LONELY BEANS & A MONTH OF MONDAYS
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.
THREE’S COMPANY, BACHELOR EDITION
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 a last-minute but much needed shower (cooking in the July heat–’nuff said) to toss him a key from the balcony, Vince, the singer/songwriter who’d advised me to be candid about my strange housing situation, walked up behind him. Vince was carrying six back of local beer. Bart had a bottle of expensive, 100% Agave tequila that his sister had acquired at a promotion gig. Tonight’s gonna be a good night.
And, though there were only three of us, it was. Instead of digging right in, we hung out on the balcony as night fell so Vince could roll organic cigarettes (there’s a snide comment hiding there somewhere) while we chewed on weighty issues of the day. The six-pack quickly disappeared so we poured the tequila over ice, marveling at how smooth it was. No burn. (And no hangover, I’m glad to report. When it comes to liquor, quality counts.)
STEPHEN HAWKINGS DINNER THEATER
By the time we set down to eat, I was a little tipsy. Although the only heavyweight in the bunch, I was apparently a lightweight when it came to sipping straight tequila. I soon felt like the intellectual lightweight of the trio, as well. Somehow the conversation had veered to astrophysics and contemporary understandings of time and space. Bart’s multi-major degree had included mathematics and philosophy while Vince, it turns out, is an amateur math enthusiast. I clearly was not as up to date on the Cern Hadron Collider and later when Bart opined on how science could not explain the mass of the universe and how it could expand or hold together I interjected: “Isn’t that what ‘dark energy’ supposedly accounts for?” He shook his head as if explaining it to a child and said that dark energy wasn’t a true theory but merely a placeholder for a gap in our scientific understanding.
[Disclaimer: These are the memories of someone sipping tequila, so all apologies to Bart if my recolletions lower him to my level!]
The conversation gradually lightened up at the same rate as the tequila bottle and the eventually consumed red beans were a hit—I can at least cook! When I started cleaning up sometime after midnight, they took it as a cue to leave. We made plans to do it again as well get together for one of Vince’s shows. I let them out and somehow found the energy and stability to do the dishes before drifting into a pleasant sleep, thus ending a night of sharing, drinking, chatting, laughing, posing, pontificating, and performing all the other human peculiarities that rituals like red beans on Monday are meant to facilitate.
PULLED PORK & PIE OR PILFERING PERVERT?
The night before my red beans success, I’d acted on a tip from food writer Sarah Roahen and drove out to the dinner ‘pop up’ at PJ’s Coffee on Magazine. A pop-up, per Sara, is a semi-professional food business (I say ‘semi’ because I don’t know how tax and licensing legit they are) where locals cook at home or in a borrowed kitchen and show up at a designated bar or coffee shop etc. at a certain time, typically once weekly, and make a big impression with low overhead.
Sara had raved about the barbecue and pie offered every Sunday night in the courtyard, but as I drove up Magazine almost to Audobon Park, I was wondering if I would actually find food waiting.
When I walked into the shop, they asked what I wanted and I replied, “To go out back.” To my relief they nodded and pointed. I was afraid I’d seem like some sort of pervert, psycho, or thief entering only to ask for the back exit. As I ducked into the wooded courtyard with black metal tables out back, though, I sure enough found a stand for NOLA Smokehouse and beside it the NOLA Pie Guy. Based on Roahen’s enthusiasm I was expecting a crowd but only a few diners were strewn about, though all were relaxed and chatty. I was the lone loner.
I chose the pulled pork over the brisket without hesitation, although smoked pork is another one of those foods I’m ultra-critical of. Mojo’s Kitchen Jacksonville is one of those places that does something so well–BBQ and all the accompanying sides–that it makes it difficult to enjoy that particular cuisine elsewhere, but, while this didn’t dethrone Mojo’s, it was solid enough to leave me satisfied and reminded of my former home. The top notch smoked pork also came with an excellent corn casserole and average baked beans. The plain white bread was a bit of a disappointment (I’d wish for cornbread but it was in the casserole!) but the highlight was the tasty homemade pickles and relishes laid out in a mini buffet. I had to try them all and none disappointed.
Afterwards I was a little hesitant about trying pie. I need to be tighter with both cash and calories. But when I inquired about choices, the creative variety ‘Pie Guy’ Nate Winner rattled off broke my will. How could I pass up chocolate bourbon pie—three of my favorite words in one sentence?!
When I first started working in dementia care years ago there was a sweet old lady in the kitchen who would brew a pot of coffee and sneak me a slice of pie whenever I was having a really rough day. As I’d sink into a chair in the break room to let the (literal) insanity roll off my shoulders, I’d take a bite, chase it with a sip of coffee, and shake my head. “There may be better things in life than pie and coffee,” I’d invariably tell her, “but at the moment I’m hard pressed to think of any.” After she left I was forced to sneak off to the Village Inn when my day imploded, but this ritual cemented the fact that, as an adult, I’m a pie guy.
It’s one place I disagree with Roahen. She revealed in her book she is a cake gal and that surprises me. Cake, a simple confection, is kids food but a great pie is a work out art. And Nate Winner is a pie Picasso.
I make this declaration after only one slice, but what a slice it was. Rather than a creamy pudding like most chocolate pies, this had a custard consistency with bourbon smokiness infiltrating the rich, creamy chocolate. There was just the hint of a thin crusty layer on top and a decadent crust on bottom. It was a near perfect slice of pie and I was grateful for the PJ’s coffee, stronger than I usually enjoy, for blasting my taste buds clean with ever sip so that each new bite was a revelation.
The pie was so good I returned to the courtyard afterwards to shake Nate’s hand. We exchanged cards and discussed his business model. He works in a friend’s bakery after hour and sells through pop ups, special orders, office deliveries, and now the internet through the goodeggs.com cooperative. I’m intrigued by this approach. I love to cook but the overhead and over-headache of owning a restaurant are challenges I’ll likely never take on. The freedom of drive-by-cooking, though, makes me wonder. I may have to interview the NOLA Pie Guy for the blog or have him over for red beans and rice to pick his brain. He’s certainly welcome if he brings a pie! In the meantime, check him out: www.NOLAPieGuy.com
GET BUSY LIVING OR GET BUSY BLOGGING, SON
My posts in July appeared a little less frequently, as you may have noticed. Read Beans on Monday has been a bigger undertaking than I anticipated and, besides, I was busy tuning to the Rhythm of the City. There’ll be plenty to write about this fall when things pick back up.
I ended the month by returning to Jacksonville to help a friend move and then drive up to Virginia for my annual trip to Smith Mountain Lake with some of my dearest friends. It may seem a bit absurd taking a vacation from my year long vacation, but the lake house is one of my favorite weeks of the year and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Now I’m back in town ready for whatever new revelations August brings.