Sunday, November 27, 2011

Valentines in New Orleans

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
The Art Of Baking
She leaned across the bar and said: "Tell me a story... tell me a love story." So I did.
"Once upon a time there was a chef, younger than I am; a hard working, hard drinking, philanderer of a chef. He worked in a restaurant; a very busy restaurant; on Bourbon Street; in the French Quarter; in New Orleans named Houlihan’s Old Place. They averaged 1,500 meals a day; that’s how busy they were. The chef worked with a full crew of miscreant kitchen workers. Also working was a bevy of energetic young women who delivered service in the form of food and drink to the plethora of customers in addition to providing more than ample exotic inspirations to the male workers romantic fantasies. The young crew was energetically enthusiastic while working, playing and availing themselves to their promiscuous natures. It was a time when Innocence was married to Exuberance; and, as it turns out, Exuberance was two timing Innocence with that scamp Excess.
One day while the Chef was working on the line he saw a sight that crossed his eyes and dotted his tees. A tall beauty of a waitress (named Isabelle) raised her arms above her head and took from her hair a pen that was holding up her dark tresses, allowing them to literally cascade down to the small of her back. This action, and I’m sure that you’ve seen it (or done it), did its best to accentuate a figure that was nothing short of astounding. The chef very literally dropped what he was doing, stared like a rube at a peep show and their eyes met.
Well, the long and the short of it was that a night or so later she found him in a bar doing his usual after work ‘drink til you drop’ routine and successfully lured him into her bed. He was, as you might have guessed, a very willing victim to her charms and, getting along so well together, they began seeing a lot of eachother. Once, when they hadn’t seen eachother for some days she found him again and queried his absence of attention. He confessed to the knowledge that his relationship with her was not exclusive (on either side) and that he was mulling over a quandary; to wit: he was falling in love and if the relationship were to not be exclusive (on both sides) that perhaps he should have no part of a relationship with her at all. That divergence was resolved in congress that night and they became ‘an item’ in the eyes of all around them. In fact, when the upper management of the restaurant caught wind and informed the chef of a rule barring the dating between chefs and waitresses (random casual screwing was exempted), the chef promptly fired himself.
One day, as the couple was walking in their neighborhood they spied an abandoned laundry and dry cleaning plant that was for rent (626 Frenchmen Street), and hatched a plan to build their own restaurant to live and work together… forever; and, working outside jobs, they did just that. It took fourteen months of living in that construction zone to empty out the old and install the new, buying an old bread delivery truck and naming it ‘Step-van Fetch-it’ to do necessary hauling. They brought back discarded restaurant equipment, building materials and furnishings from the landfill and incorporated the castoffs to into their vision. With the help of friends they put in an atrium and a glass windowed foyer; they cleaned up a huge brick wall and created an outside porch and bathing area; they built tables, walls, benches, panels, a stage and a stairway up to the mezzanine; they ran water, gas, ventilation systems and electricity without supervision or approval; they installed and used a wood burning pot belly for heat. They lived on the mezzanine upstairs from the restaurant (as later did some of the staff), and they named their restaurant Valentines.
Valentines became a destination for expats, orphans, musicians, tradesmen, runaway princesses, jewel smugglers, existentialists and idealists. Those were the days when you could take a dream into your hands, breathe life into it and make into your own reality; I have pictures to prove it.
Soon, as these things will go, someone got pregnant; and it wasn’t him …it was Isabelle. At that point they had a 1950 Chevy pick-up truck named Lazarus; so called because of its ability to quit running and somehow rise again from the dead. It was a time when poor folks had their babies at Charity Hospital; in 1977 they were birthing two hundred babies a day and that was not an option that they cared for. As birthing time grew nearer, they found out about a midwife in Eureka Springs, Arkansas named Beulah who was available. Lazarus was given a new coat of silver paint and entrusted to make the trip.
Beulah was eighty years old; had been birthing babies for forty years and preaching the gospel for thirty. Her parishioners were of the counter culture and she played lead electric guitar at the services where they sometimes spoke in tongues. The birthing was done on Beulah’s farm. Beulah explained that she had never had to perform an episiotomy, and I was instructed to supply fragrant oils (to keep Isabelle “greased up”) for a smooth event.
To make a long story longer, the ‘event’ lasted twenty-two hours with contractions, dilations, pushing hard and breathing deep; the mother was panting; the midwife/preacher was praying, massaging, measuring; the father was keeping everything oiled up and Christ Almighty was leading cheers from on high. We tried squatting; we tried warm baths; we wound up with a sheet tied to the bedposts and young Isabelle puffing like a steam engine and Beulah in the bed and me in the bed and Jesus in the bed and weeping and singing and sighing and moaning. We were a congregation; we were the flock; we were the gateway to the universe. We were there when, with a cry and a shit and a big old SPLORT!, the fabric of known life parted to make room for another child. An exhausted mother looked down lovingly at her slippery accomplishment and exhaled……….. “Hosanna!”
and that’s what we named the baby."
These days a lot of water has passed under the bridge; Hosanna now has three daughters of her own, the vagaries of life have separated us all by miles but not by spirit and the lessons remain: life is an adventure; anything is possible and love is the one essential ingredient to baking beautiful and delicious cakes (and everything else).

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