Friday, March 11, 2011

More about the Short Story

Okay, so you've read all ten pieces of our adventure in New Orleans larceny by a group of pretty much lovable n'eer do wells (or have you?. And, by now you would have surmised that the actual deal is about to go down at that French Quarter restaurant. (haven't you?. Well in a couple of real weeks there is going to be a real Tennessee Williams Literary Festival at a real French Quarter restaurant where I will attend and see exactly how the gang is going to pull this one off, really. Stay tuned for Parts 11, 12, and concluding with part 13!If all goes well I'll get this published as a complete work which will include a lottery ticket with each copy sold!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

New Orleans Chocoholic

Po-boy Views

By Phil LaMancusa

Theobroma By The Bayou

Looking over the family library last night, my eye was caught by a
book on chocolate. Then another book on chocolate. Then another and another
AND another, and surprisingly, others. This gave me cause to pause. So pause I did; then, I counted twenty, yes twenty, different books that I had collected on this one subject. Books whose titles read like exotic perfumes at the “Smells R’US” counters at J.C.Macy’s Fifth Avenue.
Titles like Chocolate Obsession, Chocolate Decadence and even Chocolate Sex! Or books that promise The Joy of chocolate, Chocolate Ecstasy, The Chocolate Fantasy, or Chocolate: the Consuming Passion. One that threatened: DEATH By Chocolate, and one to be used when all else failed; Chocolate Suicide.
Then it happened. (what?) I began to sweat. I was trembling……I was dazed and confused. (huh?)
I thought I had kicked it (what?). I thought it was over. (WHAT?), (I'll tell ya).
There I was, at eleven at night, in my BunnyJammys having a full-blown CDA! (a what?) Chocolate Deprivation Attack! ( whaddya do?)
I opened the Chocolate Bible, where for years I have saved my favorite
wrappers with little notes to myself:(“Valentine’s Day '97; she’s gone, but at least I’ve got the Godiva". Or,” Xmas ‘98: Champagne Truffles RULE!") and
hyperventilated the remains of past acquisitions like an asthmatic in the throes.
My heartbeat returned to normal. I calmed down. Almost.
After a strong glass of Nestles Quik, which I keep for such emergencies,
and with my Chocolate Bible under my pillow, I spent a restless night; resolving
to find out what our fair city has to offer a Chocolate Addict such as myself.
Directory Assistance has no listing for Chocoholics Anonymous and The Yellow Pages has only two listings under Chocolates and Cocoa: Cuccia Chocolates at
622 Royal and Wilbur Chocolate Company, on Clearview Parkway in Metarie, the
latter being a distributor and not a retail outlet. In the morning, I headed to Royal Street.
Even when we hit bottom, the truly lost soul of a chocolate addict will never take chocolate at face value, buy blindly, or stoop low and sample a perspective supplier’s wares in their presence. We do have some standards; and with those standards I made my way to Cuccia’s with an innocent look on my face and my stomach creeping up my throat (to be closer to the goods when they entered my bod).
. I met Jace Cuccia without knowing it when a booming “Howya Doin?” greeted
my arrival. We exchanged pleasantries about chocolates, sizing each other
up. Hmmm, I thought; "clean store, kinda geared for tourists, he’s big for his size
and young for his age". What he thought of a bald, slightly overweight, middle
aged man taking eyeglasses out of a Curious George holder I couldn’t say.
Then we got down to it. “You local?” he says. More of an observation than
Question. “Yep”, Says I (two can play this game I thought).
“whatcha lookin for?” He asks, eyeing me intently.
Our gazes lock. The moment of truth. “Solid Hit” I say firmly, quietly.
We look into eachother’s souls. We understand. He guides. I ask questions. We
drop names. We talk formulas and percentages of cocoa to fat. We shake hands
three times before I leave with my purchases.
Theobroma (food of the Gods), is another contribution to world cuisine from the Americas; others, such as, vanilla, chilis, tomatoes, and corn will have to wait for their own stories to be told, we're talking chocolate here.
The Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayas knew about choquatl (bitter water) long before Columbus decided to find a shortcut to India; and on his fourth voyage (1502), Chris brought some back home to no one's amazement.
1519 saw Montezuma and Cortez at a party turning each other on to things they both would regret, except possibly the exhilaration of the drink that they share; and in due time, Cortez queries his host (about the drink).
Well, Cortez (from Montezuma), learns about a tree native to the area that grows forty to sixty feet high and bears gourdlike fruits, that are harvested year round, each containing twenty five or so 'seeds'. These seeds are laid out to ferment, then roasted, and ground up, mixed with spices and water. The brew gets him off like a shot (in more ways than one). Cortez brings some back home too, but this time with instructions.
. The king of Spain thinks the brew is too bitter and dumps a bunch of sugar in it and we get another reason to celebrate the caprice of a Monarch. History is made over a cup of cocoa!
Anyway, to make a long story longer, it takes a half a dozen complex steps to turn a slimy seed into a religious experience and you should read up on the subject; right now, you've caught me with the goods; red, I mean brown, handed.

In the doorway of a closed shop I open my bag, salivating and sweating, I remove and consume the first candidate. It's called a Mintini: (.75) a dark, minty, chocolate square, rich, nice. But I’m not looking for nice.
Next, Dark Chocolate Truffle ($1.00) smooth, almost smoky in flavor, yummy, but not quite an epiphany. Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen.
Now, lastly I remove the final contender, saved for last because of its potential
and my intuition. The Dark Chocolate Bar ($2.00).
In the New Orleans heat it’s already starting to get a little sticky. I break off
a piece and place it carefully on my tongue. It melts slowly. Yes. Smoothly.
Yesyes. The taste spreads of its own accord enveloping my soul and senses.
The night air purrs. Close by, an acapello group sings “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
The sunset receives The M.C. Echer award and I drift home in a haze of glory.
I’m there. I’m really there.
My wife takes a look at my faraway eyes. “Where have you been?” she asks.
Where else? (thinking of a great name for a book); “Chocolate Heaven”.

Man Bites Dog in New Orleans

Po-boy Views
By Phil LaMancusa
Man Bites Dog: A guide to fun on a bun
“Do you know what’s in that thing?” My daughter asked.
With all the control I could muster I delayed that first bite, my mouth filling with saliva, the dog poised, hovering inches from my incisors, canines and molars; fully loaded. “You mean nitrates?” I inquire
“No” she said, “Piggy toenails.”
I was ready to campaign for this pup like a southern diplomat; turning the dog sideways and presenting it like the model of a great sailing schooner, I said proudly: “You see before you, representatives of all the major food groups!”
A sympathetic hand on my sleeve was attached to a patient: “Papa, I hate to tell you, but there are food groups in that thing that we haven’t begun to suspect exist.”
“This”, I replied undaunted, “is a Chancy Dog. And it says right there: A New Orleans Creation Since 1938.”
“THAT one may have been around that long. Why would you want to put that thing (she said “that thing” as If referring to a real canine appendage) in your mouth?”
“Research” I bravely announced, taking off the first three inches in a single bite, chopped onions flying, cheese product on my shirtfront, chili oozing from the corners of my mouth, and the rest of the bun falling apart; leaving me with two hands full of ingredients, and an impotent, soggy, six inch square of wax paper.
“Ah,” I thought brightly, “A two fisted!"-- I made a mental note: "use Italian Death Grip” (a hold usually reserved for one of Elizabeth’s famous Potato and Gravy Po-boys).
My daughter and I had searched half the world looking for the perfect “dog”. We had eaten bowsers in baguettes in Paris, Mongrel con Mayonaisa in Mexico, Jodi Maroni’s Haute Dog in Venice, Ca. and Sabrett’s on the streets of the Big Apple.
We’ve had them made out of turkey, beef, chicken, pork; alone and in combinations, even tofu. Fully loaded (dressed is a term for sandwiches not pups) and Spartan.
We checked them out in Airports, Train Stations, Circle K’s, K marts, and high falutin’ restaurants in San Francisco. We even once went to a baseball game (but, that's another story).
This is some of what we’ve found out:
The Dog. The dog is a total experience, beginning with the seller. We learned to turn away from a stand solely because of the demeanor of the dealer. They have to enjoy what they do or it can throw the taste off. No kidding. The best ones will remind you of the Dickens’ character Fagin, if you get my drift. This MAY be what drove my daughter to become vegan.
Loading the dog: the seller, not the self, should load the dog; this in itself is an art. Too much or too little of any one of the condiments can ruin the balance and is best left to the professional. Feel free to observe technique before you commit to a purchase.
The condiments: are best put on with wooden implements, (this practice is largely lost,) the onions fresh chopped and uniform in size or nicely stewed, the relish not liquidy, the sauerkraut not soupy, the chili thick and viscous, the cheese product loose and fluffy. Choice of mustard is nice, but always pick the brightest color. Catsup only from a non-refillable squeeze bottle and optional. Putting the catsup and mustard on the bun instead of the meat is always a nice touch. You should be able (except, we found in Chicago and San Francisco’s windy wharf area) to almost sniff out the individual ingredients as well as the accoutrements. Temperature should be “HOT”
The bread should be soft enough to give easy access to components yet strong enough to contain them. We find the more “economical” types that need a bit of tearing open to be the best. In other words cheap, white buns. They should last all the way to the end of the pup, neither running out too soon nor being leftover. Steamed or grilled or not at all. Never toasted.
The meat; (first of all: sausage is for a sandwich and should not be considered of the same philosophy as pups.) What we’re looking for is bits and pieces and parts of farm animals, ground very fine and mixed with all of those unpronounceable ingredients that will build up our immunity to nuclear fallout, stuffed to bursting in casings preferably of natural origin. Either seared crisp or stewed in juices for days. When bitten into they should “pop” and the meat (?) and juices should fill the receptors of both oral and olfactory senses. The experience should be transcendental the closer you get to the perfect dog. Needless to say, we haven’t found it. Yet.
“I approach each new test as a quest for a Guru at a sacred shrine.,,,,,,,,” I continue.
“I ain’t eating nothin’ made from mechanically separated animals” is the response I receive. Where did I go wrong?
The dog’s not bad, it bears further testing. I return to the shrine. “Please” I ask, “make me one with everything”.

Insect eaters guide to New Orleans

The Next few unrelated blogs are from a long lost floppy disc that I have found and resurrected. These stem back over ten years when I just began to explore the thousand word (give or take) word format. Please forgive the naiivete.
Po-boy Views
By Phil LaMancusa
An Insect Eaters Guide to New Orleans

“If you haven’t eaten ‘gator tail before, you’re in for a surprise. It’s so good, you’ll wanna lay down and scream!”
“Don’t change the subject”, I replied, “I said…. People all over the world eat insects.”
“Yeah, but in Looosiana, we just steps on ‘em!” Matter of factly, I was getting nowhere, with this subject, with my coffee companion slash culinary professional slash tall, cool drink of water.
“Okay, let me start again”……….I can be patient, I patiently told myself. “It may surprise you to know that in many foreign countries insects are eaten as part of a regular diet”……..I began.
"And that’s why they call ‘em that”. “Call them what?” “Foreign countries.” She said, I said, she replied. I was starting to get dizzy.
“Huh?” (I said)
It was now her turn to be patient, as she addressed me as though I had the intelligence of a box of rocks. “That’s why they call them "foreign" countries: only someone foreign would eat a bug!"
Well folks; that’s how it started, two consenting adults, speaking the same language over coffee, and as usual, one of them (me) gets intellectually cut off at the knees.
But I haven’t given up! I lay my case before you, Gentle Reader. (I stole that Gentle Reader thing).
Scorpions, Waterbugs, Dragonflies, Termites, Ants, Spiders, what we know as Stinkbugs, Water beetles, Crickets, Grasshoppers, Tarantulas, and a large variety of Grubs, Worms and Caterpillars, are in fact perfectly acceptable parts of daily diets around this old globe of ours. And we’re not talking isolated countries here. We’re talking countries with nuclear weapons, fashions and digital watches!
They’re served up (the insects not the watches) fried, sautéed, in casseroles, soups and stews as well as eaten (especially termites) fresh from wherever they happen to live.
Does this scare the insects? Not a bit. Does it scare me? Let me put it this way: I’m a reasonable man, against prejudice of any kind, especially culinary; however, the thought of crunching down on a deep-fried cicada throws me off my feed. Immature? Ignorant? Unenlightened? I hang my head in shame.
But, do I mind YOU eating insects? Not one bit. Just don’t try to kiss me until you use some Lavoris. No, really, insects contain a lot of protein, can be prepared a number of ways (are you listening Paul?) and as we all know, they do be plentiful in New Orleans!
I would like to interject here that none of my researches uncovered (?) cockroaches as delicacies, so they still don’t deserve respect. Thankya Lord!
Anyway, perhaps as a culinary Mecca, New Orleans can be at the forefront of the next undiscovered cuisine: Entomophagy.
Do I detect an amount of scoffing out there? Did you know that a lobster is cousin to a spider? And what about those little items we call Mudbugs? Ever wonder about Shrimp? What is so far fetched about a nice steaming dish of Grasshopper Ettoufee? Or, Fire Ant Gumbo? We can Join the dozens of other countries (foreign or not) that hold up their heads and floss that antenna from their teeth with no embarrassment. After all, as Jonathan Swift said in 1738 “ He was a bold man that first eat an oyster”. Think about THAT one!
Armed with my argument on paper, I returned to coffee the next day and confronted my companion. She read. She sipped her coffee, stretched those long legs, flashed her eyes a big blue “NO”, and she said quietly, slowly, almost venomously “I ain’t no bug sucker!” Then she brightened, and like a window opening to a cool coastal breeze said: “ “Now, Possum Gumbo, you ever had possum? Or Squirrel?……………”

Bad Liver in New Orleans

Po-boy Views
By Phil LaMancusa
Bad Liver and A Broken Heart
It's my Pate and I'll Cry if I Want To

I refuse to believe that my life is passing me by; rather, I believe I just saw it ride by me on a bicycle, going in the opposite direction! It is for this reason I think more about the food that I've eaten than the food that I have yet to cook. Let me explain.
First, about that bicycle. As inoffensably politically correct as I can state, I hererby declare that as a full and rich blooded ---------, naturally (and I think that it has something to do with nature), I am very attracted to, and I mean very attracted to--------------------- (fill in the blanks). Especially on bikes!. Whew!
As a person that has seen over a half century of life go by, I realize, all too sadly, that there would not be a sane person in that category that would find the least bit of attraction for this seasoned veteran at this particular stage of his physical form. That's one of the "facts" of life that used to really depress me. In fact, it depressed the holy !@@##$%$% out of me.
What did I do? Simple. I applied, as I do in such cases, irrational philosophical reverse logic fantasy. In other words, I made up a story that made me feel better.
Here's the story. That --------- (read: HOT NUMBER!) that I see passing through my life is actually on their way to meet me in some other point of time; either in my future or in my past. I know that that's probably not true, but who's to say? It works for me.
Now you say; "Phil, what the hell does that have to do with the food that you've eaten?"
And I say: "that was a trip on the "segue" bus; and, I wanted to get it out of the way before getting to the real subject."
Which is this: While I'm cooking breakfast for the gang at work, my thoughts are saying: "Mama used to cook potatoes in a cast iron skillet. I had to make sure, and darn sure, that there was not the least bit of peel or blemish on the potatoes after I peeled them. We didn't call them "hash browns" they were "home fries". Those puffed ones at Antoine"s were sure funny, huh? What about that dose of cream and cheese in the ones I had in San Francisco, whew, what a heavy hit!, remember the midway in New Jersey where they supplied vinegar as a condiment for french fries so hot they'd burn the roof of your mouth if you weren't careful?. Why do they call them "French" anyway" and on and on and on. Instead of "being here now" I find myself "being there later"…. sometimes much later.
Either I'm getting old, going crazy, or I've cooked and eaten a hell of a lot of potatoes. I prefer to think the last is probably the most true; although, I would not rule out the other two. If my theory is correct (going with my "lotta spuds" theory) that would explain the other culinary mind ramblings that I've been experiencing; lately:
My Grandmother never used a cutting board or a recipe. She went shopping, got what she needed, cleaned the product, as was it's wont, and then simply cut it directly into the pot/sauce pan/skillet, no muss no fuss, just good cooking. How come professional Chefs can't/don't/won't do that today?
We were raised in a mixed neighborhood and the smells of corn beef and cabbage mingled with spaghetti and meat sauce, fried chicken, and black beans with fresh tortillas. We never thought of it as "ethnic food"; to us it was just "dinner". Where did this "ethnic" crap come from? When did we stop calling it 'The Italian Place', or 'That Arab/Greek/Chinese Joint'?
Everybody's Dad could fix their own car, everybody's Mom could cook a chicken. Everybodys chicken was different, but, it was the same chicken. (Things that make you go "hmmmmmm?") The same chicken.
Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to tell you where a Vegan was from. Now, I'm having an affair with one.
Do you remember the wonderful aromas coming from that potato chip factory by Elysian Fields and Decatur?
What was the name of that donut factory that you could go to at four in the morning? And don't it remind you of the smell coming up through the gratings outside the Royal Sonesta?
How much was beans and rice at Buster's as far back as you can remember? Did you even ever have them? Have you ever had better?
I can still feel that sick, gut knotting, nauseousness I got that time, with forks poised, she told me she "needed more space". Ironically it was a hearts of palm salad, and I still can't eat one to this day.
God, I hate the taste of sour milk!
Well, there. That's it. Of course there's more but you get the gist; how much can you take? And besides, I'll never get published going over 1,000 words
This piece is on the drawing board right now; BUT, should you ever see it published, please feel free to unburden yourselves of your own culinary stumbling blocks by writing to me in care of these guys, whoever they may be.
That'll show'em we're a force to be reckoned with; people afflicted with "Deja Food" or "haven't I eaten this before?"