Archive for December, 2010

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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Curtis Wilkie untangles the tale of Zeus

Monday, December 27th, 2010

I spent much of the weekend reading Curtis Wilkie’s “The Fall of the House of Zeus.” Time to read has become a rare commodity, so the four-day weekend created by Christmas presented a golden opportunity. I picked the right book.

Wilkie has done a masterful job of chronicling the downfall of one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers, Dickie Scruggs.

Wilkie is a Delta boy, born in Greenville and raised by a single mother who taught school. His father was an alcoholic who died when Wilkie was young.

Wilkie was a student at Ole Miss when violence erupted in the fall of 1962 over James Meredith becoming the first black to attend the school, one of the landmark events of the civil rights era. He witnessed history at a young age and decided to be among those writing history’s first draft as journalists.

Wilkie graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and headed back to the Delta to work as a reporter for the Clarksdale Press-Register. Though I continued to call Little Rock home during my four years with the Delta Regional Authority, the DRA headquarters was in Clarksdale and I spent dozens of nights there. I generally would work late, buy a Press-Register from the box in front of the federal building while walking to my car and then take the newspaper with me to read while having dinner at Rest Haven, Abe’s, Ramon’s or the Ranchero.

Many of that Delta city’s residents remember Wilkie’s stint there from 1963-69 as integration and other aspects of the civil rights movement played out across the South.

After receiving a fellowship from the American Political Science Association, Wilkie headed to Washington in 1969 to work on Capitol Hill for Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Rep. John Brademas of Indiana. In 1971, he returned to newspaper work in Wilmington, Del.

Wilkie was hired by the Boston Globe in 1975 and would stay at the newspaper for a quarter of a century. He covered seven presidential campaigns for the newspaper and was the Globe’s White House correspondent from 1977-82. He also served as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief.

The Globe later established a bureau in the Middle East, and Wilkie worked out of Jerusalem from 1984-87. He returned South in 1993 to open a Southern bureau for the newspaper in New Orleans. Wilkie teamed up with the late Jim McDougal to write “Arkansas Mischief: Birth of a National Scandal,” which was released in 1998.

In 2001, Wilkie’s second book was published, “Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South.”

After leaving the newspaper business, Wilkie was a journalism professor at LSU in 2003 and was appointed to an endowed chair in journalism at Ole Miss in 2004. In 2007, he became the first Overby Fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss.

As more and more successful Ole Miss graduates came back to Oxford to live, Wilkie found that he often crossed paths with Scruggs, who had relocated his law practice from Pascagoula to Oxford. Wilkie readily admits that he considers Scruggs a friend. But in more than 300 pages of investigative journalism, he turns over all the stones of this tangled affair, which goes to the heart of the Mississippi political, legal and business communities.

Having spent much of my time in Mississippi for four years and knowing many of the book’s characters, I found it fascinating. Yet anyone who loves reading about Southern politics will enjoy this book. Mississippi, you see, is much like Arkansas — a small state where personal connections run deep.

During Bill Clinton’s eight years as president, national reporters would parachute into Arkansas and be amazed at how connected everyone is. A state of fewer than 3 million people and the interpersonal relationships that engenders was something many of them could never fully grasp.

Here’s one example of how Mississippi is also a small state: I was reading a newspaper column about the book. The column was written by Bill Minor, who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947 and for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Bill Minor’s son, former Biloxi attorney Paul Minor, is a figure in Wilkie’s book. Paul Minor, now in federal prison, also was one of the state’s most successful lawyers until he was convicted in 2007 along with two Harrison County judges on numerous corruption charges. Paul Minor is serving the longest sentence of the three, 11 years.

We’ll let Bill Minor summarize has Scruggs became one of the richest lawyers in the country: “Scruggs amassed his multimillion-dollar empire by becoming a master at class action lawsuits against big corporate adversaries and assembling a legal team to do practically all the courtroom work while he devised overall strategies aimed at forcing a settlement.

“His first big coup came in the 1980s by representing hundreds of shipyard workers who contracted asbestosis at Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding. Then, in the 1990s, he became nationally recognized as ’King of Torts’ and subject of a movie. Acting as special counsel for state Attorney General Mike Moore, Scruggs forced previously impenetrable Big Tobacco into a multibillion-dollar settlement on grounds their product had cost states millions in Medicaid health care payments.”

Scruggs later would receive a five-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to a ham-handed attempt to bribe a state circuit judge. His son, Zach, also would receive federal prison time and serve his sentence at Forrest City.

It’s a classic tale of greed run amuck. Scruggs had far more money than he would ever need to live comfortably. Wilkie, in fact, laments the fact that so many of that poor state’s best and brightest have entered the legal profession through the years, often choosing to sue and countersue each other rather than becoming entrepreneurs and creating jobs.

With a bright son who is a senior in high school and says he eventually wants to attend law school, it certainly gave me food for thought while reading the book.

It was fitting that Wilkie’s tome was released Oct. 19 at Square Books, that great independent bookstore on the Oxford square just down the street from where Scruggs’ law firm had its offices.

“Richard ‘Dickie’ Scruggs liked his friends close and his enemies closer,” Patsy Brumfield of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal wrote in a review earlier this year. “His wife, Diane, lived in dread that they would be his undoing. She was right. … Few of the chief actors in this book come out looking very well. They range from aggressively calculating or naively stupid to ruthless power lovers. Its main character, Dickie Scruggs, rises from the world of poor boy from a broken home to the pinnacle of his profession and its riches. But along the way he acquires or befriends associates who help pave his road to ruin.”

She says Mississippi’s “incestuous and close-knit political, legal and social circles, especially the old network of the late Sen. Jim Eastland and the University of Mississippi’s Sigma Nu fraternity, prove to be breeding grounds for his troubles.”

When asked by Brumfield what surprised him the most in researching the book, Wilkie said: “The scope of the story. What I originally thought might be a book about the investigation and a highly charged trial turned into more of a tale of Mississippi politics, how Dick Scruggs became ensnared in a network of influence peddlers, movers and shakers and fixers who have been doing business in this state for decades.”

Brumfield asked about the difficulty of writing about people one knows well. Wilkie answered: “Almost any journalist is going to be confronted with writing unfavorable stories about friends. I’ve had to do it a number of times. Sometimes you may lose friends altogether or bruise friendships. But usually, if the writer is handling the story as accurately and fairly as possible, the relationship survives. In this case, Dick Scruggs and I continue to correspond. I believe he agreed to talk with me — under no conditions — because he felt if a fuller account of the story were told the public would have a better understanding of how he ended up in the mess he did.”

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A Christmas to cherish

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

The first Christmas I remember vividly occurred in 1963.

I was age 4.

My brother Bob was age 9.

The nation was still in shock from the assassination of President Kennedy the previous month, but I was too young to be affected.

All I knew was that I wanted a bright red toy fire engine.

And my older brother wanted a new bicycle.

We shared a small bedroom. I can remember my brother waking me up in the dark. It must have been 4 a.m., perhaps even earlier.

“Let’s go see if Santa has been here,” he said.

We quietly walked to the living room. Under the tree was that bright red firetruck and a new bicycle. Our Christmas wishes had been granted.

Too excited to contain ourselves, we began riding our new treasures up and down the hall that ran through the middle of our home.

I forget if our older sister got up to check on her gifts. She was a teenager by then and likely highly annoyed that two little brothers were interrupting her sleep.

I do remember my mother making Bob and me go back to bed for a few hours. Figuring that you could reach both God and Santa through prayer, I also remember saying a prayer to thank Santa for the fire engine.

Two months later, my parents took my brother to Pine Bluff to see our beloved Ouachita Tiger basketball team play in the NAIA District 17 Tournament. Bob was killed in an accident on that final day of February.

I would spend no more Christmas mornings with my older brother.

On the fireplace mantel of our Little Rock home, there’s a framed black-and-white photograph of me — with a huge smile on my face — riding in the toy fire engine in the driveway of my parents’ home in Arkadelphia.

I never look at that photo without thinking of Christmas morning 1963, about 4 a.m.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. I loved to pretend I was a fireman back then, and I would wind up marrying the daughter of a career fireman.

Not only that, we would have two sons. Austin and Evan are four years apart in age. Bob and I were five years apart.

Evan has been fortunate enough to grow up with an older brother. They’re not only brothers, they’re best friends.

Austin is a senior in high school now and will be going off to college soon. So I’ll stare at that photo on the mantel again late Christmas Eve and give thanks that I am with them. I was blessed that the fireman’s daughter and two sons became a part of my life.

I’m going to take a few days off from writing in order to spend time with them. I’ll be back next week to talk about football, food and all of that other fun stuff.

Merry Christmas.

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“The Ghost of Bud Parrott”

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

I met Kane Webb for an early dinner at the Town Pump in Little Rock (one of my favorite, independent, locally owned establishments) Tuesday night.

As I pulled up, I could see Kane staring into the adjacent parking lot of the Dixie Cafe.

What had he spotted?

“That was Charles Portis going in to eat over there,” Kane said. “He’s probably the most celebrated author in the country right now due to the remake of the movie ‘True Grit.’ And here he is going to eat — probably by himself — at the Dixie Cafe.”

What a small, wonderful state this is. Kane and I agreed on that fact long before the chips and cheese dip (true Arkansans must order cheese dip at such establishments) had arrived.

You’re going to dinner and you run into a famous yet unassuming — some would say reclusive — author.

He’s our version of J.D. Salinger or Nelle Harper Lee.

Kane had written in this month’s issue of the constantly improving Arkansas Life magazine: “I’ve touted the literary brilliance of our resident genius so often that folks surely tune me out when they hear the words ‘True’ and ‘Grit.’ Which is either Portis’ best, second-best or third-best novel on my all-time list. It depends on which book of his I’ve read (again) most recently. … For the sake of the American reading public, let’s hope the move rekindles interest in the book, and that in turn rekindles interest in Portis’ other books. He deserves it, yes, but we deserve it.”

We live in a state filled with immensely talented people, almost all of them as equally unassuming as Buddy Portis.

Pretension is just not in our Arkansas DNA.

I was reminded of that yet again last night when I arrived home from dinner and found a package from Dr. Judson Hout of Camden.

Another of the great things about a state of fewer than 3 million people is that we all know each other or at least pretend to. Judson Hout grew up in Newport. My father’s first job out of college was to serve as the high school football coach in Newport.

Dad left coaching in 1951. Dr. Hout still refers to him as Coach Nelson.

I like that.

Judson Hout graduated from Newport High School, went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and then practiced medicine on military bases and in communities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Most people think they have a novel in them.

The difference between Dr. Hout and the vast majority of us is that he actually wrote his novel.

And he found a publisher — Ted Parkhurst of Little Rock.

I began reading “The Ghost of Bud Parrott” last night. It’s outstanding.

Dr. Hout explains his connection to the real Bud Parrott in his foreward: “This novel, this work of fiction, is the result of my affection for the time and place in which I grew up: Northeast Arkansas in the 1940s mostly. I have chosen to use the real name of a man who was my friend and confidant in those days, Bud Parrott.

“I knew Bud Parrott late in his life. He taught me a great deal about being a man in this world. Although he lived with my family for eight years, I learned nothing of his past. There were rumors that he had played Negro League baseball in his youth, rumors he would neither confirm nor deny. He could, however, throw a sharply breaking curve ball, a skill he tried to teach me without success.

“When I decided to write a novel, I chose to make Bud the hero and picture him as I imagined his life might have been. In doing this, I have completed a work that is purely and totally fiction. In all the years Bud was close to me, I felt I never really knew him. His outward jovial, cheerful personality seemed to mask a deeper sadness. As far as any of us knew, he had no relatives.

“In writing of that time and place, I have felt it was important to use the deplorable N-word in places. It is not used to offend the reader but rather to be true to the period and place. I hope the reader will understand and accept that for what it is.”

U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes has called the book “a racial-healing saga for the ages.”

The Rev. Lawrence Braden, a physician and Episcopal priest, said it opens a “window on the social disease that is bigotry.”

Brian Hardwick, the chief executive officer of Regal Energy Corp. in Dallas, said: “Baseball fans and those who love a well-turned coming-of-age story will find themselves absorbed in this tale of life in small towns, farmlands, factories and ballparks from Pennsylvania to Alabama to Arkansas.”

Here’s how the book begins, just to give you a sample of the good writing that follows: “I am haunted by a menagerie of memories of childhood. Pleasant and unpleasant, the days of my youth have been tumbled in a drum of years. Days of excitement, anticipation and discovery are jumbled up with events so frightening I wish they would go away. Some days from those years so long ago often do seem buried in some New Orleans-style vault, away somewhere, yet not quite out of consciousness. Always, they are floating in my subconscious ready to pierce the veil of knowing.

“From the day I walked out of Newport, the county seat that had been my home in Northeast Arkansas, in 1953, I have poked and prodded those ghosts whenever they threatened entry into my daily thoughts. Now the time had come to brave the place again, to travel back into the Delta, to see Newport one last time. To resurrect the ghost of Bud Parrott required a bold attempt to burying the others, once and for all.”

John Minor, one of my father’s favorite football players at Newport High School, found a photograph of the real Bud Parrott that’s used in the book.

“Your father knew him,” Dr. Hout wrote to me. “Bud was a janitor at Newport High School during Coach Nelson’s last year there.”

Dr. Hout has had successful book signings in recent weeks at Newport, Blytheville (Mary Gay Shipley and That Bookstore At Blytheville are Arkansas treasures), Little Rock and Camden.

This first novel deserves wider publicity, however.

Here’s how the dust jacket explains it: “In the tradition of Southern youth portrayed by Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Harper Lee, Judson Hout gives us the voice of Isaac Wood, whose coming of age in the White River bottoms of Northeast Arkansas takes us back to the 1950s, when Elvis was still touring the flats of east Texas and Burma Shave was laying claim to the fenceposts along Highway 66.

“Beginning and ending with a frame story — Isaac Wood as an older adult — the guts of this little Southern novel are laid out like the innards of a White River catfish. Some say ‘purdy’ and some are aghast. In that frame is the life story of young Isaac Wood’s surrogate father. From the wrong side of the tracks comes a quiet man to fill that part, a man who keeps his own council and treats folks right. A man all covered in black skin, Bud Parrott walks out of Jackson County and near-slavery at the age of 16.

“Hopping a freight, Bud heads to Birmingham to seek his fortune. Along the way, Bud is inducted into the rites of the curious fraternity of hobos. Brush-arbor campfires, watering stations for steam locomotives and haunting interiors of boxcars prove the settings for Bud’s induction ceremonies, events for which no crepe paper or soda-pop punch are provided.

“Traveling with hobos and later courting, working in an industrial mill, playing Negro League baseball on the Pittsburgh team with Satchel Paige, standing up to a numbers-running boss and inevitably paying the price for his courage, Bud’s introduction to humanity away from home is as colorful and episodic as Huck Finn’s float on the Mississippi.”

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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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Fort Smith has True Grit

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

In certain respects, Fort Smith is the Rooster Cogburn of Arkansas.

In other words, there are plenty of Arkansans who view the city as a sort of “one-eyed fat man,” the same way Ned Pepper viewed the deputy U.S. marshal who was hunting him down in “True Grit.”

When you get to know the sometimes gritty manufacturing city on the border, though, you’ll find that its people are tough, resourceful, loyal and hard working.

Mess with Fort Smith? Get ready to “fill your hand.”

The Coen brothers’ adaptation of the Charles Portis novel opens in theaters across the country next week. The folks in Fort Smith are hoping it’s as good for the tourism business as the original film was back in 1969.

The focus on Fort Smith also could help the fundraising efforts for what will be an important addition to our state. In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site of its museum. That was a big victory for Arkansas.

The hard part, though, was still to come: Raising the $50 million needed to build the 50,000-square-foot facility along the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Fort Smith. It didn’t help that the Great Recession set in soon after that announcement four years ago.

With the U.S. economy slowly beginning to turn around (an emphasis on “slowly”), coupled with interest generated by the movie, perhaps things will take off in 2011 from a fundraising standpoint. The state already has contributed more than $2 million to the effort.

A meeting is being held in downtown Fort Smith tonight to update the public on what’s going on in the fundraising arena. Museum officials will provide an outline for what steps will occur during 2011.

Back in April 2009, the public was given a look at the proposed design for the museum.

The City Wire at Fort Smith (one of the best news sites in the state at www.thecitywire.com — excellent reporting, writing and commentary) described it this way: “Peter Kuttner with Cambridge 7 Associates, one of the two architectural firms hired to design the museum, delivered an almost 60-minute presentation in which he said the basic design was built around the star of the marshals’ badge. The building features several roof structures that mimic the look of a star segment, and each room ‘protects a different function’ of the museum. The spire portion of the roof is eight stories tall. … The roughly 50,000-square-foot building includes a large lobby space that would allow for up to 200 to be seated at formal dinners associated with fundraisers, Kuttner noted.”

The City Wire further reported that there will be three exhibit spaces — “Frontier Marshals” will feature the early history of the U.S. Marshals Service, “Marshals Today” will highlight the modern era and “America Divided” will highlight the role of marshals during difficult times in U.S. history (hopefully providing exhibits on the important role played by the U.S. Marshals Service during the civil rights era here in the South).

The facility also will include:

– A retail store

– A cafe that will provide a space for people to rest in an area near a terrace that will stretch to the Arkansas River

– A hall of honor and reflecting pool to recognize marshals who have died in the line of duty

– Theater and classroom space

Doug Babb, the chairman of the board’s design committee, said at the time: “We really felt this would be a design that would capture the imagination of people around the United States.”

If done correctly, I firmly believe this star-shaped museum on the banks of the Arkansas River can be an iconic structure for our state that will complement the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

If you love history, you should love Fort Smith.

Go to the website www.awardsdaily.com and find the piece by Jennifer Boulden of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau titled “The Real Fort Smith: The Fact & Fiction Behind True Grit.”

She writes: “Not only does this new ‘True Grit’ look to be a great film, perhaps even a Great Film; not only is it being directed by my favorite directing team, the Coen brothers, and shot by my favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins; not only is it an adaptation of one of my favorite books ever by Arkansas literary genius Charles Portis, and starring some of my favorite actors working today; no, it’s also set in and during the most fascinating time in my city’s history — and communicating that city’s unique history to tourists is what I happily get paid to do for 40 hours a week from my office in a restored Old West bordello.

“That’s right. My favorite directors are directing my favorite book starring my favorite actors set in the place I live and work and am passionate about promoting. I mean, how crazy is that?

“I’m talking about Fort Smith, Ark. Now a city of about 85,000 people, my adopted hometown has been featured in a surprising number of films and television shows from ‘Hang ‘em High’ to ‘Lonesome Dove.’ There’s even an AMC show called ‘Fort Smith’ in potential development by the producer of ’24.’

“The best known of these, and the film that has been one of the primary drivers of tourism to the Fort Smith National Historic Site for 41 years, is of course 1969′s ‘True Grit’ starring John Wayne. That film reportedly was so popular in Fort Smith that it played in the cinema here, pre-multiplex, for more than a year. Every time John Wayne said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?’ a huge cheer would arise from the crowded theater.”

Boulden goes on to explain to readers that Fort Smith was once the “last bastion of law and order before the wild frontier. What was unusual about the federal court in Fort Smith was that it had an unbelievably large coverage area: 75,000 square miles of lawless Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma) with one judge to hear all those cases. Any crimes committed in Indian Territory were automatically federal cases. Seeing the frontier as a probable safe haven, troublemakers from all over the country would flee to hide out in this territory, raising hell and robbing, raping, murdering and generally terrorizing anyone who got in their path.”

She repeats the old saying that “there is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith.”

The wonderful article goes on to separate fact from fiction.

The bottom line is that the movie should increase the number of visitors to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. The site was established in the early 1960s to protect the remains of two military forts, including the building that once housed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The foundation remains from the first fort (1817-24), the commissary building (1838) from the second fort still stands and a reconstruction of Judge Isaac Parker’s gallows is also a part of the historic site.

Exhibits focus on Fort Smith’s military history from 1817-71, Judge Parker and the federal court’s impact on the Indian Territory, the country’s western expansion, the role of deputy marshals, federal Indian policy and Indian removal along the Trail of Tears.

Completion of the U.S. Marshals Museum would drive visitor numbers at the Fort Smith National Historic Site even higher.

Adjacent to the historic site is the excellent Fort Smith Museum of History, a three-story building containing exhibits that tell the story of Fort Smith from that first fort in 1817 to the manufacturing and regional trade center the city has become. The museum turned age 100 last week. It began in 1910 when a group of the city’s women worked to save the Old Commissary Building, which later became part of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

Fort Smith has a new mayor in Sandy Sanders, will receive a new burst of publicity from the Coen brothers’ latest movie and hopefully will soon have a completed U.S. Marshals Museum.

With the restoration of historic buildings and the addition of more shops, restaurants and clubs along Garrison Avenue in recent years, downtown Fort Smith could actually be described as chic.

What once was merely old is now fashionable thanks to the efforts of the people in this underappreciated Rooster Cogburn of Arkansas.

Fill your hand!

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