Thursday, June 2, 2016

Line Cookin' Dogs

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Line Cookin’ Dogs
Standing the Heat
            We had fast hands, wet brains and wicked senses of humor; nothing was sacred except for the plate we were working on. We called ourselves ‘line cookin’ dogs’, uniquely ourselves and overly underqualified for any semblance of a normal job or lifestyle. Somewhere, at a point between insanity and uncertainty, we’d gravitated to the only places that would employ us: food service establishments. We had started at the bottom, busting suds, chopping prep and finally being trusted enough by Chef to hold down stations of chaos, heat and rhythmic madness of our own. We preferred working night shifts; we liked staying up late and sleeping through mornings. We came in, dodging sunlight, on the run with hangovers and wisecracks, ready to confront an unsuspecting world, we took and gave out abuse our entire shifts, then went out to claim our lustful places on our favorite barstools.      
This was before busy food; before ‘culinary politicians’ cooked on food networks and ‘celebrity chefs’ (that wouldn’t last a week in our clogs) created meals without breaking a sweat. Barring jail time, rehab or coming to our senses, it was expected that one day we would be in charge of our own kitchens. We looked up to our chefs or despised them, but never disrespected them (not to their faces); our chefs were in charge because they had stared death in the face, fought their demons, and emerged vertically.  Chefs held power over us; more master than manager.
            Wait staff was usually divided between lifers and those just passing through on their way to becoming actors, writers, musicians and/or people who looked forward to a more responsible lifestyle, getting married,  having kids. Their feet were held to the fire each lunch and dinner shift around crunch time--the infamous hour (or hours) of ‘the rush’. The rush was not a time for the faint of heart, slow of wit or weak of bladder, either in the kitchen or on ‘the floor’. The fragile were culled by their inability to handle busy times without becoming ‘weeded’ or ‘in the weeds’--the term used when someone is in over their head and hopelessly lost in their timing, organization and minds; have this situation occur a few times and the person is literally ready to throw in the towel. Rarely did us ‘dogs’ show mercy to the weak, it just wasn’t done. To be frank, kitchen work is hot, sweaty, low paying, thankless work. It’s work times ten and if you can’t cut the mustard, you’re left in the dust and kicked curbwise.
            Miraculously, along the way, a few of us caught the fever and food became our lives; we became defined by our work and that’s when the fires really started getting hotter. We trained with enthusiasm; we took and quit jobs that led nowhere, padded our resumes, found mentors, went to school, read books and emerged with attitude, passion and a thirst for power. We became gang leaders, plain and simple. Keith Richards would have made a great chef.
            Being in charge is a circle of hell all its own. As the person in charge of employees that call you Chef, you have to get the most out of every warm body while fending off the bean counters who judge the bottom line and not the bĂ©arnaise, paraphrasing Moses and the commandments:-- ‘thou shall make as much profit as humanly possible this month and then next month make more’-- all the while, you have minions who, albeit a tad shy on experience, have bills to pay and habits to support (laundry, rent). When it’s slow, you’re expected to cut someone’s hours; when it gets busy, you’re expected to work the line, shoulder to shoulder with someone who expects you to be able to do their job better than they can, and you do; and that’s the positive side.
I learned to cook a chicken two hundred different ways, filleted schools of fish, peeled fields of onions, shelled a ton of shrimp and opened a bed of oysters in my time. I have come to believe that there is no component of a meal that can possibly be made better by using a mix, except maybe Bisquick biscuits. I’ve kept and mastered cooking jobs in twenty nationalities and I haven’t scratched the surface of culinary knowledge. I’ve substituted ingredients from skate wings for scallops to pork tenderloin for veal cutlet. It’s hard to be humble once you’ve mastered lemon meringue pie, ciabatta and perfect sunny side up eggs.
            My mentor had a keg of beer in the walk-in refrigerator (PBR) just for the cooks, he made us listen to the Rolling Stones and Beethoven, he worked us twelve hours a day, six/seven days a week and we loved it. He would greet us each morning by promising: “today is the first day of the rest of your miserable f**king lives” and then fulfill that promise. We would do anything to out-cook him, and never could. He is a culinary monster, wherever he is. He taught me that before I could be a success as a leader, I would have to master the art of being a follower.
            Katrina put a hold on my kitchen career when my job as the Culinary Director of a small cooking school here did not resurface. I figured that maybe, after fifty years of blood, sweat and beers, it was time for me to concentrate on the cookbook shop that I co-own and work to make a success of. Still I cook every day—at home. I go into my kitchen, wash up, put on my apron and hone up my knife; I pick up an onion and go into my zone. Line cookin’ dog.
            Comment: “Chef, great stuff, but you made it way too romantic!! It needs the bleeding and oozing finger cuts tied off with butcher twine; the sear and hiss of your flesh as it gets pushed up against gray hot cast iron. It needs more breakdowns and flare-ups, burnouts and speed freaks. But other than that, I loved it” David Mahler, Chef of the Jungle

Satchmo Uncensored

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours
Satchmo Uncensored
“Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart!”  Billie Holiday
            I told a tourist the other day that St. Louis Street as well as the cathedral at Jackson Square are named for Louis Armstrong: “After all”, said I, “we have Armstrong Park, Armstrong Airport--- he is our City’s favorite son--- so, naturally we have canonized him!”
 Not really, but it’s not a stretch; we’ve literally put Saint Satchmo on a pedestal, too bad, even though he deserves it, he never wanted it. Let’s start at the beginning:  the grandson of slaves, the illegitimate son of a part time hooker and an absentee laborer, raised mostly by a local Jewish family when he wasn’t being shuffled from pillar to post for a pallet; reared in a dirt poor slum, selling buckets of coal to the Storyville prostitutes (and listening to his musical hero, Joe “King” Oliver), picking up scrap from the back of a drawn wagon and cacophonically blowing a tin horn—“he played it every day, all day”-- to attract business. It was while working and tootling “one of them long tin horns that they celebrate Christmas with” that he spotted a beat up cornet in Jake Fink’s Loan Office (Pawn Shop) on Perdido and South Rampart Street and Morris Karnofsky, the rag, bone, bottle and metal (junk) collector that he worked for, lent him the two Dollar down payment on the five dollar instrument. The rest he paid on time from his hard earned pay.
The Karnofsky family, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, took little Louis in and even welcomed him at their table, what they called ‘cupboard love’ back then; ‘Mother Tillie’ would make sure that he was fed and even taught him Russian lullabies, because he also had a good voice. The Karnofskys were the first to encourage Louis’ playing and singing; nurturing him in his early life, this kid from a broken family. Louis forever wore a Star of David, relished Jewish food and praised his adopted traditions, giving full expression to this double helix of cultures-- Jewish and African American-- all of his days. The solidarity that he felt was well earned and given freely. It seems that New Orleans has perpetually had an element of haves and have-nots, and like it or not Africans and immigrants have generally had to go through periods of exclusion and prejudice until they come into their own; the Africans, the Irish, Germans, Sicilians and Eastern European Jews all were looked down upon and left to hard scrabble --basically because they were poor-- until they created a prosperity of their own making.
One of the things that united them was music. That music is called Jazz; Jazz is the people’s music, and at the time of Louis Armstrong’s childhood, Jazz was demanding attention.
Singing/scatting in street skiffle bands by age ten, Louis fit into music like a hand into a glove. A performer from an early age, he never tired of wanting, and getting, attention, eating it up like chicken on Sunday and, as we all know, is now called forward for his ‘prodigious virtuosity and extraordinary talent’. It is not enough to say that he got very very good on his horn; he was, simply put, a Musical God.  A god that was treated unfairly enough by his city from day one to the extent that he lived out his life away from here and is buried in Queens, New York not far from where his house that his wife bought in 1943 is and where he called ‘home’ until his death in 1971.
The fact is that Louis Armstrong grew up poor and powerless and he never forgot that. The neighborhood that he grew up in was called ‘the Battlefield’ (AKA Black Storyville) because of the gambling, drunkenness, whoring, fighting and shootings that occurred there. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade and started working; Louis had to hustle because he was the wage earner of his family that included his mother and his sister.  He was sent to the Waif’s Home at age eleven for firing his step father’s pistol on New Year’s Eve and spent three years locked up. It was there that the band director Peter Davis recognized his talent and potential-- as did Louis-- and when he was released, his musical muse called and he followed. He played in New Orleans bands in his early teens, riverboats at eighteen, up to Chicago, over to New York and back, bringing Jazz and Blues to appreciative audiences and making money before he was twenty-one. Between 1925 and 1928 Armstrong cut more than sixty records with his band The Hot Five. It was then that Armstrong, single-handedly transformed Jazz into a soloist’s art.
Louis Armstrong was married four times and was reputed to have taken many lovers, he regularly smoked marijuana and kept in good health (according to him) by taking routine intestinal purges. He publicly boycotted New Orleans since its banning of integrated bands in 1956. He was raised with prostitutes, pimps and prejudice and, with his immense musical ability, he escaped that and became an international celebrity only to find, whenever revisiting the South, not much had changed since his childhood, even into the 1960s. Segregation of restaurants, hotels, theaters and performing venues disgusted him; viciousness, discrimination and violence aimed at blacks by whites scared him. Explaining a resistance to demonstrate publically he explained: “they would beat Jesus if he was black and marched!” He had already been the target of a bombing in Knoxville at an integrated performance in 1957.He cancelled a trip to Russia in the same year protesting the Alabama guardsmen anti-integration military occupation of a Little Rock high school. “They’re going to ask me what’s wrong with my country and what am I supposed to tell them?” He spoke out against it and President Eisenhower’s inaction and was reviled by blacks and whites alike for his actions and words; as if stepping out of the role of an affable, jolly, horn playing minstrel was an affront.
In 1964 he won a Grammy in Beverly Hills, for best song (Hello Dolly!). The next year when he returned to New Orleans it was on the heels of the killing of Malcolm X on February 21st and Bloody Sunday (March 7th) when state troopers armed with tear gas, bull whips and billy clubs attacked nearly six hundred marchers in Selma who were protesting the police shooting of a voter registration activist. He was able to see different sides of our country’s prides and prejudices; because of his talent he was loved and revered, because of his color he was disparaged.
If Louis Armstrong was alive today, would he find New Orleans very much different than the New Orleans that he knew? Sure, the streets have been paved (kinda), most everybody has electricity and running water; there’s gentrification and the white washing and green washing of our city infrastructure, but have we really advanced? Why is it that the majority of successful African Americans leave their New Orleans neighborhoods and even the city to find security and peace for themselves and their loved ones elsewhere?
In Louisiana teen pregnancy, infant mortality, child poverty, violent crime, obesity, unemployment, and neglect of the environment are still among (if not) the highest in the country.  Add to this the bleak futures for the 73% of young blacks graduating high school (the lowest in the country), the income disparity and low paying jobs for our workforce minorities--it can be depressing and oppressing. It’s true that we have come a long way, but, things are far from perfect. Any person living here needs to prove their worth, same as everywhere else; it’s just that some segments of our population have to work harder than others to make that point or be beaten down by the powers that be that act, in their own interests, with impunity.
It was talent that let Louis escape and the hatred of Jim Crow that kept him away. There can be no doubt that he knew what it meant to miss New Orleans or the sleepy time down here in the South; and he knew what it was like to be black and blue in America.