Archive for December, 2010

Welcome to our family, Coach Petrino

Monday, December 13th, 2010

With the news during the weekend that University of Arkansas officials and Bobby Petrino have worked out an employment arrangement that runs through 2017, it appears the Razorback football coach has committed himself to this state for the long haul.

After all, the buyout provisions are perhaps unprecedented, and there’s a noncompete clause with all of the other Southeastern Conference schools.

Could it be that Bobby Petrino has made the same decision that a famous Georgia native named Frank Broyles made all of those decades ago?

Broyles, who certainly could have returned to his alma mater of Georgia Tech as the head football coach, instead decided that he would be an Arkansan, raise his children as Arkansans and die an Arkansan (though I’m beginning to think Coach Broyles is immortal).

That’s not to say Petrino wasn’t welcomed previously. He was welcomed with open arms. But many of our state’s residents always had a nagging feeling that the Arkansas job would be a steppingstone to a traditional national college football power — a Florida, a Texas, a USC.

Those of us who were born and raised here find ourselves thinking that good things won’t last — we’re too small, we’re too poor, we’re not educated well enough. That’s what we tell ourselves.

By signing this agreement, here’s in essence what Petrino is telling us: “Not only do I like it here, I know I can win national championships here. I reject the idea that you can’t recruit the best talent nationally to Fayetteville. I reject the idea that Arkansas will consistently be on the level of Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the SEC West rather than LSU, Alabama and Auburn. You can be the best in the country while being based in Arkansas.”

So welcome to our family, Coach Petrino. We have fewer than 3 million residents, meaning we’re one extended (though at times dysfunctional) family.

We enjoyed Lou Holtz, but we always sensed he was passing through. We knew Danny Ford would return to raise his cattle in South Carolina sooner rather than later. Going way back, Bowden Wyatt accepted our gift of a Cadillac and promptly drove it to Knoxville.

Suddenly, perhaps even unexpectedly, it appears you may be more Frank Broyles than Lou Holtz.

We like that. We like it a lot. If feels good when someone wants to be one of us.

So now that you’ve signed on as an Arkansan, we’ll explain a few things about ourselves. We know. We know. You’ve been here for three years. But you’ve been busy (which we appreciate). For you, “National Championship Under Construction” wasn’t a sign to put on a wall. It’s a mission to be accomplished through hard work rather than worthless talk and slogans.

Here goes:

To start with, we’re a proud people.

We’re proud that Sam Walton built the country’s largest business right here in Arkansas.

We’re proud that a member of the Rockefeller family decided to come live among us during the 1950s and spend the rest of his life here. We would say to each other: “He could live anywhere in the world, but he lives with us!”

We’re proud that an Arkansan bought the Dallas Cowboys, much to the astonishment of those braggart Texans, and built it into the most valuable professional sports franchise in the country.

Though he never coached here, we’re proud that the most famous college football coach in history was a native Arkansan, raised poor in the pine woods near Fordyce.

We’re proud to have produced musicians such as Johnny Cash and writers such as Charles Portis.

And even though some of us rarely agreed with him politically, we’re proud an Arkansas boy fought and clawed his way to the White House and then named a fellow Arkansan as his first White House chief of staff.

Those were heady days in the 1990s with an Arkansan in the White House, the fanciest restaurants in Washington selling Mountain Valley Water from Hot Springs just because Arkansas was suddenly cool, a team owned by an Arkansan winning three Super Bowls and the Hogs winning the national championship in basketball.

It was the era of Arkansas chic. Reporters from around the globe flew into our state to try to explain this strange place to the rest of the world. Most failed miserably in their attempts to analyze us. We’re not an easy people to explain to outsiders.

What does it mean to be an Arkansan?

It means that though you reside in the shadow of Texas, you live in an amazing little state that continues to produce remarkable business leaders (think not only Sam Walton but also Jack and Witt Stephens, Bill Dillard, Don Tyson, J.B. Hunt, etc.), remarkable political leaders (think not only Bill Clinton but also Wilbur D. Mills, J. William Fulbright, Mike Huckabee, Joe T. Robinson, John L. McClellan, etc.), remarkable musicians (think not only Johnny Cash but also Charlie Rich, Al Green, Glen Campbell, Louis Jordan, etc.) and more.

Texans feel the need to brag. We just quietly smile.

It means you live in one of the most beautiful places in America. People pay big money to come camp here, hike our trails and float our streams.

It means you live in a mecca for hunters and fisherman. Discuss duck hunting or trout fishing anywhere in the country, and Arkansas will enter the conversation.

It means you live in a place that helped give birth to the blues, rhythm and blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll — almost all of the great genres of American music.

It means you live in a state that has some of the best cooking in the world. We’re known for our barbecue, our fried catfish, our pies and our meat-and-three lunches.

It means you live among the nation’s friendliest folks.

What does it mean to be an Arkansan?

It means you value your family, your friends, your school, your church.

It means you stand up, pull off your cap and put your hand over your heart when the national anthem is played, thinking of those you know in the armed services. Don’t forget that this state is one of the leaders in the percentage of residents who volunteer to protect our country.

It means you treasure traditions like Friday night football, Sunday potlucks after church and the first week of deer season.

It means you know how to tell a good story and laugh at a good joke.

It means that one sizable snow a year is quite enough (this ain’t Montana) and that the long string of hot days in the summer simply makes the swimming hole feel better.

It means that you teach your kids to call the Hogs as soon as they can talk, know to “hang up and listen” when calling a talk radio station, understand that camouflage is high fashion and that a visit to Mack’s in Stuttgart is far more fun than a visit to Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan.

It means that you can still feel your eyes misting up when Tommy Smith at 103.7 plays those Paul Eells highlights set to music.

It means that you worry that people outside the state don’t appreciate this place as much as you do. Though you know you shouldn’t care so much, you resent the Arkansas jokes. In fact, you liked Lou Holtz a little less after that joke about being able to see the end of the world from Fayetteville. He couldn’t help himself; it was the Ohio Yankee coming out in him.

For those who worry about what others are thinking, I refer you to this quote from Brooks Blevins in his wonderful book “Arkansas/Arkansaw”: “My advice? To the Arkansawyer, keep on doing whatever it is you’re doing, unless what you’re doing is illegal, in which case I’ll take no responsibility for advice offered. To the Arkansan, embrace your inner Arkansawyer, relinquish your uncalled for resentment of Bob Burns and get over yourself. Don’t get so bent out of shape over a joke or two.”

To that, I might add that we should all follow the example of Bobby Petrino, who simply ignored the hate spewed by the talking heads at ESPN when he left Atlanta. He never lashed out at them. He simply went about his business.

Coach, you’ve inherited a sacred trust. Politics might divide us, but Razorback football unites us unlike anything else in this state. The Wal-Mart millionaire from Bentonville, the cotton farmer from Eudora, the log hauler from Stamps and the waitress from Osceola all have something in common when it comes to the Hogs.

We’re glad that after three years here you’ve decided to cast your lot with us for the long haul.

You’ll like being an Arkansan. If you don’t believe me, just ask Frank Broyles.

They don’t call this the Land of Opportunity for nothing.

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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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“God & Football”

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Chad Gibbs must be loving life right now.

You see, he’s an Auburn Tiger fanatic, and his team is 12-0. With a victory Saturday in the SEC title contest at Atlanta, Auburn will be in the national championship game.

Alabama lost to Auburn last Saturday in the Iron Bowl. Cam Newton has been cleared to play by the NCAA.

If you’re Chad Gibbs, it has been quite a week.

And if you love college football, love the South and grew up going to church, you’ll enjoy Gibbs’ book, “God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC.”

Gibbs recently spoke as part of the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service (which I continue to contend is one of the greatest amenities of living in Little Rock; the lectures are all free), and he’s as funny in person as he is when writing.

Here’s how the book starts (just to give you a sample): “Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for people’s hearts and minds.

“Perhaps you think this an overstatement. Perhaps you should exchange this book for one you can color in. (I’m sorry; that’s an awfully mean thing to say to someone who just bought your book.) Think of it this way: Suppose an alien were to visit Tuscaloosa, Knoxville or Baton Rouge — and if you don’t believe in aliens, you can substitute a Canadian. Suppose this visitor — we’ll call him Corso — were to spend a week observing the ordinary citizens of those towns. What do you think Corso the alien would conclude about the religious beliefs of those average, everyday people?

“Well, on Sunday morning he’d probably see them make their groggy, wrinkled-shirted way to a steepled building, where some sort of ceremony had begun 10 minutes before they arrived. Inside, he’d watch as they mouthed the words to songs, then struggled to stay awake while a man spoke for less than 25 minutes. Then, for the rest of the week, this place would be the furthest thing from their minds, unless by chance something tragic happened.

“Corso might be justified in concluding that church, for most, was a court-ordered punishment.

“On Saturday, Corso would see something completely different. The people would wake up early, carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past, then drive, sometimes for hours, to a hallowed campus where some sort of ceremony is scheduled for much, much later in the day. All afternoon they would eat, drink and fellowship with friends, family and strangers. Then, when the time came, they would all enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and like-minded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate like they’re at a wedding reception on Fat Tuesday.

“After he sees this, I think it’s safe to say Corso will think he’s found the one true religion — and he’ll probably convert on the spot.

“Football is big down here in the South. Real big. From peewee to junior high, high school to college, and even the NFL, Southerners love their football. And the fans of the Southeastern Conference are arguably the most ridiculously passionate fans in America.”

During the 2009 season, Gibbs attended a home game at each of the 12 SEC schools.

“I was looking for people more screwed up than I was so I could feel better about myself,” he told those in attendance at the Clinton School.

He was raised an Alabama fan but ended up attending college at Auburn. There, his passion for the Tigers exploded.

It was the man they called “The Godfather” in the SWAC — Coach Marino Casem, who was head coach at Alabama State in 1963, Alcorn State from 1964-85 and Southern University from 1987-88 and 1992 — who uttered my favorite description of college football.

“In the East, college football is a cultural exercise,” he said. “On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is a form of cannibalism. But in the South, college football is a religion, and every Saturday is a holy day.”

SEC football attendance will top 6 million people this fall.

Here’s how Gibbs’ book is described at www.amazon.com: “They spent thousands on season tickets, donated millions to athletic departments and for three months a year ordered their entire lives around the schedule of their favorite team. As a Christian, Gibbs knows he cannot serve two masters, but at times his faith is overwhelmed by his fanaticism. He is not alone. Gibbs and his 6 million friends do not live in a spiritually void land where such borderline idol worship would normally be accepted. They live in the American South, where according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 84 percent identify themselves as Christians. This apparent contradiction that Gibbs sees in his own life, and in millions of others, has led him to journey to each of the 12 schools to spend time with rabid Christian fans of various ages and denominations. Through his journey, he learns how others are able to balance their passion for their team with their devotion to God.”

In an interview with www.saturdaydownsouth.com, Gibbs was asked about his favorite place to visit.

“Taking Auburn and my bias out of play, I would have to say Baton Rouge,” he said. “I was there for the night game vs. then-No. 1 Florida, and I was in the student section. Game day at any SEC school is great, but there is just something special about a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.”

Gibbs explained the book this way in his interview with the website: “The book deals with how Christians, specifically me, balance the two passions in their life: God and football. So obviously my Christian faith is a large part of the book. The book also deals with family, specifically how growing up in the South watching and attending games with our parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins is a common bond we share. A friend of mine summed it up pretty well when he said: ‘Football is a great hobby but a terrible God.’ Going forward, I hope I will stop looking to football, or anything else for that matter, to fill the void in my life I believe only Christ can fill. This is the lesson of the book.”

Gibbs has figured out that spiritual books need not be dour. They can be funny.

When the book was released back in August, Gibbs wrote this at www.chadgibbs.com: “It’s leaving behind the small group of people who helped make it and going out into a scary place where people can read it, hate it and write means things on the Internet about it. So yeah, I’m nervous about letting go of my little book.

“I think about all the writers who went before me, folks like Harper Lee and Kate Gosselin, and how they must have felt when their books flew from the nest. How can you know if what you have written is good? I don’t think you can. Not at this point. You are too close. When I read ‘God & Football,’ I don’t think it is good or bad, only familiar. But when you read it, it will be good or bad, and what if it is bad? I can’t change it now. It’s too late. It’s not mine to change anymore. It’s out there, in the scary world.”

Having written a book, I can relate.

For the record, Chad, I liked it. A lot.

“Driving home, I felt a strange kindredness for the University of Arkansas,” he writes near the end of his chapter on Fayetteville. “Fayetteville reminds me a lot of Auburn, and the people were so friendly and welcoming. I’d like to think I’ll go back in future years, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit I probably won’t. That drive is no fun, and I certainly don’t want to travel that far just to see Auburn get its teeth kicked in.”

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Tamales by Joe

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

I’ve written about tamales on this blog before. I love eating tamales. I love visiting with the people who make them and sell them.

The tamale tour I conducted, along with Kane Webb and Bill Vickery, for an Arkansas Educational Television Network special focused on the Delta with stops in east Arkansas and west Mississippi.

My office phone rang recently, and on the other end of the line was Phyllis Dennie of Benton.

“You’re from Arkadelphia, right? she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you remember Joe Villa, the one who sold tamales?” she asked.

No, I never met Joe Villa. He died Sept. 7, 1963, just five days after I turned 4.

But I’ve certainly heard my parents talk about Joe Villa and his tamales. The migration of tamales from Mexico into Arkansas wasn’t confined to the Delta.

In fact, Joe might have been the most famous Arkansas purveyor of tamales at one time.

Here’s part of the story that ran in the Southern Standard, a weekly newspaper in Arkadelphia that no longer exists, following Villa’s death. It was written in a simpler and less politically correct time: “Joe Villa was an institution of a bygone day in Arkadelphia. He and his large family came here many years ago from Old Mexico. He denied any kinship with the famous bandit Pancho Villa, and his life in this city certainly showed he had none of the undesirable traits of that other one.

“Joe was a hot tamale specialist, and he made the best there was to be had. Joe’s tamales were tasty, and you bet his utensils were clean and the ingredients pure. Joe literally reared and educated a large number of children on his tamale sales to his fellow townsmen and townswomen and certainly to the boys and girls.

“One of the local churches got Joe enlisted and all his children into Sunday school. None of the dozen children, more or less, of Mr. and Mrs. Villa ever became a juvenile delinquent or gave any trouble. This Mexican family was law-abiding and decent in every way. Several of the boys played on the athletic teams at Arkadelphia High and acquitted themselve creditably.

“Anybody who follows the right kind of road in this life like Joe Villa ought not to have much trouble in finding the pearly gates open when he arrived up yonder, nor have too much trouble orienting himself in that new community.”

Allen Syler later wrote this about Villa: “He was always on the streets and corners of Arkadelphia with his push wagon from which he sold his tamales, especially near the factories at lunch time. During the summer months he also had ice cream bars. Many people depended on him for their lunches. He retired in the early 1950s and moved to Little Rock with some of his daughters.”

Joe Villa was born in 1877 in Mexico. He later married Millie Salazar of Laredo, Texas. They moved to Arkadelphia in 1910 and rasied their family of three sons and seven daughters. Joe and Millie Villa are buried in Arkadelphia’s famous old Rose Hill Cemetery.

Phyllis mailed me a copy of a page from the 1921 college yearbook at Henderson, “The Star.” In it is an ad that states: “Hot Tamale Joe. You know me, girls. Ice cream sandwiches and hot tamales. Delivered a la carte. Joe Villa.”

I also was intrigued by an ad next to it. I remember W. H. Halliburton as the city’s veteran newspaperman, but I never knew he had been a representative for Tipton & Hurst of Little Rock.

The ad states: “Cut flowers. We have the best. W.H. Halliburton local representative. Tipton & Hurst Florists.”

I checked with Stacy Hurst about the use of local representatives across the state in the early 1920s. She, in turn, checked with her husband, Howard.

Here’s what she reported back: “Howard said Tipton & Hurst had representatives scattered throughout the state before the days of wire-order services like FTD. The representatives would take orders for arrangements, loose flowers and orchids, and Tipton & Hurst would send the order, usually by train. They were usually located in a town too small to have its own florist, and they did receive a commission on sales.”

Back to Joe Villa.

His granddaughter Phyllis writes: “His parents were hard workers — his father in the field and his mother in the homes of the well-to-do, cleaning house and cooking for them.”

Villa’s family crossed the border at El Paso in 1889. Joe became a U.S. citizen in 1894. He had a job helping build railroad lines in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. He liked Arkadelphia so much that he decided to stay there and raise his family. In a town filled with college students from Henderson and Ouachita, he decided to try selling tamales, using an old family recipe.

Joe Villa would sell those tamales for decades, making enough to raise 10 children.

Phyllis would like to write a book about Joe Villa if she can find someone to help her.

“The story needs to be told now because it ends with me,” she says.

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