Some Things to Do When Not On Chemo

November 17, 2006

O Best Beloveds, the following is one of those far-too-detailed accounts of What We Did and Ate While Somewhere That Is Not Here, and includes the consumption of many animal parts, and I totally understand if this doesn’t interest you for a variety of reasons and you wish to move on to your next email. Or you could just skip to the final paragraph, which discusses the most sublime moment of the trip. Just know that my tumor markers are 32.9 and presumably falling.

Which was one of the several Good Things we were celebrating as we spent one fast night in NOLA. Though it was long enough for Steve and I, after a sweetly sultry walk through the most beautiful part of the Garden District, to meet up with Diana, Nettie and Robin at Commander’s Palace, where we cooed over the new, hand-embroidered wallpaper and wooden birdies on the walls, and where none other than Miss Ella Brennan and Miss Dotty were dining with two other senior lady companions (one of whom was Ti’s former kindergarten teacher; apparently, when called to a parent-teacher conference, Miss Ella said “For kindergarten? Hardly. Come to the restaurant instead.” And she did and they became fast friends.). Two of the women were long term cancer survivors, all were Southern and elegant and feisty, and consequently a table full of excellent role models for the next few decades of our lives, and we all took careful notes on how to age and live with grace and hilarity. Not to mention eat well.

Speaking of, faced with a brand new menu (another Good Thing; the reopening of Commander’s), we were flapping helplessly (oh, the choices! the choices! The humanity!) when Chef Tory came out, and offered to save us by just dealing with the dinner himself. We threw ourselves into his arms, and not just because he’s dreamy. And so commenced what Nettie said may have been the best meal of her life, as the hours (oh, yes) passed and I checked off all the things that were sent out and realized, at the end, that we had eaten the entire menu. I’ve rarely been so proud of us. (“And we did it without the boys” I beamed, and “Hey!” said Ti, on behalf of Steve.) I’ll hit the highlights: molasses and black pepper cure pork belly (slow cooked for two days to unctuous softness, with a brandy black truffle jus over a bed of goat cheese grits; the smell that came out of this was so enticing and sexy it was like a booty call in a bowl. Or maybe that’s just us, but man, was the table swooning). Couchon de lait gumbo (again, slow cooking for two days down to a thick meaty richness, topped with bacon. It has ruined us for all other soups). Escargot and Creole cream cheese gnocchi. “Veal-Platte” (veal tenderloin with a cracklins’ crust and lobster boudin). Hickory grilled shrimp (with burnt orange grand marnier butter on top of jalapeno spoon bread, spicy smokey and citrusy all in one). A lump crab cake that was all crab, and no filling. Also six or seven desserts, plus a cheese course. Somewhere in there, Jill joined us, putting us over the top of happiness. And there was drinking. And toasting. Also, giggling helplessly.

In short, an excellent way to start, and it was just that much more so when Ti took us next door to meet an artist who makes metal botanical sculptures and like any good eccentric New Orleanian artist, was open at midnight. Even after it all, it’s still that kind of city.

One we left reluctantly the next day, but we had food to eat and music to hear out in Cajun country, though we did not head southwest until we had three dozen charbroiled oysters at Drago’s. Yes, after vowing we would never eat again. Okay, maybe that was just me. And only for a moment. Anyway, we started the Cajun portion of the festivities at the brand new Black Pot Music Festival in Lafayette, where any number of excellent Cajun and related bands had taken over the Acadian Village and were playing in the reconstructed town hall. It was a great scene, because the crowded skewed pretty young, which demonstrated the successful revival of the culture for a new generation. Nearby, a bunch of younger people were camping, and hearing rumors of spontaneous bluegrass jam sessions, we checked out the campfires and Robin, Steve and I were all but kidnapped by a delightful group of Peace Corps, love-your-brother types, who forced us (I swear) to sample their (superb) tasso and deer sausage stew and make s’mores with them. We whooped it up with them until it was time to hear some music and eventually, head back home rather late.

Saturday started with the Savoys jam session at their shop, and the sampling of some boudin we read described as “mere words can not adequately describe the porkiness.” It’s true; it was meaty (not so much rice filling) as the typical boudin and will give the Best Stop in Scott a run for its boudin fame. From there, it was the Port Barre Cracklin’ Festival, where we tried eight different versions of, well, pig fat fried in fat. With salt. (The perfect food!) At one point, we were separated from Diana and when we met up again, I solemnly and silently handed her a brownie I had purchased in the interim, and she in turn handed one back, ditto. Soul mates.

That evening brought us back to the Black Pot, where we sampled some jambalaya and “cowboy stew” (cow innards; it was too much even for us) leftover from the day’s black pot cookoff, and danced with full hearts to Ann Savoy’s fabulous new gypsy-jazz, The Hot Club of Paris style band. Our campfire pals from the previous night were delighted to find us, so we could meet their mom, who told us she shot the deer from whence came the sausage, her first one. We politely congratulated her.

Sunday was Marc and Ann’s annual boucherie, a pig roast and party. Sample eating included some shrimp caught the day before in the Gulf and marinated over night and grilled. Pre-cooking, the shrimp were so translucent I realized I had never had truly fresh shrimp before, and once cooked, they tasted as sweet as lobster. Another man had some pork butt he had been slow smoking since the previous day. Then there was fresh boudin, and more cracklins, and more bbq. And three kinds of pork n’ beans, and I lost count of the desserts. And there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it never got as cold as had been feared, and the bugs pretty much stayed away, and the boys, including Steve, played music under the oak tree. That kind of day. Which made this next bit even harder; talking to the husband and parents of Tricia, Marc’s niece, who had died two months previous from ovarian cancer. I last saw her at the crawfish boil where I learned my tumor markers were going back up again. We had a conversation then in which much was said and even more left unsaid. Her heartbroken family said the thing she was maddest about at the end was that she would miss the boucherie. She was never very far from anyone’s mind, and I wished again, if wished is a strong enough verb, for everyone to have a Dr. Waisman and all the boucheries they want.

Finally, night fell, and all but a couple dozen people had left, and the rest of us gathered around the bonfire, about the only light there was apart from the stars, and the musicians continued to play, and this happened; two of the guests were Jay Unger and his wife Molly Mason, superb folk musicians both. As requests for tunes came through, Marc asked for Jay’s most famous, “Ashokan Farewell,” a simple air, based on Scottish traditionals, which Ken Burns used as the more or less theme for his Civil War documentary. Jay complied, largely solo on his fiddle, with a little accompaniment from Molly’s guitar. The saddest tune you can imagine, bittersweet and full of ghosts, made out of musical notes and the night sky, settling down fireside. And it was so quiet, except for the fiddle, and the crying.

“What’s better?” Diana asked me, as she wiped away her own tears.

And for once, I couldn’t even say “fudge,”