Archives for August 2013

Read Beans On Monday: My Cold War by Tom Piazza

Last week I skipped Red Beans on Monday, or posting at all, as I was busy visiting with family in Myrtle Beach where my sister cashed in her timeshare. I did bring a copy Tom Piazza‘s first novel, though, which followed his publication of a collection of stories and several non-fiction books on jazz. Piazza has agreed to sit down for an interview for next Monday’s post so I can delve deeper into my reviews of City of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters. I enjoyed these two books so much, though, that I picked up My Cold War for the plane (the reason I got caught in the library on the way to Mardi Gras World, if you read my last post) so, though I didn’t plan on making this Tom Piazza month on Read Beans on Monday, that’s how it’s worked out. This novel has nothing to do with New Orleans but Piazza, I believe, was already living in the city when it was published. Either way, he’s a born again New Orleanian, and it was nice to take a thematic break from local matters as much as I love reading about New Orleans. So, here’s one to grow one.


My Cold War

by Tom Piazza

My Cold War is a first-person fictional memoir about a college professor struggling to write a history of the Cold War in the superficial, sensationalistic manner for which he’s become renowned. Cold War Studies is a niche he has carved for himself at his university, yet when a former admiring student now successful in the publishing world gives him a huge advance to collect his pithy vignettes into a book, he finds himself frozen with writer’s block in the midst of a mid-life crisis for a life that has always been in crisis—a personal Cold War struggle with his childhood and the beliefs of his father.

As he grew up in the fifties, the narrator’s father was a rigid engineer who preached self-sufficiency, eschewed compassion, and was obsessed with the communist threat. His emotional distance and sudden harshness scarred the narrator who has grown to be incapable of making true intimate connections. He is lingering in a marriage that, although civil, is more like two professionals sharing an office  than an intimate system of mutual support and when he finally attempts to reach out to his wife, she is too practical and preoccupied to shepherd him through his hour of need. Furthermore, he is estranged from his last surviving family, younger brother who once admired him, and part of the novel deals with his painfully misguided trip to try and mend fences after eight years of silence.

This novel is a slower-moving and more introspective than his other reviewed work, fostering a purposeful sense of personal malaise as metaphor for the nation’s post Cold War flounderomg search for purpose and morality. City of Refuge was nearly twice as long but felt like a quicker read being a book about action and survival versus a book of inaction and ennui.

The narrator’s paralysis emerges as he slowly loses faith in his self-styled superficial brand of faux-history. His study of the Cold War dismisses right vs. wrong and deeper meaning to focus on pop-culture themes and iconic images. His academic work is as shallow as his relationships and, though he is ridiculed by colleagues, he has made a popular name for himself with the public; however, he doesn’t know how to react as it slowly dawns on him that his entire life and career has been about trivializing and running away from the paranoia his father, a member of the anti-communist John Birch Society that was famous for ‘exposing’ supposed communist sympathizers, took so seriously.

Once again Piazza’s influences as a music writer shine through. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel, at least for a Bob Dylan nut like me, is the way he describes Dylan’s sway on Cold War pop culture, shocking the world when he morphed from social conscious acoustic protest singer to defiant electric guitar wielding leather clad individualist. Even the mention of the John Birch society is likely a reference to the hilariously satirical Dylan bootleg, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” where the narrator begins to see ‘red’ hiding everywhere, including in the U.S. flag, leading him to conclude: [Read more…]

New Orleans Attractions: Mardi Gras World

MGW MeOne of my goals for My Year of Mardi Gras is to create an archive of popular New Orleans Tourist Attractions, thus Mardi Gras World is an obvious must-blog destination. Blaine Kerns Studios is the premiere producer of Mardi Gras floats and Mardi Gras World is the name they use to advertise the exhibits and guided tours offered at their flagship  location (one of sixteen local warehouses). Although thematically relevant, Mardi Gras World‘s advertising can appear a bit touristy so I was a little more hesitant in visiting compared to my unabashed excitement at seeing the National World War II Museum. MGW’s media and publicity director, however, was kind enough to respond to my inquiry so I headed out on a recent rainy Wednesday and found myself not only pleasantly surprised but reluctant to leave.
MGW Monkeys MGW No Admission
Located just upriver from the Convention Center at the end of Convention Center Blvd., Mardi Gras World is a working warehouse where floats for Mardi Gras come to life along with exhibits for [Read more…]

If Love Is A Red Dress, Well Dress Me In Drag


DSC02876 DSC02877

You were my angel, now you are real.

So like a stranger, colder than steel.

The morning after no one should brag.

If love is a red dress, well hang me in rags.

DSC02880I don’t know if Pulp Fiction is the greatest movie ever made (I could be swayed) but I’m pretty certain its soundtrack is the best ever assembled. (Making The Statler Brothers hip is in itself accomplishment enough to assure Quentin Tarantino’s genius!) The night before returning to New Orleans I streamed this classic for the first time in years and and wound up with one of its lesser known tunes, “If Love Is a Red Dress,” stuck in my head. I should have taken this as a sign to rush out and buy one that fits for that first weekend back every manly man in New Orleans donned the most outrageous red lady’s wear he could find and took the the streets of the French Quarter.


RED DRESS 1The previous Thursday I’d returned to Two Tony’s to chat with New Orleans Guardian Angel/Cajun Jedi Master Pat Thompson. On my last visit he’d pontificated on [Read more…]

Read Beans On Monday: City of Refuge by Tom Piazza


City of Refuge

by: Tom Piazza

After reviewing Why New Orleans Matters last week, I was so impressed I picked up Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina novel, City of Refuge, as a companion piece. This proved more apropos than expected, for Piazza’s memoir of falling in love with New Orleans and then nearly losing it via Katrina so clearly forms the framework of City of Refuge that at times I could almost catch glimpses of its skeleton imbedded in the pages.

Published two years after Why New Orleans Matters, City of Refuge follows two families from opposite sides and strata of town. The two protagonists are near opposites, yet their diverging paths cross in the book’s opening and closing pages, tying them together through shared experience. SJ has always lived in the embattled Lower Ninth Ward but was saved from a life of violence and thuggery by the discipline of the Army and love of the wife who kept him straight until passing away at a young age. Craig, on the other hand, grew up in Ann Arbor but loved New Orleans culture and moved to the city with his wife over a decade prior. He now edits the local weekly magazine Gumbo. While residing deep in entitled Uptown, he has an eclectic and empathetic worldview and makes sure his young daughter and son are exposed to various view points, taking them to watch Indians emerge Mardi Gras morning and taking them to parades in the Lower Ninth (where he initially crosses paths with SJ and his sister).

The novel opens in [Read more…]

New Orleans Living: Red Beans Bashes And Pork & Pie Pop-Ups



Near Empty Bottle of Tequila:
Tonight Was a Good Night

Having spent the better part of two decades flirting with Cajun and Creole cooking, I had made giant pots red beans and rice before and even shared with friends, but I never gave the dish its due as a headliner or perceived its deep cultural significance until I moved to New Orleans. The battle for title of best red beans & rice (Joey K’s? Coop’s Place? Kermit Ruffins Treme Speakeasy?) is every bit as fierce as the gumbo wars, and in Gumbo Tales, Sarah Roahen documents the dishes power to bring friends together on Mondays, as much a vehicle for community building as physical nourishment.

Upon reading about this Monday ritual, I’d begun cooking batches in my kitchenless place Uptown with a dull knife and a tabletop hot plate, but it was a lonely endeavor. My roommate would occasionally try a small bowl, I offered some to the old black lady living next door who looked at me suspiciously and said she ‘had the diabetes’ and had to watch her diet, and I brought a container to the neighbor across the street who’d helped jumpstart my truck who never acknowledged the unsolicited gift in subsequent passings—no ‘thanks again’s or ‘those were good’—leaving me wondering if they went straight in the trash. Thus, with few people to share with I was able to make one pot last a month of Mondays.


Seasoning Simmering For My Very First Monday Batch

Seasoning Simmering For My Very First Monday Batch

Once I hit my stride in July I decided to give it another try, hoping to call on some of the tenuous friendships I’d established. I still had a bag of beans I’d bought upon first moving in (anything requiring cooking had survived Jake’s munchies) and enough ingredients to season a batch without ‘making groceries’ (although later that day I caved in and stop by Rouses to buy greens—scallions and parsley—for garnish) and sent up the Bat Signal. Bart, the recent college graduate from book club, was the only RSVP but as I fled [Read more…]

French Quarter Living: Rhythm of the City


Oh, The 80s, When Real Men Knew How To Tease Their Hair

Oh, The 80s, When Real Men Knew How To Tease Their Hair Living

I began July in a Frenchmen Street bar sipping a cold Corona (not to be mistaken with a Cocharona!) and thinking back to a cheesy Survivor song beloved in my adolescence, “Too Hot To Sleep.” As the month closed, another song from that same seldom recalled album was stuck in my head: “Rhythm of the City,” for after a rough start I was finally easing into the rhythm of French Quarter living.


DSC02862Things finally calmed down after my 4th of July visitor and subsequent busy week, and I gradually got back to doing everyday things like ‘making groceries’ at Rouses Uptown, stopping by Dick & Jenny’s next door first to give their cuisine a second try. I’ve become comfortable eating alone at the bar and ordering (relatively) light—an entrée only, fish with spinach. It was excellent, though this will never be my go-to spot as it seems to be for many locals.

DSC02857DSC02856The following days were spent writing and wandering the Quarter, eating out less and focusing on lunch when I did. One afternoon I stopped by [Read more…]

Read Beans On Monday: Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza


Why New Orleans Matters

by Tom Piazza

New Orleans, in fact, is filled with people who came for Jazz Fest and never left. Or who went home and quit their job and came back. I think Jazz Fest teaches them what to love about the city, and how to love it. It is a kind of distillation of the mythology.”

When I read this paragraph—a concise and near-literal summary of this blog’s genesis—I almost laughed aloud. It’s no wonder I related so strongly to Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina love letter, emotional exorcism, and national call to action. Much like I conceptualized My Year of Mardi Gras after a post-breakup spiritual renewal at the church of Jazz Fest, similar circumstances initially drew Piazza to the city: [Read more…]