Sunday, February 8, 2009

Where Y'at Restaurants in New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
La Phire Restaurant
Here We Go Again
My childhood began in the late 1960’s in New Orleans in my late 20’s. At that time there was an epidemic of young people, I don’t know what happened to most of them since then; but, in those days the inmates ran the asylum. The New Orleans young folks dressed strange, thought differently from their elders and were not afraid to speak their mind. The city was one big tribe. For the most part we had all decided to stop working for ‘the Man’ and had told Kemo Sabe to kiss our asses.
The tribe was broken up into smaller groups; singles and couples, twos and threes and twelve and up. These of the latter (12+) were called communes. Communes were loosely based around an ideal, philosophy, art or business venture. There were groups of people concentrating on free clinics, newspapers (called ‘Underground Newspapers’) food distribution, publishing houses, religion and of course those brave souls that kept body and soul together by keeping us supplied with hallucinogens (bless their hearts). I was part of a commune; we had a restaurant.
Sundays were particularly pleasant because the tribe would get together in the park for what we called The Celebration of Life. Naturally the ‘establishment ‘ hated us. Imagine a thousand young people on public land, setting up one geeenormuss picnic on a Sunday afternoon. Bands would perform for no cost, children would run and play, love would be in the air and many of us would be exploring astral planes. Our tribes would meet with other tribes at venues called Rainbow Gatherings---- you had to be there.
For a time, our group lived in a crumbling plantation house on Chippewa Street. Our restaurant, after humble beginnings on Conti Street moved (with us) to a four-story warehouse on Barracks Street. The conditions were more than primitive.
We carved out a theater on the first floor, restaurant on the second and living spaces on the third and fourth. The rent was $500.00 a month, and we were rarely on time in paying it. It was a simpler time; computers were but a rumor, dress codes were non issue and hand held communication devices were the stuff of science fiction. We drank water from the tap, ‘there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air’.
We took in any visitors for three days at a time, after that (with approval) they were welcomed to move in or out. One of our better additions happened when we took in four refugees from a situation up north at Kent State University who decided to stick around. You have to realize that we were living a Never-never land existence, we had a hierarchy, we a cohesion, we had 12-20 of us to keep fed and a business to run. It appears to me now that it is more than a possibility that not one of us knew what we were doing. Sonya was a mother to us all; luckily for us she had a young child and had some practice. There are too many names to mention and each with a story.
If you were lucky enough to come and dine, you would sit at a homemade table in found chairs, the settings were mismatched and the food was simple, nutritious and very inexpensive. We served food that we had learned to cook without the advantage of modern equipment and everything we cooked was in season. We were a block away from, what was then, a fully functional produce market that stretched for blocks and blocks. We lived above the restaurant and we cooked all the time, we baked our own bread and what was good for one of us was good for all of us or it wasn’t good at all. Our lawyer rode his bicycle to cut down on air pollution. We did a lot of shopping at Schwegmann’s; we called ourselves a family.
There was (and still is) a big parking lot next to us that generally had the comings and goings of young nomads and one semi permanent fixture was a mini school bus that had the emblazoned placard reading “Why Not?” And that was just the way it was.
Many times one or more of us would take an outside job to help out financially. One job that I had taken was with the French Market Corporation as a street sweeper. I swept from Jackson Square to Barracks Street from eleven at night until seven in the morning. We worked in teams. I worked with a man named Ely.
At times, produce vendors would put out fruits and vegetables that had become too ripe to sell: tomatoes, squashes, citrus and I would bring them home to be prepped. There was a big shrimp warehouse that trucks of shrimp would come in to, to be unloaded by men with snow shovels. What spilled was mine, usually between five and eight pounds at a time. I once saw a man skin a possum on the dock to take home for dinner.
I’ve seen a dozen sweating blacks offload an open-bed semi of watermelons, tossing them with silent rhythm, glistening like ebony gods of the underworld under an indigo sky. I’ve seen country folk sleeping in beds of corn or onions waiting for the market to open. Feral cats keeping the rodent population down and mating among the smells of the roasting coffee and Old Man River. On the right breeze you could smell the potatoes frying at the chip factory on Elysian Fields.
We would catch breaks at Morning Call, the stand that was in competition with Café Du Monde that still had a ‘Colored’ serving room and what a juke box! After, we would turn on the hydrants just to watch the street flood in the moonlight. We would tell inquirers that we were lowering the level of the river.
I’ve been with members of the tribe as we watched the sun rise in the East over the West Bank and trundled home to the smell of Ray, our baker, getting out the first loaves. To a four story warehouse on Barracks Street that was a restaurant named La Phire.
And you need an article for a Restaurant Issue?

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