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Finding an Old “Friend”
I used to be an avid but somewhat selective clipper of either newspaper or magazine articles on different subjects that expressed my exact feelings, moved or enlightened me. Two divergent examples of clipped articles impressed me most back then. Growing up I feasted on Nancy Drew mysteries, and in my 20s, I found myself a little disturbed that this love of mystery had transitioned into what became an almost permanent fixture for me – murder mysteries. I devoured the work of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Parker, Martha Grimes and became convinced that my desire to read these stories showed some kind of deviate trend. And then one day I happened on an article in Vogue simply called “To Bed With A Mystery” that analyzed murder mystery-lovers as salt-of-the-earth types who had a pronounced sense of right and wrong and loved to see justice done. This article made it into my collection. I mention this because looking back, my sampler of clippings represented some milestone or guidepost in my life, no matter the subject. The second example that impressed me came from the Times-Picayune’s food section, published each Thursday.

I use to relish Myriam Guidroz’s pot-au-feu; I kept her vignette of visiting the witch museum in Salem, Mass., that also printed  a recipe for clam chowder. But it was Leon E. Soniat’s “The Creole Kitchen” column that provided me with a clipping I cherished most, one that I would read and read again. Soniat told the story of visiting his three maiden aunts who lived in a cottage on St. Philip Street as a boy. He wrote of their carefully tended herb garden and the pathway lined with thyme that was always crushed underfoot. He said that he could not smell thyme without vividly remembering the cottage with the elderly sisters. But what made me cherish this story most was his description of their front room, which was always shuttered and cut off from the rest of the four-room cottage. The few times he was allowed in, he “smelled God’s presence.” The dark room was lit only by a ruby votive candle that filled the walls with red designs and smelled of scented oil that he described as the “smell of God.” It burned near a table with an upright crucifix, medals and holy pictures. At the time I was a lapsed Catholic, but nothing evoked the memories of my Catholic upbringing as strongly as his story of smelling God in his aunts’ room. The recipe that accompanied this story was his aunts’ bell pepper casserole, a dish I prepared many times. Soniat died in 1981, a year, oddly enough, in which I too faced death, survived and came back with a strong  resurgence of faith that has not left me since, undeserving wretch that I am. Soniat’s column made me realize that writing stories about the treasures of ordinary days would always be worthwhile, enriching and a joy to read.

I lost my collection of clippings many years ago following a move, and from time to time, I would remember Soniat’s story about the shuttered room and his recipe for the casserole but eventually forget about it. Just after last Christmas, by an odd chance at a bookstore, I noticed a cookbook, La Bouche Creole, with his name on the binding and discovered it was a collection of all of his old newspaper columns and recipes. Accompanying the delicious recipes are Soniat’s charming vignettes of growing up as part of a Creole family in the French Quarter with his parents, Mamete and Papete, and grandparents Mamere and Papere. Along with recipes for good old red beans and rice, duck-and-andouille gumbo, shrimp Creole and mirliton salad, Soniat writes of taking the old “Smoky Mary” train down Elysian Fields to the lakefront for a day of fishing and crabbing, cleaning out the cistern with his father and shopping for fresh food at the French Market.

And these stories I don’t need to clip.

La Bouche Creole, Pelican Publishing Co., pelicanpub.com

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