A Family Affair in the Big Easy
Martin’s Wine Cellar was the first restaurant in which I had eaten in many months after dining at home mostly on my own or picnicking when the weather was nice. Owned by a guy with whom I attended high school, Cedric Martin, and his family, it’s well known in Metairie for its great deli and bistro, as well as its superb selection of wines. It’s a regular stop for my family and for me when I’m in town, to indulge in one of its delicious salads or hot meals and say hello to Cedric at the same time. There are always other people we might know dining there as well…as there was this time, too. It’s like a family affair in a way.
That was my first bit of culture shock just the next day upon arrival in the “Big Easy”—my home town of New Orleans. Actually being INSIDE a restaurant, without wearing a mask, was a breath of fresh air…literally. After lunch, two of my three sisters and I took a detour to “Bucktown,” an historical area of Metairie on the Jefferson Parish side of the 17th-Street Canal where it dumps into Lake Pontchartrain. More than a hundred years ago there was a string of fishing and hunting camps in wooden huts raised on stilts along here. This is one of the key spots where the levee broke following Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, spilling water into the Orleans Parish side rendering homes under nine feet of water and destroying the area. (A past family home of ours was one of them.) It is here that there are several seafood sellers and that was our goal—to get boiled crawfish, crabs and shrimp for dinner that night.
Boiled crawfish was plentiful at $3.25 per pound (or just $3 if you paid cash —for the obvious tax-saving reason) as were the shrimp. Crabs are out of season, so we struck out three times trying to score some. No matter, we came home with 15 pounds of hot, juicy crawfish and three pounds of boiled shrimp, corn on the cob and boiled potatoes that they throw in for “lagniappe”—Louisiana lingo for something given as a bonus or extra gift. Even from the trunk of my sister’s car, the aroma from the bags of fresh boiled seafood filled the car driving me stark raving mad. I dreamt of making a perfume from its aroma so I could take it in at any time, not just when I was visiting New Orleans.
Not far away was Chateau Cafe where we stopped to take a coffee. French terms are just a part of the New Orleans scenery, even if the cafe doesn’t resemble a “château” in the least. The menu on the chalk board wasn’t the French menu you might expect, either— at a coffee shop bearing such a name—but it was as “N’Awlins” as you get. The espresso I ordered came in a mug that overwhelmed the amount of coffee inside because they simply weren’t prepared for such an order. (Go figure?) All we could do was chuckle and chalk it up to…what…we didn’t know.
My third sister arrived from Houston in time for the seafood spread we laid out, just like old times. It was traditional in our family to make such a feast on Friday nights, just like all the good Catholics, without our Jewishness getting in the way of our fun. My mother always felt guilty for serving such “traif” (non-kosher foods) on the Sabbath. but it didn’t stop her from doing it, meanwhile complaining bitterly about the guilt she was feeling and laying it on us to assuage hers.
Fifteen pounds of crawfish was mountainous for just five people, but we plowed through it until we were too stuffed to move. I savored every morsel, particularly the crawfish “butter” that sits inside their heads…the reason it’s so delicious to “suck da heads.” It’s actually something called “hepatopancreas” that acts like a liver to filter out toxins and other substances that could potentially harm the crawfish. Yep, it sounds pretty disgusting to most people, but once you’ve tasted it, you can’t go in reverse. You’ll be hooked for life. Meanwhile, my sister, Diana, enlightened us on how you can tell the males from the females…a new discovery for me after having peeled and eaten many thousands of the hard-shelled sea creatures.
The next day, in another café, this time with the Italian name of Caffe! Caffe!, the four of us sisters opted for gumbo served with salad. At a nearby table was a little girl wearing a pink wool beret, a ballerina skirt over a pretty print top and soft little pink ballet shoes. I fell in love at first sight and asked her if I could take her photo.
“Kingsley,” the six-year-old about to turn seven in a few weeks, jumped for joy when I told her I lived in Paris. It is her dream to go to Paris when she’s 16 years old, she told me, when her French is good enough. She could already count in French one to ten, but as she did, skipped the number seven by mistake. No problem…she is sure to get the hang of it. No doubt, she has been a Francophile from birth, as I find so many people are. Was it the New Orleans influence or just something that happens to people who may have had past lives in France, I wondered?
I came to New Orleans for my cousin’s daughter’s wedding and attended the rehearsal dinner Friday night at Lula Restaurant and Distillery, meant mostly for the friends of the bride and groom and out-of-towners. To arrive there, we took Old River Road to the beginning of Saint Charles Avenue, just so we could ogle the beautiful anti-bellum homes that line the avenue along the way, and get a glimpse of the streetcar that still services riders who wish to do the same. No offense to the Champs-Elysées, but I think Saint Charles Avenue has it beat for beauty. Homes along the oak-lined avenue are seriously prime real estate in New Orleans and cost about $1 million and up, up, up…if you can even score one…they don’t come on the market often.
At the party, it was announced that I had come the farthest of anyone else for the occasion. It was more culture shock for me to be in a social situation, hugging and kissing my relatives, almost as if there was nothing stopping us…such as Covid-19. Just a few hours earlier, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that “vaccinated people in New Orleans are no longer required to wear masks in most public settings, a change that brings the city into alignment with new federal guidelines and signals local officials’ confidence that vaccines are keeping the coronavirus in check.” Almost everyone at the party had been vaccinated, as I had, too, making us all feel a whole lot more comfortable. But still, it felt so strange and “out of the ordinary” to be maskless and physically close with other people.
Earlier in the day, I set out to find a PCR test for my return to France at the end of the week. I quickly learned it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t cheap. I ended up with three different appointments, feeling no confidence in any of them, ranging from free with health insurance to $179! In Paris and Nice, it seems simpler, easier and of course, it’s free with your “Carte Vitale” (national health card). Honestly, I don’t understand why this simply can’t be done free of charge in the U.S. But that’s the U.S. health care system for you…a profitable venture that profits even more when people are sick, not healthy. (Don’t get me started!)
The afternoon before the wedding, we took advantage of the beautiful weather (high 70s with 44% humidity) to get a coffee at Café du Monde in City Park and ogle the magnificent oak trees with their hanging moss. One of the largest and most impressive of the oaks is the “Dueling Oak,” where much blood was shed between 1834 and 1844 when scarcely a day passed by without duels being fought there. This remaining tree, at the entrance to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden of NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) is thought to be 300 years old, with a height of 70 feet and a girth of 25 feet. It’s a show-stopper.
It was the perfect moment to take a long stroll through the garden which stretches over approximately eleven acres in the park adjacent to the museum. The garden has been in existence since 2003, but in 2019 its size was doubled and now boasts of 90 works, all by very impressive artists. You would likely recognize the names of most of them…Frank Gehry, Robert Longo, Frank Stella, Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois. For just a few dollars to enter, the visit to the sculpture garden is a highlight of New Orleans, even for a native New Orleanian like me.
The Saturday night wedding at The Cannery, “New Orleans’ Premiere Wedding and Special Events venue, located in the heart of Mid City on Toulouse Street,” was a beautiful venue. Everyone was maskless, hugging, kissing and thinking nothing of Covid-19. I wasn’t ready for that kind of intimacy and found myself shying away from being so intimate after having recently come from France where everything is still very much shut down. It was tough to explain that while I wanted to hug them all, it just wasn’t yet in my cards.
My cousin, Marc, had constructed a “chuppah,”—a traditional Jewish canopy under which the betrothed couple stands during the ceremony with the Rabbi and immediate family—from trees provided by the groom, all by hand. It was a stunning work of art in all its natural form, adorned with flowers and photos of the family’s dearly departed to remind us of who we were missing. My Uncle Ralph, the bride’s grandfather, was top of the list, as we found ourselves conjuring up memories of him throughout the weekend. He had been a very debonair and handsome man who loved to dance, and with whom all the women fell in love…me being one of them. We called him our “Cary Grant uncle” for this very reason and we all miss him terribly.
Ralph’s daughter and therefore my cousin, Becky, has a daughter who so closely resembles my daughter, Erica, it’s almost scary. Genetics can be very powerful indeed. She was there with all the gorgeous women in the family and we couldn’t help but take a photo op while we had the chance.
Sunday afternoon while the weather was still at the perfect temperature, the sky still blue and sunny, my sisters and I took a driving tour of “Uptown,” an area of the city where we grew up (until I was nine years old) and where most of the city’s Jewish community lived. As we slowly cruised the potholed streets (the city does a sad job of taking care of its residential streets), my sisters could point out the houses in which various friends and family had lived. Most of them had been refurbished or updated. One could see that the neighborhood was thriving and gaining even more character than before. We drove past the corner where our own house once stood and where now is a new-build. Around the corner was my Grammar School and a few blocks away was the Junior High School and again, we passed the High School that they attended before we moved to Lakeview. It was an absolute treat to relive our past by witnessing what we know is part of New Orleans’ future, too.
Today I’m off to get a Louisiana driving license to replace my Californian one that believe it or not, has a Louisiana address and has been like this since leaving California 27 years ago! It was never a problem before, but now it’s just a problem to get it renewed long distance. And after that, because today is the anniversary of our mother’s death, we will visit her grave…among others’ in our family. Dearly departed…
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
The four sisters, from oldest to youngest: Lee, Robin, Diana and Adrian