Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From The Garden to the Heart: The Mason Jar Social.

When the only things stirring on those damp-scorching, windless days are mosquitoes and fools, another Southern summer has arrived.  It's a great irony, this season.   For kids, no school, yet summertime also meant greater personal availability to keep the wildly proliferating lawn under control, weeding flower beds, and helping with barn and kitchen garden tasks.  The okra, beans, cucumbers, squash, purple hulls, corn, and tomatoes were coming ripe just as the final school bell rang, and the cicadas started their nightly singing.  The next several weeks meant getting up early, wearing work boots, and trampling to the garden with mother and brother, each  carrying two giant buckets apiece, to fill with whatever was ready to "bring in".  Squash and cucumbers were the favorites: bigger vegetables filled buckets faster and allowed a sooner trip up to the house to indulge in ice water and the comfort of inside.  Okra and the others were another story.  The prickly leaves and stalks of the African gumbo veg never gave up their pods easily, and the harvester usually required a knife to cut off the over sized specimens from the stalks. Beans and purple hulls demanded a strong back and a keen eye.  Had shorts and tshirts been feasible to complete the garden day, the tasks may have been easier and the perspiration less.  But gardens are micro-environments.  Creatures live in them.  It might well be family land, but come picking time, we were really just visitors.  Garden work required garden armour.  Flying insects, long sleeves. Snakes and rodents, sturdy footwear.  Pounding sun,  wide-brimmed straw hats and something to wipe away the sweat.  Out in the rows, the length of the day was not determined by a clock, but by the column of expanding mercury in  the thermometer mounted on the fence post between the field gate and manure pile.  When the buckets were full a few times, and the sun had warmed the air to nearly one hundred, it was time to return to the mud room, peel off the heavy denim and cotton to get ready for the "putting up". 

Beans, okra, and purple hulls are prepared at leisure: sitting in company slicing okra in coarse segments, paring beans into snips, or hulling long pea pods until your fingers turn the color of eggplants.  The purple stains are the badges of the most diligent, along with tiny cuts on the thumb incised by a tiny knife.   Cucumbers, tomatoes, and sometimes even squash and beans never enter the living room for hours-long preparation.  They land at the kitchen sink as the dusty Mason jars saved from last year and stored in flimsy cardboard after their contents had been consumed, receive a soapy preliminary wash.  While the Okra and beans and such would be frozen for wintertime use, these others will be canned and shelved in traditional glass containers.  Dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, mustard pickles,  chow-chow, mixed veg, canned tomatoes.  Pretty soon, the indoor humidity matches that in the backyard.  Atop one stove burner,  a tall pot filled with water almost to the edge will seal the jars: water bath method.  On another perches the pressure cooker for other things reputed an ability to pop lids while on the shelf and thus poisoning whole generations of family in one unfortunate meal, these stories re-told each harvest time while hulling and shucking: "a few years back, there was a family in Florida..."  The other burners ready the brine for pickles and in a small enameled pot, a nest of lids rustles and glides in boiling water, further safeguarding us all from the fate of those Floridians whose demise mother had read in some 1974 back issue of Reader's Digest.  Brine.  It's a  smell as memory-filled as watermelon sliced up with Dad's pocket knife and eaten outside from pink-soaked newsprint at dusk, a freshly-cut yard jumping with crickets, or the thick electric-yellow humidity that precedes a thunderstorm.  It's the acrid blend of water, vinegar and herbs that makes the air heavy, pungent.  Summer air. Kitchen timers clack, pacing the bathing and cooking times of the pots.   Nearby, a legion of empty jars retrieved from their boiling bath stand ready to receive their cold weather provisions.  Pickle Masons stuffed with cucumbers, dill weed, some with horseradish, others with sweet brine for milder tastes.  The wide-mouthed canning funnel hops from jar to jar as the steaming preservation liquid splashes in and fogs the glass.  Steaming wide mouths.  One lid, one screw ring: a careful hand seals the jars and lowers them into the boiling pot.  An empty Mason jar clanks in the water.  A full one thuds.  Sounds and smells of summer jars.  The keepers of the kingdom's bounty when the garden lies frozen in ice and covered with snow.  Comfort and hospitality are held here in suspension until later, when the heavy smell explodes again from the jar in late December to remind us  of those days when the kitchen billowed with dill and horseradish, and of the sense of community we shared as the jars collided with the aluminum sides of a seething pot. 

Putting up a summer day's picking involves a series of tasks that no one person can possibly undertake alone.  Some work the garden, others clean the jars, still others prepare the haul.  It's a community effort, coordinated among family, often also with friends.  It's a practical activity to preserve the summer throughout the year.  Mason jars are, in fact, time capsules of that day: so much a day of work as a day of story telling.  A day of memory making.  Once the jars are cooled and ready to be stored, they find their places in the storehouse usually according to the year they were filled,  an organized collection of memories.  In the South, food is not only sustenance, it's a reason to gather, to re-live, re-tell, recall, and report.  Mason jars contain abundance in variety kept for special times.  When we all assemble for a meal, it's a time to share, enjoy fine company in a community as diverse as the family store itself.  Each glass offers something new, something different, something good, that nurtures body and soul.  This is the essence of our Southern supper club: the Mason Jar Social.  We are that colorful, abundant store of carefully filled glasses, and when we come together at table, we celebrate ourselves and each other in that same colorful abundance!

The Mason Jar Social meets at a different eating establishment each month selected by one of the members in rotation.  Membership in the Social is by invitation.                               

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lent: The Time for Feasting!

One hundred years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I lived in a small dormitory on campus.  Not the mega high-rise sort comprised mostly of rebellious freshmen destined for one-semester academic careers of nightly boozing and general mayhem.  My digs were in the "honors dorm", a collection of very busy students whose curriculum was similar to that of almost all the other students at the university, but who also were fulfilling some extra requirements of the Honors College.  Among the perks of being in honors, a quiet and clean (mostly) place to live was one of the best.  It was a colony of  interesting people, regardless of our fields of study.  We were all a bit quirky, and sometimes even a bit offbeat.  For instance, my neighbor across the hall maintained a unique collection of petrified jello squares he had smuggled from the dining hall.  He was curious to see whether the jiggly stuff would actually decompose or would simply desiccate into a vitreous plastic solid.  In time, his windowsill was lined with colorful cubes of dried glass.  The absence of any observable putrefaction had given rise to suspicions that the dining hall jello desserts in fact weren't biodegradable at all.  This advancement in bioscience comes thanks to the beatnik across the way.  
Bizarre trends and wacky interests like this abounded in our community.  There were a few among our numbers who had revealed themselves early on as Roman Catholics.  When time came for the liturgical colors to switch from green to purple sometime in late February, time also came for a new fad: Lent and the Lenten dietary restrictions to which most Romans adhere for 40 days out of the year.  I was raised a Protestant, although one with a liturgical tradition, so we observed Lent as well, along with the other seasons of the calendar like our Roman classmates, just without all the rules, regulations, and certain perils of hell.  The dining hall was run by folks who didn't know much about the season and who probably didn't care much about it  either.  Come Ash Wednesday, they were forking up steaks and giant polish sausages.  The following Friday, same: pork chops and other meaty entrees.  Traditionally, our Catholic brethren eat fish on these days, especially Lenten Fridays when consumption of meat is officially forbidden.  Protests were launched that the dining hall never offered a Catholic food option, so the Romans were forced to eat around the meat and opt for a strictly vegetarian Lent.  And so arose the scandal that made Lent groovy.  Lent was trendy.  Lent was cool even if you worshiped nature goddesses, offered libations to the Greco-Roman pantheon, refused to believe there was any divinity at all, or even if you thought there might be some significance to all this, but weren't quite sure whether you should call him Zeus or Mithras.  The honors quarters were abuzz with Lent.  Friday was anticipated with glee, not so much because it was the final day of the work week as it was a day to grandstand. 
When your humble Libellus was a child, he learned in Sunday School, even before he could read, that it was only the Catholics who were chained to the strict regulations of eating fish on Fridays.  Since we could think for ourselves and because, as it was pointed out to us, we all had free wills liberated from the "yoke of Rome" (as they said) after the theses were nailed to the door in Wittenburg, we were allowed, if we wished and without guilt or worry of impending doom, to consume our favorite cuts of beef on any Friday of the year, even -- God forbid -- on Good Friday itself. As a result, Libellus never really thought twice about Friday fish.  If it landed on a Friday menu, it was simply by chance and not because eating meat on that day might place the soul on the wide, comfortable road to eternal damnation.  When my classmates protested that no fish was served on Fridays, my first suggestion was "just eat veg " (as I gnawed on my piece of greasy fried chicken).  By the middle of the purple season, as a show of solidarity with the starving Romans, the larger part of our community, whether Christians, pagans, agnostics, or atheists were Lenting it up on veggie Fridays.  Comments regarding a meatless plate became common at the dinner table: "Oh, no meat? I didn't know you're Catholic."  "Oh, I'm not.  I just thought it would be cool."  You see, Lent had become trendy.
Lenten irony is fascinating, and the season sets itself apart as the high time to observe human nature and humans' peculiar, inborn desire to perform.  Lent is like attending the opera: telling someone you love the music is just subterfuge.  The real reason opera houses exist is to see and be seen.  In the little community of trendy Lenters back in college, we created our very own microcosm of Lenten gawking.  Outside our dorm, most folks were like the kitchen ladies.  They just didn't care, really.   In South Louisiana, however, where almost everyone is Catholic, Lent is eye-rollingly awesome.  
Let's think about this for a minute.  Time to go back to Sunday School.  The whole basis for this Lent business is the time Christ spent in the desert.  Key word: desert.  There's not too much going on in a desert.  Sand, heat, creepy-crawly things, maybe a few animal bones here and there.  Jesus faced temptation there, in the middle of nowhere.  No one really knows how intense that must have been, but it's pretty safe to say it wasn't like a 40-day spa visit.  Desert.  The Redeemer probably wasn't out getting a daily mani-pedi, although in those conditions, he'd more than likely have benefited from one.   So, each year -- as the story goes -- the trendy set enter with Christ into...a desert.  Let's think about this, too: Jesus went into the desert by himself, that is, alone.  He didn't bring other folks with him.  There were no paparazzi there recording his day to day jaunts through the sand.  No one followed him around each day to ask how it was going, or how he felt about living there.  He was alone.  That said, in order to re-create the desert feel of Lent, it has become tradition that one should "give up" the favorite stuff for 40 days.  Nothing like going into a real desert, but let's face facts: most of us don't have a barren waste land handy for an impromptu, long-term camp-out between Mardi Gras and Easter.  So in lieu of having to wash sand from our drawers when we return on Maundy Thursday, we do the giving up routine.  The key to this is really sacrificing things or activities that mean a lot, things one likes to do, significant things.  And what makes it even more difficult, is that this sacrifice is not something public.  It's something between you and God.  Remember, the Big C went alone into the dessert.  Nowadays, it's become a standard Lenten greeting to say "So, whatcha givin' up?" and the proper response is "I gave up (name your favorite chocolate candy here)".   Further, when offered a food item, or when asked to participate in certain activities involved in one's Lenten sacrifice, it's now common to say "Oh, I can't.  I've given that up for Lent" instead of simply "No thank you" or "I'd love to, but I can't."  The real art to Lent is sacrifice (and the resulting suffering, naturally) without trumpeting it to the world that that's actually what  one is up to.  Christ went alone. He didn't wear a big sign around his neck reading "Trendy Lenter here!  This year I gave up chocolate!"  
So, back to fish.  Libellus has never observed the dietary restrictions of Lent -- even while doing time  swinging his tits for beads at the Carneval parades on the yellow and white side of the Tiber.  Luther's stance on the matter that  "Fasting is ok, but not necessary" was ingrained early on.  So, if he wanted a Wendy's triple on  Friday, by golly gosh, Libellus the flagrant Lutheran simply got himself one, and oddly, he's survived to tell the tale.   Now, if I read the rule correctly, meatless Fridays are supposed to be sacrifice, right?   Your humble Libellus eats out quite a bit, which in these parts is a big deal, especially in Lent.  One might suppose that many give up cooking on Fridays altogether.  As a result, most every restaurant  in town features a "Special Lenten Menu".  If we recall Christ in the desert, a Lenten menu, logically, should be enjoyed in private, and should be extremely simple -- and if we include the restriction, something meatless.  For example, a sacrificial Lenten menu might consist of two slices of bread and a glass of water.  Maybe some steamed vegetables and a half portion of broiled fish.  On the other hand, a Lenten menu in South Louisiana consists of a giant platter of all manner of broiled, boiled, and fried seafood: fish, shrimp, oysters, crawfish, crab, a thick plank of oozy fried fish with a healthy portion of fries, and maybe for dessert a thick wedge of bread pudding with a good ladling of bourbon sauce.  After leaving the restaurant, one might be able to make the 9pm showing at the movie house to consume the mega re-fillable tub of popcorn with a few extra squirts of buttery topping (all meatless!).  Lenten sacrifice in the southern parishes is "slap-yo-mama" good!  Announcers for one local sushi restaurant are even telling us in a radio spot that not going to their joint for 40 days is too big a sacrifice for Lent, and as a result, they're offering more fish.  Good thing, that.  An inability to consume copious amounts of tasty meatlessness might spoil anyone's Lenten party!    
In the end,  Libellus queries: What's the point to all this?  Is Lent really a time of sacrifice and introspection?  Or is it actually just a complicated excuse to rend one's garments and not one's heart?  After the last of the Mardi Gras floats has passed, all is not lost. Just listen and hear the merry calliope tootling that jaunty tune!  Happy Days are here again: All aboard the Lenten Showboat!                                 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ku Ni Chi Wa, Angin-san!

Judging from the popularity of a recent Southern Living poll, Lafayette is quite the town for foodies.  It may even be the case that the countless new homes being built in the area actually have no kitchens at all, their practicality out-weighted by the overabundance of good restaurants here.  Apart from Libellus' frequent solo outings to eating establishments, once a month or so he teams up with a squad of good friends to experience a group dine-out event.  This is the Supper Club.  Depending upon everyone's availability, the group numbers 7-10, and is comprised chiefly of bachelor uncles enjoying various degrees of attachment -- some single, some partnered -- and one fashionably adroit straight couple.  This past Saturday evening was a designated club night, and the venue: Tokyo Hibachi Grill on Ambassador in Lafayette. 
The Japanese hibachi experience is wildly popular in these parts.  Several such establishments exist here, no doubt due to the entertaining food play involved in the preparation.  Typically when the geisha envie strikes, the Club has frequented the Lafayette hibachi standard: Shangri-la, a rather dark 1970's-inspired sushi joint with decent service and adequate fare.  In search of a new hibachi experience, and Shangri-la's mysterious sister restaurant "Dozo" never having answered her telephone to take reservations, Tokyo jumped to the head of the list.  
The location's first incarnation was as a landmark Benegan's restaurant.  When the Irish clover wilted a few years ago, it gave rise to a risque burger outfit, where, as word had it, the food was as tasteless as the servers' uniforms.  The property was then acquired by the Tokyo restaurant and completely gutted and transformed from working class Irish-pub-slash-peep-show to high end Japanese hibachi grill, replete with a prayer gate through which patrons enter.  Nice touch.
Libellus was the first to arrive, and the pagoda was packed.  One half of the restaurant consists of hibachi tables, while the other half  is dedicated to sushi.  Reservations are a must.  The bar was standing room, and the 21st century soft-spoken Japponaise bar tender was overwhelmed, both by drink orders and by her own state-of-the-art computer register, doubtless made in Japan.  A 30 minute wait for a double Crown and Coke seemed a bit excessive, and indicated Lady Mariko could benefit from a colleague whose sole job it should be to prepare cocktails destined for patrons seated in the dining areas.  Screaming infants, rude mothers with child carriers, and cocky fraternity dads blocked the service lane.  When my order was finally delivered, the over-worked Mariko had made it worth my while: a hulking quadruple Crown with a splash of coke served up in a high ball glass with a slice of lime and a giggle.  A double-fisted sipping drink fit for Osaka royalty: me love you long time.  
By then, the Club had arrived.  What we were experiencing in the lobby/bar was a whopping party of 20 plus walk-in's willing to endure a 2-hour wait.  Word was, as soon as the 20 were seated, we'd be next.  We stepped away from the rush hour bullet train platform, retreating outside near the prayer gate in hopes of a timely seating.  Thirty minutes past our reservation time, we were called and guided through the boisterous hibachi zone to our corner grill.  We were 7 at the table of 9.  
As is customary at hibachi places, all the seats are filled, regardless whether or not everyone is of the same party.  A middle-aged married couple already occupied two seats at our grill.  Judging from their demeanor and dress, they were consummate conservatives: proper insertion of common charcoal could potentially produce the finest industrial grade diamond in seconds.  One assumes they're pulling for Santorum.  Here,  we had the makings for a classic diner de cons, a ready-made French-style game of social torture at the expense of a random victim invited to a dinner party at which he/they know no one else.  Club conversation is generally always unabashedly candid, witty, and upbeat.  June and Ward, having just sucked the juice of two lemons, had no idea what they were in for.  
We all marveled at the complete redo that had taken place to make Tokyo what it now was.  Stone tile and Japanese Zen garden styling created a comfortable, upscale Asian atmosphere.  A look at the menu previewed a culinary experience that proved a tough rival for Lafayette's long-lived (complacent?) hibachi standard.  The grill choices were more plentiful, as were the sides -- salad, rice, and noodles are extra across town, but are all included here.  Although the menu was heavy on selection, it was noticeably lighter on price.  
Orders placed, soup and salad consumed (although from plastic versions of the traditional porcelain bowl and spoon), our hibachi chef arrived with his cart and started the show.  We could tell from his timely addition of seasonings and sauces that we would be guaranteed flavor past the gratuitous use of salt and pepper and mounds of butter.  The first taste of combination rice confirmed what we had suspected simply from reading the menu.  Added to that, we had the pleasure of being served by a chef who had a concept of cooking times.  We had grown accustomed to Hispanic chefs more used to cooking fajitas than Asian cuisine.  The result: everything lumped at once onto the grill and everything mercilessly over-cooked.  Pass the tortillas, Pablo.  Here, meat and seafood landed on the grill in shifts.  Rare was rare, medium was medium.  Scallops and shrimp were done properly, not blackened.  Flavorfully prepared plentiful portions for almost half the price.  
And what of our dinner guests?    They barely said a word the entire evening -- perhaps poignantly aware that karma had elected them the evening's mystery guests -- yet now and then they cracked their Rushmores to sneak smiles in reaction to us and in reaction to our reactions to the hibachi chef's corny jokes and campy Asian humor.  It was brutally obvious that interaction with us required razor sharp wit.  Anything less would be tantamount to laying a bare hand atop the hibachi.  After the checks were collected, the pair vanished into the crowd, duly sated, yet deliciously scandalized.  
We learned toward the close of the evening, that word of our presence had quickly spread among the wait staff who favored the computer terminal adjacent to our table in order to overhear our colorful table talk.  The verdict on the evening: for Japanese-style hibachi grill, Tokyo is the place to go in Lafayette.  A generous, most flavorful and properly prepared meal in a beautifully appointed, yet easy atmosphere.  Libellus' advice: assemble a group of 7 or so, leaving room for extras. Visit the website for a complete menu listing, directions, and general information prepared for you in a delightful, Asian-accented Engrish.                                                             


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It's been so long since your dear Libellus has been posting.  The fact is, I've been out of comission to the greater extent having dined at a local Vietnamese restaurant.  I ordered a delicious stir-fry pork platter.  The portion was so enormous, I couldn't finish it, so I asked for a to-go box.  The next evening, I enjoyed the second half of my Friday evening dinner.  Within 3 hours of consuming what had remained of the Indochinese Surprise, I realized that not only had I received a fabulous tasting entree, but I had also been afforded an extra bonus from the rice patty: an unknown parasite that, to the dismay of physicians, banished me to almost six months of intestinal malaise and the requirement, at least for the near future, to maintain a strict gluten-free diet.  My advice to diners in the Lafayette area: unless you're feeling lucky, the local Vietnamese dine out option is much akin to eating blow fish.  You may or may not be going home in a pine box.  On a more positive note,  the minature turkey wing broom the server was using to sweep the dining room floor that evening was quite adorable indeed.  They're available at the Asian grocery on Arnould Blvd -- the cashier speaks no English (or at least he'd like you to think so), so put on your rude American face, buy a broom and sweep your kitchen like a jungle cooking hut! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Land's End. Straw hat required.

Turkey necks are purchased on trays of 10-12 in the super market poultry section.  I had never bought them before.  I'd had no reason to.  For giblet gravy, the pertinent innards and meaty non-standards usually come packaged inside the turkey, and one neck (whether or not it's the actual neck of the beast at hand) is sufficient for a decent-sized boat of savory sauce.  Cervical bones of flightless birds fall into that strange category of questionable, exotic, or ethnic menus that also include pork ears, tripe, face meat, and pig's feet.  Otherwise, turkey necks have one use: bait.  A week ago, I didn't know that. But I do now.  An invitation to a crab boil is what opened these new horizons.  Some friends of ours were planning a trip to the Rockefeller Preserve, and in the course of our conversation I revealed that I'd never been crabbing before -- in fact, I had just learned to eat the things from the shells only a few weeks earlier.  What had begun as an informal dinner invitation had in moments become a call to adventure. 
 License.  In order to catch crustaceans legally, it's necessary to pay the state a modest yearly tax of $5.50.  Now the accompanying documentation only proves you have 5 bucks and a half in your wallet, not that you actually know what you're doing.  I was no wiser after being made legal than I had been before.  Crab nets.  They come in various forms and shapes, depending upon how much you're willing to spend, and whether you'd like to reuse them on future excursions.  We went for the higher end: a set of concentric metal rings inset with substantial nylon netting.  It was something like nested basketball hoops with the hole closed up and with a Styrofoam float attached to a retrieval cord.  There were other models  made of less costly aluminum rings with thinner netting of something akin to trussing twin.  Also, there were metal nets that resembled collapsible fruit baskets some people hang in their kitchens to display bananas.  Our net was big and green.  Carrying it through the sporting goods store was empowering.  What the license failed to prove, the confident carrying of this net-and-ring device certainly did: we were going crabbing, and we knew what was what.  For a total of twenty dollars and fifty cents, we had become experts.  Walking out to the car, Blaine reminded me "Now, you own a crab net."  Of all the oddball things I've purchased in 40 something years, this was actually the most unlikely for me.  But it was very cool.
Every alarm in the house was set for 3:30am.  The required gear had been prepared and stowed in the car the evening before.  At 4am we were on the road, and by 4:30 we had met the rest of our group, having made one pit stop for convenience store coffee and the de rigueur honey bun (a junky confection best enjoyed on early morning road trips and at continental breakfasts concluding Easter Sunday sunrise services).  I knew we would be driving to Abbeville, then to Kaplan, then turning south.  Beyond Kaplan extended a territory I had never explored.  In every way terra nova
As dawn approached, the arch of the Louisiana boot was silhouetted in a scrim of balmy ground fog.  Pastures and fields yielded to limitless grassy marshland; live oaks to gnarled water trees, sparsely green, some long dead, reduced to skeletal hydras rearing serpentine headless necks hung with smokey moss. High perched water birds hoped for an easy catch.  Here was the end of the world.  At the edge of this landscape, begins the sea.  
The expert crabber has two methods at his disposal.  The first involves a length of cotton twine, one end tied around a hunk of bait meat, the other held in the hand.  The meat is tossed into the water to attract a hungry crustaceann.  Vibrations up the string signal the hunter to start a slow pulling of the creature from the water, as a second person stands ready with a fish net to capture the crab before he realizes he's been duped by clever human generosity.  For those hoping to entrap several crabs at once, there is the crabbing net -- like the one we had purchased.  Several hunks of meat are tied to the inside, and the whole thing is tossed into the water.  After a period roughly equal to the time required to consume one beer, several Fritos, and a sandwich, the net is hoisted from the water.  If Neptune's smiling, the contraption should be teaming with clamping claws.  Easy in principle.  It's the variables that determine success: the time of day, the number of others who also rose at 3:30am, and most crucial: the moon phase.  Turkey necks entwined, nets cast, we waited.  An alligator swam listlessly toward the shore.  A neighboring fisherman armed with a rod and reel cast his hook and caught the attention of the aquatic reptile thanks to a colorful bob at the end of his line.  Jaws opened and the beast was hooked.  The man tugged and the plastic bob flew up into the air, over his head and became ensnared in the pier behind him.  The Alligator paddled away.  Laughter ensued from the pier as the ruddy man tried untangling his line for a second cast.  No luck on our end.  "Mais, get dat bat!" we heard from the pier.  Had the alligator returned?  A bat?  We turned just in time to see the same man hoist a writhing eel from the water, set it carefully onto the edge of the wooden walk, in order to beat it to a pulp with the aluminum bat his friend had brought from the truck.  "Das an eel.  Dat thing'll burn you like a jelly fish."  There were perils here I had never imagined.  Even when first jumping from the truck to set up folding chairs, I landed directly into an ant pile.  Crabbing wasn't working where we were.  Too many people, and the moon had instructed the delicate scavengers to crawl away from the shore.  "Dey say on de othah side, da crabs ah runnin'."  Sound advice, we supposed.  Packing up our gear, we set out for "the other side".  A single-laned gravel causeway led from the main road straight out into the marsh.  Pools and canals lined both sides.  Cars parked precariously on the inclines.  We found our spot and sunk our nets.  Pulling them out, we were alarmed to find them completely covered with a thick black ink that splattered up from the water onto us.  This was the residue from last spring's offshore oil disaster.  The raw black sludge from deep inside the the earth had found its way here and settled atop the mud.  A dilute mixture of household cleaner was all that could clean this away.  Grease. This was the catch that ended our excursion.  Making our way back to the highway, we wondered whether crab caught from that mire was actually good to eat at all.  But this was the region where the fisherman lived.  From very nearby, they took their boats out and caught crab and shrimp in deeper waters.  Surely someone had live crabs for sale.  The way to find this out is to ask locals.  On Saturday morning, locals are at local grocery markets.  Ma and Pa shops with short aisles and dim lighting.  Stelly's.  "You know of anyone selling fresh crabs and shrimp?" Blaine asked.  The cowbell atop the door clanked.  "Morning!" While the clerk thought it over, she shook her head. A lady with a tight orange perm pushing a tiny shopping cart rounded the corner near the register, engrossed in small talk with an unseen person, "Poor Hazel.  She's bad fa dat." 
"There's another store on the other side of the Intercoastal Canal bridge.  We can ask there." We phoned the others and let them in on our plan.  "Now, when we go in here, there'll be people just sitting around visiting and drinking coffee."  Blaine had stopped here before.  The place was unassuming.  Neat.  A simple screen door marked the entrance from the porch.  "Morning.  Want coffee?"  Awesome.  The same questioning for live seafood was answered with a call to an adjacent room.  "Ma, you know someone selling crabs?" A middle-aged woman entered the room drying her hands on a dish towel, which she adroitly threw over her shoulder.  "Na."  One of the men pulled out a cell phone. "Wait. Let me see."  Two calls later, he was giving us directions to a local source. "Come to think about it, just follow me. She lives across the street from me."  Our caravan followed.  The road ended at a giant chest full of live crab.  Nine dollars a dozen.  We reached for our wallets. 
In essence, this wasn't cheating.  We had assembled the gear, purchased the licenses, driven here before sunrise, tied strange meat to string, seen an alligator hooked, and witnessed a caustic eel bludgeoned to death on the pier.  We had done everything prescribed for this, but had caught nothing.  And besides, there's no rule that forbids access to the most abundant crabbing grounds on the planet: a professional fisherman's ice chest in Forked Island, Louisiana.

Monday, July 4, 2011

L'heure exquise

I met Blaine after work.  Clients of his had recently made a trip to New York and returned with a little green box for him, neatly wrapped up with a yellow bow.  Per se, the things are chocolate nougat sweets, but they enjoy a peculiar mystique. "Before we do anything else...look, Teuscher champagne truffles."  They may not be consumed alone -- that would diminish their magic, like being the sole witness of some spectacular astronomical event.  No one else would ever believe or could ever imagine the true length of the comet's fiery tail.  So at the end of this day,  we stopped to look up -- only for a few moments -- to share something exceedingly rare and indescribably special.       

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.."

A few weeks ago, I called a holiday for myself which corresponded to a Saturday on which Blaine had done the same.  Initially we had plans to travel with another couple to a local casino for some event called "Indian Bingo" or some such.  Prospects of winning a gigantic jackpot attracted us to the idea.  In the eleventh hour, the other couple backed out of the trip.  This gave rise to our query: did we really, I mean really want to drive down there for a 7 hour bingo game?  After all, we were both off. So this was the stipulation: if we don't do what we had initially planned  for this rare free Saturday on which both of us had successfully dipped below the radar, we would need to accomplish something more beneficial than discovering hidden channels listed in the cable "On Demand" menu.  Blaine had been contending for a while with a problematic backyard.  I understand it had once been a stellar outdoor room, yet through a chain of events including a tremendously cold, freezing winter, the paradise had come to resemble the inner sanctum of Fred Sanford's digs in TV-land (that's his assessment, not mine).  Over time, the debris had been cleared away.  The center of the backyard features a concrete paved area in the middle of which is a square planting bed.  A fabulous palm tree lives in its center.  Around it was a hodgepodge of various plants and such.  The plan for the day: transform this section of the backyard into an extension of the patio sitting area where we both enjoyed spending time.  Blaine was already on a planting spree: pots and planters long retired had their pensions cut and were pressed into service again: petunias, evergreens, and a host of other plants to add color and personality.  So too this palm tree bed.  Years ago, I had made a raised bed in my own courtyard by using retaining wall blocks.  It had saved me the effort of plowing up the earth to achieve the depth for planting.  A load of blocks and 4 Canna Lilies later, we were dragging our injured push cart across the parking lot back to the vehicle (of course I had to select the one with the busted wheel to transport 2 tons of cast cement).  We excavated the random plants from around the palm tree, set out the blocks in three neat, interlocking rows, then carefully unstacked them, spread beads of cement, then re-stacked.  The mini wall framed the bed and gave the area a finished look.  Several bags of top soil  provided a happy planting area for the new Cannas as well as some of the salvaged flora.  While the bed was coming into its own, we moved our attention to the rest of the patio: cleaned, rearranged, repositioned.  The result: three unique sitting areas in one extended room full of plants.  Into each planter: a bamboo Tiki torch.  After all, the proper outdoor room requires the proper outdoor lighting.

"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea."               

Several times through the week, we will meet for a light something for dinner after work, which for both of us is usually late.  Weekends have shorter days and often leave some room for the extra special: meals enjoyed in private prepared by either or both of us.  When the temperatures are hot, or if it's pouring rain, we eat indoors, but on the nicer days, we're outside in the rejuvenated greenhouse, especially for breakfast.  Last weekend, I made Saturday night dinner and Blaine prepared Sunday breakfast.  Saturday evening was the prelude to Father's Day, so Rousses was packed with conscientious worshipers of Dad preparing to grill -- no express lanes open, naturally.  I was planning a light summertime dinner: tortellini with basil pesto, a Romaine salad with walnuts and ramen noodles dressed with a sweet/sour vinaigrette.  The overfilled grocery store had brought me late back home and caused me to run slightly later for my anticipated 6pm arrival in Broussard.  Everything fell into place however, as I unpacked and got started on dinner.  Being late makes me nervous, and when I'm nervous in the kitchen weird things happen.  All went smoothly until I had all the pesto bits in the blender.  Although the ingredients were grinding away nicely, I felt I had to speed along the process just a bit.  Crunch!  I had destroyed Blaine's favorite bamboo spatula I thought would be keen to use as a tamping device for the fresh basil leaves.  As retribution, the Universe caused my hand to slip up the handle of the hot skillet whose interior I was wiping clean of nut and ramen noodle debris in preparation to saute the chicken tenderloins to sit atop the pasta.  The side of my middle index finger knuckle was effectively singed.  On the bright side, no slivers of bamboo had ruined the bright green sauce, my finger really didn't hurt (that much), and we both enjoyed our lighter side dinner.  Before we retired to the living room to enjoy our Black Magic Napoleons from the Rousses bakery, we took a trip to the Broussard Albertson's in search of breakfast fare as well as something from Red Box.
Blaine makes eggs in a way we had discovered last Christmas Day at Hilary's (Channeling Ina: read her blog!).  She had prepared the most fabulous eggs in ramekins baked in a bain marie and seasoned perfectly with herbs, garlic, and butter.  If you like soft boiled eggs this is the way to do them without having to fuss with the shells.  No polite cracking with the bottom of a tiny spoon or the typical Teutonic knife decapitation method I use, a technique espoused in my family passed down from my German grandfather ("I wish he wouldn't do that.  It's so impolite").  The only variation Blaine uses is that the cooking is done in a toaster oven instead of the regular oven, and there's no bain marie.  With the proper timing, the yokes come out runny, but if the eggs are left in to set, it's still a tasty dish.  At Albertson's, Blaine found a giant fruit bowl with a generous amount of berries among the melon slices, shredded cheese, grits, bacon, and Texas toast. Upon our return to the house:  movie, chocolate Napoleon, and the remainder of a quiet evening amid the flickering Tiki torches.  
I was looking forward to the ramekin eggs.  "Shrimp and Grits!" Something completely unexpected.  It's considered truly Southern, shrimp and grits, but it's really something more of a treat than a staple.   "I was thinking about what to do with the grits, and shrimp came to mind," he said.   When I cook, I have recipes in my head.  I generally know what I'll be using, how much to use and what techniques to follow.  Blaine is a visual artist.  He cooks like he paints.  He sees what he has and adds what he needs, and it works out.  In German, we'd say er kocht nach Schnauze -- he cooks by his nose.  I love watching him cook and it's fun working as his sou chef.  His shrimp and grits were prepared with standard grits cooked with milk and thickened with grated cheese.  He rendered a generous quantity of peppered bacon and reserved the grease to cook the shrimp.  Shrimp and crumbled bacon were served in bowls atop the cheesy grits.  Ramekin eggs, shrimp and grits, and a sweet fruit salad enjoyed al fresco with plenty of Louisiana coffee drunk from colorful mugs.  We are both tremendously busy throughout the week.  When things slow a bit on the weekends, we are afforded a gift of free time to be savored bite by bite like a costly truffle.  Sitting back and looking out at the beautiful green space, I have come to realize that I don't have to be the Emperor of China to know I am one of the luckiest men alive.