It was a BIG weekend for Tom. The biggest. By coincidence, the Jesuit reunion weekend overlapped Prom Night. These two things have formed the essence of Tom for the remainder of his post-high-school life. I don’t need to understand this. It just is. And because it is, the collision of these two cosmically important events lined up last weekend in a cosmic way.
Prom Night turned up on the second night of the big reunion weekend. The first night was a stag event at a class member’s private home. One of the guys shucked oysters for the group all evening. I think they went through four sacks. This confirmed something I have suspected for a while - Tom had lost his insatiable desire for raw oysters. He will indulge his passion the way we have done it for a few years now - chargrilled and fried.
There was beer and wine and soft drinks and water. Inside on a table was a large pan of jambalaya from the Court of Two Sisters, and a few trays of finger sandwiches from Dorignacs. The jambalaya was the brown version, which to me was good, but it was also the spiciest jambalaya I have ever encountered. It had such a kick I had to eat finger sandwiches to put the fire out. One of the guys in the class is Joe Fein, owner of the Court of Two Sisters, and he very generously lends the restaurant for sit-down dinner reunions and is always ready with food for other events.
The food was there to declare it a party. What was special was the camaraderie of all these guys returning after so long, to revisit good times. That was charming, and I was especially touched by their care for Tom. It was a lovely evening.
The next day was the couple's party, which followed mass in the little chapel at Jesuit. But for us, these evening events capped a full day of the Prom Night rerun. And because I never really tuned in to these sorts of things, I wasn’t clear about how to execute Prom Night for him. We would certainly attend the reunion events, but I wanted to know the particulars of Prom Night to drive him around first. I asked listeners to The Food Show (airs 2-4pm weekdays on 990AM) what they remember from the 34 years of Prom Night tales to help me piece together the route. I got an email copied right from nomenu.com which detailed the route, generally, with stops.
A quick read the morning of Prom Night revealed that the route begins at The Camellia Grill, the modern-day replacement for Bradley’s Drugstore. In 1967 Tom started the night with a burger, fries, and a Coke at Bradley’s followed by a slice of apple pie a la mode. After the demise of Bradley’s, he went to Camellia Grill.
And that is what we did. I have been to our iconic diner maybe three times in my life, the last visit at least ten years ago.
Not a thing had changed since then, except the owners of the place. It was spotless and well-kept and filled with attentive and fun servers. I liked this scene.
The menu is large enough but not too large. I saw them put some freshly formed hamburger patties on the flat-top grill. They started sizzling immediately. We had to get one of these old-fashioned burgers. It came with melted American cheese on top, a hunk of fresh iceberg lettuce, a tomato wedge, and pickles, as well as a pile of frozen fries, cooked, of course. This beige Melamine plate of food was right out of the middle of the last century, and it was a very welcome sight.
The fresh beef patty glistened from melted fat, the cold and still wet crunch of iceberg lettuce combined with the melted cheese condensed into a bite of a good memory when burgers were just simple goodness like this. The fries beside it were basic and boring fries, but that burger was special.
I saw something called a club sandwich on the menu, but upon closer inspection, it didn’t seem to be a true club sandwich. It was a roast turkey with bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. This was as close as I would get to a classic club here, so I grabbed it. I asked for Swiss cheese on it but never got it. No matter. It was a terrific sandwich on white toast, piled high enough to necessitate eating around it. The bacon was thick and stiff like I like it. But it was the turkey that was impressive. Clearly roasted in-house turkey breast, this was really very good. They certainly don’t need to take this extra step, so kudos to them for doing it. I loved my pseudo-club. Next time I will add ham and cheese and make it official. I hope they will do it.
From where I was sitting I could see a pile of hashbrowns from breakfast. These were the kind that inspired mine. Frozen but thinly shredded, they were crisped exactly as they should be. I got that as my side with the sandwich, and savored every bite, even though they were room temp. I don’t care what the greasing agent is, I can’t wait to have some of these hot. They were still spectacular cold.
Tom had a Coke in a plastic glass, and then it was time for pie. I asked what the pie selection was. There was no apple, but the pecan caught my attention. He also mentioned chocolate, which I incorrectly thought was a chocolate cream pie. It wasn’t. Chocolate simply referred to chips added to the pecan pie, so when the waiter showed up with a slice of pecan pie in each hand, I canceled one. He put a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, the old-fashioned creamy yellowish kind of vanilla, right on top of the other slice.
The cashier mentioned that the pie is homemade, even naming the maker, but I didn’t catch the name. Tom swooned over this pie. I thought it was a good pie with a flaky crust, a lot of pecans, and the exact right ratio of nuts to filling. But there was a pronounced salt flavor to this I found disconcerting. Not disconcerting enough to be a deal-breaker, but it surprised me. Tom talked about that pie for the rest of the evening.
Vowing to come back in mere days as we left, I began the route for Prom Night, heading up St. Charles to the expressway and on to West End. We followed the lake till the blocked entrance to the Ted Hickey Bridge. A brief U-Turn on Robert E. Lee put us on Hayne Blvd. headed east, which we followed until we had to turn. We headed back west, winding up at Jesuit just in time for the mass.
There was a lot happening at Jesuit that evening. A wedding was in the big chapel, and the 2008 reunion was cranking up in the courtyard. We could smell Dat Dogs grilling beside the Dat Dog truck, and chargrilled oysters alongside the Acme truck. Blue Oak BBQ was pulling up as we were leaving. This would have been our son's class had he not transferred to Georgetown Prep, so this was the perfect food for the younguns. We headed over to the Southern Yacht Club with our kind.
It was so lovely looking out the big picture windows at the late afternoon scene on the lake. There was a private party on the lawn by the lighthouse, and crowds on the patio at Landry’s and Blue Crab.
Inside, the buffet was being set up for the evening. Beautiful finger sandwiches awaited our taking. The bread was almost fluffy, and the meats were properly stuffed. They tasted as good as they looked.
Turtle soup was there for the taking, and I got Tom a bowl.
The first chafing dish held a bounty of bliss for me. Mini meat pies are a welcome sight on any buffet, and here was a huge mound of them.. I got a few of these. They were next to small spring rolls which did not fair as well on the buffet. These were a little soft rather than crisp and were served with a sticky Asian sauce. The next two selections were pasta. One a penne with creamy sauce and chicken, and the other a seafood white sauce. Last on the buffet were breaded and fried fish strips with tartar sauce.
A beautiful bread pudding had its own table as dessert.
All of this was about as good as one would expect, meaning quite fine. The meat pies were fried perfectly, and stuffed with a ground meat mixture that was quite tasty. I wished I had gotten the spring rolls out of the fryer, but they were also good enough. I liked each pasta dish as well, because what could be wrong with creamy pasta studded with chicken and/or shrimp with vegetables like mushrooms?
Tom has never met fried fish he didn’t like, so he enjoyed the panko-crusted fish strips.
And the bread pudding looked like an excellent version of that local favorite, which Tom happily devoured.
There was plenty to drink and a willing bartender, great 360-degree views, and the same kind of sweet camaraderie from the night before. I see why Tom hasn’t missed one of these reunions in over 50 years.