Saturday, August 2, 2008

Thanksgiving 1 in New Orleans

Po-boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Thanksgiving Deja-Food
Haven’t I Eaten This Before?

The handlettered sign on the door of the small café on Conti Street read “Closed for Thanksgiving”; and a dozen of us piled into various forms of vehicular transportation and sped to Shweggman’s and spent all of our hard earned in a frenzy of ‘day before The Day’ shopping. It was 1968. Giggling like preschoolers, we made our way uptown to our rented ‘demolition by neglect’ mansion on Chippewa Street and prepared a beggars banquet with all the love, sex, drugs and Rock and Roll in our counter culture hearts. We didn’t get back down to reopen the café until Monday. That was okay by us; after all, didn’t we own the damn place?
As a boy, Thanksgiving was celebrated by the seven members of our family on the tenth floor of a New York City Housing Project and it started at dawn’s crack and didn’t end until the kids were ready to drag themselves, half comatose from triptophane, to bed; while the grownups, with the last of the available welfare cash, headed to the bar across the street for highballs and shuffleboard and congratulations all around for getting through another Thanksgiving. No one would have even dreamed about going to a restaurant to eat on Thanksgiving; it was a family thing, and we did it BIG!
Years later, I would be Executive Chef of a hotel in downtown San Francisco serving a one hundred and twenty foot buffet to twelve hundred strangers that all had one thing in mind: eat as much as you can possibly hold. I watched while hordes of, I think, pleasant people on probably any other day, zeroed in on caviar pie, smoked salmon, carved roasts, pate, plethoras of freshly baked breads and zip codes of desserts with the instincts of wolf packs and the manners of Mongols. The results of my month long planning and work would clog the drains of the ‘City by the Bay’ hours later. What a life.
Last year as a ‘Line Cookin’ Dog’ on Bourbon Street, another cook and myself fed seven hundred people who seemed to come out of the woodwork, and who, looking for…you guessed it; turkey, stuffing, ham, lamb, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, candied yams, bread pudding… found it and put it into their faces as fast as humanly possible, giving not the slightest clue of thankfulness. That weekend, I put in one hundred and forty hours.
I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner in ‘lost and found’ bars across the country, where the good folks in charge couldn’t bear the thought of a stranger having no place to go on that holiest of holidays: the ‘Feast of the Full Belly’. Say Grace, Amen and dig in.
I’ve served the upscale neauveau riche in Mill Valley “Thanksgiving with seventeen sides” and they came at me like starving Armenians for second and third helpings; howling if one of the serving dishes were not replenished fast enough with oyster cornbread dressing or sage and giblet stuffing or parsnips, turnips, greens, peas and carrots, string beans, sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, broccoli, cauliflower in cheese sauce, pearl onions in cream sauce, corn pudding and baked squash. There was never enough pumpkin pie but there was always left over mincemeat. Pecan pie was for the ‘country connoisseur’ but, after dinner drinks were de rigoure for all. Big freakin’ deal!
“May I have more whipped cream?”
“Is there any more dark meat?”
“Hey, what happened to the wishbones?”
“Is there any meat in that?”
Gimme a break!
To mark this auspicious occasion, in my time, I’ve had my bird in jail, free kitchens, from a can and even from a pint bottle of it called ‘Wild’. I’ve done the ritual in bus stations, stranger’s houses, and with temporary lovers; and guess what? I’m just about over this killing of a ritual bird in honor of the things that I’m supposed to be grateful for that I ain’t got the rest of the year.
No offense intended; I know that we all have a lot of things to be grateful for on a regular basis, but hey, lets be real here, we work our butts off to make that happen. The rent, the utilities, the phone; yeah, that’s worth killing that imbecile of a bird for. But what about our medical, our kid’s schooling, and our daily struggle to make ends meet? Don’t they deserve a day of their own? How about a ‘Patsy Cline Day’? Where we sit around and pop some cool PBRs and smoke some Luckys and consider ‘What a HELL of a situation we’ve gotten ourselves into Day’? How about a day when we go ‘ Bowling for God’ and thank our lucky stars that we’re not like Franky ‘the moron;’ that still drools and has the I. Q. of a fence post? We need more real holidays, is what I’m saying!
How about a monthly fifth to be cracked and a celebration of ‘We paid the landlord again on time day’!? Or a ‘Freedom Day’ where the rent, phone, electricity and hot water are on someone else for a change?
Don’t get me wrong, none, and I repeat none of my Thanksgiving Days have been inconsequential. At least that I remember; they have all been like a collection of photos in a dusty, forgotten album. That one with my visiting nine year old daughter when the closest we got was turkey sandwiches at a Greek diner or the one with the one hundred and eighty pound clubfoot in Portsmouth, England (that’s another story)……..but, hey how much more of this can a poor boy take? I mean, what else can happen?
How about the sky opening and someone from the Heavenly Host asking “white meat or dark” or somehow you wake up on that sacred Thursday and somebody notices that there are no more turkeys? Short of being served by topless shoeshine girls or stripping Chippendales, I don’t think much would impress me anymore. Nope, this day has become redundant, repetitive and transparently dull.
“Oh let’s have Thanksgiving Dinner! Yeah, right! I’d rather have spleen surgery without anesthesia.
Instead let’s get knee walking drunk on Wednesday and stay in bed all of Thursday with TV dinners and make up stories of guilt, shame, triumph, love and betrayal; singing ribald songs and telling dirty jokes ‘til our sides split and order our food delivered from the Nelly Deli.
Okay, okay. I was only kidding. Actually, I got a call from an old friend in Abita Springs, we (and about ten others) used to own a small café on Conti Street. She said a bunch of the gang were coming over for a “Bird Day” celebration--vegetarian, of course. She wanted to make sure that I could take the whole weekend off, had my old corn pudding recipe and if I still had a copy of King Crimson on vinyl. She said that a few of them would come get me in the VW. She told me to remember that there’s water at the bottom of the ocean; whatever that’s supposed to mean. Oh well, here we go again. Happy Thanksgiving!

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