Friday, November 01, 2013

Writing Down the Holidays in Louisiana, Part 1 (and Win 'Christmas in Dogtown')

One of the great things about being an author these days is the chance to meet up with other authors and readers. Since my Sentinels of New Orleans series (and Louisiana standalone ebook, Christmas in Dogtown) started up last year, I've met other authors and even more readers who've either lived in Louisiana or visited enough to fall in love with the unique South Louisiana culture.

So it was that I met Pamela Mason (former resident and hometown girl from Arabi (that's "arabee," by the way, Louisiana, out in St. Bernard Parish, or "Da Parish," as the locals call it) online and began to chat about some of our So-La holiday memories, especially since we're heading into holiday season (which in Louisiana goes something like...Thanksgiving, Reveillon, Christmas, New Year's, Twelfth Night, Mardi Gras--'cause that's how we roll.)

We each picked five of our favorites. Today, read about my five; on Monday, Pamela will be here with hers.

I'll save the absolute favorite for last, but here goes:

1) Mama's Tasty Foods. This was an absolute hole in the wall spot on Louisiana Avenue in a not-so-great part of town, sandwiched next to a meat market that doubled as an "urban fashion" outlet, complete with a clothes rack out front filled with gangsta pants. And "mama," lest you imagine an old-timey New Orleans chef frying up pans of soul food just like she learned from her own mama, was Vietnamese. Mama made the best damned fried chicken in town. She also was open on Mardi Gras day. Every Mardi Gras, after going to the neutral ground (i.e., medians) on St. Charles Avenue before daybreak and and parking our butts in lawn chairs, watching kids play in the streets until a parade float got within bead-throwing range, my friends and I would walk a couple of blocks and load up on bags of food from Mama's Tasty Foods. I even got a traditional Fried Gizzard on a Stick. They came five to an order, and I'd choke down one and save the others for my dogs, who didn't seem to think it an odd custom at all. Sadly, Mama's was one of many Katrina casualties and never reopened.

2) The Destrehan Plantation Fall Festival. Held out in the small town of Destrehan west of New
Orleans on the grounds of the Destrehan Plantation, this was my favorite of the many craft fairs held in South Louisiana. It was always a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, which put it in the small window of time where the area has nice weather. (There's summer misery for ten months, suprisingly cold winter for six weeks, and two glorious weeks of autumn in early November. We'd buy great handmade gifts for Christmas, wander around the plantation house located next to the Mississippi River levee, listen to Zydeco and Cajun music, and pig out on crawfish bread, pralines and Greek pastries (hey, nothing says Louisiana like a little baklava, right?). Later, when I took up quilting, I even had a booth for a couple of years, selling quilted wall hangings.

3) Wayne Jacobs' Smokehouse and Bailey's Smokehouse. No holiday season would be complete without a jaunt back out to LaPlace to a couple of iconic Louisiana smokehouses. We'd load up on andouille (spicy pork sausage), tasso (spiced ham), smoked chickens, duck sausage, crawfish boudin, frozen tubs of gumbo and turtle soup, and be set for our holiday feasts. The jaunts out to LaPlace inspired my character Resa Madere in "Christmas in Dogtown." Except Resa's community of Dogtown wasn't in LaPlace, it was in...

4) St. James Parish. The "River Parishes" west of New Orleans have retained a lot of the old plantation homes, and St. James Parish is no exception. But come December, this Cajun town becomes the site of a massive construction project as people begin building teepee-shaped wooden "trees" all along the high earthen Mississippi River levee as it winds past Lutcher and Vacherie (and my imaginary community of Dogtown). The wooden teepees are stuffed with dry kindling and on
Christmas Eve, as Pere Noel (or Papa Noel, the Cajun Santa Claus) arrives not by sleigh but by pirogue, people set the structures on fire. The bonfires of St. James burn all along the levee, helping guide Pere Noel down the river with his pirogue of toys. The St. James bonfires have become a traffic event these days as folks from all over the state come down to see the beauty of these cones of light lining the river, but even as few as ten years ago, it was more of a local thing and made a beautiful way to spend a cold Christmas Eve.

5) Christmas Dinner at Tujagues.
Those who know me will nod vigorously in agreement when I say I'm no domestic goddess. I can cook, but it's a utilitarian exercise. Usually, I'd visit family for Thanksgiving and end up at loose ends on Christmas Day, looking at restaurant options.

Then came Hurricane Katrina. I had been stranded, evacuated with two dogs and one day's change of clothes, for eight weeks before my zip code reopened after the storm, one of the first to reopen. I went back in October to devastation and heartbreak that it still hurts to talk about some days. There weren't many people in town (except soldiers). Most of the lights were still off. There was no trash pickup. No mail service. Water quality was questionable. The air reeked of mold. Cell service was spotty but it was the only option--none of the land lines worked. "Coffin flies" swarmed out of the drains. Debris was everywhere. And here came Christmas.

It was sort of a miracle in itself that Tujaque's, an old-school New Orleans restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter (across Decatur from Cafe du Monde) reopened about that time and announced a limited-service Christmas Dinner. I made reservations as soon as I could get through.

I remember parking alongside the river, and the wind was cold and moist as I crossed Decatur. The streets were deserted. But inside Tujaque's, there was laughter and talking. I sat in the bar for a while waiting for my table, and everyone who came in asked the question we all asked in those days: How'd you make out? Where'd you go? When did you come back? We had to tell our stories; we had to hear others' stories.

Later, we sat at a small table in one of the little dining rooms, eating oyster dressing and fried turkey and bread pudding, asking those same questions of the people at the nearby tables. No one was a stranger in those days; we were bonded by sorrow and survival and a determination to recover.

A middle-aged man at the next table said, "I wrote a song about it; would you like to hear it?" Well, sure. I thought he'd just softly sing some lyrics, but he reached on the next chair and pulled out a case containing a ukelele. As he began to play, the room fell silent. People came to stand in the doorways. He sang about driving over the bridge into Baton Rouge, running west from New Orleans as Katrina approached, and looking back and wondering if his home would be there when he came back, and it wasn't. But home was more than a house, he'd learned; it was this place, and all of us. I never thought I'd spend Christmas Dinner crying into a plateful of bread pudding with whiskey sauce but it was the most poignant holiday experience I've ever had. Tujague's became my "go to" spot for Christmas after that.

And just because in Louisiana, we like to toss in a little lagniappe, or something extra, here's another memory. Walking into a record store down on Decatur in a rainstorm one day and running smack-dab into a very big, very tall man. I looked up to apologize and froze. Aaron Neville! So here he is, with my favorite holiday song.

Leave a comment about a favorite holiday memory for a chance to win a digital copy of Christmas in Dogtown!


Pamela Mason said...

OMyGoodness you bumped into Aaron Neville!?! How cool is that?

And your story about Tujacques makes me choke up. After a disaster like Katrina, nothing is the same. There are no barriers, no affectations, no strangers. It's always a touchpoint in your life. You are never the same after floating out your front door in a boat. Perspective.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Yes, I wish I could say everyone kept that spirit--it lasted a good year before all the same old political backbiting and finger-pointing returned, accelerated by the divisive nature of our broken-down mayor and his runaway tongue!

Chris Bailey said...

Your recollections evoke so much emotion. I remember with gratitude that sense of "we're all in this together." After Hurricane Hugo in Charleston we hosted a Christmas party, even though we STILL hadn't seen an insurance adjuster. We tacked ornaments to the plywood covering the blown-out window in the den. Yes. We really did.

SandyG265 said...

When I was a kid we used to go into NYC and go see the show at Radio City Music Hall

miki said...

i'm sorry not everything and everyone could recover from the hurricane....i hate seeing place i used to go closed off or shop changing ( even worse with restaurant) but thankfully i never had to live a time when a lot happened like that all at once because of a catastrophe... i can't imagine the feeling it must evoke but as always your post are a fabulous way to explain New Orleans and Louisiana

bn100 said...

Decorating the tree together

bn100candg at hotmail dot com

VampedChik said...

My family would always get together around the holidays and we'd make toffee and fudge for everyone. We don't do it as often now as we're all getting older and have our own families and its very expensive but every year when I was a kid I knew come Christmas time we'd be making toffee and fudge.

Mary Preston said...

I can remember one year when EVERYONE in the family came to stay. It was like tent city. I LOVED it!!


Liz S. said...

Marshall Field's always had the best Christmas windows on State Street when I was a kid. And eating in the Walnut room with the huge Christmas tree was a rare treat! Hard Rock, Coco and Joe was a local black and white cartoon about Santa's elves whose theme song would stay in your head for hours after watching it.

lindalou said...

I love reading posts like this! I've never been to New Orleans, but I have always wanted to go and I feel that I do go there thru your books and posts. Thank you Suzanne.

My fav Christmas memories have all been around Disney & Universal - I love the Parks at Christmastime. We spend the 2 months before Christmas sightseeing in the Parks and the resorts. I look forward to Grinchmas at Universal each year - that's an awesome Christmas show if anyone is visiting the Park in December. Thanks for the giveaway!

lindalou (at) cfl (dot) rr (dot) com

cee white said...

Thanks for sharing your memories. The one I always remember is waiting til my parents were busy elsewhere, and sneaking my cat into the room with the Christmas tree, so she could play with the tiny bell I hung on the lower limbs just for her. Pets were forbidden in the room when the tree was up, and I thought I was getting away with it every year, but my Mom later told me she knew I was doing it all along.