November 14, 2007

Before I get into the graphic details of our long weekend in Louisiana, O Best Beloveds, (as always, with eating and travelogues, feel free to move along without reading if you have better things to do with your email time) I pause to mention that it was right before Halloween when I went to Odd Fellows Rest Cemetery with Rob, who had only been my good friend for a few hours at that point (and later, when I met his wife Helene, I knew they had to be our friends forever), where I paused to clean an inept and amateur voodoo experiment out of a tomb, not because the practice bothered me, but because in this shamble of a cemetery, where ruined graves meant easy access to anyone, the occupant of said gaping tomb was still somewhat in evidence, and I felt it was rude to take advantage of someone who could not grant permission. (An cleanly empty tomb would be a different matter.) Anyway, I paused to ask Rob if he thought it was bad juju, what I was doing, and he shrugged in the negative. I thought of that a week or so later when I sat in an exam room and first met Dr. Waisman and Silverstein and heard I had breast cancer. Bad juju after all? Or good, because I was going to have the two of them, the best there is in that particular business, to help me through it?

I bring this all up because all that would have been ten years ago right about, oh, now. Ten years of cancer hoohah and chemo and medical melodrama and these Maladies. Also ten years of Steve, and dogs, and friends, and travel, and school, and work, and pork, let’s not forget the pork. Put it that way and, yeah, I think good juju. Nice work, Dr. Waisman and Silverstein. I wonder if I thank you enough? I wonder if it’s possible to thank you enough?

(PS: Some time later, I asked my voodoo priestess–what? Doesn’t everyone have one?–about my cemetery cleanup and she dismissed the set up I dismantled as not being real voodoo. “But nonetheless…don’t do that again.” Yes, ma’am.)

So, speaking of travel and pork; two weekends ago we started our culinary adventures near Lafayette and a stop at Don’s Grocery and Specialty Meats so Dave could try the boudin therein (the rest of us had been there twice before), once written about as “mere words can not adequately describe the porkiness.” Alas, it was not particularly good boudin (not flavorful, anemic, a little watery), and we wondered if we should have gone to Don’s Specialty Meats and Grocery just for comparison purposes. (So hard to keep those places straight in my head. Can’t imagine why!) Instead, we headed to the Mobil Gas Station in Opelousus, where thick tasso sandwiches oozing Jack Miller’s distinctive tomato-onion bbq sauce, plus a fat smoked sausage liberally dosed with same, eased our minds.

All of that was by way of prepping ourselves for the next day. It began at the Savoy family store jam session, where I lost count of the varieties of boudin (all quite robust and spicy) at around eight. From there, we dropped by the Basile Swine Festival, timing it for the pork cook off. As Steve explained, we got barely three feet inside before people were throwing pork down our throats. About a dozen different contestants were competing for the titles of best pot cooking (basically, pork and sausage stew), best bbq and best smoked meat. Also best decorating, which surely was won by the “Porkarinas” who were dressed in pink tulle tutus with dancing balletic pigs all around. Splendid. But no better than the massive slabs of dry rub bbq, the tender roasts that fell apart in various black pot cookery, with sides of yams or sweet corn casseroles or homemade bread baked in an iron skillet. THe idea was for attendees to judge the “crowd favorite”, which is hotly contested, and controversial, as apparently one guy seemed to win most years. No wonder, we said, unaffected by local politics–his stuff was the best. All that free eating meant none of us bought the famous pork chop sandwich, where the meat overhangs the bread by a good couple of inches all the way around. But we did watch 3 dozen local pageant queens (Miss Rayne Frog Festvial! Miss Swine Fest! Duck Queen!), all in sparkly tiaras, some of which towered eight inches or more into the sky, compete in the boudin eating contest and the greasy pig contest. Miss Cedar Tree’s mom held her tiara during the latter and would not let us try it on, lest our secular selves diminish its wonder and glory.

Sunday was spent at the Savoy boucherie, where a pig was reduced to its edible bits while attendees filled three tables with covered dishes. We brought Nettie’s cheesy biscuits and something called “Green Stuff” I got out of a local society cookbook–basically, broccoli mixed with Kraft Cheese, a chopped onion topped with crumbled Ritz crackers and heated in an oven. Yeah, I know, but substitute fresh broccoli and good sharp cheddar cheese and tell me if that dish doesn’t sound good. It was the first one emptied on the table, with Nettie’s biscuits not far behind. Oh, we ate crab “cornbread”, and iron skillet cornbread, and yam crumbles, and grilled shrimp, and pork ribs that had been in the smoker since 7am, and over done cracklins, and fresh boudin that was Platonic, and bbq chicken falling off the bone and cake and backbone stew and more bbq pork and then we went back for seconds, and fourths, and sixths of everything. All the while, various local Cajun and bluegrass musicians, ranging in age from 12-80, played and played and played under the massive oak tree and the blue blue sky.

Full, but not daunted, we returned to New Orleans on Monday to try newish restaurant Luke. Now, I ate there back in June with Caroline, and we thought it was terrific, one of our best meals on that particular gluttonous trip. But one always wonders and thankfully the others were completely up to the task of quality control. We did this by more or less ordering the menu; starters included a terrine of creamy slow cooked foie gras with sea salt and drops of reduced aged balsamic, chicory salad with inch thick chunks of special bacon plus a small poached egg, a fried oyster salad that contained more chunks of said bacon plus possibly a dozen oysters plus some avocado (overkill, but welcome anyway) a meal in itself, pied de couchon (soft shredded pig’s feet meat breaded patties with a lovely creamy mustard sauce), thin slices of all but transluscent Badischer kalbskopf (calves head) topped with a tomato salsa (that’s not the right description but it will do) so strongly summer tomato-y that it was hard to believe the season has passed, shrimp stuffed with crab then deep fried and topped with a blood orange hollandaise sauce, and a thin onion tart topped with Euro cheese and more chunks of bacon. Entrees included the special Luke burger (perfectly cooked juicy patty topped with large strips of bacon, more Euro-cheese, fresh greens, on an enormous onion roll; it puts the lie to all fast food burgers and is so divine every one of us vowed to come back and have it again), my couchon de lait pressed sandwich with cherry mustard (a little crunchy and dry for my tastes, but that’s totally personal; still, I wish I had gotten the speckled trout which I heard was great that night), Steve’s charcouterie (a mixed of sausages, pork belly and couchon de lait), and Dave’s panneed veal with mushrooms and spatzel. Dave marveled; he felt this was one of the top first (as in, first time in a place) NOLA dining experiences he had had (and he’s had a few), and we all agreed that every dish was well conceived and properly executed–no small feat, given the preposterous amount of food we ordered. The only misstep was an entirely bungled dessert, which, when we pointed this out to them, they repaired with grace and the proper amount of sheepishness. Every one of us would go there again and soon–it really is a terrific place and has hit my “must try” recommendation list.

Tuesday was spent worshipping the genius that is Miss Willie Mae Sutton’s fried chicken; you have to wait a bit, but it’s completely worth it–crispy skin barely holding in meat so juicy it skirts. Plus, the place’s resurrection is such a small, dear wonder, that it only further elevates the food.

And then this little piggie went wee wee wee–if by that we mean whined that she didn’t want to leave, not at all, no sir–all the way home,