Sunday, December 4, 2016

Resolutionary Thoughts for 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Resolutionary Thoughts
Just You Wait
            Maniacal, perplexing,  mystifying, puzzling, mind numbing, confounding ass kicking to the curb under the bus, over the river and through the woods; 2016 is gone and if I ever see it again, I’m going to beat it like ‘never fail meringue’, whip it like party cream,  batter it like gulf shrimp and snatch it bald headed! What a miserable year it was and I, for one, am pleased as punch to see it go and hopefully to never to darken my door again.
            It seems as though every blessed year at this time, for as long as I can remember, I have said and heard “Oh, this last year was bad, but next year it’s bound to get better”. I deserve a dose of Whup-ass for being so optimistic. Yes, last year was uber-terrible, but the year before was less unpleasant--- which was damned awful--- the year before that ate the weenie and the one before that it was simply gruesome and on and on and on. Let me ask you this: when was the last year that life did not throw something at you that you would have gladly done without? I don’t mind things not being easy; but,” temples are graying and teeth are decaying and creditors weighing your purse” is not my idea of a working mantra.           
As the eternal optimist, bruised and bloodied that I am, I’m going to be the first (and possibly the only one) to assure you that next year will be better. Sure, last year some of your heroes died, prices went up and not your wages, you spent more at the veterinarian than on your own health care and a few of your friends spent time in chemo. There was that front-tooth cap that decided to break when the dentist was golfing, the unexpected car repair, your rent was jacked up and you had to vacate; your neighbors got evicted to make room for an AIRBNB location. Add to that: the recurring pain in your lower back that’s suddenly attacking you (again); learning that GMOs contributed to your allergies, realizing that termites are eating your floorboards and, oh yeah, your dog died. You’re living in the crime capital of the country. What else can happen, right? Just you wait.
I have this theory that if life doesn’t kill you outright (and there is always that possibility), it is going to wear you down and wear you down, hoping that you will cease to struggle against its insidious carnival tricks—the ones that get you the pie in the face--and just give up. However, you (and I) will keep coming back like gamblers at the track, waiters at the video poker machine, out of work laborers buying scratch-offs and/or lovers in failed relationships betting that things will work themselves out.
Do you want to know why I am not going down without a fight; why I’m going to live a long life and get the most out of it?
The night sky in a riot of colors as the sun sets; coffee in the morning with something freshly toasted; getting in that old car of mine and hearing it turn over from a growl to a purr; whipped cream on sweet potato pie; crows, monk parrots and squirrels; my hot pepper plant when I can pick another red one for spaghetti; waking up with Girlfriend next to me with the dog and the cats all snugged up together; going home after a long day and finding that my daughter has sent me ice cream for my birthday; the beauty and light that surrounds me if I only take a moment to recognize and appreciate it.
I don’t find my self-worth by comparison; judging whether others are less fortunate to elevate my self esteem is unworthy of me; and, I am worthy. Neither do I consider that when a person has more than I--be it fortune, talent or fame—that that should be a cause for envy or jealousy. Those things are simply things that are.
Now before you start to think that I’m some kind of blissed out monk, let me stress that I am anything but.  
I tend to judge people. By the way they speak, dress, how they treat cashiers, if they litter and if they return their damn shopping cart to that little shopping cart station in the parking lot. I disapprove of men who wear their trousers below their underwear, who spit in the street and/or make discourteous remarks to unaccompanied women. I cannot abide by people who take kindness for weakness.
I get angry at people who make general rudeness a lifestyle, mistreat children, animals and/or drive like they’re from a third world country. I am not understanding about people holding up signs at intersections when I know that everything they’re begging for is already being freely provided by a plethora of social service organizations; I see no reason why an able bodied person cannot/ does not find gainful employment. See? I’m a snob.  

But, I tell you, next year it will be better; I’ll be better; I’ll be more tolerant, understanding and patient. And when someone needs some good advice, a shoulder to cry on, a mature outlook, I’ll deliver unto them my new mantra that I recently received from Rooster Sedaris: short version: “Just you wait.” Long version:  “Bitch, I’m here to tell you that everything’s gonna be alright; we’ll get through this shit, Mother Fucker, just you wait!”

Before celebrity Chefs in New Orleans

Before the Celebrity Chef in New Orleans
Phil LaMancusa
            To prove my point, before we start, Google: ‘Photos of Celebrity Chefs’. On that site you will see hundreds of pics of hundreds of chefs. What you’ll see by in large, is that most are male, (The female chefs will have a link to see them naked. I’m not kidding.) and overwhelmingly they be palefaces. Caucasians. Bleach Boys. Caspers.  Snow flakes. Only occasionally will you spot some color, perhaps a cafĂ© au lait, maybe an Asian tint or two; flies in the buttermilk, raisons in the Sun. This has nothing to do with a disparaging of the races, it’s stating the obvious: what the world pictures when it looks for culinary expertise is a reliance on the images that the media has burned into their brain pan. Youngish, well coiffed, white; as if kitchen work is done on a movie set.
            This was not the case, especially in New Orleans, until about forty years ago. There were no Celebrity Chefs per se; the reason why was, not many of the chefs running kitchens—Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Brennans, Brousards, even Commanders Palace--- left their kitchens; they worked, most times up to eighty-five hours a week. They did not have time for stardom; they spent their time getting kitchens to run smoothly and making money for their owners.
            The chefs and cooks that brought our food to the attention of the world were African-American. The men and women that charmed the world with Creole food and worked the long hours, for low pay, in harsh conditions and took pride in everything that they put out to table were African-American. For too many years in the famous places that the food our people of color cooked and served and cleaned up after were not frequented by their peer group, people of color; and, the rich soul cooking that was enjoyed in black establishments was not to become famous to anyone except people of color and those others that knew how to search out new (and delicious) experiences.
            Therein lies the rub. Go back half a century and see the difference between then and now; the situation is completely reversed. The caveat here is to rule out the French, German and other European heads of kitchens that were employed mainly for their training, knowledge and ability to command; remember, at that time, our restaurants served mostly Creole derivatives of European cuisine.
            “The outstanding characteristic of a chef is dedication and a willingness to work.” So says Rudy Lombard in his 1978 seminal cookbook Creole Feast, co-authored by Nathaniel Burton; in it, “fifteen Master Chefs of New Orleans” (African-Americans all.)  “reveal secrets of Creole cooking”. Among them: Austin Leslie (Chez Helene), Rosa Barganier (Corrine Dunbar’s), Louis Evans (Hotel Ponchartrain), Nathaniel Burton (Broussard’s) and Leah Chase (Dooky Chase). Of these, Leah Chase is the last of that breed standing. At 93, Mrs. Chase still commands her kitchen on Orleans Avenue as she has since 1941.
            These chefs worked their way up in kitchens, oft times starting as porters or dishwashers; they learned from the chefs that were there before them, they learned to cook by sweating over a skillet of roux, a deep fryer, pot of gumbo or the oven heat of Jambalaya for fifty. They learned to filet fish, bone hams, make stock and perfect sauces; most times the recipes were stored in their brains, only to be passed down to those they deemed worthy.
            I learned to cook this way from a woman named Ms. Vicky at the Embers Steak House who had worked there for twenty-eight years, learning the recipes from the chef that had been there for decades before her; red beans, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, bread pudding, nothing written down on paper. She worked with a steak knife taken from the dining room; she measured in gallon buckets that oysters came in, her instructions (when I finally deserved them) were; “put too much oil in that pan, now add just enough flour, add a hand of paprika and three fingers of garlic”. She measured her seasoning vegetables (onions, celery, bell pepper) 1-2-3 one part bell pepper, two of celery, three of onions. “Always add your onions first to the roux, it stops the cooking right where you want it, don’t add salt to the beans until they’re finished cooking, save that water from boiling the shrimp and use it as stock for the Etouffee Sauce, here, let me show you the real way to roast a prime rib!” After me having spent almost forty years in kitchens myself, she treated me like a child that had “no learning and less sense” when it came to ‘her food’; but she took pity upon me, after all, I was the Chef, and schooled me in the tradition of the black hands that had been in New Orleans pots for almost two hundred years.
            The African American Chefs that shaped our city’s food have all but disappeared, like the dinosaurs; however, all young cooks coming up today could do with an archeological dig into what really put (and has kept) our food on the culinary map of the world, before they aim to celebrity status.