–received most of its inspiration from the Africans who cooked it.
The part of the French Quarter along Burgundy Street was still largely a black neighborhood in the 1970s, as it had been for most of the century. It was where a lot of old jazz musicians had lived, and it had a sense of community. The Morning Star Baptist Church, one of the city’s best-known centers of gospel singing, was a centerpiece. So was Buster Holmes Restaurant.
Buster’s had two dining rooms. The front room had the bar, so it was air-conditioned and had tables. The first time I went, the front room was full, so I went to the back room. This was really the kitchen, with screen doors providing ventilation and a fan blowing the warm air around. I took a stool at the counter and, after a few minutes, a large lady wearing an apron stood opposite me. She turned her eyes to the ceiling and said, as she had to two other customers since my arrival, “We have red beans, butter beans, crowder peas, hot sausage, smoke sausage, chicken, backbone, ham bone, pork chop, turnip greens, spinach, and po-boys.”
I ordered fast, so as not to seem like a fussy white boy. “Butter beans,” I said. She turned around, grabbed a plastic plate like the ones we had in the school cafeteria, and dished up a mountain of rice. Then she ladled up a massive quantity of tan beans–the really big ones, studded with pieces of auburn pickled pork, in a light sauce. She cut six inches off a loaf of poor boy bread and put it in one of the unoccupied pockets of the plate. She stuck a knife in a block of margarine, and scraped it off onto the side of my plate. My order was complete.
The beans were delicious, heartwarming, and familiar in flavor. It was really more than I wanted, but I ate them all anyway. I ate all the bread, and the lady brought me another hunk. I didn’t need any more margarine. I forgot to ask for something to drink, and the lady forgot to ask. I just let myself get thirsty. And I sat there, a long time. Nobody asked me anything. It became clear that many of the customers came in to take a load off for as long as they could, and the ladies working the counter were in no hurry, either.
I stood up and asked how much. “You had the butter beans, right?” said the lady. “Nothing to drink? You didn’t drink anything? Okay. Let’s see. Fifty cent plus tax. . . fifty-two cent.”
I gave her a dollar. “I heard you can eat here for twenty-seven cents,” I asked, smiling.
Her face didn’t change. “Yeah. Some people do that. Butter beans fifty cent.”
“What’s twenty-seven cents?”
“That’s not for you, honey,” she said, her tone turning almost motherly. “That’s for poor people. I know you got fifty cent. Now you come back and get chicken and red beans and spend that whole dollar next time. Okay?”
I was not the only white person at Buster Holmes that day. But it wasn’t long before whites would outnumber blacks. Buster’s pricing system would reveal many tiers, with the same plate of beans costing as much as a dollar fifty if you were a well-dressed white person with an out-of-town way of talking and insisted on eating in the front room.
A floating price system was hardly unique to Buster’s. It was part of his solidity with his community, which he didn’t want to let go even as his new fame began to make him some real money. And to fill his place with tourists.
After that very substantial lunch, I went to work at the Time Saver. I was still full at dinnertime. Not only that, but I was expelling more voluminous zephyrs I’d experienced before or since. I think of that every time I eat butterbeans. Even really good ones.