Archive for the ‘New Orleans’ Category

New Orleans — a racing town

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

I’ve long enjoyed thoroughbred racing.

One of the many reasons I like New Orleans is because, among other things, it’s a racing town.

I hope some of the thousands of Arkansans in the city for the Sugar Bowl found time to make it out to the historic Fair Grounds Race Course. The horses run each Thursday through Monday this time of year at the Fair Grounds.

Union Race Course, which today is the site of the Fair Grounds, was laid out along Gentilly Road in 1852, making it the oldest thoroughbred racing site in the country that’s still in operation. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the Fair Grounds, but it was partially rebuilt in time to host the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April 2006.

Other restoration work was completed in time for the start of the 135th racing season that began on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

Here’s how The Associated Press began its story late that afternoon: “They hauled off soil tainted by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters and rebuilt a grandstand roof ripped free by the storm’s wind. After more than a year of renovations, costing about $16 million, a Thanksgiving tradition — horse racing — returned to New Orleans on Thursday.

“The annual winter meet has started on Thanksgiving Day in all but a few years since 1934. Until last year, when Katrina forced the Fair Grounds to move its season to Louisiana Downs near Shreveport, people like 16-year-old Joe Talamo had spent nearly every Thanksgiving in memory at the venerable New Orleans track, where live oak trees, hundreds of years old, grace the infield.

“Talamo, who grew up in suburban Marrero and is now an apprentice jockey, won the first post-Katrina race under a clear blue sky and in front of a swelling crowd.”

It was fitting that someone who had been coming to the Fair Grounds every Thanksgiving since he was a young child was aboard that first post-Katrina winner. It was also fitting that the horse was trained by a Louisiana native, Larry Robideaux. He had been running horses at the Fair Grounds since 1960 and had last won an opening race in 1968.

“Much as with the New Orleans Saints’ return to the Louisiana Superdome in late September, thousands flocked to the track simply to be part of the rebirth of what had long ago become a quintessential New Orleans experience,” the AP reported.

Patsy Rink brought 13 grandchildren that day along with a number of other relatives.

“I used to come here as a child,” she said. “We always came Thanksgiving Day, and we came as a family. We’re just thrilled to be back. I’m looking forward to seeing all my friends. … People from New Orleans love the track. It’s part of us.”

The 1,200 dining spaces for that Thanksgiving sold out in 35 minutes when they became available.

The AP noted: “Spectators — from hard-core types, losing themselves in the Racing Form, to gatherings of sharply dressed socialites sipping bloody marys — meandered from the grandstand to the flower-laden paddock. The smell of fried turkey, a Louisiana holiday tradition, wafted in the air. Crooner and actor Harry Connick Jr. was there with his dad, a retired Orelans Parish district attorney. Carolina Panthers quarterback and Louisiana native Jake Delhomme was listed as the owner of a horse named Seventy Two Reno in one of the 10 races. Delhomme’s father, Jerry Delhomme, was the trainer of the horse, which placed fourth.”

Jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins played the call to the post before being joined by regular track bugle player Les Colonello in a stirring rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

It wasn’t the first time the place had to be rebuilt. A massive fire had destroyed the grandstand on Dec. 17, 1993, but temporary facilities were erected and that year’s race meet continued. Construction began in July 1994 on a $27.5 million grandstand. Completion of the grandstand was delayed due to scandals in the gaming industry (nothing is ever boring when it comes to Louisiana politics), but the facility finally opened on Thanksgiving Day 1997.

For years, many old New Orleans families have made it a tradition to spend Thanksgiving at the Fair Grounds for opening day. Things became a bit complicated this past November when the city’s beloved Saints found themselves playing football in Dallas that afternoon. Fair Grounds management (the track is now owned by Churchill Downs Inc.) responded by moving up the races so patrons could be home in time to watch the Saints post a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Cowboys.

When Union Race Course was laid out in 1852, there were already two tracks — the Metairie and Louisiana courses — that had been operating since 1838. Unable to compete with the Metairie course, Union Race Course ceased operations from 1857 until 1859. The Metairie Trotting and Pacing Club leased Union in 1859 and renamed it the Creole Race Course. Many notable horses competed there, including the trotter Ethan Allen, who was known as the Pride of New England.

During the Civil War, the Creole Race Course evolved into the Mechanics’ and Agricultural Fair Grounds and was leased by several promoters. Among them was a notorious Mississippi riverboat gambler by the name of George Devol. There was thoroughbred racing, harness racing, quarter horse racing and even cavalry racing. There were also boxing matches and baseball games.

Soon the place became known simply as the Fair Grounds and was quite popular with New Orleans gamblers even though the quality of the horses was poor. The good horses, you see, had been confiscated by Union troops.

Down the road, the Metairie Jockey Club reorganized at the end of the war. The course was rebuilt and meets were run there from 1867-72. But a fight developed between the younger and older members of the club. In 1871, the younger members announced the formation of the Louisiana Jockey Club with plans to conduct spring and fall meets at the Fair Grounds. Plans to turn the old Metairie course into a cemetery came to fruition soon afterward.

The inaugural day of racing for the Louisiana Jockey Club at the Fair Grounds was April 13, 1872. The first race was — get this — a two-mile hurdle with eight jumps. The feature race was won by Monarchist, a son of the great Lexington, in two consecutive two-mile heats. Gen. George Custer of all people had a horse name Frogtown run second in a pair of two-mile heats. In attendance that day was Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.

Talk about history.

The first post parade occurred in 1873. The starter, who when he wasn’t at the track was described as a journalist and a manager of tragedians (I think I’ll start using that when people ask me what I do) “called the horses to walk, after the French style, up and drawn the homestretch, in procession. This new system would have succeeded admirably had it been carried out in proper spirit by the jockeys.”

That’s how a newspaper described it.

Parimutuel wagering later was introduced as an option, and the Fair Grounds was the only track in the country by 1900 to have accepted and continued the system.

Some other memorable moments included:

— Former President U.S. Grant attended part of the spring meet in 1880.

— Electric lights were used in the grandstand for the first time in 1882 and a steeplechase course was installed.

— Pat Garrett, the man who killed Billy the Kid, raced a stable at the Fair Grounds in 1893.

— The Fair Grounds was converted into an Army camp during the summer of 1898 for Spanish-American War maneuvers. That same year, one jockey had been suspended for pistol practice in the jockeys’ room.

— Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, was appointed betting commissioner in 1902. Like I said, Louisiana politics is never boring.

— Diamond Jim Brady attended part of the winter meet in 1906.

I could go on and on. Arkansans enjoy racing as well as football. I hope some of them had the chance to drop by the Fair Grounds and warm up for the Oaklawn meet that begins later this month.

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Remembering Hap Glaudi, Buddy D and WWL

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I’ve always enjoyed listening to 50,000-watt, clear channel AM radio stations at night.

Since childhood, I’ve tuned those stations in once the skies go dark over Arkansas. They allowed me to escape my bedroom in Arkadelphia and travel in a figurative sense to what seemed like exotic places.

I would, of course, listen to Harry Caray and Jack Buck broadcast Cardinal baseball games on KMOX (thank goodness the Cards are moving back to their old home at 1120 AM next season after five seasons over at KTRS, 550 AM; the Cardinals had called KMOX home from 1954-2005).

I would listen to Larry Munson call Georgia football games on WSB, 750 AM, from Atlanta.

I would listen to the great Cawood Ledford (with Ralph Hacker at his side) call Kentucky basketball games on WHAS, 840 AM, in Louisville.

Late on fall Saturday nights, as I returned home from Ouachita football games, I would listen to the Iowa Hawkeye replays on WHO, 1040 AM, in Des Moines (“Dutch” Reagan’s old station).

I would listen to various programs on the famous Chicago AM stations — WGN, WBBM, WLS.

And there’s WOIA, 1200 AM in San Antonio, “the sports leader for the great Southwest.”

But, in my opinion, the greatest radio station of them all is WWL-AM, the Big 870 from New Orleans. No station better reflects its city, its state and its region.

I would listen to John Ferguson broadcast the Saturday night LSU games (“Hi everybody from deep in the bayou country”). For a time, Ferguson broadcast both the Tigers on Saturday and the Saints on Sunday. When it turns dark and the Saints are playing, I still turn down the television sound to hear Jim Henderson on WWL.

When my father and I would head duck hunting before dawn on a Saturday, I would tune into WWL to hear Frank Davis (and later Don Dubuc) talk about hunting and fishing.

I wrote in an earlier post about that late 1979 trip to New Orleans to see the Razorbacks take on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1980 (Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide won a second consecutive national championship that day). One of the thrills of the week leading up to the game was calling into WWL and talking to a man I’d been listening to for years, Hap Glaudi.

I’ll never forget making that call from my room at the Marriott on Canal.

“Hello to Rex, the king of Carnival,” Hap said as he went to my call.

Glaudi had started his career in the newspaper business at the old New Orleans Item and reluctantly moved to television when WWL-TV was in its infancy. He later added radio to the mix. The voice of this Jesuit High graduate just dripped with that old Nawlins sound.

When WWL-TV aired a program to celebrate its 50th anniversary a few years ago, morning anchor Sally-Ann Roberts remembered Hap this way: “I remember an old car. That’s what I remember of Hap. Hap was a person who didn’t have to put on any pretensions. He was exactly what he appeared to be on the air. He had a very common touch. … He drove that car, and I think that said a lot about him. He didn’t need to put on airs or try to keep up appearances. He was just naturally New Orleans.”

After Saints games, Hap would host a call-in show called “Hap’s Fifth Quarter.”

After Hap died in 1989, the station continued to call the show — now hosted by Buddy Diliberto — “Hap’s Fifth Quarter” for a time.

Then, the man they knew as Buddy D became a legend in his own right.

“Though Italian, Buddy D must have had some Cajun blood blended in there, too,” longtime New Orleans sportswriter Bill Bumgarner wrote on his blog earlier this year. “Much like our imports from Acadiana, Buddy loved to laugh at himself. As any Cajun will tell you, the best Cajun jokes come courtesy of fellow Cajuns. Buddy D was no fan of political correctness. Buddy was to proper English what Bernard Madoff was to trust, what FEMA was to governmental efficiency. … Hap and Buddy lived during the era when professional boxing and horse racing thrived, and each loved them both.”

Bumgarner went on to write about returning to New Orleans after covering Saturday night LSU football games in Baton Rouge: “Following player interviews and a postgame chat with LSU’s late coach, Charles McClendon (an Arkansas native from Lewisville), the return home usually got us back to Metairie about 1 a.m., a perfect time to stop by Buddy D’s sports lounge near Clearview and Veterans. A first timer might expect to see the engaging Buddy D greeting and chatting with the fans. Some nights, yes, but not on Saturday.

“More times than not, Buddy D would be perched on the bar, his headed sandwiched between two large transistor radios, with a third radio sporting an earplug. Meanwhile, thanks to one of the area’s first satellite dishes, Buddy would also watch as many as two West Coast games. It was nothing to see him attempt to monitor five games at once. Perhaps — just perhaps — Buddy had some greenbacks riding on those games.”

Buddy D’s full name was Bernard Saverio Diliberto. He was born in August 1931 and died in January 2005. He began working as a Times-Picayune sportswriter in 1950 while attending Loyola and moved to WVUE-TV in 1966. In 1980, he moved over to WDSU-TV.

After he started hosting radio talk shows on WWL, Buddy became known for referring to callers as “squirrels” and having regular callers who went by names such as Abdul D. Tentmakur and Dr. Kevorkian. When the Saints went 1-15 in 1980, it was Buddy who began calling them the Aints and came up with the idea of fans wearing paper bags over their heads during games in the Superdome.

He said: “When you go to heaven after you die, tell St. Peter you’re a Saints fan. He’ll say, ‘Come on in. I don’t care what else you’ve done, you’ve suffered enough.'”

Buddy D vowed to wear a dress and walk down Bourbon Street if the Saints ever made it to the Super Bowl.

When the Saints did indeed make it the Super Bowl last season, the Times-Picayune ran as altered photograph of Buddy D in a dress. On Jan. 31, thousands of men in dresses, led by his WWL successor and former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, paraded from the Superdome to Bourbon Street.

Hap Glaudi and Buddy D were indeed two WWL legends. It’s too bad they weren’t around to enjoy the Saints winning the Super Bowl.

Ron Brocato, another veteran New Orleans sportswriter, had this to say about Hap on his blog: “Glaudi was a Jesuit man. He earned his tuition betting on a winning longshot at the Fair Grounds given to him by a bookie. I should have been as insightful when I had to attend a local public school because my family couldn’t afford the $13 a month tuition at St. Aloysius. Glaudi was no marginal student. He worked his way through Jesuit and Loyola. Before becoming sports editor of the Item, Hap was the featured prep writer.”

As for WWL, the station began on the Loyola campus as a laboratory for wireless technology. Before the Jesuits at the school could operate a radio station, they had to receive permission from the Vatican.

WWL-AM began broadcasting as a 10-watt station from Marquette Hall on the campus on March 31, 1922. A piano recital was the first program to air. By 1924, the station had 100 watts of power. It was up to 500 watts by 1927 and 5,000 watts by 1929.

The station reached 10,000 watts in 1932 and 50,000 watts in 1937. WWL has been affiliated with the CBS Radio Network since 1935 and has been at 870 on the dial since 1946. Loyola sold the station in 1989 in order to build up its endowment. Entercom Communications has owned WWL since 1999.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, WWL became the tie back to the entire Gulf Coast for hundreds of thousands of people who had fled the area. It gave them the information they needed to stay connected.

The station never went off the air. When announcer Garland Robinette was showered with glass after the windows blew out in the studio, he kept talking from a closet. WWL went to 24-hour coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath for weeks in what I consider one of the finest performances ever by an American radio station.

You should tune into 870 AM if you’re driving to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl and keep it on when you’re in the city.

It’s truly one of the world’s great radio stations.

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Hidden French Quarter treasures

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

While hanging out in the French Quarter in the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, Arkansas fans should make it a point to visit a couple of historic gems — the Old Ursuline Convent and the Old U.S. Mint.

The Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. It’s amazing, though, how few people find the 1752 complex at 1100 Chartres St. It’s the best surviving example of the French colonial period in the country, and it can be toured at a cost of just $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for students.

The convent was one of those rare survivors of the fires that otherwise ravaged the French Quarter throughout the 1700s.

The Old U.S. Mint at 400 Esplanade Ave., which is now part of the Louisiana State Museum system, is the only building in the country to have served as both a U.S. and Confederate mint. It was built in 1835. President Andrew Jackson believed the establishment of a mint in New Orleans would help finance development of the western frontier.

If you love history, both facilities are well worth a visit.

The Old Ursuline Convent now houses the archives for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. You’ll enter through a gatehouse on Chartres Street and then walk through a formal garden. Entering the main building, you’ll immediately notice the many oil paintings of past archbishops and bishops. There also are bronze busts and religious statues.

The building has served at one time or another as a convent, an orphanage, a hospital and even a residence hall for bishops. The Ursulines, or Sisters of Ursula, were the first women’s religious order to come to New Orleans. The Ursulines immediately began ministering to the needs of the poor and through the years founded asylums, orphanages and schools.

Here’s how the website www.sacred-destinations.com describes it: “The sisters arrived in the mudhole that was New Orleans in 1727 after a journey that nearly saw them lost at sea or to pirates or disease. Once in town, the Ursulines provided the first decent medical care (saving countless lives) and later founded the first school and orphanage for girls.

“They also helped raise girls shipped over from France as marriage material for local men, teaching the girls everything from languages to homemaking of the most exacting sort; laying the foundation for countless local families in the process.

“The convent dates from 1752 and is the only remaining building from the French colonial period in the United States. … The convent now functions as an archive for the Archdiocese of New Orleans with documents dating back to 1718. The sisters moved uptown in 1824, where they remain today.

“St. Mary’s Church, adjoining the convent, was added in 1845. The original convent, school and gardens covered several French Quarter blocks. The formal gardens, church and first floor of the old convent are open for guided tours. Unfortunately, the tours can be rather disappointing affairs; docents’ histories ramble all over the place, rarely painting the full, thrilling picture of these extraordinary ladies to whom New Orleans owes so much.”

On my last visit there, I found the docent who showed me around the church to be quite knowledgeable.

The order’s founder, Angela Merici, was born in Desenzano, Italy, in 1474. In 1531, she began assembling young women for regular meetings. The Company of Saint Ursula was founded in 1535, Angela was elected Mother For Life in 1538, and Pope Paul III formally approved the company in 1544.

The Ursuline Academy in New Orleans was founded in 1727 by 12 Ursuline nuns from France. It moved to the Chartres Street location in 1734 and then to a Dauphine Street location on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1824. The academy, which moved to its current location on State Street in 1912, is both the oldest continuously operating school for girls in the country and the oldest Catholic school in the country.

In addition to providing the first center of socal welfare in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the first boarding school in Louisiana and the first music school in New Orleans, the Ursulines also say they provided this country its first female pharmacist, the first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, the first convent, the first free school, the first women’s retreat center, the first classes for female black slaves, the first classes for freed black women and the first classes for Native American women.

As for the Old U.S. Mint, architect William Strickland designed the building in the Greek Revival style. Minting began in 1838. State authorities seized the property in 1861 and transferred it to the Confederate Army. Confederate currency was minted there, and troops were housed in the building during the Civil War. The minting of U.S. currency resumed in 1879. It was the only mint in the South to reopen following the war.

Minting operations in New Orleans ceased in 1909. The building was transferred to the state in 1966 and opened as a state museum in 1981.

In an article for the March 2003 edition of Numismatist, Greg Lambousy described the facility’s history since 1879 this way: “A series of political struggles ensued for the next 30 years. Many thought the New Orleans mint was superfluous and existed merely as a form of political patronage for Louisiana legislators. Given the facility’s aging machinery and competition from the Denver and San Francisco Mints, it became increasingly more difficult to justify the cost of operations in New Orleans. By June 1911, after production had been halted for two years, machinery began to be dismantled and shipped to the Philadelphia Mint.

“In 1922, a supervising architect for the Treasury Department issued a report describing the general decay into which the building and its remaining machinery had fallen: ‘The attic and building generally contain old decayed tanks, masonry furnaces, old iron, piles of paper, mud and dead pipe and gas lines and flues, etc. … Surface dirt and cobwebs exist practically throughout the building, the accumulation of years, and there is no janitor force employed. The rear lot is filthy with trash, cans, old abandoned machinery, decayed and falling wooden and sheet metal sheds and shacks and an old brick chimney.’

“At this time, the assay department still operated on the third floor. A naval recruiting station and a Veterans Bureau dispensary and dental clinic operated in other parts of the building. The architect recommended in his report that the assay department relocate to the New Orleans Customhouse, where it could share the use of a newly built bullion vault.

“His advice finally was taken in 1931 when the mint building was converted into a federal prison. In 1943, the prison closed. The building functioned as a Coast Guard receiving station until the middle 1960s, when it was transferred from the federal government to the state of Louisiana and placed under the stewardship of the Louisiana State Museum Board. … Today, the New Orleans Mint building exhibits few of the problems that plagued it during its tumultuous decades of service. It stands as a testament to man’s ingenuity — and frailty.”

Like the Old Ursuline Convent, the Old U.S. Mint is off the beaten path for most tourists and is rarely crowded. Pay it a visit when you’re in New Orleans.

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New Orleans matters

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

We pulled out of New Orleans at 10 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Aug. 15, 2005.

Melissa and I had enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon in that city 16 years earlier, and we were determined to show our two sons a good time.

The previous day had started with beignets at Cafe Du Monde followed by the 10:30 a.m. mass at St. Louis Cathedral with the archbishop presiding. Breakfast at Brennan’s followed and lasted long into the afternoon.

It was a glorious day.

As we departed the Crescent City the next morning, there was no way we could have known that New Orleans would be changed forever exactly two weeks later.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005.

Along with millions of my fellow Americans, I was transfixed by the live television coverage in the days that followed the storm  — the levee breaks, the floods, the helicopter rescues, the looting, the fires, the horrible scenes at the Superdome and the convention center.

It seemed as if we were watching the death of one of the world’s most unique cities in real time.

As the city descended into chaos, George Friedman of Stratfor, who publishes a daily global intelligence briefing, wrote a piece explaining why it was essential that New Orleans survive.

Here’s part of what he wrote on Sept. 1, 2005: “The American political system was founded in Philadelphia, but the American nation was built on the vast farmlands that stretch from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. That farmland produced the wealth that funded American industrialization: It permitted the formation of a class of small landholders who, amazingly, could produce more than they could consume. They could sell their excess crops in the east and in Europe and save that money, which eventually became the founding capital of American industry.

“But it was not the extraordinary land nor the farmers and ranchers who alone set the process in motion. Rather, it was geography — the extraordinary system of rivers that flowed through the Midwest and allowed them to ship their surplus to the rest of the world. All of the rivers flowed into one — the Mississippi — and the Mississippi flowed to the ports in and around one city: New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that the barges from upstream were unloaded and their cargoes stored, sold and reloaded on ocean-going vessels. Until last Sunday, New Orleans was, in many ways, the pivot of the American economy.

“For that reason, the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 was a key moment in American history. Even though the battle occurred after the War of 1812 was over, had the British taken New Orleans, we suspect they wouldn’t have given it back. Without New Orleans, the entire Louisiana Purchase would have been valueless to the United States. Or, to state it more precisely, the British would control the region because, at the end of the day, the value of the purchase was the land and the rivers — which all converged on the Mississippi and the ultimate port of New Orleans. The hero of the battle was Andrew Jackson, and when he became president, his obsession with Texas had much to do with keeping the Mexicans away from New Orleans.”

As thousands of Arkansans descend on New Orleans to prepare for next week’s Sugar Bowl, it’s history worth remembering.

Friedman recounted that during the Cold War, people would often ask this question: If the Soviets could destroy one American city with a nuclear device, which one would it be? Washington? New York?

“For me, the answer was simple,” he wrote. “New Orleans. If the Mississippi River was shut to traffic, then the foundations of the economy would be shattered. The industrial minerals needed in the factories wouldn’t come in, and the agricultural wealth wouldn’t flow out. Alternative routes really weren’t available. … A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped.”

In those grim days after the storm, there were certain people who openly questioned whether rebuilding New Orleans would be a wise investment. The House speaker at the time was among them.

Here’s what Friedman concluded: “New Orleans is not optional for the United States’ commercial infrastructure. It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist. With that as a given, a city will return there because the alternatives are too devastating. The harvest is coming, and that means that the port will have to be opened soon. As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to people prepared to endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the end, the city will return because it has to.

“Geopolitics is the stuff of permanent geographical realities and the way they interact with political life. Geopolitics created New Orleans. Geopolitics caused American presidents to obsess over its safety. And geopolitics will force the city’s resurrection, even if it is in the worst imaginable place.”

More than five years later, with New Orleans having recovered far better than most had predicted, I go back to these words: “The city will return because it has to.”

We need New Orleans not only for the strategic and cultural reasons that Friedman outlined so well. We also need her because she’s such a vital part of our culture.

Novelist Tom Piazza fled his adopted hometown as Katrina bore down and found himself near the Arkansas border at Malden in the Missouri Bootheel. In the five weeks after the storm, Piazza sequestered himself in a space provided at Malden’s Stokes-Mayberry Gin to write what would become the book “Why New Orleans Matters.”

Piazza, one of our country’s most talented writers, concluded: “Some public figures even asked whether it ‘made sense’ to rebuild New Orleans. Would you let your own mother die because it didn’t make financial sense to spend the money to treat her or because you were too busy to spend the time to heal her sick spirit? Among people who are able to think only in terms of dollars and cents, for whom everything is reckoned in terms of winner and loser, profit or more profit, of course it doesn’t ‘make sense’ to rebuild, or to rebuild properly. A lot of things don’t make sense in those terms, including every one of the virtues espoused by a Jesus who has helped them win votes but whom they would not invite to their house for dinner if they met him tomorrow, unless maybe he could be useful for fundraising.

“Dollars and cents are important. And most of the large-scale good done in the world is done by people who have both money and vision. There are people of immense compassion and good will and love and insight and vision all across the socioeconomic spectrum — black and white, poor and rich. The question is not racial solidarity or class solidarity but a distinction between people who have a soul left and people who have mortgaged their souls for a shortsighted self-gratification. … Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, a one-time New Orleans denizen, remarked during the era of school desegregation that if we were descending to the level at which little girls were being spit on by mobs on their way to school just for the color of their skin, then maybe we didn’t deserve to survive as a civilization. Strong words, but they echo in my mind now with the strength of a giant bell tolling. Greed, brutality, shortsightedness, racism, thuggishness are an abiding part of human affairs; they will never be eradicated. But we as a country, as a culture, can decide what we think of them and what we want to do or not do about them.”

Piazza ended the book with the hope that one year we will “pass one another on Mardi Gras day with the sound of a parade in the distance, or a gang of Indians coming down the street, and we can stop and share a drink and a laugh under the oak tree and give thanks once again for this beautiful day, this life, this beautiful city, New Orleans.”

The city survived, an answer to the prayers those of us who love her sent forth during those late summer days of 2005.

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The kings and queens of New Orleans cuisine

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

We live in an era when chefs transform themselves into media celebrities. They have television shows, produce books and even appear in movies.

Long before that was the trend nationwide, though, restaurateurs (owners, not necessarily chefs) were stars in food-crazed New Orleans. They remain stars to this day.

Consider Count Arnaud Cazenave (a title he bestowed on himself, by the way), who founded in 1918 what’s still one of the city’s most famous restaurants. During Prohibition, the Count was known for ensuring that patrons still had a good time.

The restaurant’s website (www.arnaudsrestaurant.com) describes it this way: “Stories emanated on a nightly basis about what went on at Arnaud’s as its patrons pursued their sensual pleasures. Some of the gossip still circulates after 80 or more years. Many good tales from the early days concern Arnaud’s various circumventions of Prohibition. It was Arnaud’s misfortune to have opened a restaurant a year before the Volstead Act went through. Arnaud, like most Orleanians, believed that wine and spirits are natural companions of good food and good living. The fact that they were illegal seemed a detail.

“For example: A businessman brought an associate to Arnaud’s for lunch one hot day. As soon as he was seated, he told the waiter to bring two cups of coffee. ‘Coffee?’ asked the lunch companion. ‘I don’t want to start a meal with coffee.’

“‘Yes you do,’ insisted his host. ‘You can’t get this kind of coffee anywhere else.’ Throughout the ’20s, liquor flowed freely at Arnaud’s but always under cover of hard-to-find private rooms, mysterious back bars and coffee cups.

“Nevertheless, the law finally caught up with the Count. He was imprisoned, and the restaurant padlocked for a time. Ultimately, he won the jury over with a convincing explanation of his philosophy. He was acquitted in time for the end of Prohibition. The Count turned his infamy into promotion for his restaurant, and the golden age of Arnaud’s was under way.”

The Count’s daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells, became a celebrity in her own right, though she allowed the restaurant to decline.

“Everywhere she went, newspaper stories followed, always including accolades for Arnaud’s,” the website states. “Her greatest public relations triumphs had Arnaud’s included among convincing lists of the world’s five greatest restaurants: first in a Paris newspaper, then in a celebration of the 2,000th birthday of Paris held in New York. To Germaine, the inclusion of Arnaud’s was natural.

“‘After all,’ she said, ‘New Orleans is the Paris of the South.’ In New Orleans, a city full of characters, she achieved one-name status. During the ’50s and ’60s (and still among people of a certain age), if you referred to Germaine, everyone knew who you were talking about.”

It should come as no surprise that the colorful Germaine would choose to sell the restaurant to someone she considered colorful — Archie Casbarian.

“Casbarian was hardly the first person to approach Germaine with an offer to buy the restaurant,” the website explains. “But she saw the transaction not as selling a business but as abdicating a throne. Only the threat of impending financial ruin forced her hand. The choice of Archie Casbarian as the man to keep Arnaud’s alive turned on a set of odd coincidences that appealed to Germaine’s sense of drama. Archie Casbarian had the same initials as her father. Both men loved good cigars, handsome clothes, fine wines, Cognac and telling an amusing story. Both were born overseas, and both spoke French fluently. They were about the same height. In fact, Germaine thought that Archie looked a lot like her father.”

When Casbarian took over, almost all of the dining rooms in the Arnaud’s complex had been closed. Fortunately, he restored the old place.

Another restaurateur who knew how to attract attention while courting the rich and famous was Owen Edward Brennan, the man we wrote about in the previous post on the Brennan family and its many restaurants.

“Owen’s ready wit, radiant smile and infectious laugh endeared him to locals, Hollywood celebrities and tourists alike,” according to the website www.brennansneworleans.com. “He was so very kind to so many people and was genuinely loved in return. As the famous novelist and syndicated columnist Robert Ruark once wrote about his good friend, ‘If he had a fault, it was his generosity.’ Owen was full of energy and possessed an incredible imagination; and all was reflected in Brennan’s success.

“Owen was known in Hollywood movie circles and entertained some of the brightest stars in his French Quarter restaurant — Vivian Leigh, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, Jane Russell and Tennessee Williams, to name a few. For national magazine writers and syndicated columnists, such as Earl Wilson, Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Dorothy Kilgallen, Robert Ruark and Lucius Beebe, Brennan’s was oftentimes the first stop on assignments to cover New Orleans. As a result, many stories were written of Owen’s life and success in the restaurant business in national publications.”

Owen Brennan was intrigued by Frances Parkinson Keyes’ 1948 mystery novel “Dinner At Antoine’s.” He decided to make “breakfast at Brennan’s” equally as famous as dinner at Antoine’s.

In an article last year for The Times-Picayune, Maria Montoya wrote this about Owen: “Good-looking and gregarious with natural-born savvy, he became one of the French Quarter’s favorite gadabouts, earning his reputation first as proprietor of the Old Absinthe House and later the Vieux Carre, eventually joining the ranks of such storied local restaurateurs as Roy Alciatore and Count Arnaud.”

Owen’s younger sister, Ella, also became adept at courting the rich and famous.

After her brother’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1955, Ella made Brennan’s Restaurant famous nationwide.

“Brennan’s quickly became one of the hottest restaurants in America,” Montoya writes. “… While the more traditional French Quarter restaurants had guest lists taken from the social register, Brennan’s catered to the business, media and professional crowd. The men wore suits and ties; the women wore dresses and high heels. There were frequently celebrities around. And everyone was table-hopping.

“Clay Shaw, Ella Brennan’s close friend, came to the restaurant on a memorable occasion, after he was accused but before he was exonerated in an off-the-wall investigation of his alleged link to President Kennedy’s assassination. Brennan, ever loyal, borrowed a red carpet from the Royal Orleans and had it waiting for him when he arrived at the front door. A lot of high rollers in town had tables permanently reserved there for lunch, Monday through Friday.”

After Ella Brennan divorced Paul Martin in 1970, she moved in with her sister Adelaide in a five-bedroom home on Prytania Street in the Garden District.

Ella’s daughter, Ti, was 9 at the time.

“They entertained lavishly,” Ti told The Times-Picayune when asked about her mother and aunt. “You just never knew who was going to be there. There was a grand cast of local characters — and then entertainers coming to town, they’d always be invited. Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye. Raymond Burr was Uncle Raymond to us. Rock Hudson was there many times — nice man. Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Carol Channing, Susan Hayward, Jane Russell, Helen Hayes. I don’t know anybody who lived like we did.”

Montoya writes: “Adelaide never stirred before noon and rarely left the house before 3 o’clock. When she was entertaining, she always made a dramatic entrance (a little late), descending the staircase regally, dressed to kingdom come, with a cigarette holder propped in her hand. She was either beautiful, according to one observer, or had the aura of being beautiful. Either way, it worked.”

Ti told the newspaper: “Everybody would be wondering what she would wear tonight. It was never tacky, somehow, as outlandish as it was. Always in great taste and style, but just way out there. Aunt Adelaide’s idea of casual was no sequins.”

Adelaide died in 1983 of cancer. Shortly after that, Ella moved into a house next to Commander’s Palace with her other sister, Dottie.

Commander’s Place opened in 1880. The Brennan family bought it in 1969 and began actively managing it in 1974.

It’s one of the nation’s great restaurants in a town known for great food and true characters.

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The Brennans of New Orleans

Monday, December 20th, 2010

If you’re planning to spend several days in New Orleans leading up to the Sugar Bowl, you’ll likely eat in a restaurant owned by a branch of the Brennan family.

That Irish-American family tree has many branches, mind you.

But I like almost all of the Brennan restaurants.

Ella Brennan, the queen of New Orleans cuisine, and members of her family operate the incomparable Commander’s Palace in the Garden District along with Cafe Adelaide in the Loews New Orleans Hotel in the CBD.

The flagship Brennan’s Restaurant at 417 Royal St., which was opened by the late Owen Edward Brennan, is owned and operated by Owen’s three sons — Pip, Jimmy and Ted.

Dickie Brennan operates the Palace Cafe at 605 Canal St., Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse at 716 Iberville St. in the French Quarter and Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House just off Canal at 144 Bourbon St.

His cousin, Ralph Brennan, operates the Red Fish Grill at 115 Bourbon St. and Ralph’s on the Park at 900 City Park Ave. in a renovated 1860-era building that looks out on the massive live oaks in City Park. Ralph Brennan recently made the decision to close his Italian restaurant, Bacco, in the French Quarter at the end of the year in order to search for a new location. That restaurant opened in 1991.

Mr. B’s Bistro at 201 Royal St. in the French Quarter also is operated by members of the Brennan family.

New Orleans was filled with Irish immigrants when Owen Edward Brennan was born in April 1910 to Owen Patrick Brennan and Nellie Brennan in the Irish Channel area of the city. His younger siblings were Adelaide, John, Ella, Dick and Dottie.

The Brennan’s Restaurant website (www.brennansneworleans.com) tells the story this way: “Throughout his adult life, Owen Edward Brennan was driven by his devotion and an undaunting sense of responsibility to support not only his own wife and three sons but his parents and siblings as well. His father, Owen Patrick Brennan, was a New Orleans foundry laborer, which had made supporting Nellie and their six children very difficult; and so, his eldest son set out to make his fortune.

“Owen’s undertakings and endeavors included buying an interest in a gas station as well as a drugstore and becoming the bookkeeper for a candy company. He worked as a liquor salesman.”

He was the temporary manager of the Court of Two Sisters, a well-known French Quarter restaurant. In September 1943, Owen purchased the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. Located in a building constructed in 1798, the bar billed itself as the “oldest saloon in America.” Owen began what became a tradition of having visitors attach their business cards to the inside walls and even the ceiling.

Let’s let the Brennan’s website pick up the story again: “Owen’s good friend, Count Arnaud, whose restaurant was a popular New Orleans dining spot, allegedly posed a challenge to Owen. Owen would relay complaints overheard at the Absinthe House to offending restaurant owners. To which Count Arnaud replied, ‘You’re forever telling me about the complaints you hear. If you think you can do better, why don’t you open a restaurant?’ At the same time, Count Arnaud taunted that no Irishman could run a restaurant that was more than a hamburger joint. To which Owen responded, ‘All right, you asked for it. I’ll show you and everybody else that an Irishman can run the finest French restaurant in town.’

“In July 1946, Owen Edward Brennan leased the Vieux Carre Restaurant, directly across the street from the Old Absinthe House. He renamed the restaurant for himself, Owen Brennan’s French & Creole Restaurant, and with time it came to be more commonly known as Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre.”

Here’s what Maria Montoya wrote last year in a Times-Picayune feature on Owen’s younger sister: “Ella Brennan was a student at McMain High School when her oldest brother, Owen, bought a restaurant in the French Quarter. The Vieux Carre, it was called, and its food wasn’t much more imaginative than its name.

“‘It was a terrible restaurant,’ Brennan says in her salty way, lolling in a flowery chintz chair in her sumptuous Garden District sunroom. ‘Very limited. Not exciting.’

“The more she griped about it, she remembers, the more her brother challenged her: ‘I was complaining so much that Owen finally asked me: Why don’t you come do something about it, smarty?’ So she did. And by the time she was 18, she was running the place.”

Ella and her sister, Dottie, live next door to Commander’s Palace, and Ella still shows up in the restaurant several times a week.

Tim Zagat, the famed publisher of restaurant guides, said this about Ella Brennan: “There’s nobody who has had a role as dominant in any other city that I’m aware of. I don’t think there’s anybody, even a male. I look at restaurateurs all over the U.S. every day, and I think she’s up there with the best of them — and maybe ahead of any of them.”

Pip Brennan said of his aunt, “If she’s not the best restaurateur in the country, I want to meet the one who’s better.”

Ella considered big brother Owen, who was 15 years older, a hero.

Ella said the Absinthe House was a “very chic bar — I’m telling you chic. Coats and ties. Fats Pichon playing the piano in a tuxedo with a big mirror behind him.”

Owen used the tiny apartment above the bar as a place for friends to stay overnight — Louis Armstrong, Leon Uris, Art Buchwald, Robert Mitchum and other noted musicians, writers and actors.

Owen later leased the building at 417 Royal St. that once had housed the Bank of Louisiana. The year was 1954.

“Owen had big ideas for creating a first-class restaurant there,” Montoya writes. “Although the Vieux Carre ultimately grew into a consequential establishment, he was determined to create something sensational. Brennan’s, he would call it. As usual, the whole family got involved, and the project took on a life of its own. It was exhausting but exhilarating, too: devising the floor plan, laying out the kitchen, selecting the colors, picking out fabrics, creating the menu. It was a heady experience. And then it all came to a shocking stop on Nov. 4, 1955, when Owen Brennan, eldest of the six children, died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 45.”

“Well, Pip and Dick were in the Army and John was in the Navy and Dottie had just gotten married,” Ella told The Times-Picayune. “So I had to open the restaurant. I got that place open by the seat of my pants.”

On Nov. 5, 1973, Owen Brennan’s widow (Maude) and the three sons assumed complete control of Brennan’s Restaurant as the family holdings were split. Ella concentrated on Commander’s Palace, which the family had purchased in 1969.

“The issue of expansion may have been only the tip of the iceberg among the real causes of unrest, unfairness and resentment within the family,” the Brennan’s Restaurant website notes. “… Not until November 1974 was a complete and final agreement reached between the two factions of the family.”

There’s also a Brennan’s in Houston that was destroyed by a fire as Hurricane Ike approached in September 2008. That restaurant still has family connections and reopened on Fat Tuesday this year.

However, the restaurant named Owen’s Brennan’s on Poplar Avenue in east Memphis does not have family connections. The restaurant, which opened in 1990, pays to use the name. Still, I enjoy the occasional meal there. It’s a tradition to eat dinner there after my annual day at the PGA Tour stop in Memphis.

Meanwhile, the Commander’s Palace in Destin, Fla., closed at the end of October. The loss of tourism due to the oil spill was just too much to overcome.

“The unfortunate timing of opening in Destin was simply not something we could control or overcome,” Ella’s daughter, Ti Adelaide, Martin said. “… We have greatly enjoyed our time here in Destin and are still in awe of the breathtaking views of the harbor and the stellar sunsets. Destin will always be our playground. The fine dining market has been devastated in the panhandle of Florida by the recent oil spill.”

Ti Adelaide Martin, with whom I had a wonderful visit one evening soon after Cafe Adelaide had reopened following Hurricane Katrina (Commander’s Palace had not yet reopened), is one of eight cousins still actively involved in the restaurant business. They know what they’re doing, carrying on the legacy of Owen Edward Brennan.

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NOLA’s best oyster bar and poor boy

Friday, December 17th, 2010

When you’re in New Orleans, you have to leave the French Quarter for the best oyster bar and the best poor boy.

Yes, I’m going to follow the lead of Tom Fitzmorris and spell it the original way — poor boy rather than po-boy.

Get your oysters at Casamento’s at 4330 Magazine St.

Get your poor boys at Parkway Bakery & Tavern at 538 Hagan Ave.

Ed David, the New Orleans native who makes dining at the Faded Rose in Little Rock such a pleasure (have you checked out Ed’s expanded poor boy menu?), confirmed my choices. That makes me feel I’m on target.

Casamento’s, which opened in 1919, hasn’t changed much since then. It’s open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday and from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The tiled restaurant is about the cleanest place I’ve ever been.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website (www.casamentosrestaurant.com) describes its history: “Casamento’s Restaurant was established in 1919 by Joe Casamento, a hard-working immigrant from Ustica, Italy. Casamento’s is a spotlessly clean restaurant, tiled inside and out. Following building traditions from his native Italy, Mr. Casamento knew tiled surfaces would be easier to clean. So much tile was needed to meet Mr. Casamento’s requirements that it took four tile companies from across the Unites States to fill the order. Customers liken it to a giant swimming pool.

“Unlike most New Orleans seafood restaurants, Casamento’s uses its own signature bread called pan bread instead of French bread. Our oyster loaves have been acclaimed as far away as Australia and England and featured in numerous publications. … We have one of the top seafood gumbos in New Orleans. Casamento’s also has one of the best soft-shell crabs in the area along with fried shrimp, trout and Italian spaghetti and meatballs.”

The Fodor’s review of Casamento’s puts it this way: “Tiled in gleaming white and cream-color ceramic, Casamento’s has been a haven for Uptown seafood lovers since 1919. Family members still wait tables and staff the immaculate kitchen out back, while a reliable handful of oyster shuckers ensure that plenty of cold ones are available for the standing-room-only oyster bar.

“Specialties from the diminutive menu include oysters lightly poached in seasoned milk; fried shrimp, trout and soft-shell crab platters; and fried oysters, impeccably fresh and greaseless, served between thick slices of white toast. Everything is clean, and nothing is superfluous. Even the houseplants have a just-polished look.”

Salma Abdelnour once wrote in Food & Wine that food-obsessed New Orleans friends love Casamento’s “not just for its lived-in feel and old-time cred but for its Louisiana oysters: raw, fried, stewed and apparently as incredible as the creatures get.”

Indeed, the oysters just don’t get much better than those served as Casamento’s.

When it comes to New Orleans food, I trust Julia Reed (that talented and funny daughter of the Delta from Greenville, Miss., who now makes her home in New Orleans) as much as anyone.

She wrote in Food & Wine that Casamento’s is a “family-owned institution with tiled walls and floor, a long oyster bar in the front and tables in the back where I eat oyster stew in winter and the fried oyster and shrimp sandwiches all the time. At most places in New Orleans, a fried oyster and/or shrimp sandwich means that the seafood is served on a halved loaf of French bread and called a po-boy. Those are good, but the ones at Casamento’s, served on thick slices of white toast and dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, are way better.”

On to the poor boys!

The best are found in the Mid-City section of town at Parkway Bakery & Tavern at the intersection of Hagan and Toulouse, overlooking the Bayou St. John. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays but is open from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. the other six days of the week.

This place has been around for almost a century and received a new surge of publicity back on Aug. 29 when President Obama and members of his family stopped by to eat. The president ordered a shrimp poor boy and then visited with diners until the restaurant’s loudspeaker loudly announced: “Barack pickup.”

Though the president ordered a shrimp poor boy, the best-selling poor boy at Parkway is the hot roast beef with gravy. Other poor boy offerings include alligator sausage links, meatballs, fried potatoes, ham, pastrami, catfish and more. The original menu even contained tongue and liver cheese poor boys. Thankfully, those are no longer served. The sandwiches are dressed New Orleans style with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles.

Brett Anderson, the talented restaurant reviewer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, puts it this way: “Just seven years since it was resurrected by Jay Nix — in local restaurant time, a year being roughly equal to a month in real time — Parkway Bakery has bored into the fabric of New Orleans with its happy-sad story line. It’s firmly ensconced on the map of food-curious tourists and catnip for national media. When the first family stopped by for a K+5 lunch, you got the feeling his advance team did its homework. Its revelation is that a po-boy joint does not need to appear on the verge of collapse in order to evoke history and serve great food. The classics — roast beef, shrimp, hot sausage — are hard to beat, and Justin Kennedy, Nix’s nephew and managing partner, always seems to be in the kitchen, making sure they stay that way.”

Nix reopened the restaurant in 2003 and had to rebuild it again following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It doesn’t present itself as anything more than a comfortable place for a person to wash back a shirt-staining sandwich with a cold beer — yet it is,” Anderson writes. “In a town where people’s favorite po-boy joints tend to be walking distance from their homes, Parkway is a destination because it provides what customers expect of every other genre of restaurant: consistently high quality, a little atmosphere, enough room to sit down with a few friends, a clean bathroom.”

Another Parkway fan is Michael Stern of www.roadfood.com.

“New Orleans’ roast beef po-boys don’t draw the tourist attention bestowed on more distinctly regional Gulf Coast fried seafood heroes, but locals are passionate about them; and the superior beef sandwiches made by eateries in and around New Orleans are as intrinsic as a muffaletta or an oyster loaf,” Stern writes. “The best of the best is made at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, a wood-frame building overlooking Bayou St. John. It comes tightly wrapped in a tube of butcher paper that already is mottled through with gravy splotches when you pick it up at the kitchen window.

“Unwrap it and behold a length of fresh, brawny bread loaded with beef so falling-apart tender that it seems not to have been sliced but rather hand-pulled, like fine barbecued pork, into myriad slivers, nuggets and dainty clumps. It is difficult to discern where the meat ends and gravy begins because there is so much gravy saturating the meat and so many carving-board scraps, known as debris (say DAY-bree), in the gravy.”

Ed David told me that even though it’s not on his Faded Rose menu (there likely wouldn’t be many buyers in Arkansas of this simple creation), his favorite sandwich when he was growing up as a self-proclaimed “Ninth Ward yat” was the gravy poor boy.

“That meaty gravy makes the city’s ultimate dining bargain,” Stern writes. “Parkway’s gravy po-boy is a minimalist sandwich of the good, chewy bread filled only with gravy. The bread is substantial enough to absorb massive amounts of the liquid and a booming beef scent, becoming the most appetizing savory load imaginable, its surface crowded with debris that is the concentrated essence of roast beef.”

While the sandwich might not be much to look at, Stern adds: “If you love the flavor of beef, especially when combined with fresh, muscular bread, it is a beautiful thing. Note all the meat shreds you get in the gravy.”

Where’s your favorite oyster bar?

Who makes your favorte poor boy?

The floor is open for nominations.

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Road trips to Mosca’s and Middendorf’s

Friday, December 10th, 2010

If you’re in New Orleans for several days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, you need to get in your car, get out of the city and have meals at two of the region’s most notable restaurants — Middendorf’s in Manchac and Mosca’s in Westwego.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Middendorf’s was opened in 1934 by a couple of German immigrants, Josie and Louis Middendorf. The restaurant remained in the family until September 2006 when it was sold to a German-born chef, Horst Pfeifer, and his wife, Karen. The Pfeifers had operated a New Orleans restaurant known as Bella Luna that was lost in Hurricane Katrina.

Though the food was great at Bella Luna, it’s fortunate that the Pfeifers did not try to replicate that menu at Middendorf’s. Traditions are important, and the Pfeifers wisely kept the traditional menu, including the thin-fried catfish that Southern Living once described as “possibly the best fried fish in the world.”

Here’s how the Middendorf’s website describes the restaurant’s start: “They often say that blessings come disguised, and so it was for Louis and Josie Middendorf. Louis Middendorf lost his job in the 1929 stock market crash so he and Josie moved to Manchac, where Josie’s mother and two brothers lived. In Manchac, like most of the swamp residents, they fished and hunted for a living. Fortunately for Louis, as he was not very good at fishing and hunting, in 1934 all veterans of World War I received a $500 bonus from the U.S. government. With this and a $500 loan co-signed by a former mayor of New Orleans, T. Semmes Walmsley, Louis and Josie opened their cafe.

“Louis found his calling as he was excellent at talking and tending bar. Mama Josie, as her granddaughter called her, used her personal recipes and did all the cooking. Mama Josie was the one to come up with the now famous thin-cut catfish. It was a combination of the two that brought the customers back.

“Josie’s son, Richard Smith, and his wife, Helen, took over operations in 1947. In 1966, Richard had Ragusa & Sons of Hammond completely renovate, modernize and enlarge the kitchen, adding a much-needed walk-in cooler and freezer. He added a private dining room to the north side of the building and upgraded the other dining rooms and bathrooms. At the same time Suzy, their oldest daughter, began working in the restaurant.

“In 1970, Intersate 10 opened from Metairie to LaPlace, and business skyrocketed. In 1981, Interstate 55 opened from LaPlace to Ponchatoula. Overcrowding on the weekends became a serious problem, so in 1972, Dick built a second restaurant two lots from the original restaurant. At that time, there was a restaurant where the middle parking lot is today called Ship Ahoy Restaurant & Bar.”

Archie Manning and his famous sons are said to be regulars at Middendorf’s during the football offseason.

The Pfeifers have done an excellent job since taking over the restaurant from Suzy and her husband, Joey Lamonte. They built a waterfront deck for dining in 2008 along with a sandpit for children.

Middendorf’s survived Hurricane Katrina, but Hurricane Ike in September 2008 caused a 10-foot storm surge that drove water into Pass Manchac. The original building sustained extensive damage.

The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. You reach it from New Orleans by taking Interstate 10 west and then Interstate 55 north. It’s about 40 miles from New Orleans, between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. Pass Manchac, the seven-mile natural canal that connects the two lakes, is just to the south. The Amite River is just to the north. The two lakes and the two streams form what’s known as Jones Island, which was a cypress swamp until being depleted by loggers between 1897 and 1952.

While you’re out in the car, cross the famed Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River and have dinner at Mosca’s Restaurant at 4137 U.S. Highway 90 West in the New Orleans suburb of Westwego. It serves dinner each Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.

Mosca’s was featured in a Nov. 22 New Yorker story by Calvin Trillin.

Here’s part of what Trillin wrote: “From Highway 90, Mosca’s looks roughly the same as it did when it opened in 1946 — a small white clapboard building on a deserted stretch of double-lane highway 30 or 40 minutes from the center of New Orleans. When … Provino Mosca, who had previously operated a restaurant in Chicago Heights, Ill., opened for business that year, he moved his family into a few rooms in the back.

“The dining area of Mosca’s always seemed the same: One room, as you entered, had a bar and a few tables and a jukebox, heavy on Louis Prima. A larger dining room was off to the right. The proprietorship of Mosca’s has changed only with the generations, and there has always been a Mosca in the kitchen. When Provino Mosca died, in 1962, the cooking was taken over by his daughter, Mary, and eventually her husband, a former Louisiana oysterman named Vincent Marconi.”

When Mosca’s was opened, the building was owned by Carlos Marcello, who was a regular customer. It’s still owned by Marcello’s son. The family says the old rumor that Provino Mosca was a chef for Al Capone back in Chicago isn’t true.

“Hundreds of thousands have driven by Mosca’s and believed it to be a low-down roadside bar or cafe,” New Orleans food expert Tom Fitzmorris writes. “Which is what it looks like, all right. Just as many people know that it’s a matchless source of lusty, unique Italian cooking and a gathering place — believe it or not — for the elite. The building that is now Mosca’s was originally the headquarters of 1940s power broker (to put it mildly) and gourmet Carlos Marcello. Provino Mosca and his family cooked to Marcello’s liking, so he set them up — complete with living quarters — in this isolated roadhouse on Highway 90. There Mosca’s has been ever since, attracting eaters from all over the world — and, still, political and economic strongmen of Jefferson Parish.

“Now in its third generation, Mosca’s keeps serving its distinctive food. After Katrina, the building received a renovation, including a bigger kitchen and a bit more dining space.”

The essential dishes here include the crab salad, oysters Mosca (baked with bread crumbs, olive oil and garlic), shrimp Mosca (enormous shrimp cooked with olive oil and garlic, chicken grande (roasted in pieces with potatoes, rosemary and olive oil) and Italian sausage.

“You only need at most three entrees per four people,” Fitzmorris writes. “Mosca’s serves family style, and the waitress will tell you when you’ve ordered too much. Make a reservation but know that you may still wait quite awhile in the bar anyway. Very important: Bring plenty of cash. They don’t take cards or checks.

“Most people who dine there eat the same meal: marinated crabmeat (as a salad or in the shell), the oysters, the very different Italian shrimp, chicken grande or cacciatore or just plain roasted, spaghetti bordelaise. A really big table might have a filet mignon or two or some Italian sausage. Much of this is enlivened by the unfettered use of garlic, rosemary and olive oil.”

In a 2006 New York Times article, Pableaux Johnson wrote: “Dining as Mosca’s has always involved a little adventure. Leaving behind the legendary Creole restaurants of New Orleans, people would set out on a 40-minute pilgrimage to a ramshackle roadhouse thick with mystique and earthy Italian cuisine. For many connoisseurs the trip was a sacred family tradition. Heading west over the Mississippi, the pilgrims felt city noise give way to swamp sounds as they approached this temple of garlic on the edge of a primeval Louisiana bayou.

“During multihour waits at the bar, convivial patrons swilled Chianti by the bottle as they told, retold and re-retold tales of the crime boss Carlos Marcello, a regular during the height of his power. … Waitresses cut through the blue tobacco haze with oversize platters of chicken a la grande (pan fried and soaked in garlic-spiked olive oil) and red-sauced pasta as they whisked from the tiny kitchen to the dining room.”

Road trips to both Mosca’s and Middendorf’s will be well worth your time. If you go, report back to me please on how you much you enjoyed the experience.

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Lunch at Galatoire’s

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

I received an e-mail last week from a friend.

He was headed to New Orleans for a few days and wondered what waiter to request at Galatoire’s

I admitted that it has been too long since I’ve dined in my favorite restaurant. But I suggested that he ask for Richard or John. If neither is working, I seem to remember that Billy, Mark and Tony are all good.

There are some unwritten rules to dining at Galatoire’s

First, you must eat downstairs in the room that looks out onto Bourbon Street (and eating at Galatoire’s is the only reason to venture onto Bourbon. Otherwise, stick to the shops, restaurants and bars on Chartres, Royal, Burgundy and Dauphine when in the Quarter). They don’t take reservations for the downstairs dining room. You can make reservations to dine upstairs, but that’s a Siberia reserved from unwitting tourists. So you might want to come at an unusual hour if you hate long waits. I tend to arrive about 3 p.m. for a late lunch that sometimes stretches into the dinner hour.

Second, know that Friday is the day when all the locals show up. Lunch truly does last all afternoon. On Friday, you won’t even get a table downstairs at 3 p.m. unless you’re lucky.

Third, don’t ask for a menu. Ask the waiter to be your guide. If he tells you the pompano or the soft-shell crabs are good on that day, accept his advice.

People in New Orleans don’t like change. There thus was a great stir in the city a year ago this month when it was announced that the descendents of founder Jean Galatoire planned to sell a controlling interest in the restaurant. Businessman Todd Trosclair was the first majority purchaser. He then turned around and sold the controlling interest in the restaurant to John Georges, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New Orleans earlier this year.

Fortunately, not much appears to have changed in the restaurant itself.

Jean Galatoire hailed from the village of Pardies in France. According to the restaurant’s website: “Unlike most modern restaurants, Galatoire’s cuisine is not the creation of a singular superstar chef but rather of a family that has carefully safeguarded its traditions of impeccable cuisine, service and ambiance. Consistently providing this exquisite experience is itself an art form that Galatoire’s steadfastly maintains.

“Galatoire’s traditions have been preserved with little change through the decades. There has, however, been a slight modification of the restaurant’s once impenetrable policy of no reservations. Known for years by its characteristic line snaking down Bourbon Street, patrons would wait for hours just to get a table — especially on Fridays.”

The folks at Galatoire’s love to tell the story of the Friday when President Reagan placed a call to Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, who was waiting in the line outside. The senator went in, took the call and then returned to his place in line.

“Today, Galatoire’s does accept reservations for second-floor dining,” the website reports. “The first-floor policy remains first come, first served at Galatoire’s. Senator or not.”

As noted, don’t bother if you must sit upstairs. The “show” is on the ground floor.

Here’s how Shane Mitchell described it in a piece for Saveur: “No one hands me a menu. It’s just not done on Fridays. Friday lunch at Galatoire’s … starts in the morning, with bourbon milk punch at the upstairs bar. One floor below, a congenial crush of locals clutch cocktails in the foyer. They wait until manager Melvin Rodrigue, in pressed powder-blue seersucker, opens the doors to the dining room of the 105-year-old institution. It’s 11:30 a.m.

“He guides the crowd to their regular tables. The gentlemen hang their Panama hats on brass hooks beneath forest-green wallpaper flocked with fleurs-de-lis, the revived symbol of the city’s fortitude since Hurricane Katrina. A table of ladies in dime-store tiaras and serious diamonds toss confetti into the air. Jacketed waiters bear large platters as they weave between bentwood chairs.

“One of them, Peter or Homer or John or Shannon, recites the specials and brings, without anyone seeming to have asked, orders of the twice-fried souffle potatoes, puffed like starchy zeppelins, with a dose of tarragon-scented bearnaise. Next, a side of fried eggplant sticks.”

Mitchell goes on to describe Friday lunch at Galatoire’s as a “genteel riot.”

That’s as good a description as any.

Please note that a jacket is required for men after 5 p.m. I wouldn’t think of going into Galatoire’s at any time without a jacket. Of course, my friends claim that I even go to the beach wearing a blue blazer.

The restaurant is closed on Mondays. Sunday hours are noon until 10 p.m. The hours are 11:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. the other five days of the week.

Why do I so love Galatoire’s?

For the same reasons that Brett Anderson of The Times-Picayune loves the place: “There was no speckled trout, the souffle potatoes were tepid, the bearnaise congealed and my favorite waiter had ‘parted ways’ with the restaurant a couple of weeks prior. There are better ways to begin a meal at Galatoire’s and, in fact, I have experienced worse. (Pity anyone with the temerity to ask, 50 minutes after having been told a table would be ready in 25, how much longer her party should expect to wait.)

“So why do I persist in loving Galatoire’s? Because even the saltiest waiters can dial up wit at a moment’s notice. Because the sauteed grouper in lemon butter upheld the kitchen’s unspoken maxim that Gulf fish can sing even when it’s wearing little more than its birthday suit. Because of the creme caramel, the Sazeracs, the crabmeat maison and the ridiculous number of people who celebrate birthdays here on any given night. Because only at Galatoire’s do four hours seem to pass more quickly than a river boat.

“The restaurant is a living, breathing metaphor for New Orleans’ uneasy attitude toward self-improvement. Yes, some people actually think the improved wine list is a bad thing. Yes, the restaurant could stand to be more user friendly. But would it still be Galatoire’s if it were?”

John Georges, who also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2007 (coming in third behind Bobby Jindal and Walter Boasso), is the son of a Greek immigrant. His father put him to work sweeping the warehouse of the family business. Georges Enterprises began as a wholesale grocery company known as the Imperial Trading Co. in 1916. Georges began making truck deliveries for the business when he was just 15. He graduated from Tulane in 1983 and expanded what’s now known as Georges Enterprises into offshore marine services, video and arcade entertainment and investments.

As a native of New Orleans, he hopefully understands what Galatoire’s and its traditions mean to the city.

Several family members — Leon Galatoire, Michele Galatoire, Duane Galatoire Attaway, Ashley Attaway and Craighten Attaway — are still involved with the partnership that owns the restaurant.

If you’re in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, you simply must have a meal there.

Make sure you’re hungry.

Now, may I make suggestions:

— Split a couple of appetizers with your dining companions. I would suggest the souffle potatoes and the crabmeat maison.

— Next, have a cup of the turtle soup au sherry.

— Follow that with the Godchaux salad or the avocado and crabmeat salad.

— As noted, let the waiter be your guide for the entree but lean toward the aforementioned pompano, the soft-shell crabs or the black drum.

— Split several sides with your dining companions. I would suggest potatoes julienne, broiled tomatoes and Rockefeller spinach.

— Finish with the chocolate pot du creme and some of that good New Orleans coffee.

Finally, send me an e-mail or text message from the restaurant so I can tell you how envious I am.

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Eating at the Count’s place in New Orleans

Monday, December 6th, 2010

One downside to leaving the job I had with the Delta Regional Authority was the fact that I’m no longer in New Orleans on a regular basis.

For the most part, I don’t miss the travel a bit. In 2008, my final full year with the DRA, I spent 110 nights away from home. That’s far too much time away from my family.

But I do love New Orleans. I always have.

I begged my parents to take me there as a child. As a sportswriter, I managed to cover four Sugar Bowls and one Super Bowl there. Melissa and I had our honeymoon there. I’ve long been a fan of the Saints. Most nights when I’m driving home from work, I find myself listening to WWL-AM, 870.

Those planning a trip to see Arkansas take on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl should count on having a good time.

I was in college when the Razorbacks last played in the Sugar Bowl 31 years ago. No one would have thought at the time that it would be more than three decades before the Hogs would return to the Crescent City to play football.

Because I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia, I was able to obtain media passes to the Jan. 1, 1980, game against Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide had won the national championship in the Sugar Bowl a year earlier against Penn State with one of the greatest goal-line stands in college football history. Alabama would win a second consecutive national championship against a Razorback team coached by Lou Holtz.

Since the Siftings Herald was one of the smallest daily newspapers in the state, there was no expense money for such a trip. If I attended (and I was determined to attend), I would foot the bill.

I was able to obtain the media rate at the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street. I also was able to convince four buddies to attend with me in order to split the cost of the room.

You can imagine what that Marriott room looked like after five college guys had stayed in it for five nights. We would simply have the maids throw in fresh towels each morning rather than attempt to clean the entire room.

We did, however, decide to dress up one night for one nice meal (something other than food from the Lucky Dog cart on Bourbon Street), even on our college-boy budgets.

We chose Arnaud’s. Unfortunately, I almost began choking when I swallowed an entire bay leaf from my onion soup. The waiter followed me to the restroom. Once he had determined that I had dislodged the bay leaf, he let me know that he would comp my meal.

“He tries that trick everywhere,” my friends joked loudly. “It worked again.”

Actually, I would have preferred to have paid for the meal rather than go through those few minutes of terror.

My wife and I returned to Arnaud’s during our honeymoon — almost a decade after the incident — and I related that story to her. I never walk past the restaurant without thinking about onion soup. I guess I should have gone for the turtle soup that night.

If you’re serious about food and plan to spend a number of days in New Orleans, I would strongly suggest that you go to www.nomenu.com and subscribe to Tom Fitzmorris’ daily food newsletter. I’ve subscribed for years. Here’s the great thing: He only asks you to pay what you think a subscription is worth. The amount is up to you.

“Don’t worry about whether you’re sending too little,” Fitzmorris writes at the website. “If you send too much, I’ll just lengthen your subscription accordingly.”

If you wish to send him an e-mail directly, it’s tom@nomenu.com.

Fitzmorris was born in New Orleans on Mardi Gras in 1951 and never left town for more than three weeks until after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He founded The New Orleans Menu in 1977 as a four-page newsletter. It later evolved into a daily Internet-based newsletter.

I can think of nowhere other than New Orleans that could support a three-hour daily radio show that talks only about food. But Fitzmorris’ program, The Food Show, has aired since 1975. It can be heard from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. each weekday on 1350 AM in New Orleans.

Fitzmorris is a former editor of the monthly New Orleans Magazine (I subscribe to it, also) and the weekly newspaper Figaro. People have strong opinions in New Orleans when it comes to food, football and politics. And Fitzmorris has both fans and detractors when it comes to his restaurant reviews.

I’m among those who enjoy reading what he writes.

Since we mentioned Arnaud’s, here’s what he has to say about that restaurant: “One of the three or four most famous names in the long history of New Orleans dining, Arnaud’s remains a solidly excellent restaurant. It has turned in recent years to a slightly more modern style of cooking, but the core of its menu is from the grand French-Creole tradition. Few restaurants serve that better, and no other restaurant matches such food with as magnificent a collection of dining rooms.

“While Arnaud’s has never hesitated to embrace dishes made famous by its competitors (this is also true of the competitors themselves), its chef Tommy DiGiovanni does a better job than most in bringing those dishes into the 21st century. The names and ingredients are familiar, but the presentations and flavors are more refined. The menu has shrunk over the years to the point that almost everything on it can be considered a specialty. Also here is the best Sunday brunch in New Orleans.

“Arnaud’s was founded in 1918 by Count (really a French wine salesman) Arnaud Cazenave. With a combination of French classic cuisine and a sense of celebration, Count Arnaud turned his restaurant into the city’s most celebrated eatery — a reputation it held until the 1960s, when under his daughter Germaine Wells the restaurant slowly descended first into mediocrity, then into the most disappointing restaurant in town.

“In 1979, hotelier Archie Casbarian bought the restaurant and, over a period of many years, performed the finest restoration a moribund old restaurant ever received. Casbarian continued polishing the restaurant until last year, when declining health left him hors de combat. He died in early 2009. His wife and children, all of whom have been active in the management of the restaurant for many years, are keeping it on the same path.”

The Arnaud’s website describes the Count’s daughter this way: “Only New Orleans could produce a Germaine Cazenave Wells. She was lusty, dramatic, loud and headstrong. Her taste and capacity for alcohol, celebration and men were extreme, even by the standards of today. … Germaine had a way of attracting attention, and she adored the spotlight. She defined the restaurant business as theater. ‘It’s a play in two acts,’ she said, ‘lunch and dinner.”’

The website goes on to tell how she “took to the mock-royal rituals of Mardi Gras like a fish to water. She ruled over 22 Carnival balls, an overachievement unlikely to be equaled. She instituted a parade of her own on Easter Sunday to show off her latest hats, with her friends following in horse-drawn buggies. That pageant continued after Germaine’s death and persists to this day.”

The Count had died a month shy of his 72nd birthday in 1948.

“He continues look down on his main dining room from a large oil painting mounted there,” the restaurant’s website says. “It is flanked by portraits of his wife Irma and her sister, Marie Lamothe. Rumor has it that the Count never could make up his mind between the two sisters. The slightly roguish twinkle in the Count’s eyes might fill in the rest of that story for you.”

Just be careful not to swallow a bay leaf while looking up at that painting.

I hope to find the time to write quite a bit about New Orleans on this blog between now and the end of the year. So if you’re planning a Sugar Bowl trip, check back often.

I plan to write about Galatoire’s, my favorite restaurant in the world, not so much for the food as for the traditions. I hope to write about John Besh and his collection of restaurants. And we may even relive the Hap Glaudi and Buddy D. days on WWL, my favorite radio station in the country.

Let me know your favorite New Orleans restaurants and your favorite New Orleans memories.

The countdown to the Sugar Bowl has begun.

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