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La Belle Cuisine
"I lived near the main
street of the quarter which is named Royal.
Down this street, running on the same tracks, are two streetcars, one
named Desire and the other named Cemetery. The indiscourageable [sic]
progress up and down Royal struck me as having some symbolic bearing
of a broad nature on life in the Vieux Carre -- and everywhere else,
for that matter."
Those of you with your finger on the
pulse of New Orleans happenings are
no doubt well aware that there are two events of great import on the agenda
this weekend (26-28 march 2010): The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans
Literary Festival and the
New Orleans Roadfood Festival (Legendary Eats
in the Heart of New Orleans).
It's probably just as well that I can't be there -
how would I ever manage to do justice to both?
In the course of daydreaming about the pleasures of participation, it occurred
to me that I had read something (and perhaps had even had the presence of
mind to store it in my archives) linking the unique Creole cuisine of New
and the spice of Southern literature à la Tennessee Williams.
After a bit of
digging, voilá! (Whatever did we do without computers?)
So... with the kind permission of American Express Publishing as well as
the kind indulgence of Edmund White, we present for your reading (and
vicarious dining) pleasure, excerpts from :
Tennessee in New Orleans
At the Tennessee Williams festival, a novelist learns
to love Catfish on a Hot Tin Pan and Crawfish Kowalski
Food & Wine March 2000
by Edmund White
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“I grew up enthralled by Tennessee Williams. My sister and I used to torment
our Southern-belle mother by mocking her with lines from The Glass Menagerie;
she was as imperious and ill-adapted to modern life as Amanda Wingfield...
So last spring, when I took part in the 13th-annual Tennessee Williams/New
Orleans Literary Festival, it was a kind of homecoming. The festival means, as things always do in New Orleans, lots of parties, many well-turned phrases and spicy, sumptuous food. Food? Yes, because many of the leading restaurants in
the French Quarter and the Garden District cook up special menus inspired
by dialogue and scenes from Tennessee Williams' plays and even by his life...
The culinary aspect of the festival is a bit of a surprise. Williams' mother wasn't much of a cook; she was too genteel to know her way around the kitchen. No
wonder that when he was a young man living in the Quarter, having finally
escaped from home, he wrote his mother back in St. Louis, 'The cooking is
the best I've encountered,' and then added diplomatically, 'away from home.' Although it was the beginning of 1939 and he was as poor as everyone else in
city that had been especially hard hit by the Depression, he obviously couldn't
help responding to New Orleans's unique Creole cuisine.
He lived in a boarding house at 722 Rue Toulouse for 10 dollars a month. Even
that low rent was beyond his means, so he gladly accepted work as a waiter in
a restaurant started by his landlady, a sharp-tongued termagant named Mrs.
Anderson. She had Williams print up cards reading 'Meals in the Quarter for
a Quarter' and hand them out to passersby on the street. Years later, in one of
his last plays, Vieux Carré, Williams recalled that difficult but magical period
in his life, especially the night when Mrs. Anderson (renamed Mrs. Wire in the
play) cooks up a big pot of aromatic gumbo and feeds her starving boarders,
including the tubercular old painter, the two faded Southern belles who share
a room and the penniless Writer (Tennessee Williams himself).
That play informed the dinner I had at Upperline Restaurant. To my mind, the Upperline was the best place I tried in New Orleans. A 20-minute streetcar ride
out of the Quarter, it's filled with pretty lace curtains, bad art, low lights and the exuberant personality of its owner, JoAnn Clevenger. Despite her small-town Louisiana origins, Clevenger speaks with ringing precision because as a child,
in order to overcome a stammer, she imitated the clarion tones and standard
American English of Edward R. Murrow on the radio. What she kept that's all
her own is her thrilling laugh and a party spirit that seems in tune with New
Orleans at its best.
I dined there with Michael Carroll, a young Southern writer attending the
Ford, a New Orleans city planner and the wife of novelist
Richard Ford; and Kenneth Holditch, who leads literary tours of the city and
helped organize the Williams festival in the mid-1980s. Holditch had provided
the Upperline menu with suitable quotations from the Master. The roast duck
and andouille gumbo, for instance, came with a bit of dialogue from Mrs. Wire
of Vieux Carré:
'Why, I knew when I put this gumbo on the stove and lit the
fire, it would smoke you ladies out of your locked room. What do you all do
in that locked room so much?'
Of course what they do is quietly starve to death--when they're not foraging in
the garbage for food. In the same play, when the two ladies, Mary Maude and
Miss Carrie, come back from reconnoitering with a greasy paper bag in hand,
Mrs. Wire quizzes them cruelly about what they're carrying. Miss Carrie proudly
'I had the
steak 'Diane' and Mary Maude had the
chicken 'bonne femme'
But our eyes were a little bigger than our stomachs.' The passage inspired the
Upperline's main course, garlic chicken bonne femme with rosemary jus. For
dessert, there was angel food cake, about the only thing Williams' mother knew
how to prepare properly. (There's a lurid reference to it in the play Twenty-
Seven Wagons Full of Cotton:
'What would I do if you was angel food cake?
Big white piece with lots of nice
thick icin'? . . . Gobble, gobble, gobble!')
Another excellent gumbo can be had in a no-frills place called, not surprisingly,
the Gumbo Shop, half a block from Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, where the Williams festival is held. I ate with
two friends in the big, lively well- lit room decorated with giant murals of soldiers and civilians in 18th-century garb en-
gaged in a military review in nearby Jackson Square. We had three slightly spicy gumbos--duck and oyster,
chicken and andouille sausage and
One of my guests, the African-American writer Brian Keith Jackson, who's from
the New Orleans region, said that the secret of a good gumbo lies in the roux,
which in France may be just a thickener of flour lightly browned in melted butter
but in Louisiana is flour thrown on hot lard and cooked until black (but not burned). The Williams menu featured Catfish on a Hot Tin Pan, Chicken Belle Reve and Crawfish Kowalski (Crawfish, Pasta and Polish Sausage in Crude Beer Sauce), named after the ultimate Polish-American working man, Stanley Kowalski, the leading male character in A Streetcar Named Desire. Kowalski figures promi-
nently in the festival. The most popular event, the Stanley and Stella Shouting
Contest (or the "Stelloff," as it's called locally) is held in the street below the Pontalba Apartments on Jackson Square, near where Williams wrote his most
Jackson Square - New Orleans
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As boisterous as Stanley Kowalski but far more civilized,
The Palace Café is the kind of raucous but elegant place where locals come for birthdays and anniversaries and one table or another is always bursting into song. It's housed in a turn-of-the-century music store, where people used to buy sheet music and instruments and now come for... award-winning Creole cuisine... For his Tennessee Williams menu
[Chef Martin] came up with Oysters in a Glass Menagerie (served in a shot glass with Bloody Mary mix) and
Étouffée Vieux Carré (crawfish stewed with peppers, onions, celery and garlic), finishing with Lady Baltimore cake topped with coconut icing and garnished with Southern Comfort truffles. Even the vegetables were exceptional, especially the
fried green tomatoes, dredged in corn flour and served in a crawfish-and-ham sauce. The food was superb, but what I liked most (and what pleased the three starving writers I brought along from the festival) was the service, which managed to be both formal and friendly.
As Brian explained, in other American cities people ask 'What do you do?' but in New Orleans they ask
'What did you eat?' Kenneth Holditch had told me that an even more pressing question is
'Who was your waiter?' He recounted the anec-
dote about the lady from the Quarter who was about to commit suicide by jumping
off a bridge. A man caught her and pulled her back to safety, saying,
recognize me? I'm your waiter from
Only in New
After he was rich and successful, Williams often stayed in the Maison de Ville,
an elegant hotel on the Rue Toulouse. Today the
Maison de Ville has a wonderful restaurant called The Bistro. The chef is Greg Picolo but the life of the place, in
true New Orleans style, is the maître d'hôtel, a
Belgian named Patrick Van Hoorebeek, who dashes about, joking and working hard, all with a wonderful insouciance. The room is typically French, with mirrors, red leather banquettes,
wall sconces, polished floors and wood paneling, a simple setting for marvelous
(and rather pricey) food. In the back garden there is outdoor seating near a splashing fountain, half a dozen tables under a tent in case of rain. For the
Williams festival, the restaurant had prepared a plate of cold cuts, seafood and pickled vegetables in honor of Stanley Kowalski and a lamb stew with garlic
mashed sweet potatoes that was supposed to be an allusion to Small Craft
Warnings, the play Williams staged in New York in the early 1970s and even
acted in for a while. (Sometimes the connections between dishes and Williams
were a little hard to follow.)
At the festival's end, I reflected on how remarkable it was that Williams had
inspired so many delightful meals, given his background. Besides being a lousy
cook, his mother knew how to make a meal irritating to her poetic son.
leisurely, son, and really enjoy it,' Amanda Wingfield, her stand-in from A Glass
'A well-cooked meal has lots of delicate flavors that have to
be held in the mouth for appreciation. So chew your food and give your salivary
glands a chance to function!'
...The oyster bars, the steak joints, the gumbo shops, the
sultry cafés serving hot beignets and chicory-flavored coffee--at every corner there's another temptation straight out of the steamiest pages penned by Tennessee Williams. New Orleans may be the one city in the United States that is entirely devoted to pleasure,
where the work ethic is blissfully missing and where locals prize a good waiter
more than a stock market tip.”
"The Creole Cafe steamed with onion vapour, garlic mists tomato
fogs and green-pepper sprays. I cooked and sweated among the
cloying odours and loved being there. Finally I had the authority
I had always longed for."
~ Maya Angelou, in "Gather Together in My Name"
Favorite New Orleans recipes:
Aubergines Jean Lafitte
Blackened Redfish (Paul Prudhomme)
Chicken Bonne Femme
Crawfish Pies (Emeril)
French Quarter Muffuletta
Louisiana Red Beans and
New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp
New Orleans Boiled Shrimp with
Our Favorite Cocktail Sauce
New Orleans Po' Boys
Oysters Bonne Femme
Pompano en Papillote
To satisfy your sweet tooth:
The Delta Queen's Pralines
"Jambalaya" Bread Pudding
New Orleans Jolt Cake
And to quench your thirst:
New Orleans Libations
seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love,
mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think
of one without
the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I
am really writing about
love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the
of it and the hunger for it…
and then the warmth and richness and
fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it
is all one."
~ M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
Index - The Spice Cabinet
Remembering the Brennans
Do you know what it means
to miss New Orleans?
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