Family Celebrations in New Orleans
New Orleanians mark their calendars for special occasions and have made an art out of creating memories.
Leo Tolstoy starts off his novel Anna Karenina by declaring that, “All happy families are alike.”
Tolstoy got it wrong. Happy families, the kind of families who celebrate events in particularly enjoyable ways, are all different.
Having a special meal on your birthday is just one of the possibilities for families intent on celebrating.
Anne Case as a child had four siblings, and each chose their birthday dinner menu. “My brother always had lasagna, but I usually asked for steak and potatoes,” she recalls. She offered the same choice to her children, but by then they also would have a party with their friends. “For my grandchildren, they have big birthday parties but the party has to be when everyone can come – sometimes it’s a month after their birthday,” she says.
One novel birthday extravaganza was special to Graci Rickerfor’s son Patrick. “Patrick was born on the 18th of March, right after St. Patrick’s Day,” she explains. “We lived just off Metairie Road, and of course the parade came by, so we would have big parties. We always told him that was his parade.” (Patrick did catch on after a while.)
Special celebrations don’t always have to fall on birthdays. Nell Nolan Young grew up as one of seven children, and as she remembers, “on Sundays, we would all go to Mass, and, if my mother and father were being very indulgent, after church they would take us all to the Frostop, and we could have root beers. That was really a special treat – we never drank soft drinks at home!”
Holidays bring out the best in family festivities. For the Nolans, a favorite holiday was Christmas. “Our family’s house was on Coliseum Street – we called it two sevens because the address was 2727. Christmas dinner was terribly special. We all sat at the big dining room table. Then, we would have an informal open house,” she says. “If the meal was over around 2:30, the guests would come and stay until 6:30 or 7 o’clock. I remember standing around the piano and us all singing, and there would be at least three generations.”
Marcelle d’Aquin Saussy’s family celebration day is the day before Mardi Gras. Every year on that date Saussy, her sister, Ribby d’Aquin Fergusson and her brother, Jack, plus their adult children (with spouses or very significant others – “you have to have an engagement ring on your finger,” Saussy explains) gather at Commander’s Palace for an adults-only lunch. The guest list is currently up to 19.
“It all got started when we gave a debutante party for one of my brother’s girls at Commander’s, maybe 15 or so years ago,” she says. As far as the menu goes, “everybody’s on their own – it’s just the dilemma of whether to have a milk punch or a Bloody Mary before lunch.
“We started out in that little room with a balcony where we could see the cemetery (Lafayette No. 1,) but we got too big for that room. And, of course, after lunch we go to the cemetery,” she continues. “My parents and my grandparents on my mother’s side are buried in Lafayette No. 1, plus some aunts and uncles, and a child that died on the way to North Carolina during the Civil War. We’ll either bring flowers or the beads from the table to the tomb,” which was just done over last summer by a master plasterer.
One new addition to the annual event: “we’ve added a limousine. You could never park on that Monday so near the parade route.”
Maria Wisdom, her husband Andrew and children John, Helen and Tommy, celebrate Easter in the Greek tradition. “In most Greek American families Easter was bigger than Christmas,” she says, remembering her childhood. Lent is a time of fasting, with no meat, olive oil or dairy products during Holy Week.
The Good Friday service is especially solemn, and young girls dressed in white have a special part. “My sister and I did that, and my daughter Helen did, too. You wear a beautiful new white dress.”
On Saturday night the church will be dark, and then at midnight when it’s announced, “Christ is risen,” lights come on. By this time, Easter eggs have been dyed red. Wisdom recalls “my mother would rub the eggs with olive oil to make them shine, and she would bring them to church wrapped in tulle.”
After the service, families go home to a festive meal, with a special lamb soup and (just like the Cajun Easter game of “paque-paque”) they play a game with the dyed eggs. “It’s called Tsougrisma – cracking together – you do this around the dinner table starting with two players. You tap it against the end of the other player’s egg trying to crack it. Then, you go around the whole dinner table doing this until you have one winner,” she explains. “If you win, you have good luck. And the kids like to do it.”
For mid-day dinner on Easter Sunday, lamb is the main course and there’s a special bread baked in a braid with a rich eggy dough with the red-dyed eggs in the braid. “It’s flavored with mahlepi, ground cherry pits. It’s more fragrant than nutty, it tastes floral,” Wisdom says.
And, like all New Orleans family celebrations, it leaves everyone eager to enjoy it again.
If your family has a birthday to celebrate, chances are you might order a decorated doberge cake from Gambino’s Bakery (4821 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie); the recipe is based on Beulah Ledner’s invention of the multi-layered concoction. Or, if you’re dining out for your celebration, try Galatoire’s Restaurant (209 Bourbon St.,) where you can be serenaded with a song by the waiters (and all the other patrons). Antoine’s Restaurant (713 St. Louis St.) will add to your festivities by putting your name on a baked Alaska if you like.