High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Green-Eyed Lover: The Big Easy, Days 5.2 & 6

Gentle reader, I cruelly left you on the very doorstep of heaven. Let us go around the back and through the French doors into the kitchen of my dreams.

In the kitchen, we were greeted by Judy Jurisich, who poured us each a glass of menage e trois and ushered us into the parlor. We sat and talked about the week we'd had so far. Judy, in turn, told us how they've all been able to keep on keepin' on with help, cooperation, and some new arrangements. Business has been more erratic than in the past, with big rushes followed by lulls, but so far, so good.

We were shortly joined by two other students in the class, one a Canadian food writer, the other, I think, a travel agent (and possibly friend) who'd arranged her schedule for her. The latter is a displaced local who's been in Baton Rouge since last year. The irony is that her job is in Baton Rouge. As she put it: "I used to be a commuter, and it's like over an hour to Baton Rouge. And now . . . I'd give anything to be a commuter again."

Shortly after 5:30, we ventured into the kitchen and started the class, although we were still waiting for the pair of locals who would round out our class. Of course the four of us cleverly took up stations around the island that required the local couple to sit on opposite sides of the kitchen when they did arrive. They were very gregarious and friendly, though, and didn't seem to hold it against us.

Our chef was Poppy Tooker, a food historian, a cooking teacher, leader of the New Orleans Slow Food Convivium, a chef in her own right (though she spurned that label), and a warrior for the preservation of the most delicious elements of New Orleans culture. She is also officially A Hoot, a Spitfire, and quite possibly a Pistol. You understand that I, as an 21st urban grrrl, do not use these terms lightly, and yet they are the only ones that suit.

The contrast between Poppy and Frank couldn't be greater, and the two styles couldn't have complemented one another better from our perspective. All of Frank's tricks and techniques involved precision: Each was designed to give more control over every step of the process. Poppy made M and KJ cry just a little bit every time she eyeballed, guesstimated, or tossed in a pinch of this or that. Sorry, gentleman: no guts, no glory. And as much as I learned from Frank, I did a little happy dance to have my improvisational approach validated by Poppy (and, of course, I learned a ton from her too).

I think our collective highlight on the cooking style front occurred when Poppy suggested that you can tell when your frying oil has reached the proper temperature (about 365˚ F) by tossing a match into it. When you hear the hiss of the match igniting, then immediately going out, the oil is ready. AMB and I were oohing and ahhing over this when she turned to KJ and asked if he'd use the trick. In his inimitable, mild-mannered way, he replied: "No. I'll measure."

Poppy's storytelling was also a great complement to Frank's. Where Frank's stories were an inside look at the legendary New Orleans kitchens (Commander's Palace, K-Paul's, Antoine, etc.), Poppy's stories were about the roots and subcultures of New Orleans foods. Throughout she had a running commentary about the factors influencing the differences between Creole and Cajun approaches, and she was just as informative about the cultural differences between Creoles in the Quarter and conspicuously consuming Americans in the Garden District. We got insight into the etymology of everything from netural ground to the shallot/scallion confusion and the wacky misunderstanding that gives étouffée its name. She emphasized again and again that New Orleanians are culturally Catholic, whatever their faith may be. And she explored the happy infiltration of New Orleans cuisine by African influences by way of street vendors who used their time off to raise money against their purchase price.

Oh, she talked about other chefs, too. She poked good-natured fun at Frank, who had the audacity to question her pronunciation of "calas" when he was consulting for Vicky and Bryan Krantz before they opened Calas Bistro.

Frank: But Paul pronounces it "Cal-AY" . . .
Poppy: And what would Paul know about it? Of course he'd pronounce it that way: He's CAJUN!

Poppy also cleverly slipped in hilarious stories about Leah Chase whenever possible. Each was more hilarious than the last: "That Poppy Tooker, she's as Catholic as they come, but she sure loves that kosher salt!"; the harrowing tale of turtle processing and the subsequent hell of turtle parts stranded on a sun-baked curb; and Leah's sly references to how times change, what with a white girl doing clean-up for her.

But I was on to Poppy the whole time. She was just trying enlist us all in her crusade to get Leah to reopen Dooky Chase's. Her diabolical plan worked. I must eat there, and I ain't too proud to beg.

But on to the food. Our evening began with one of those rare moments that represent a true food epiphany. I've only had a few of these: my first samosa; discovering chorizo; realizing that I had no analogy for the taste of lucuma ice cream. Not only do calas definitely make the "food epiphany" list, I feel that I also achieved a more enlightened understanding of remoulade sauce before the first course was over.

Poppy started by having us make good friends with the tasso that would eventually go into the calas. Although AMB had already bonded with the spicy meat product at breakfast, she was not above getting reacquainted. While she chopped what we grudgingly left her, Poppy talked about the cutting and curing of tasso and why it's such a staple of Cajun cuisine (the short answer is the usual: It's a fatty cut that's considered undesirable; it can be cured in a short time; and the spices cover up any iffy flavors that result from lack of preservation methods).

She then got us started on the remoulade, which is totally easy peasy to make. So easy peasy, in fact, that if I could find any stinking Zatarain's (accept no substitutes, even though the original company was bought out by McCormick-Schilling, which still maintains a strong community presence, so that's ok then) Creole Mustard in this backwater town, I'd be putting that stuff on my pop tarts. Not that I eat pop tarts. But I will consider them and any other potential remoulade vehicles. Louisiana remoulade departs from the white, mayonnaise tradition by omitting the egg. That leaves just Italian parsley leaves, olive oil, hot sauce (Crystal, not Tabasco, for a deeper, peppery flavor with more moderate heat), green onions, cayenne, a butt load of paprika (which is what gives remoulade its color), salt, and lemon juice. And it's my favorite kind of sauce: Throw it all in the food process and process away, no supervision necessary.

The calas looked simple. Poppy billed them as being simple. But I totally choked when I went up to make one. The main ingredient is rice bound with flour and egg, a dash of baking powder to lighten things up, and then whatever ingredients one wants to add for a savory (or sweet, if one chooses to deal in such abominations) treat.

The hard part is forming the calas from the mixture. Poppy demonstrated with two large spoons, warning us not to manhandle them with a lot of pressing and molding. The idea is to shape them by scraping lightly from one spoon to another. This is easy enough to say when you have a black belt in spoons. I do not have a black belt in spoons. In fact, from the way I handled them, you'd think I was a three-fingered Martian who'd just come across an autoharp. Of course, M was a natural. Bastard.

Once the calas have been slid into the oil, they're nearly as no-maintenance as the remoulade. They very kindly turn their deliciously browning selves over so that they don't even need flipping. And when they do come out, they are heavenly. Much, much lighter and more flavorful than you'd think a deep-fried rice ball ever could be. In fact, even though I tend to think of rice as something that you put other things on, in calas form, both the taste and texture are more than just a backdrop for the other ingredients. In this case, the salty, spicy bites of tasso were all the better for the silky texture of the rice, and the green onions were a crisp, sharp-tasting overtone. And dipped in the remoulade? Well, there's that I'm-going-to-hell-and-I-couldn't-be-happier feeling again.

Next on the duty roster was the yeoman's work of making the roux, both for the gumbo and for the chicken piquant. As we got schooled in the methodology, she also gave us a little history. Cajun food uses filé powder to thicken because sassafras leaves were ubiquitous, but flour was an expensive luxury item, taking roux of the table for the poor. When Cajun food does incorporate a roux (as Frank's gumbo does, but combined with filé), it's always added to the boiling liquid, presumably because it racks up the technical difficulty points. Creole food, in contrast, builds from the roux upward.

Poppy's roux was decidedly Creole. In making it, she gave us many useful tips along the way, usually just before she violated them. For example, she sternly informed us that using a wire whisk to stir was just asking for Cajun napalm burns, then promptly turned around to grab the wire whisk insisting that she was making the world's biggest roux. But she also gave us an incredibly liberating tip: The roux functions to add color, add flavor, and thicken. The first two are more important than the last, so a roux the consistency of thin mayonnaise is not cause for panic. I will, no doubt, continue in my quest to make the beautifully thick, rich roux that Frank achieved in two nanoseconds, but along the way, I will give myself permission NOT to stand there for 45 minutes stirring until it happens or my arm falls off. Instead, I will tell my roux that it is a good roux and a pretty roux and a flavorful roux.

Frank was big on the flavor of the roux, too, but in a completely different way. In his recipe, the incredibly precise amount of oil is harvested from the pan in which you've just fried the chicken, so it's gaining relatively subtle flavor. Poppy waited for the bittersweet chocolate color in the roux before adding the onions directly to it, followed by the bell pepper and celery. This, obviously, is going to add a much bigger and more direct flavor to the roux (and boy did that pay, particularly in the chicken piquant).

While whipping up the mother of all roux, Poppy also talked a bit about the so-called "holy trinity" of Creole and Cajun food: Onion, bell pepper, celery. Unfortunately, I went to the bathroom during the first part of this, so I missed some. However, I gather that she thinks it started out with the "mir fois" of traditional French cooking: Onion, celery, and carrots. In Louisiana, though, carrots were hard to come by and peppers were thick on the ground; and thus the new and improved trinity was born.

After dealing with these diverse approaches to roux, Poppy turned attention to the religious issue of okra. She didn't sugar coat it (because I think lovers and haters of okra can agree: That's just gross), saying that stories that slaves brought okra seeds with them across the Atlantic so that they'd have something to remind them of home were so much bunk. Okra is cheap and grows abundantly and easily, end of subject. However, she did argue for its fundamental place in a gumbo, pointing out that the very name comes from the Bantu word for okra: kingumbo.

The most important tactic on the okra side appears to be never, ever to allow it to steam. Rather, it should fried quickly and at high heat and watched carefully so that it is removed from the pan before it starts to give up liquid. I admit that I'm an okra agnostic and don't much care whether it's in our out of what I eat, but AMB, who is antiokra, seemed skeptical. However, we took turns watching each other's backs while we licked every plate clean later, so I don't think there were any adverse okra outcomes.

For the chicken piquant, once the roux is made, the hard part is over. However, it's worth noting that if you're a crazy person who doesn't want a gumbo, too, you should fry the chicken first and use the oil for the roux, a la Frank's gumbo. To continue backing up into the piquant, the chicken is marinated in hot sauce (remember: Crystal!) and cayenne. After browning, it's simmered in the roux plus trinity plus tomatoes, vinegar, bay leaves, and thyme. In the last few minutes, green onions and parsley are added. Un. Believably. Good.

In case you're getting whiplash as I move between the chicken and the gumbo, I assure you the fault is mine. I'm just unable to convey how smoothly Poppy kept both going and kept up a running commentary. I won't say she made it look easy, but it was natural, comfortable, and casual. And she did make it seem like something a a mere human like me could pull off.

So getting back to the gumbo, we got a lecture on making shrimp stock (shrimp detritus plus celery and onion, but positively no green pepper) folded into the state of the post-Katrina seafood industry: "Gumbo" crabs (which are designated as such based primarily on size) aren't really available because of the missed season. As a result, we got to watch Poppy pull apart Louisiana blue crabs with Marfan Syndrome as if they were tissue-paper flowers.

In contrast, the oysters are tiny, which made the job of chopping them for the oyster jambalaya relatively simple. They oysters were also the impetus for a sort of back-room conversation. Poppy was disappointed that the oysters had come from P&J washed. Judy said, in significant tones, that all oysters must be washed before sale. There was some amusing silent communication between them that seemed to imply that there were channels through which unwashed oysters, with sweet, sweet oyster liquor could be obtained. Judy, in turn, revealed that she was once the Oyster Heiress before both the Ps and the Js got out of the business.

For the oyster jambalaya, Poppy got to show us her perfect rice recipe, which involved filling the pot with rice up to the level of her first knuckle, then filling the pot with water (and in this case, oyster liquor and worcestershire sauce, too) to the second knuckle. Although they disagree on the degree of precision in measurements, both Poppy and Frank advise leaving the damned rice alone until it's done. In Poppy's case, she insisted that lifting the lid was not a particularly problem except for the fact that no human being has ever lifted a lid without a spoon in the other hand, hell-bent on making a glutinous mess. I repeat: Leave the rice alone.

The rice on its way, we were ready to tackle dessert. But before we could do that, we had a lot to learn about bread in New Orleans. First up, my proletarian heart was gladdened to learn the history of the Po Boy: During a streetcar strike, the proprietors of Martin's grocery was determined that until the strike was over, those "Poor Boys" would be welcome to a sandwich there. This led to collaboration with Gendusa's bakery to determine how much bread was needed to make a whole meal into a sandwich. Poppy claims that the brown paper that served as a ruler is still intact and on display.

As the bread pudding process progressed, my head began to spin. You know the "Big Wedge of Cheese Day" episode of The West Wing? Well, even if you don't, there's a part where Josh and CJ are listening to a presentation from Dr. Phlox (who is disguised as a passionate cartographer) about the fundamental flaws in Mercator Projection Maps. They're sucked into the issue against her will:

Josh: You mean Germany isn't where we think it is?
Phlox: Nothing is where you think it is.

And later when CJ sees the "upside-down" map (southern hemisphere on top):
Phlox: The map is flipped over.
CJ: Yeah, but you can't do that
Phlox: Why not?
CJ: 'Cause it's freaking me out!

Yeah, this kind of went like that. See, you may be among the benighted segment of humanity who thinks that Po Boys are served on any old French Bread. They are not. They are served on Po Boy loaves, which can only be made in New Orleans. Literally. Po Boy loaves made outside New Orleans, it seems, stubbornly refuse to get crusty enough on the outside or light enough on the inside. The Gendusas (I think) found this out the hard way when they tried to move their business elsewhere in Louisiana, only to find the that critical elements of their bread were standing at the edge of the Big Easy, waving placards that urged them to come home, all was forgiven.

Another rookie mistake one might make is to think that bread pudding involves using any old day old bread. WRONG. If one is in New Orleans, then a day-old Po Boy loaf is acceptable. Outside of New Orleans, you might as well just be using an old sofa pillow. If you must make bread pudding outside the Holy Land, Poppy recommends Vietnamese baguettes with milk added until just a bit of milk breaks out between your fingers when you squeeze. In a final act to win our hearts (as if she even needed to try), Poppy then made the hard sauce for the bread pudding and did not cook off one. single. drop. of the bourbon.

As much as I am naturally lazy and gluttonous, I can still say that there was a kind of perverse regret in my heart when we left Poppy and her clairvoyant assistant in the kitchen. In 2004, it was pissing down rain the day we did our class, so we didn't get to tour the grounds of the House at all. It was a beautiful night, this time, and Judy gave us the tour. The food writer asked questions about how the School got its start, so AMB and KJ no longer had to rely on my flawed memory of it. She was also obviously quite impressed with the experience and admitted that she rather dreaded cooking classes usually, because they all followed the same format, which didn't really allow for much other than mastering some minor kitchen task. This opened up an opportunity for all and sundry to praise the school to high heaven.

Dinner was, of course, delicious, congenial, and relaxing. Judy sat at our table and we talked about weddings (she and Tommy never got to eat a crumb of the food at their own and wound up at a fast-food drive through), Katrina (they were teaching their last class as the House was being boarded up, then Judy got in her car and drove to Atlanta where Tommy was on duty at the time), and Chris Rose (although that essay [with thanks to AJ for pointing it out] hadn't yet been published at the time). Poppy came out later to chat and answer any questions we might had, but she was understandably tired and wanted to call it a night. We did, too, not long after, and Tommy was gracious enough to drive us back to our hotel, where we bid a nearly tearful farewell to AMB and KJ.

The next morning, we had enough time to brave Cafe DuMonde and its Darwinian approach to getting a table. We prevailed before long and even managed (eventually) to flag down some service. Og merely had coffee, but M had the beignets. We were really on a mission for pralines, though, and would accept no substitutes for Aunt Sally's. This resulted in a kind of Marx Brothers routine where M tried the Decatur Street door and declared it closed. I saw someone inside and tried the door nearest Dutch Alley, which opened. Of course, it turned out that we were assaulting the proprietor the very first minute that she got in, but we secured our pralines.

If you think I got that close to Dutch Alley and didn't go in, your willing suspension of disbelief is marvelous. If you think I went into Dutch Alley and didn't get anything, I'm flattered by your confidence in my fiscal responsibility. I very nearly wound up with the glamour trash gojira earrings, but ultimately decided what I'd known to be true from the beginning: The Sapient Hair was not going to play nice with them.

I did, however, wind up with two pieces of Sabine Chadborn's jewelry. One is cord necklace has a beautiful oval agate pendant suspended from a silver semi-oval, the other is cord necklace with a a treble clef of twisted silver with a silver guitar welded on to it. That one makes me feel like a bit of a poseur, but it was just too cool for me to pass up. (Actually, I've just looked at it and realized that it's a bass, so I'm an uberposeur. Now I definitely have to buy the Bad Badtz-Maru Bass at the OTSFM members' sale tomorrow.) I also proved unable to resist Dan Fuller's art a second time. I picked up two smaller prints from his treehouse series: the firehouse and the circus.

While the earring lady was ringing us up, she noticed my shirt. Unfortunately, she tragically misread the boobies as ducks and periodically quacked at us as she wrote up our order.

So, as you can see, days 5.2 and 6 were a well-spent end to a pretty kick-ass trip. But it's a trip that has made me afraid. I'm really preoccupied with getting back there. That's not too surprising, because I feel like I've left a little more of me there with each visit and taken a little bit more of it back to Chicago. But what if, as CB says, I go in July and still think I could live there? What if death by half muff and hurricane looks like a good alternative to leaving?

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