Wednesday, February 22, 2017

on aging

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Rinse and Repeat
Aging (Dis) Gracefully
            Subjectively, no one grows old in increments; one day, all of a sudden, you see your reflection in a mirror (or in someone else’s eyes) and you ask yourself who that old person is, and it’s you. Of course you make light of it “shucks, if I knew I was gonna live this long, I woulda taken better care of myself (diet, finances, exercise, dentistry, dreams, aspirations, family commitments, love and/or life in general)!” That sarcasm doesn’t wash well as a rationale, and even you can see the flaws in it, so you lose yourself in memories and the memories of the different bodies that you’ve inhabited along the way. Ponder, if you will: time is a thief; it steals all of the selves that you ever were or wore.
            What is your earliest memory? Is it being tossed in the air (and caught) by some big person, being cuddled, being suckled; standing in your crib crying because your diaper is full, you’ve just woken up and you’re alone in a dark room? Perhaps your memories don’t go back that far.
            How about the feeling of being little around bigger people; learning, in a group of kids your own size to deal with the politics of school; falling in love with your first grade teacher; learning to tie your shoes, read  phonetically, sit patiently with hands folded or take a forced nap after ‘cookies and milk time’? Having your rage suppressed.
            What about being told to go to bed when you’re not tired; getting awakened before you’ve slept enough; told to clean your plate, drink your juice, get dressed, get dressed, you’re not wearing that (!) and button up your overcoat? What was your first nightmare?
            You grow into a preteen and your voice changes, your feet and nose get bigger, you’re judged by how well you play sports, pull off mischief without getting caught, defend yourself physically and verbally; you want to belong somewhere but you don’t seem to fit anywhere. You tell your mother that you didn’t ask to be born. Your face breaks out.
            High School happens and your hormones rage; everyone is against you; you learn to slow dance, French kiss, have a crush, go steady, and get your heart broken; rinse and repeat. You join a tribe, rebel, study, and can’t wait to get it all over with; nobody understands the ‘real’ you, you’re artistic, sensitive, all knowing. Finally you get a driver’s license, a Social Security card, a part time job, an acoustic guitar and a peer group. You sing out for social justice.
            You graduate into a radical departure; you leave home, join a band, cult, Army or fraternity/sorority. You’re drinking with the best of them, no longer a virgin, doing your own laundry and you can play your music as loud as you damn well please. You have roommates, you watch art movies, discuss philosophy, name your cat Rimbaud, roll your own (cigarettes). You protest inequality. At this point there is so much to do in life that you get very little done, it’s okay, you’re young, free and independent; you wire home for money. You visit the folks on holidays, surprise them with your new wardrobe, hairstyle and ability to talk adverse politics peppered with expletives. 
            At twenty-one you’re exhausted; you’ve taken lovers, gotten a tattoo, had a brush with the law, been fired for incompetence. At twenty-five: you’re golden, twenty-seven: you’ve been kicked to the curb, twenty-eight: you give up, thirty: you settle into a career. It’s time to get serious about relationships, money, security and the possibility of having a family of your own, a golden retriever named Marilyn, 401K and a car that is dependable. You buy insurance, use your degree to get ahead and embrace the responsibilities you once avoided.
            The years tick by in a flash; you take on more than three people should. You start a business, buy a house, raise kids or live alone in an apartment with a tank of tropical fish and the work that you’ve taken home from the office. You’ve been paying your dues and bills; you’ve fallen down and picked yourself back up, people count on you, you’ve found and lost Jesus on several occasions; you’re the life of the party, the master of the snappy comeback, always ready with a smoke or a joke. Shot at and missed, shit at and hit.
            Settling into what might pass for maturity you trudge along, taking happiness in your accomplishments, disregarding your shortcomings, everyone around you finally knows what can be expected of you. People around you get sick, get well, some of them die. Younger acquaintances get married; you go to weddings, funerals, baptisms, sometimes you just send a gift. You forget birthdays. You get regular checkups, quit smoking and cut back on the booze. You don’t understand the current musical trends or electronic gadgets; don’t know who these people are at the Academy Awards, all young people start to look alike and upstarts begin to call you “Sir (or Ma’am)”. You still pay attention, you’re interested in the news, you remember when you marched and protested; you believed that good would triumph over evil.

            And then one morning you see that that old person in the mirror is you and today you tarry a little longer and look deeply at that face. It’s a good face.  A roadmap of decades of a life; lines of laughter, sadness, worry and joy.  A scar here and there where a memory was born; an obstacle overcome; a time where you were laid low by an enemy, or worse, by a friend.  A scowl, surprise, suspicion, sorrow or a satisfaction, leaving telltale signs that are unseen from the inside but apparent when viewed in the looking glass (or someone else’s eyes). So much done; so much more to do. Rinse and repeat.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Saint Joseph's Day 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
The Saint of Secrets
Throw me some Zeppole, Joe
            Sophia Petrillo told me: “Picture it (!), Sicily… hundreds of years ago… there’s a big drought and the people are starving, they’re starving! AND THIRSTY! The sailors are out in the boats trying to catch fish in a fierce storm--- they’re gettin’ NUTHIN’ (!)---somewhere in the distance… a dog barks. The people, the sailors (the dog) are praying, they’re praying and praying. To who? To Saint Joseph, patron saint of the every man, of secrets and of unwed mothers. Saint Joseph looks down and says ‘Oh my stars and garters, my poor, poor Sicilian children (he always liked us best), I need to help them!’
            “So, help them he does; it rains, a lot, they’re catching fish like crazy and all of a sudden, guess what (?), fava beans start to grow from out of nowhere! The people are so happy that they prepare a festa in Saint Joseph’s honor; they drink nero d’avola, they bake Cucidatti, they make Maccu di San Guiseppi. They dance around and sing and hug each other and that’s where my great great grandparents meet and if it wasn’t for Saint Joseph… I wouldn’t be here today to tell the story; now, shut up and eat your spaghetti!”
            Well, as any red blooded New Orleanian knows, we celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19th.  Catholics, Sicilians (same animal) and the churches they attend take a lot of time and build altars of food to commemorate the occasion of this auspicious celebration. On the altar are cheeses, cookies, wine, loaves and fishes and all manner of foodstuffs.   In fact, at St. Cletus Church (3600 Claire Ave in Gretna) they start working on their altar in January. The altars are in three tiers to signify the blessings of the ‘Holy Family’ and after St. Joseph’s day the altar is given to the less fortunate. The altar can be simple, like in a person’s home or bigger and more elaborate like Saint Mary’s (1116 Chartres St,) which is as big as a magnolia tree. The Church of Saint Joseph (1802 Tulane Ave.) is alleged to house the biggest altar of its kind in the country.
            On Saint Joseph’s feast day (which this year is on the 18th because the 19th falls on a Sunday) a feast of its own is laid out for all comers regardless of race, creed, color, ethnic, religious or any other orientation or persuasion. It’s during lent so there is no meat served but an epidemic of pasta reigns as well as salads, stuffed artichokes, cakes and lemonade. You’ll see your neighbors, make new friends and Saint Joseph will smile because you’ll be well rested, well loved and well fed, which is all the blessing that anyone can/should truly ask for.
            Also, when you go to church to participate in the awe of the altar, you will be given a little paper bag containing a Saint Joseph prayer card, two Sicilian cookies (one sesame, one fig) a blessed fava bean (to keep in your wallet for luck and money) and a slice of French bread. We all can logically find the significance of the objects, except, probably the new kids might wonder about the French bread. Quite simply, people here are instructed to keep that bread until a storm approaches, and when that happens they should throw that bread out of the back door/window to have the storm pass on by. If you believe it, it is true.
            Saint Joseph’s Day is also a Mardi Gras Indian celebratory occasion called Super Sunday. It is the last day that the Indians come out in this year’s ‘old suit’ before dismantling it to begin next year’s ‘new suit’. I asked Big Chief David Montana of the Washitaw Nation why the Indians celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day and he told me “because Saint Joseph was black!” That kind of stands to reason because back then the biblical people would have been North Africans and probably a lot darker in complexion than us lily white Anglo Saxon Christians have always portrayed them.
            Be that as it may; it is a fact that a wave of Sicilians descended on New Orleans in the late 1800s and that, in the white society of that time, were considered the “lowest of the low” and as such, along with African Americans, were not allowed to worship in the ‘higher class’ Catholic churches. It’s also a fact that African Americans ultimately built their own church where they welcomed their Sicilian neighbors; that church is Saint Augustine, it’s in the Treme district and still provides a considerable Saint Joseph’s celebration. 
Some speculate that the Mardi Gras Indians picked up their Sicilian neighbors’ religious tradition, and took advantage of the break in Lent to take their suits out for one last spin. All of that is speculation. What we know for certain is that even today, Saint Joseph’s is a holiday that transcends cultural lines. Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday celebrations are one of the few times of the year when outsiders can see the Indians in their elaborate costumes and appreciate the work, time and talent that making them entails. Super Sundays are traditionally kicked off in A.L. Davis Park in Central City; however, other neighborhoods like the West Bank and at Bayou St. John also host their own celebrations. Processions are held and we hold dear the words of Otis P. Driftwood “let Joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons and necking in the parlors.”
 So, mark your calendars for that weekend and you can make it a full, busy, wonderful time. March 17th is Saint Patrick’s day, the 18th will be Saint Joseph’s and then the 19th will be Super Sunday; look for a fish fry in your neighborhood to really glut out. Also look for the Irish Italian parade where the Irish will be giving out cabbages and potatoes and the Italians will be trading flowers for kisses. Buona fortuna.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Poverty in New Orleans

Poverty in New Orleans
Phil LaMancusa
            We gauge conditions of being financially uncomfortable by something called a Poverty Rate. Poverty Rate is defined as the percentage of the population living below poverty level. Poverty level is defined as that level of a person or family’s income where a stress in being able to provide basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) is felt; at times acutely. As of 2015, 13.5% of Americans (43,100,000) live below poverty level; more children than women, more women than men; the statistics are staggering. Blacks: 24.1%, Latinos: 24.1%, Asians: 11.9%, Whites: 9.1%, and 33.6%  of these numbers are children--living all around you. Academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer report that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income at all. New Orleans fits quite comfortably in these parameters.
I was raised in the Projects in the nineteen forties and fifties by a single parent relying on public welfare, healthcare and education; five kids, the whole nine yards. The Project’s tenants were the elite of the neighborhood; all around us families were poorer. Surrounding us all were people not so poor. The economic checkerboard of neighborhoods was a constant reminder of who the ‘haves’ were and who the ‘have-nots’ weren’t, and if we were the ‘have-nots’, our neighbors were the ‘have-nothings’. We’re talking poverty; and like it or not, every society maintains a percentage of their population in poverty. Somebody’s got to perform cheap menial labor.
            We were adequately schooled; any better education and we might have aspired to greater heights. Our heroes were sports and cinema stars, musicians and criminals who had made a name for themselves and whose lifestyles we could emulate but never attain. In our later teens we were pushed from school to enter society; our choices were:  military (or prison) uniforms or, following in our parent’s footsteps, entering the world of the ‘working stiffs’, whose sweat greases the wheels of this great society. These were our rites of passage into adulthood and the only options where/when I was growing up.  Being poor meant staying poor and raising your children to perpetuate this system of poverty, the norm. The advantage my family had was that we were white.
            When I came back to New Orleans in the late nineties, I found that little had changed from the sixties and seventies; there were still, at the close of the twentieth century, moral, physical and economic depression in the city. The Big Easy. Even today, fifteen minutes from the mayor’s office, citizens are living in abject poverty. Let’s define that condition as I see it.
            We’ll disregard, for the moment, the homeless, those in shelters, squatters and tenants in our ‘new’ projects; although these segments do round out the picture. State subsidized nursing homes, where tenants receive $38.00 a month to live on while taking away all of their other monies, is another form of poverty, but not what I’m speaking of here. To define poverty, we’ll begin by pointing out what it is not. Being poor isn’t necessarily living in poverty. Having secure employment and worrying about your financial prospects, your kid’s school choices, your mortgage, credit card debt; choosing a dentist, cleaning woman, hairdresser, seasonal clothing or the note on your car are very real concerns; however, while those things might keep you broke, it is NOT poverty. 19.4% American families of four live on a cash income of $10,000.00 a year or less is poverty.
 Anxiety about whether you’ll be evicted for non-payment of rent because you chose to put food on the table; fear of having your utilities cut off; whether the person who brings home the household’s money can/will have and keep a job; struggling, hustling and scraping  just to get by IS poverty. Having to take advantage of every free service (SSI, food stamps, food banks, emergency rooms, supplemental housing assistance) and then some; you live in survival mode. Not having access to adequate healthcare or being able to plan parenthood; fear of putting the father’s name on your baby’s birth certificate. When a father’s name appears on a birth certificate he is held liable for support or as a consequence of non- payment can have his driver’s license revoked, effectively compromising everyone’s earnings and takings; father loses mobility, mother and child lose public assistance. Catch 22.
 Having to take jobs at minimum wage (because you lack formal education or training)  and then be able to live on that money and support a family ($15,080.00 yearly); not being able to pay for fundamental living necessities (gas, electricity, water)…THAT’S POVERTY.  Being poor and living in areas where the lack of necessities is allowed to flourish; areas where crime is commonplace; addiction is not regarded as an oddity; the strong oppress the weak; contention is encouraged and where there is no way out…that’s poverty. 25% of New Orleanians live in poverty; 44% of children under five live in poverty; a single parent not to live in poverty has to take in over $46,000 a year (an hourly wage of$22.00). These numbers are verifiable. 
            When I came back, I was informed that the majority of the students that were pushed through our educational system were graduating high school with a fifth grade reading skill level; they are today’s parents and the dishwashers, porters, trash collectors, maids, fast food workers, lawn tenders and minimum wage earners. Our city (and state) leads the country in teen (unwed) pregnancy, crime, obesity, African-American incarceration/unemployment, and child hunger. Going to school is an economic family sacrifice at best and rent increases are routine and arbitrary. Poorer families are pushed out when ‘revitalizers’ move into a poor neighborhood.
            Dwell on this: I get home from work at 6:30 P.M. turn on the lights and go to bed by 11:00, two hours up in the morning before work… and my electric bill is around $100.00 a month. Add to that the water bill, car insurance and repair, laundry, cable, food, rent, clothing, phone, health and dental insurance, the occasional movie or night out… and if I had to do that on $290.00 a week before taxes, what would I do? Where would I make my cuts? Adopt out my children? Quit eating nourishing food, abandon coffee outings, shaving, bathing, turn in my cell phone, relinquish my pets, sell my soul, take a second job, rob a bank, take out a loan, get credit cards and max them, curl into a fetal position and beg God for mercy? Forget about holidays, vacations or birthdays; where would that money come from? I’ve been painted into a corner, trapped; me and the other 25% of your neighbors. And what can be done about it? Poverty sucks; and ironically, poverty fluctuates with the stock market, when the market went into recession in 2008, the poverty rate--over the entire country—rose and kept on rising until 2010 when it fell (slowly) back to 2007 levels.

            There is a bill in State legislature to raise the minimum wage; opposition, naturally, is split along party lines. State government doesn’t support it because they would have to give their workers a raise and the last Governor left us with a huge deficit; so, the little guy takes it in the shorts and is kicked to the curb and all the authors of the bill want is a mere seventy-five cents an hour raise. It would raise the minimum wage earner to $320.00 a week before taxes and that’s still poverty in New Orleans. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Guests 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
February Festivous
Guest-with-us for the Rest-of-us
            Whoopee! It’s February! Valentine’s Day! Carnival! Crawfish! The arrival of the Spring guests that turn up from now all the way into Jazz Fest (oh Boy!)
            I’ve pondered points and concluded that guests generally don’t quite get or feel comfortable bunking in with friends that they see once or twice a year. Believe me, that goes triple for the folks that play ‘hostess with the mostest’ for them. So, in the spirit of blatant honesty; let me literate my situation for the edification of incoming company.
My house.  First: this is as clean and orderly as it gets; second: don’t ask me where anything is because, in the cleaning and organizing, that I’ve spent the last two weeks laboring over, I don’t know where anything is! Quite simply: whatever you’re looking for, it’s around here, go find it. The soap might be in the freezer; spare light bulbs possibly under the broom; coffee is on the mantle; put your luggage in the tub (kidding). Next: don’t open the hall closet; that’s where we keep the soiled laundry that I haven’t had time to do because I’ve been cleaning/organizing to make a good impression on you.  Caution: not all the chairs are safe to sit on; none of the clocks tell the correct time, some lamps have ceased to illuminate and the ‘Smart TV’ is as dumb as a box of rocks
 The way I clean and organize is to start moving things around and I have an aversion to throwing things away that may be important and/or significant; two weeks of that and you’re bound to find anything anywhere, it’s not a mess, it’s home and we welcome you; mi casa/su casa and all that.
            We live in a half double shotgun house, which means that we have five big rooms that are stretched out one after another in a straight line so that, if you were to fire a shot gun in the front door, you would hit whatever was at the back door; hence the name. The living room is in the front and the kitchen in the back separated by two bedrooms, (one where you’ll be staying) a bath and a dining room, small yards front and back.
Here is our schedule: we work seven days a week, most times until 6:30-7:00 at night; we come home, we have a little Happy Hour and then dinner, down time and bed by 11:00. Debbie is up around six to feed the herd (three cats and a dog and various outside strays), coffee, walk the dog and then to the Treme Center for swimming and exercise. Then to coffee at Whole Foods (bagel and cookies) and then back to work. Some nights we don’t get in until after eight; it comes with owning a business.
            We have lives much bigger that ourselves; the dining room also is used for painting pictures and a chair to read or listen to tapes to learn the foreign language du jour. The living room has a piano and other musical instruments, none of which we have mastered; there are unfinished projects throughout the house, countless books and novels, collections of coins, world globes, statues, photos and finger bowls. The kitchen is filled with spices for our signature blends and other handy non fresh ingredients that we supplement with fresh stuff from the green grocer; a full larder, for ease of cooking. Except for the occasional dairy product, we keep a vegan kitchen; if you want to cook otherwise you’re welcome to, just know that anything you don’t eat, may perish. We come home loaded down with all the detritus from the day and deposit said stuff on our way to the refrigerator, which means, all through the rooms. In the mean time, baths, shaving, cat litter cleaning, recycling, composting, bed making and visits to our neighbors, our veterinarians, food markets and shopkeepers keep us active and generally invisible.
            The first cat gets up at six and complains loudly that he’s not been fed for at least eight hours, at this point the dog needs let out. There’s time to sit a spell in the morning and when you use the bathroom for your morning toilet, expect all cats to visit; the youngest one loves to watch humans take baths (there is no shower), the little dog may want to sleep under your blankets (with you).
            We live in a neighborhood, which means we walk, we talk, greet and hail people that we see in the streets; introduce yourself, tell them who you are and behave like a guest and not a short term rental tenant. Smile. We don’t expect you to be bringing home any lovers, possibly some people that you may meet but not sheet shakers, okay? We rarely have parties at home; home is our sanctuary: that’s how we picture it. Don’t try to clean up after us, just take care of your own space odyssey and everything will be hunky-dory.
            You’re welcome to use the car responsibly, although we don’t have it insured for a second driver; the brakes are good and the tires are fair. It’s that ’94 Lincoln Towncar that’s parked crooked in the street. It has over 237,000 miles on it and is cranky and idiosyncratic at best. The windows, air-conditioning and sometimes the door handles or trunk switch sticks or doesn’t work at all. It has a radio tuned to 94.3 an oldies station… on second thought, maybe you should leave the driving to me.
            So, you get the picture; you’ll fit in just fine because you won’t expect anything to be normal around here; in fact, seeing as you’re our friend and all, it may remind you of home.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Resolutionary Thoughts for 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Resolutionary Thoughts
Just You Wait
            Maniacal, perplexing,  mystifying, puzzling, mind numbing, confounding ass kicking to the curb under the bus, over the river and through the woods; 2016 is gone and if I ever see it again, I’m going to beat it like ‘never fail meringue’, whip it like party cream,  batter it like gulf shrimp and snatch it bald headed! What a miserable year it was and I, for one, am pleased as punch to see it go and hopefully to never to darken my door again.
            It seems as though every blessed year at this time, for as long as I can remember, I have said and heard “Oh, this last year was bad, but next year it’s bound to get better”. I deserve a dose of Whup-ass for being so optimistic. Yes, last year was uber-terrible, but the year before was less unpleasant--- which was damned awful--- the year before that ate the weenie and the one before that it was simply gruesome and on and on and on. Let me ask you this: when was the last year that life did not throw something at you that you would have gladly done without? I don’t mind things not being easy; but,” temples are graying and teeth are decaying and creditors weighing your purse” is not my idea of a working mantra.           
As the eternal optimist, bruised and bloodied that I am, I’m going to be the first (and possibly the only one) to assure you that next year will be better. Sure, last year some of your heroes died, prices went up and not your wages, you spent more at the veterinarian than on your own health care and a few of your friends spent time in chemo. There was that front-tooth cap that decided to break when the dentist was golfing, the unexpected car repair, your rent was jacked up and you had to vacate; your neighbors got evicted to make room for an AIRBNB location. Add to that: the recurring pain in your lower back that’s suddenly attacking you (again); learning that GMOs contributed to your allergies, realizing that termites are eating your floorboards and, oh yeah, your dog died. You’re living in the crime capital of the country. What else can happen, right? Just you wait.
I have this theory that if life doesn’t kill you outright (and there is always that possibility), it is going to wear you down and wear you down, hoping that you will cease to struggle against its insidious carnival tricks—the ones that get you the pie in the face--and just give up. However, you (and I) will keep coming back like gamblers at the track, waiters at the video poker machine, out of work laborers buying scratch-offs and/or lovers in failed relationships betting that things will work themselves out.
Do you want to know why I am not going down without a fight; why I’m going to live a long life and get the most out of it?
The night sky in a riot of colors as the sun sets; coffee in the morning with something freshly toasted; getting in that old car of mine and hearing it turn over from a growl to a purr; whipped cream on sweet potato pie; crows, monk parrots and squirrels; my hot pepper plant when I can pick another red one for spaghetti; waking up with Girlfriend next to me with the dog and the cats all snugged up together; going home after a long day and finding that my daughter has sent me ice cream for my birthday; the beauty and light that surrounds me if I only take a moment to recognize and appreciate it.
I don’t find my self-worth by comparison; judging whether others are less fortunate to elevate my self esteem is unworthy of me; and, I am worthy. Neither do I consider that when a person has more than I--be it fortune, talent or fame—that that should be a cause for envy or jealousy. Those things are simply things that are.
Now before you start to think that I’m some kind of blissed out monk, let me stress that I am anything but.  
I tend to judge people. By the way they speak, dress, how they treat cashiers, if they litter and if they return their damn shopping cart to that little shopping cart station in the parking lot. I disapprove of men who wear their trousers below their underwear, who spit in the street and/or make discourteous remarks to unaccompanied women. I cannot abide by people who take kindness for weakness.
I get angry at people who make general rudeness a lifestyle, mistreat children, animals and/or drive like they’re from a third world country. I am not understanding about people holding up signs at intersections when I know that everything they’re begging for is already being freely provided by a plethora of social service organizations; I see no reason why an able bodied person cannot/ does not find gainful employment. See? I’m a snob.  

But, I tell you, next year it will be better; I’ll be better; I’ll be more tolerant, understanding and patient. And when someone needs some good advice, a shoulder to cry on, a mature outlook, I’ll deliver unto them my new mantra that I recently received from Rooster Sedaris: short version: “Just you wait.” Long version:  “Bitch, I’m here to tell you that everything’s gonna be alright; we’ll get through this shit, Mother Fucker, just you wait!”

Before celebrity Chefs in New Orleans

Before the Celebrity Chef in New Orleans
Phil LaMancusa
            To prove my point, before we start, Google: ‘Photos of Celebrity Chefs’. On that site you will see hundreds of pics of hundreds of chefs. What you’ll see by in large, is that most are male, (The female chefs will have a link to see them naked. I’m not kidding.) and overwhelmingly they be palefaces. Caucasians. Bleach Boys. Caspers.  Snow flakes. Only occasionally will you spot some color, perhaps a cafĂ© au lait, maybe an Asian tint or two; flies in the buttermilk, raisons in the Sun. This has nothing to do with a disparaging of the races, it’s stating the obvious: what the world pictures when it looks for culinary expertise is a reliance on the images that the media has burned into their brain pan. Youngish, well coiffed, white; as if kitchen work is done on a movie set.
            This was not the case, especially in New Orleans, until about forty years ago. There were no Celebrity Chefs per se; the reason why was, not many of the chefs running kitchens—Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Brennans, Brousards, even Commanders Palace--- left their kitchens; they worked, most times up to eighty-five hours a week. They did not have time for stardom; they spent their time getting kitchens to run smoothly and making money for their owners.
            The chefs and cooks that brought our food to the attention of the world were African-American. The men and women that charmed the world with Creole food and worked the long hours, for low pay, in harsh conditions and took pride in everything that they put out to table were African-American. For too many years in the famous places that the food our people of color cooked and served and cleaned up after were not frequented by their peer group, people of color; and, the rich soul cooking that was enjoyed in black establishments was not to become famous to anyone except people of color and those others that knew how to search out new (and delicious) experiences.
            Therein lies the rub. Go back half a century and see the difference between then and now; the situation is completely reversed. The caveat here is to rule out the French, German and other European heads of kitchens that were employed mainly for their training, knowledge and ability to command; remember, at that time, our restaurants served mostly Creole derivatives of European cuisine.
            “The outstanding characteristic of a chef is dedication and a willingness to work.” So says Rudy Lombard in his 1978 seminal cookbook Creole Feast, co-authored by Nathaniel Burton; in it, “fifteen Master Chefs of New Orleans” (African-Americans all.)  “reveal secrets of Creole cooking”. Among them: Austin Leslie (Chez Helene), Rosa Barganier (Corrine Dunbar’s), Louis Evans (Hotel Ponchartrain), Nathaniel Burton (Broussard’s) and Leah Chase (Dooky Chase). Of these, Leah Chase is the last of that breed standing. At 93, Mrs. Chase still commands her kitchen on Orleans Avenue as she has since 1941.
            These chefs worked their way up in kitchens, oft times starting as porters or dishwashers; they learned from the chefs that were there before them, they learned to cook by sweating over a skillet of roux, a deep fryer, pot of gumbo or the oven heat of Jambalaya for fifty. They learned to filet fish, bone hams, make stock and perfect sauces; most times the recipes were stored in their brains, only to be passed down to those they deemed worthy.
            I learned to cook this way from a woman named Ms. Vicky at the Embers Steak House who had worked there for twenty-eight years, learning the recipes from the chef that had been there for decades before her; red beans, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, bread pudding, nothing written down on paper. She worked with a steak knife taken from the dining room; she measured in gallon buckets that oysters came in, her instructions (when I finally deserved them) were; “put too much oil in that pan, now add just enough flour, add a hand of paprika and three fingers of garlic”. She measured her seasoning vegetables (onions, celery, bell pepper) 1-2-3 one part bell pepper, two of celery, three of onions. “Always add your onions first to the roux, it stops the cooking right where you want it, don’t add salt to the beans until they’re finished cooking, save that water from boiling the shrimp and use it as stock for the Etouffee Sauce, here, let me show you the real way to roast a prime rib!” After me having spent almost forty years in kitchens myself, she treated me like a child that had “no learning and less sense” when it came to ‘her food’; but she took pity upon me, after all, I was the Chef, and schooled me in the tradition of the black hands that had been in New Orleans pots for almost two hundred years.
            The African American Chefs that shaped our city’s food have all but disappeared, like the dinosaurs; however, all young cooks coming up today could do with an archeological dig into what really put (and has kept) our food on the culinary map of the world, before they aim to celebrity status.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A dog and his boy

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Canine Comfort
A Dog and His Boy
            A thousand years from now when the aliens finally get here and sift through the rubble that we have left of this planet, they may well wonder about the connection between homo sapiens and the other sapiens that inhabited this once habitable world; the fanatics that were attached to their felines; persons with primates; those that exercised with the equines; women raised by wolves; those avid for aviary and the strangest of all, maniacs that were mad for their mutts: dog lovers.
            We let dogs into our houses and our hearts until they have us trained and at their mercy; sometimes all it takes is eye contact, a wet nose, the wag of a tail, a slobbering tongue and you’re a goner. Then our lives get embedded with canine metaphors: we’re dog tired and our dogs are barking because we have just worked like a dog on a dog day. We refer to our Greyhound bus service as the ‘Dog’; it rains cats and dogs, we put a sausage on a roll and call it a hot dog, doggonit. We oldsters danced the Philly Dog and the Dirty Dog, we talked of ‘puppy love’ and asked (musically) “can your monkey do the Dog?”
`           Every dog will have its day and I’ve had my share of them; it’s a love affair that can only end with my heart being broken-- and yet I’ve spent my life going back for more-- over and over again. I’m a sucker for them; I like it when they lick my face, I feel as proud as a parent when they teach me a new trick or show me one that they’ve known all along but were just waiting for me to catch on to. I’ve been trained to throw balls and sticks, take them places, clean up their messes and give them a trip to the veterinarian if they so much as look like they’re feeling poorly. I get them shots and monthly medications, premium food, spoil them with treats and buy them toys. I’ve told them my troubles, cried on their shoulders and mourned their passings.
            Sure, we live with felines also, but they’re as different as, say, cats and dogs. Cats are very independent, aloof and entertaining; they know tricks but refused to be trained, they want what they want when they want it and have no conception of separation anxiety: they’ll love you and leave you. It is said that cats are like people would like to be and dogs are like people really are; perhaps that’s why we relate to our Fido, Rosie, Grover, Molly, Ginger, Scout and Sophia dogs differently. We admire our felines, worship and adore them; our canines, well, they’re our buddies, pals, running mates; they protect and comfort us. They’re our commitment and responsibility.
            There are 340 breeds of dogs recognized in the world today; if you take into consideration the variations that can (and often do) occur, you might find yourself in love with any one of what we used to call the Heinz fifty-seven varieties. To a dog lover there’s no such thing as an ugly dog and, puppies and elder dogs bring smiles just at thoughts of them.   
            Veterinarian science had come a long way since my first dog got me; now there’s wonder drugs, x-rays, ultrasounds, surgeries, anal expressions, nail clippings and even teeth cleaning. I’ve known canines getting cancer surgeries, blood transfusions, morphine shots and Asian herbal medications. By in large, the veterinarians that I’ve had minister to my critters have been more than exceptional-- caring, understanding, knowledgeable, professional, patient and empathetic-- from instructing me how to care for an infant kitten to taking my dead dog from my arms and comforting me. The entire staff at my current Vet’s is aces; it’s a small family practice, close to my home and heart. They have been there for me, always going the extra mile and taking their time to answer any questions with educated and honest answers. There’s a special place in Heaven for them.
There are dog trainers, walkers, whisperers, psychics, massage therapists and astrological chart interpreters. What can you say? Dogs are born, they live and they’ll die, it’s called a life cycle. It’s—and there’s no other word for it—devastating when your dog dies. Your soul’s foundation drops away, you’re damaged beyond repair, your chest has a hole in it, you become unfocused and you grieve. Disbelief. Anger. Resignation. Tasteless food, fitful sleep, seeing shadows of where your best friend once made their spaces, Getting up in the night remembering not to trip over the dog and re-remembering that the dog is no longer there, will not be there again. Ever.
            You only miss them when you think of them but—as the song goes—you think of them all the time; and… time it will take, as you get over the dear one that you’ve lost; your best friend; the unconditional love that you shared. Your mantra becomes “don’t cry because it’s over--- smile because it happened”. Your recovery becomes fraught with clichĂ©.
Time never heals all wounds, but through long experience I know that, at the right time, someone will come along and tell me of another dog who needs a boy; and I’ll be off again, older but no wiser.
It’s said that love is the exchanging of pieces of hearts, and, I know before it’s over,  I’ll have given and gotten from canines enough to send me to my rest with, hopefully, a complete dog’s heart, and that… that’s more than fine with me; actually, it will be a privilege.