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Kaimuki

My aunt and uncle had three dogs, all Wire-haired Terriers, all named Kaimuki.

We moved to Arizona when I was just a kid but returned to my birthplace almost every year. I think my parents were homesick. All of their siblings and my mother’s father still lived there. I don’t remember taking any vacations that weren’t New Orleans. My sisters and I would often be left there for a good chunk of the summers, where we would stay with one or the other of two childless sets of aunt and uncle. Both sets lavished their love on children of another sort. Dogs. For the record, one set took pleasure in training theirs, the other did not. The Kaimukis lacked all the poise, grace, and good manners demanded of their ‘cousins’ (a Boxer named Monk, a German Shepherd called Pepper, and Tio, the Chihuahua).

I should mention that there was never more than one Kaimuki at a time—a new Kaimuki replaced the old Kaimuki, and so on. It wasn’t until many summers later in life that I realized I wasn’t necessarily ever visiting the same one. To my untrained eye, they were identical, both in looks and temperment. The Kaimukis could jump four feet off the ground, had painfully hoarse barking voices, and a heart condition that required daily medication. An open door, even the tiniest crack, invited an opportunity for a much anticipated escape. And every summer we were assured several episodes of roaming the backyards of Lake Vista, with leash in hand, begging Kaimuki to come home. He never would for us, but somehow miraculously ended up back at the house when we returned, my uncle evidently possessing a knack for capturing him that we didn’t. I think it had something to do with his little red Karmann Ghia and a handful of doggie treats. We’d get a harsh reminder that the door must never be opened—even a crack.

“Ya come?” My uncle always said, ‘ya come’ when he meant ‘you follow.’

Uncle Jimmy died young, back in the seventies. I remember the way he smelled of pipe tobacco and Chianti.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I interviewed Aunt Lee, my godmother, who is in her 100th year. I was named for my godparents, Jimmy and Lee—ya come? Aunt Lee claims those years with Jimmy were her happiest. When asked how they came up with the name for their three dogs, she said Jimmy worked in Honolulu for several months before they were married, and he lived in the neighborhood of Kaimuki.

I checked it out. She’s sharp for her ninety-nine years. It turns out Kaimuki (pronounced Ka•imu•kee) is famous—the place, not the dog. Although its first resident was the ostrich, it’s most well-known is the ukelele-playing, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, also known as IZ.

In honor of Jimmy, Lee and the Kaimukis (sounds like a good name for a band), I’ll leave you with this … oops, I thought I could insert a music file there. Alas, I’ll have to query my favorite webmaster.

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Little Miss Nobody

For some inexplicable reason, cemeteries intrigue me. I’m not otherwise morbid but find it hard to pass one without wanting to drop in. Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to be on the inside when they lock the gates for the night, but there is something fascinating about our dearly departed’s final resting place and the history that lies buried within.

As often happens, Mr. Lee and I found ourselves at our local Mountain View Cemetery. On this particular day a summer storm threatened as we pulled through the gates. The grass had clearly given up all hope of ever being green again, and the letters on the rudimentary wood and pole sign had begun to peel away. (I guess that’s what non-endowed means.) We parked the car on a random curve in the dirt road. We weren’t there to visit anyone in particular.

After investigating a long row of St. Joseph nuns with identical cement slab headstones, we came across a statue of Jesus behind Plexiglas. It wasn’t clear which plot he guarded, but someone had gone to great lengths to protect him from the elements. Statuary and memorial benches are in abundance here. They add to the notion of quiet. Actually, it’s more than a notion of quiet, it is absolute quiet. Not a lot of chatter in a cemetery, even on the rare occasion that we spy another visitor. It’s a peaceful place, where a life-sized angel shares duties with the more abundant St. Francis statues, only she appears to be the Patron Saint of Bunny Rabbits.

I stopped, for a spell, at the grave of Augustus Troutz—mostly because one must take pause when they are in the midst of a great name like Augustus Troutz. As usual, I turned around to find Mr. Lee missing.

He’d just finished talking to the groundskeeper  when I caught up with him, and Mr. Lee was eager to show me what he’d stumbled upon. He brought me to a modest marble gravestone that lay in the dirt close to the edge of a curve in road. It was the final resting place of Little Miss Nobody, 1960. The groundskeeper had few facts about Little Miss Nobody—only that she died in a hotel fire and was never identified. From that I was left with the impression that she was a young woman.

I came home and did a little research, and then went to the library and did some more. I re-learned how to use microfilm equipment, and where to find the spools of film. I spent the next four hours sifting through pages of newspaper articles. It turned out the groundskeeper’s version of the story was not quite right.

On July 31, 1960, the body of a little girl was found in the desert, half buried and badly burned. She was thought to be between 7 and 9 years old. Because she’d been dead a week or two, the coroner was unable to determine a cause of death. Daily newspaper articles kept Prescottonians informed, one time reporting that she’d been wearing white shorts and a checkered blouse (and that her fingernails and toenails were painted)—details that made her some mother’s daughter. It was thought she may have been a transient and that her family couldn’t afford a proper burial. But that wouldn’t account for the fact that she’d been set on fire.

After just over a week of investigations and false leads, she was laid to rest. And this is the sweet part. On August 10, 1960, the local newspaper ran an article that began, “Little Miss Nobody was somebody today.” A local radio announcer organized the collection of funds to provide the unnamed girl with a proper burial. In the accompanying photograph, a dozen or more citizens, wearing suits and dresses, attend her funeral service. Those same citizens paid for her headstone and followed her pale blue casket, draped in pink and white carnations to Mountain View Cemetery, where she has been Little Miss Nobody for fifty years.

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My San Francisco Treat

{ Archive: the following essay appeared in Java Magazine, and won First Place for Feature Writing at the Arizona Press Club in 2005 – Photos by Mr. Lee }

San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the nation’s most beautiful cities—a dream destination for many a traveler. So it was for us, the first trip in years we would take without our sons. It was October, and the weather was perfect, almost no weather at all. Our financial situation allowed us to stay at a nice four-star hotel in the Union Square area. It was what one might call a gentleman’s hotel, dark decor and wood-paneled walls. The lobby was quiet and tidy. We checked in for our two-night stay, and were handed the keys and a map to our room, which we were warned was a little tricky to find. The desk clerk directed us to the elevator that would lead to the start of our three-day holiday. When the elevator door opened I was surprised to see that, instead of the anticipated wood paneling, its interior was decidedly orange. I had to wonder whose idea the orange wallpaper and painted walls were. It certainly seemed out of place in this otherwise conservative businessperson’s hotel. Our room was in a newer wing of the hotel, which meant getting off the elevator on the third floor, three floors below the one where our room waited for us. We traversed an odd path of hallway that ascended so slightly we barely realized we were one floor higher. Faithfully following the map, we boarded a second elevator. This one was green—lime green. As the directions promised we were soon standing at the door of room 623.

We dispensed of our bags, ready to see the sights. As usual, I wanted to know where to go for the best food, but it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Mr. Lee knew of a bar that served what he promised to be the best Bloody Mary in the world—large and so full of garnish it was like drinking a salad. He asked the doorman to hail a cab to take us to Haight-Ashbury. The doorman sent us on our way with instructions to have fun. We located the Club Deluxe on Haight Street, and Mr. Lee was right. Besides the usual celery stick there was an asparagus spear, tomato, okra, a carrot, green olives and a lemon wedge. We chewed and sucked them down and headed down our path to nowhere in particular. Following what sounded like Reggae music, we found ourselves filing into Golden Gate Park amidst people twenty years our junior, hair in dreadlocks and heavy with metal adornments. A banner displaying the Rastafarian colors of red, yellow and green, with a listing of bands announced the fact that we had wandered onto a Reggae festival.

For the next hour we observed dogs jumping for Frisbees while their people, happy and carefree, danced in long skirts and ragged clothes. It reminded me of my hippier days. But, I was getting hungry. I remembered that we had passed a Caribbean restaurant on the way to the park and convinced Mr. Lee that it should be our next destination. Walking toward the exit I noticed I was alone. When I stopped to look behind me, I found Mr. Lee engaged in conversation with a woman holding a big basket of goodies. She was wearing a faded dress and her hair was a matted nest of gnarls. White as a ghost and bug-eyed, she swayed to the music while Mr. Lee looked in his wallet. He walked toward me unwrapping what appeared to be a quarter-pound brownie. Weren’t we on our way to eat dinner? Why was he buying dessert? He took a big bite for himself and tore off a messy piece for me. He knows I don’t love sweets but pushed it toward me whispering that it was a marijuana brownie.

“What?”

It had been at least twenty-five years since I was in the vicinity of a marijuana brownie, a brownie that would have been lovingly prepared under the supervision of a close friend or me—we didn’t even know where this brownie had been. I watched Mr. Lee gobble down another piece before delivering a blob into my reluctant hand.

He practically insisted, “Oh come on, it probably won’t do anything anyway.”

I had to protest. It was really gooey—and no napkin!

The strong taste of marijuana brought me back to brownie days gone by. The weedy pot that we used produced a buzz only under the most scientific conditions, which included having an empty stomach, eating an entire pan of the goodies and smoking at least as much as we ate. Even then, the night would be spent quizzing one another; “Do you feel anything?”

“I can’t tell. What about you?”

“Maybe, a little.”

“Me too—I guess.”

If we did get a buzz, it was probably due to sugar and sheer will.

Cha, Cha, Cha, the Caribbean restaurant, was a busy place. By the time the server took our order I had already forgotten the brownie incident and we were talking about what we would do after dinner. I don’t remember what I ordered, or if I liked it. What I do remember is getting to the end of the meal and feeling oddly strange. I needed to get out of that restaurant—and now. I’d become hyper aware of my bodily functions. I could actually feel my heart pumping blood, my lungs exchanging air and my brain misfiring. We practically ran down Haight Street, going fast in the opposite direction of literally everyone else. Knotty dreads, tattoos, and pierced parts rushed past as we looked at each other in despair. I don’t remember any dialogue those few blocks, but we were desperate to hail a cab. We slid into the back seat. One of us muttered the name of our hotel, but we were otherwise silent. I recall that it was imperative the driver not hear a solitary word out of us. We communicated telepathically with occasional eye gestures.

Mr. Lee was looking rather pale and sort of bug-eyed as he mouthed the words, “I’m starting to feel weird.”

I nodded, took a deep breath and rolled my own bug-eyes, “Really weird.”

It occurred to me that we were beginning to resemble that brownie vendor in the park. Hardly more than an hour had passed since we ate the dreaded treat and I was hoping it wouldn’t get any more intense. As we rounded corner after San Francisco corner we repeated these sentiments a dozen times before accepting the fact that we did get a buzz. I guess we paid the cab driver because he stopped in front of our hotel, and we tumbled out. The doorman recognized us from two hours earlier when he hailed our cab and welcomed us back.

“How was Haight-Ashbury?” he asked, smiling appropriately.

Sure he knew what we had done I didn’t dare look him in the eye, but Mr. Lee managed to answer an unconvincing “Fine,” before heading straight for the elevator. I was breathing heavily as we hurried through the lobby of the fine gentleman’s hotel. I couldn’t wait to get to our room where we could properly assess the situation. I pushed the button to call the elevator to our service and waited anxiously for it to descend. The numbers above the doors announced its progress: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1- 1/2, 1 -1/4. I couldn’t imagine what was taking so long and, for a minute, considered using the stairs. Just then, the doors opened and we were literally blinded by the intensely glowing fluorescent orange interior that spilled out onto the wood floor of the hotel lobby. I looked around to see if anyone else saw it and quickly ducked inside. Mirrors I hadn’t noticed before doubled its intensity. We were fortunate to be alone in the elevator as we examined our features in the mirror. It would have been okay to engage in hysterical laughter now, but we weren’t laughing. I believed everything would be better once we got to the safety of our little room on the sixth floor. The problem, of course, was that we couldn’t find it. What was charming when we checked in turned into a nightmare as we traversed hall after hall looking for the secret passage to our wing. The only thing that would have been more absurd was if we had checked into a house of mirrors. By the time we found the green elevator, its psychedelic chartreuse walls and carpet were blinking.

Some thirty minutes after entering the hotel we fumbled with the key and were finally granted passage to our room. Behind closed door we talked about our predicament. It had been just over two hours since we ingested the brownies, and it was getting stranger by the minute. I notified Mr. Lee that I was in serious danger of exploding. We lay on the bed next to each other while I quizzed him on the details of the transaction. What if it was something much stronger than marijuana? Like poison! What if we both expired in this hotel room—our children would never know what had happened. It made perfect sense, at that moment, to prepare a note detailing our demise. I fumbled around for paper and a pencil until Mr. Lee asked what I was doing—I couldn’t remember. It didn’t occur to me at the time that these were unnatural thoughts. Instead of trying to save our lives, I was content to leave our babies a note explaining how we had died on the first night of our holiday in San Francisco. What about an antidote? Perhaps there was still time for us to get to the Emergency Room.

Lying there on the bed, it felt like I lost control of my bowels—a nice touch. I hurried to the bathroom. My fears were unfounded, but it was then and there, on the pot, that my life flashed before my eyes. More precisely, my life only just started to flash before my eyes when, less than halfway through my relatively short life, I was interrupted by the sound of Mr. Lee talking to someone on the telephone, about me. I strained to listen and just barely heard him saying, in the most dignified tone he’s ever used, “I’m calling from room 623. Yes, my wife is having an overdose.” He continued, “Well, actually, so am I.” I tried to pry myself from my seat but couldn’t quite. Then whoever he had on the line must have asked what kind of overdose because the next thing I heard him say was “pot brownies.”

“Who are you talking to?” I yelled.

Mr. Lee was telling our secret to a woman at the front desk. In her effort to avoid bad publicity for the hotel—a double drug overdose—she wanted to call an ambulance. I think he was seriously considering it, while I pulled myself together enough to tell him to hang up. He didn’t. Then I heard him say that he’d like to speak with the house doctor. While we waited for the house doctor to return the call, Mr. Lee brought me up to speed. We would take the doctor’s advice whatever it was, he explained. If that meant taking an ambulance to the Emergency Room, so be it. All I could imagine was each of us strapped to our own gurney or, worse yet, both of us strapped onto a double wide. Still Mr. Lee was beginning to make sense. In hindsight, I should have remembered that he’d eaten three-fourths of the brownie.

The call from the house doctor came quickly. Mr. Lee and the doctor had a matter-of-fact conversation regarding our symptoms. An overdose involving pot brownies didn’t elicit much sympathy. Fortunately it was determined that we would not make a scene by being wheeled through the lobby of the gentleman’s hotel while an ambulance parked outside with flashing lights and siren blaring. Instead a cab would wait discreetly across the street to escort us to the Emergency Room. I didn’t want to go and protested. The feeling of impending death had suddenly passed. Still Mr. Lee was determined to follow the plan set forth by the hotel doctor. The phone rang. Mr. Lee answered it and said we’d be right down. I told him we didn’t have to do it. He ordered me to put on my coat. I prepared to turn myself in to the authorities, which in this case were a desk clerk and a cab driver. We collected our things and started what would become a most bizarre San Francisco trip.

The elevator door opened to, not one or two, but several hotel employees disbursed throughout the lobby. I am certain now that every available employee, fortunate enough to be on duty that day, was eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of the couple from room 623 having the pot brownie overdose. Mr. Lee was a few paces ahead and, to my utter surprise, he walked past all of the smiling staff. I called out to him. He picked up speed as he approached the door. He was going to bolt. The desk clerk, and then the doorman called out to him. Mr. Lee broke out, and I rushed to catch up with him. I heard someone say something about the cab, but I threw open the door and chased him up the street. When I asked him what happened, he said he changed his mind.

I followed Mr. Lee as he turned one corner after the next. It was no easy task keeping up because he was walking double speed. I assumed he knew where he was going and that he wanted to get some distance between us and the hotel before he would let me in on his plan. Finally out of earshot of the fancy hotel he confided that he wanted us to take ourselves to the Emergency Room—even though I reminded him that we had no idea where it was. I looked around to get my bearings and was startled to see that, after walking precisely four blocks, we were standing right in front of our own hotel. Mr. Lee grabbed my arm, and we ran. I could just feel the doormen pointing and laughing at us as we made our narrow escape. Realizing that following Mr. Lee and his series of left turns put us in this predicament, I decided to take over and that we would avoid left turns completely. Somehow we made our way to Union Square where we were about to revel in our success when it dawned on me that we were supposed to be going to the Emergency Room. Zombie-like we shuffled past the normal pedestrians strolling the square. After less than half a short block we were exhausted and had to rest. It was beginning to get dark and the city lights were loud and confusing. We reasoned that a break would be beneficial and found a nice little patch of grass by a fountain in the middle of the square. We sat expressionless staring into space for a long while before I noticed that we were in the company of a few anxious-looking vagrants—apparently in their spot. Poor Mr. Lee was slumped over, evidently sleeping.  When I nudged him he turned in my direction and worked up a little smile before delivering bright yellow puke in the grass right next to me and my purse. It was a colorful reminder of where we supposed to be going—the Emergency Room.

This may have been a completely different trip if we had been somewhere in Humboldt County where this marijuana was grown, surrounded by trees instead of in this metropolis of lights and traffic signals, where life or death decisions had to be made every few seconds. There we stood on the corner of Post and Powell unable to make a single one. We waited through three traffic lights before having the confidence to cross the street. When we finally did Mr. Lee, who was evidently now under my care, entered the cross walk ahead of me. Just as I was about to step off the curb, a red hand started blinking and I knew it meant I should stop. So I did. Mr. Lee was more than half way through the cross walk when he noticed that I didn’t make it. He was torn between going on without me and turning back. I think we knew that if we were separated at that point we might never find each other. I motioned him to go on, even though a sudden panic came over me. A few horns from waiting motorists incited Mr. Lee to move through the cross walk. We looked at each other with the vast street separating us and waved a teary good-bye. We had made no provisions for this. I knew I had to work up the courage to cross the street by myself and hoped that Mr. Lee would be there when I got to the other side.

Once reunited, it was clear we needed a ride to the Emergency Room. Walking was entirely too unpredictable. We watched cabs zoom past but couldn’t quite catch one’s attention. We learned that hailing a cab by simply peering into the driver’s eyes wasn’t working. I looked around for another pedestrian to ask for assistance. Since I was unable to put a string of words together to formulate a question we were unsuccessful. Then I caught a glimpse of two men in jumpsuits carrying blinking lights while a police officer directed traffic around them. I put Mr. Lee in a sit-stay while I went for help. He should have tried to stop me but instead had these words of advice, “Don’t tell him what we did.” My approach was emotionless as I rehearsed in my head what I would say, then forget what it was. The baffled police officer watched me walk right into the street where he was directing traffic. Apparently I asked him the wrong question. Police officers don’t hail cabs. “Lady,” he said, “just stand by the street and put your hand out.” I thanked him and returned with the news. We did exactly as instructed and soon had a ride. We slithered into the back seat. The driver waited until Mr. Lee, in the same matter-of-fact manner you’d order a ride to Fisherman’s Wharf, said, “The Emergency Room, please.” The puzzled driver looked at us, probably to assess our condition and had one question, “Which one?”

We looked at one another like it might be a trick question. I took a guess. “The closest one?”

The driver said that would be the County Hospital. Suddenly Mr. Lee came to life, and I could see his sluggish wheels beginning to turn. We were staying in a four star hotel and had excellent insurance. Did we really need to go to the County Hospital? “No,” he said, “take us to the best one.”

The driver, I’m sure caught off guard by this unusual request, had to decide which Emergency Room was the best one in town—they aren’t rated in Frommer’s or even Lonely Planet. I felt a certain sense of relief as we sped off. We were finally in good hands. But that was about the time when I began to seriously doubt we needed urgent care. It had been a couple of hours since we lay dying in our hotel bed. I’d completely forgotten now—what was our emergency? The driver pulled up as close as he could, pointed to the double doors displaying the words we’d been looking for all night, and wished us good luck.

We shuffled up to the doors and stood on the pad that opens them automatically, looking at the clinical fluorescence of the huge space before us and then at each other’s pasty faces bathed in its strange green light. The reality of spending the next eight hours of our vacation under observation didn’t appeal to either of us. Besides a bigger emergency had developed—we had the munchies.

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New York’s Better Little Italy

I have three very good reasons to visit New York City (and two equally good ones to visit DC) at least once a year. If I’m extraordinarily lucky, I get there more than once. And every time I’m in Manhattan, I think about leaving—but just for the better part of a day. I want to go to The Bronx. Not the zoo or the botanical gardens, which I’m told would each justify the long subway ride and bus transfer.

Instead, I want to go all the way to The Bronx for just one street. The problem is I’m the only one that does. And so it has never happened—until, last month, it finally did. I convinced Mr. Lee that it would be the perfect way to spend a day. After all, we’d both read the article that appeared in The New York Times back in 2002—and I was sure Arthur Avenue was still waiting for us.

So, on a brisk Monday morning in November, the first one in fact, we walked several blocks to the green line and waited for the #4 train. We were way down in Battery Park City, the absolute tip of the island. Oh, I forgot to mention that we had special cargo that day—one that traveled by stroller. There are probably few things more painful to watch than two adults, unfamiliar with the workings of a modern-day baby mover, trying to manage the release of a four-layer-bundled toddler from her strolling device while attempting to fold said device, at the same time fumbling with metro cards so that they can pass through the turnstile, hoping they haven’t misplace the bag filled with enough diapers for a four-day weekend, a change of clothes, and one bottle of milk—plus a last minute toss-in of teething biscuits. She’s not teething, but thank goodness for teething biscuits. Anyone familiar with the New York City Subway system will know that getting to the platform with this sort of cargo is the exact opposite of a stroll in the park.

Once seated on the #4, Mr. Lee and I breathe sighs of relief as our grandtoddler makes eye contact with the surprisingly friendly faces, unnerving them by peering deep into their eyes and completely forgetting to mention the one word she has mastered, “Hi.” We whiz past Union Square at 14th street, Grand Central at 42nd Street, and the furthest uptown I’ve ever been, 86th Street—the stop that delivers me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park. But we’re not getting out anytime soon. After a while, the train goes above ground, and we pass Yankee Stadium at 161st Street. A bottle of milk and one teething biscuit later, we finally exit at Fordham Road, where we’re rushed down the stairs amid a sea of eager disembarkers, only to wait at the bus stop for the BX12 eastbound. In our haste, we don’t notice that we’ve boarded the express and overshoot our destination—at least now we know where the Bronx Zoo and the The New York Botanical Garden are. We quickly exit our eastbound BX12 and cross an extra wide street to board a westbound BX12. This time we ask more questions.

Mr. Lee and I marvel at the laid back disposition of our cargo as we secure her with straps and buckles to begin our long-awaited stroll down Arthur Avenue.

She’s fast asleep by the time we enter Calabria Pork Store, where they sell all things pork. There is so much pork in fact that what doesn’t fit on the shelves or inside the cases hangs from the ceiling. The smell is overwhelmingly raw and earthy, with a hint of mold. Further investigation of the greenish-white sausages hanging overhead explains the moldy odor. But this is all part of the process and I have no doubt that these are among the finest Italian salciccia this side of the Atlantic. Mr. Lee waits outside while I make a few purchases and soak up the aroma. (I’m descended from a family where odors like these are considered aromas.)

We’re  lured into Morrone’s Pastry Shop with their colorful display of pasticcerie. where Mr. Lee has wasted no time in procuring a tiramisu and a cannoli. We sip our coffees while I admire the two bags of Anelletti pasta I bought in the pork store. I haven’t been able to find these ‘little rings’ anywhere since our trip to Sicily in 2005.

Before we leave I order a tiramisu to go, mostly  so I can watch the gal box it up. Red and white twisted string spins from a giant spool in the back of the bakery, runs up one wall, through two eye hooks on the ceiling, and dangles just above the counter. She grabs the end and skillfully winds it around and around a signature Morrone box and ties it in a bow. I find a place to stow the tidy package, but I’m reminded that we don’t have room for much shopping. Everything has to fit in the bottom of the stroller and we already have our hands quite full of precious cargo. From here on out I’m just browsing, I promise Mr. Lee.

We make our way to Arthur Avenue Retail Market where there isn’t anything an Italian cook can’t find.

Everywhere we go patrons are greeted like old friends—in Italian. I practice eavesdropping, but catch little of the conversations. We head back up Arthur Avenue on the way to the neighborhood park, where we can let our toddler toddle a while. Of course that doesn’t stop me from doing a bit of window shopping on the way. But, I warn Mr. Lee I’m not leaving Arthur Avenue without some fresh pasta for tonight’s dinner.

Across the street from Our Lady of Mount Carmel we locate the shop where I intended to buy the homemade pasta. Sadly, when we arrive at Borgatti’s we find it closed, but the window display is worth the trip. We end our day at Ciccarone Park and head to the bus stop for the long ride back home. We’ll be back.

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Olive

This is a story about Olive, who wasn’t actually a dog. She only looked like one.

She trained her masters early on to believe they were training her.

Well past the puppy stage, she maintained a strict regimen of two meals daily. The morning meal was expected the minute Mrs. Master stepped into her slippers. Of course, some mornings arrived earlier for Olive than they did for the Masters, and she diligently climbed the fourteen steps to Mrs. Master and her slippers, using her rubbery black nose as a bumper to push open the bedroom door. On the rare occasions when the Masters didn’t notice the sound produced by sixteen toenails repeating on a wood floor, Olive situated her rump and thick vigorously wagging tail between the aluminum mini-blinds and something not normally loud—an empty paper sack for instance. Mrs. Master, startled awake, moseyed sleepily downstairs, Olive at her heels, convinced it was her idea to get up early on those particular mornings.

Olive’s morning pills were given fancy names like filet mignon, beluga caviar, foie gras, and wild truffles from Italy. Mrs. Master tossed one after the next into the air, calling each by name. Olive enthusiastically caught the pills, letting Mrs. Master go on thinking that she thought they really were those fancy things Mrs. Master said they were.

Olive’s evening meal was served promptly at 5:30pm, until it was changed to 4:30, and then 3:30, slowly edging closer to 2:30. When asked, Mrs. Master had no explanation for the changes, except to say that Olive was extremely persuasive indeed.

When she wasn’t curled up in her comfy brown leather easy chair watching Mrs. Master write her book, she was in the kitchen helping her lady, who was nothing if not careless, dropping grapes and snippets of carrots, green beans, and broccoli, which Olive dutifully picked up—unless it was celery.

To Mrs. Master she was completely devoted—all day long.

But when it came time for bed, it was Mr. Master who was king. Recognizing his getting-ready-for-bed noises, Olive greeted him at the bottom of the stairs. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Master, Mr. Master treated Olive to a ‘cookie’ every night before he retired. After that Olive made a sweep of the kitchen floor for such treasures as almonds and toasted cereal flakes that Mr. Master left behind.

Almost every day, Olive went for a swim. Despite years of effort, she was unsuccessful in training the Masters not to notice her drying off on the wool Berber carpet.

The older she got the more selective her hearing became. “Are you wet?” once sent her scurrying for her kennel. “Out!” meant something. So did, “Come here.” Maybe she’s deaf the Masters concluded. But when one quietly asked the other, “Did you feed her?” although two rooms away, in a quasi-coma, Olive would appear suddenly, as if by magic.

She was in fact often mistaken for being in a coma. Some years ago, she took to sleeping in the supine position, on her back, legs up. The Masters found it unnerving when, without moving any other muscles, her eyes followed them as they passed.

Wherever the Masters were at any given moment, so was Olive. Whether under the table while they ate, between their chairs while they read or watched a movie, sitting outside by the pool or chatting together in Mrs. Master’s office, Olive was at their feet.

These were her peeps. And she had them trained just the way she liked them. She was in fact still working with the Masters right up to the very end. She never gave up on them.

It takes a lifetime to train these guys, she always said. Olive’s efforts paid off. The Masters were completely devoted to her—and miss her incredibly.

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Plane Math

New Orleans is not all fun and games. It’s serious business. And it requires paper, pencil, and plane math.

Begin by making a list of everything you intend to eat. It’s best to do this on the airplane, when hunger is most acute. Next, divide the items on the list by the number of days to determine precisely how many meals must be consumed per day. Generally it’s between three and five.

As soon as possible after you land, head to Mandina’s for gumbo and shrimp remoulade. Order the bowl of gumbo—not a cup. And don’t worry when it’s gone, you’ll likely return for another one on the way back to the airport on your last day. Find someone with a healthy appetite to share a Muffaletta at Central Grocery, and broiled oysters at Acme—just for starters. The French Quarter offers plenty of opportunity to walk off all those calories.

Parkway Bakery is a great place to order a shrimp and oyster Po’Boy that literally explodes when divided into portions. If, unlike me, you aren’t on a budget, your options increase dramatically: Commander’s Palace, Jacques-Imo’s, Emeril’s, and Mr. B’s Bistro where, if you order MR. B’S BARBEQUED SHRIMP, you’ll be happy they made you wear a bib. The French Quarter is home to many fine old restaurants that are filled with locals and tourists alike—you know, the places where the waiters think they’re doing you a favor by allowing you to occupy a table, and then pay too much for mediocre food. Of course I’m generalizing, and there are exceptions.

Although I was born in New Orleans and return once or twice a year, I have yet to eat at Tujaques or Antoine’s, and only recently ate at Galatoires. Oh, and a couple of years ago, I did have Eggs Benedict at Brennan’s. With those records, I’m clearly not considered a local.

At some point it’s important to save room for dessert. And there’s no better place than Angelo Bracato’s for a cannoli—or spumoni. It looks like an old fashioned ice cream parlor—well actually it is. Bracato’s was established in 1905. Its only facelift came post Hurricane Katrina, but they didn’t change a thing. I usually leave Brocato’s with three bags of seed cakes for Mr. Lee.

It’s probably beginning to sound like all I do is eat. It’s not true. I also write about eating. Besides, there are plenty of things about New Orleans that have nothing to do with eating.

Even the locals go to Pat O’Brien’s, but they do not order Hurricanes. I can’t stress this enough. Get a Mint Julep instead. Have two and you’ll even tolerate the dueling piano players in the Piano Lounge. If the notion of a Mint Julep conjures up images of Southern ladies fanning themselves on a muggy Louisiana afternoon, while daintily sipping something akin to lemonade, you are wrong! A Mint Julep is a powerful cocktail, where mint is muddled with sugar in the bottom of a tall glass that is then filled with ice and bourbon. If you’ve been with me for long, you already know how I feel about Sazeracs. And I’ll resist the urge to mention my favorite (Napoleon House) here because I have decided to immortalize it in another post.

Still, there must be some things about New Orleans that have nothing to do with eating or drinking. I just know there are.

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Queenies, Queries & Quenelles

Queenies come from all walks of life. Some love to shop. Some live to rule. Others take leisure. And some like to cook—and eat (mostly eat). This is a story about the latter.

I blame my parents. They like to eat. It’s not completely their fault, though. They were born and raised in New Orleans, where eating good food is something of a competitive sport. Thankfully, my sisters and I grew up eating great food. And it was our father, oddly enough, that made the most unconventional dishes—the ones that are as cumbersome to pronounce as they are to prepare. He was the weekend gourmet—and the reason his daughters will tackle just about anything in the kitchen.

I remember well the Cannelloni, a two day project when you consider the time it takes to make the pasta from scratch. Our dad cleared the wood bar of all small appliances, covered it with a fine sprinkling of flour, and set to work rolling out thin sheets of handmade pasta. The sheets turned into small squares that were filled with a flavorful mixture of spinach, meat and chicken livers (I know), and rolled into logs, which were carefully lined up in a baking dish. It was not unusual for him to quadruple a recipe when they were having a dinner party. By the time we’d meander into the kitchen there would be four good-sized baking pans full of these edible logs, and he’d be busy preparing the besciamella sauce. And, I might add, he’s not the least bit Italian. Or Dutch, even though he made the occasional Dutch Baby.

Then there were the Greek years. He’s not Greek either, but we had Moussaka and Avgolemono until we thought it was a perfectly normal thing to do. I was in high school before I realized not everyone ate like this—or that most dads didn’t know their way around a cookbook. Sometimes he’d whip up a batch of Avgolemono after work—just because lemon, egg and rice soup was delicious. We learned to love to eat.

Yesterday, I queried my sisters. “What was the most unusual dish you remember Dad making?” They both answered back the same thing, which I thought was really weird. I had completely forgotten about the Thanksgiving he deboned a full grown turkey. It’s not the kind of operation you want to witness first thing in the morning either. Your dad’s greasy hands and forearms rummaging around inside a floppy twenty-something-pound turkey—and a sad heap of its bones on a platter next to it.

I was reminded that the stuffed turkey arrived at its Thanksgiving destination somewhat flattened out, as one would if it were missing all of its bones. It more resembled a roast pig than the traditional holiday bird. Our dad pushed on both ends of his creation until the drumsticks popped back into place, plumped it here and there, and proudly declared it a Galantine.

A note on the Galantine: One sister included in her reply email that she thought Dad called his deboned turkey a “guillotine.” After an exhaustive Google search (did you know that Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette were the first royals to try out the newfangled invention in 1793?), I turned to Julia Child. Yes, I admit to having swiped our dad’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II, from the family library. And, thanks to my sister’s better memory than mine, I learned something new today—that I should have listened a little harder.

But. I remember one dish above all others, probably because he made it only once. Quenelles. Think floating chicken. Imagine taking ordinary chicken parts, deboning them (yes,again), pureeing that, and gingerly folding the results into stiffened egg whites. Using two spoons, he fashioned egg-shaped mounds and ever so carefully dropped them into a simmering broth. It didn’t take long for the chickeny pillows to float to the surface. Because Quenelles are French, like half of my dad, they are served under a blanket of buttery sauce.

Like me, my dad came to cooking and baking naturally. His father immigrated from Santander, a picturesque city on the northern coast of Spain, in the late 1800s. He ran a bakery in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, where I’m told his French bread was the best in town. My dad grew up in that bakery. He’s the little boy in the picture, holding hands with his father.

Dad always said we have flour in our blood. And I believe him.

So what, you may be wondering, does all of this have to do with Queenies?

Well. It’s how a Queenie comes to be, how one learns to love to eat—and particularly how one learns to love to cook. You almost have to be born into it. And thankfully there is a place in the blogosphere where a few Queenies have gathered to share their love of all things cookery.

That place is Cuisine Queenies, and the bloggers are Queen Bee, Czarina, Queenopatra and QueenEase. They’re a little shy, but very soon you’ll get to know them. Cuisine Queenies is here.

Cuisine Queenies

Cui•sine Quee•nies [kwi zeen | kwee neez]

noun
Queenies that like to cook—and eat (mostly eat)

  1. Queen Bee has a special challenge. She is made to cook on a Tappan Fabulous 400
  2. Czarina is put to task each and every day as she manages a Polish husband who thinks he’s Sicilian and insists she cook the foods of his “people”
  3. Queenopatra, Cleo of the Nile must find creative ways to use the abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs that appear on her counter each evening
  4. QueenEase strives to keep it down to one (one husband, one daughter, one dog, one cat, one hamster, one dozen jobs), and in cooking that means the fewer the ingredients the better to enjoy food’s own flavors
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Rod’s on Route 66

Rod’s Steak House has been a fixture on historic Route 66 since 1946. But I never knew that.

In fact we (Mr. Lee and me) happened upon it quite by accident only a few weeks ago, while driving through Williams. Don’t ask what we were doing in Williams, a little-known town whose only claim to fame is that of being the Gateway to the Grand Canyon. We were neither headed to nor from the Grand Canyon that day, but there we were on Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. And finding ourselves in Williams, we were inexplicably drawn to a life-sized steer shackled and tethered to the sidewalk.

Before I knew it, Mr. Lee pulled over, grabbed his camera from the back seat and, as Mr. Lee often does, set off on foot with the car still running. As he rounded the corner, he called back to me to go inside and order a steak sandwich.

“What?”

As he disappeared, I gathered my things (and Mr. Lee’s keys) and entered Rod’s through the back. It was the Cocktail Lounge entrance. The lounge was dark and dank, and the immense restaurant was virtually empty. It was mid-afternoon, after all—too late for lunch and too early for dinner. The only live bodies were the help.

But, the place was anything but empty. Every square inch of space was covered with some manner of steer decor. I’d never seen so many steer. If it wasn’t a picture of a steer, it was a statue of one. There was even a steer quilt. The dark-bright-pink walls (a color difficult to describe) were adorned with cutouts of steer and branding irons and some unfortunate steer’s hide.

Mounted just above the hide, probably-not-the-same-steer’s head was made to watch diners eat steak, something he’d been doing since he was taxidermied in 1937—first at The Cowman’s Club in Phoenix, and now at Rod’s. A plaque tells the story of the head, and that The Cowman’s Club gifted it to Rod’s Steak House when they closed in 2005.

The placemat for World Famous Rod’s Steak House gives a history of its founder, Rodney Graves, as does their web site. Rod’s original logo has been immortalized in every conceivable way, but probably the most fitting is the menu he opened his steak house with over sixty years ago. The registered trademark menu, die cut in the shape of a steer, is still being used today. They let me take a couple home, where I caught them grazing out back just this morning.

While we waited for our steak sandwich, I found Mr. Lee talking to a young man who turned out to be the current owner’s son, Toby. He knew all the stories because he’d lived his childhood hanging around the restaurant while his parents worked. Now he’s there everyday, working along side his parents, Lawrence and Stella Sanchez.

We said goodbye to Toby and left with our order. The steak was excellent, medium rare and oozing with bleu cheese, served on a ciabatta, and the fries were crispy. We regretted that we didn’t order a hamburger instead. It’s not easy to eat a steak in a sandwich—especially when you’re doing it in the car. Mr. Lee said that, if we had ordered a hamburger, a good name for it would be the Williamsburger. Mr.Lee is clever like that.

Toby intends to take over Rod’s Steak House when his parents retire. I hope he doesn’t change a thing.

As we drove out of town we passed Williams Cemetery. Something bright pink caught my eye. Mr. Lee agreeably turned around and drove in, where we found the bright pink thing to be a gravesite and matching bench, and broom. As is customary, we ended our outing at the cemetery, and then headed home.

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Sazerac

Everybody has a state flower and a state bird. For Louisiana those are the magnolia and the brown pelican. Their official musical instrument, I’m pleased to report, is the “Cajun” accordion. (I admit a fondness for accordions of all sorts since I appointed one an important character in a hopefully-soon-to-be-completed novel.) If you know any Louisianans, you won’t be surprised to learn that they have actually declared an official cuisine—gumbo. And crawfish has been designated the state crustacean. I caution any crawfish reading this not to rejoice quite yet. Louisianans prefer their state crustacean boiled in a highly seasoned broth and served in a bright orange heap on newspaper. There’s even a Louisiana State Doughnut. It’s true—the beignet has held that distinction since 1986. Naturally, all of this makes perfect sense to me. I’m technically a New Orleans native—and a regular visitor.

Official Cocktail of the City of New Orleans

So when I learned that, in 2008, the Sazerac was being named the Official Cocktail of the City of New Orleans, I was overjoyed. You see, I sampled my first Sazerac thirty-something years ago (back when the legal drinking age in New Orleans was 12) and have been a devotee ever since. Its history is nearly as mesmerizing as the cocktail itself.

The Sazerac is said to have been invented by Antoine Peychaud, a creole apothecary, who opened his Pharmacie Peychaud in the French Quarter in the 1830s. The original site at 437 Rue Royal is now home to a rare coin and gun shop. But the legacy of his famous cocktail remains.

The story goes that Antoine Peychaud prescribed his secret concoction of aromatic bitters for any one of a number of ailments. Alas, the bitters were bitter, and Peychaud’s patrons didn’t mind the apothecary’s addition of a nice French brandy and a splash of absinthe to disguise their bite. It’s said he likely ran a little gambling salon in the back room and that the cocktail would certainly have helped to loosen up the gamblers’ wallets.

Some say Peychaud’s mixture was the birth of the first ever “cocktail.” It’s a nice story—that the cocktail was invented right there on Royal Street—but probably not true.

By the 1850s, the pharmacist was supplying his brilliant red Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters to the Sazerac Coffee House down the street, where the brandy was ultimately replaced with rye whiskey, and the cocktail officially became known as a Sazerac. Around 1912 Absinthe was banned in the United States, and Pernod was substituted. These days the anise flavor most often comes from a liqueur called Herbsaint, although some bars continue to use Pernod. It should be noted that absinthe has been legalized and is again available at bars that serve a good Sazerac—for an additional cost.

The Sazerac Coffee House went through a few name and location changes until it became The Sazerac Bar, exquisitely situated in The Roosevelt Hotel—back in 1949. The Roosevelt Hotel has been through some changes of its own. For a period it was known as the Fairmont Hotel, until Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc. There was no water damage, but the hotel was horribly vandalized and closed. Waldorf Astoria purchased the property, completely refurbished it to its original splendor, properly renamed it, and staged a Grand Re-Opening in July, 2009.

Although my favorite place to enjoy a Sazerac will always be The Napoleon House—mostly because it’s my favorite place, period—one must give in to tradition and experience a Sazerac at the bar famous for them, and well known for bartender showmanship. The performance is worth the $12 price tag—once.

This recipe comes from The Roosevelt New Orleans Blog (the photos are a result of my personal research):

Sazerac

1 cube sugar
1  1/2 oz rye whiskey
Herbsaint, to coat the glass
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. In a second glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube. Add the rye whiskey to the glass containing the bitters and sugar. Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint (the bartender actually spins the glass as he tosses it from hand to hand), then discard the remaining Herbsaint. Pour the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture into the glass and garnish with twisted lemon peel.

New Orleans is full of history, and there are museums for every interest. If you’re anything like me, you might enjoy these:

The Museum of the American Cocktail

Absinthe Museum of America

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

 

 

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Three Bean Soup

A vegetable gardener dreams that her 52-square-foot garden will provide all the produce necessary for her family of two. In truth, the vegetable gardener must be realistic. She will end up with much more zucchini than is needed and far fewer beans.

The $500 Tomato

She’ll battle aphids and scale and grubs, and watch the glorious tomatoes she’s nurtured for months disappear overnight. Squirrels!—those #!%? little rascals for whom she’ll make batch upon batch of habanero sauce. She adores critters of all kinds, but hopes the pepper-infused tincture she sprays on her ripening tomatoes will make their tiny lips swell. If she’s lucky—and very patient, she’ll enjoy the fruitof her labors, the first delectable heirloom tomato. This is her hero—the $500 tomato!

She calculates that construction of raised beds, poles, fencing, and soil amendments comes in at just under that amount, BEFORE buying seeds and plants. This first garden, everyone tells her, will pay off ten-fold in years to come. She doesn’t believe a word they say but anticipates the feeling of accomplishment she’ll have when she begins filling the refrigerator with her home grown harvest.

Organic Arsenal

Of course the aphids and grubs and squirrels fail to materialize in the early visual she has of her future feeling of accomplishment. She spends as much time steeping tomato leaf tea, marinating habaneros and blending garlic juice as she does watering the vegetable plants.

Bush beans and pole beans alike will offer up a pod or two each day. If the vegetable gardener waits until she can harvest an entire handful, she’ll undoubtedly be left with at least one dried out pod. If that’s the case, she’ll make three bean soup.

Three Bean Soup

By mid-August things will have gotten rather ugly, the garden a jumble of tomato vines climbing over peppers and crowding out eggplant and winding their own branches into knots—around the poor okra that never had a chance. It’s survival of the fittest out there. The spring garden was all fun and games compared to this. She could cry, but instead comes to the conclusion that her first garden is a learning garden.

Thank goodness she had the foresight to plant the herbs in whiskey barrels on the other side of the property. Herbs are a much more civilized bunch, where everybody stays where they’re planted.

Looking back over the summer, a vegetable gardener has to admit that some vegetables are better gotten at the Farmer’s Market.

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