New Orleans: A movable, in-between feast

Bege
Waiter Francis Xavier Bege holds the door open to Galatoire's restaurant on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Friday Feb. 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

 

New Orleans is an in-between place. Life holds hands with death. Round the way reminds of ain’t dere no more. Soul-rattling laughter encircles soul-crushing despair.

Always with us, always together, always separate. Is it any wonder that Homer Plessy boarded his train bound for Covington here, in the Bywater, right by NOCCA? Separate but equal and all that jazz.

Sometimes it feels like we’re all in on one giant game of hide-and-seek. Seeing and not seeing. Popping out and then hiding again. In a way Mid-Westerners just wouldn’t understand.

Life is more complicated in an in-between place.

Pull out the map. Barrier islands are right down the road — and inching closer by the season.

Pull on the trash. Compare our civic joie de vivre with the seasonal care forgot — a cleared out neutral ground hours after the parade firetruck versus a piled high curbside long after the last hurricane band. All on a Mardi Gras and, pray God, trash day.

Finally, pull into our neighborhoods — the social science experiment of redlining atop flood plains mixed with inheritance property law. Blessed are you if you are in Flood Zone X and have a clean chain of title. You, indeed, will inherit the earth.

New Orleans neighborhoods, of course, are the in-between paradigm. Move a block and prepare for a change in demographic, in history, in the where’d-you-go-to-school reply and a where-you-hope-to-end-up plan.

For all our struggles, New Orleanians are expert in living in different worlds.

I thought about all this in hour five of my Galatoire’s lunch Friday. Or was it my Galatoire’s dinner? We’re an in-between place, remember? A movable feast, all the same.

Friday Galatoire’s lunch-to-dinner has long been a dream of mine. Right below world peace and a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and the firing of Bill Vinovich. In some order.

A small group of friends and family accompanied my journey from one meal to the next. We marked the time with “Happy Birthday” singing (six times, by my count), waiter John Fontenot’s storytelling (many more than six episodes), and some beverage consuming (number redacted).

It was fabulous, with nothing forced. And I’m still waiting to touch a menu — a distinctly Galatoire’s compliment.

As the lunch crowd stumbled out and the dinner crowd continued searching for a decent jacket to wear, we were left in the dining room nearly alone. It was that pulsing quiet of St. Charles Avenue between afternoon and evening parades. Joy for what has been, joy for what’s still to come.

And that’s when the feast became most New Orleans, the most in-between of cities.

Between stories of Brobson Lutz saving his life and the blocks of ice no longer shaving themselves, John decided to take us on a tour. He wanted to show us the pomme soufflé station, little potatoes puffing up with Galatoire’s pride on their second fry.

Pushing back the swinging kitchen door, our ersatz field trip leader brought us right up to the fry station. The black schmear of grease decorated the wall, a mark of honor just above the fry pot. In seconds, the potato pieces expanded into a fine dining delicacy fit for the French name.

Our trip to the kitchen will always be my lasting memory of the six-hour meal — no small statement based on the Crab Maison I made appetizer…and entrée. It wasn’t the cooking demonstration that mattered, though. It was the window into our city.

One door separates jackets and ties of high society from the pressed whites of the predominantly Black working-class staff. The ingredients might be a bit fresher and the recipes more hallowed, but the Galatoire’s kitchen resembles any other in its makeup. During my summer in legal aid, for instance, a number of clients experiencing homeless listed their most previous employer as one of the French Quarter grand dame restaurants.

Our trip behind the thin curtain intruded on the staff meal: an economy-sized tray of taco meat and vegetables, with tortillas for wrapping. Oysters Rockefeller sent out; Taco Tuesday stays in. We’ll call it an off-menu special.

Four steps separated my seat from the kitchen door, another dozen or so from the fry station. As in Galatoire’s, so in life.

New Orleans is an in-between city, always forcing us to look again, to note the intersection, to consider our neighbor.

Something to think about when asking for the next check — after a six-hour meal or one more easily divisible.

 

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When you have six hours at a restaurant, you also think a few culinary thoughts. One of my brothers-in-law ordered fried eggplant, which Galatoire’s serves with powdered sugar. I’ve seen that trick before, but never the next one: spoon out some sugar and douse it with hot sauce. Trust me. Try it on something that could take sweet and spice.

 

Next, one of the many hundred-year-old innovations (there’s a New Orleans oxymoron, for you) Galatoire’s has lifted from Antoine’s is Café Brûlot. Enjoy the show.

 

Finally, if you’re not hungry yet, explore that Galatoire’s kitchen with Phillip Lopez. The man who once was known for his $200/person tasting menu and cigar-box scallops now oversees the traditionalist’s traditional spot.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Pulpit to the Pew