Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Elementary Vegan

The other day my eight-year old daughter told me she had become a vegetarian.

A vegetarian? Oh, the betrayal. What hath my sins wrought? She comes from a long line of devout carnivores, what have I done to make God so angry?

She might as well have told me that she had just enlisted in the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was a skewer to the heart, a gut shot. I felt exactly how Ronald Regan must have felt when his daughter told him that she was a democrat.

In a flash I saw my precious little daughter as a future member of PETA, splashing paint on her mother’s fur coats, protesting on the streets dressed in nothing more than leopard-skin body paint, and driving around in a broken down Volkswagen van. In an instant she traded in her frilly dresses and pigtails to become a holistic healer in dirty jeans and dreadlocks.

I did what any carnivorously supportive father would do and said, “That’s great, honey.”

For a moment I thought about throwing the yes-but-Hitler-was-a-vegetarian jab, but my eight-year old has no idea who Hitler was. Then I started thinking about Paul McCartney. He’s a vegetarian. He’s done O.K. for himself. Maybe this isn’t the end of the world.

Her four-year old little brother is nearly a vegetarian by accident. He almost exclusively eats yogurt, bananas, and snack crackers. His eating patterns have never bothered me. Maybe it’s the label.

Later that day I asked, “But sweetie, your favorite food is cheeseburgers. Vegetarians don’t get to eat cheeseburgers.”

“I know,” she said, and that was that.

I began to think of my family’s future. No more bacon in the morning. No more ham and cheese sandwiches on Saturday afternoons. Thanksgiving is coming. Would I have to cook a tofu turkey to go along with the roasted turkey? And what about summer? When cooking steaks on the grill will my daughter ask for soy burgers and veggie dogs?

Two days later, I noticed her eating chicken strips. “I thought you were a vegetarian,” I said.

“I am a modified vegetarian.”

“What is that?”

“The only meat I eat is fish or chicken.”

“I don’t think Paul McCartney gets to eat chicken strips, sweetie. Anyway, I thought the whole vegetarian thing was about not eating anything with a face.”

“Yes, but fish and chickens have ugly faces.”

I see. We only eat the ugly animals. You are THAT type of vegetarian. A glimmer of hope emerged. Now, with the aforementioned and ugly-faced fish and chicken back in the diet, I thought I would take a shot at the potential future inclusion of cows and pigs.

Looking forward to a weekend cookout in the backyard, I spent the next few days trying to point out how unsightly cows are. “Look at that Holstein, honey. Don’t you think that’s about the ugliest animal you’ve ever seen?” I searched for a rodeo on television, figuring that seeing bulls violently buck poor defenseless cowboys would conjure up visions of ribeyes and t-bones, but there was nothing on but SpongeBob reruns and NASCAR.

Next I looked for a video of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, hoping that the sight of mad and charging bulls chasing thousands of panicked Spaniards down the street would warrant, at least, a cheeseburger. To no avail.

Next on my agenda were pigs. I love bacon and sausage, and she used to. I knew that Wilbur the pig from the book Charlotte’s Web was going to be my biggest obstacle, so I rummaged through all of her shelves looking for books with ugly and mean pigs in them. Did you know that it is almost impossible to find a children‘s book with an evil pig in it? All of the pigs in fairytales are innocent victims who get their houses blown down and lay around sleeping all the time.

“Look here, sweetie, Jack Spratt’s wife ate nothing but fat. Do you think that was pig fat or beef fat?”

“Eating fat is gross,” she said.

A slight miscalculation on my part, but I recovered with: “Yes, but it’s the ‘lean’ that’s so tasty, especially with a baked potato.”

She didn’t budge. She obviously inherited her mother’s will.

Feeling defeated, I left the subject alone, choosing to let sleeping pigs lie. Eventually I came to the realization that she might be healthier in the long run if she never again ate meat.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it went away. One day she was watching her brother eat a cheeseburger (in between bites of yogurt and bananas) and asked for a bite.

I will have to admit that I was actually a little disappointed. My daughter’s two week bout with vegetarianism had added a worldly sophistication— along with a streak of thoughtful independence— to her personality. I was growing accustomed to it.

I sort of miss my little vegan and her independent thinking. Maybe I’ll cook a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving after all… Nah

Monday, September 19, 2005

The New Orleans Culinary Resurrection

In the September issue of Bon Appetite magazine, New Orleans was listed as one of America’s top five restaurant cities

The ill-timed edition— which hit newsstands two weeks prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall— serves as a tangible reminder of what the nation’s restaurant customers have lost.

The other four cities— San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, and, of course, New York— are worthy cohorts, but none hold the charm, culture, and history that the Crescent City offers. The citizens of New Orleans— and those of us who have been lucky enough to live around the periphery— worship food. It is a religion. It is a devotion that runs deeper than that of any other city, including New York.

The restaurant business in New Orleans has been temporarily eliminated, and one wonders if it will ever be able to return to the glory days of its past.

Watching the post-storm, post-flood news coverage on a battery-operated television in the days following the hurricane, I thought of the tens of thousands of restaurant employees who clocked out after a busy Saturday night on August 27th and haven’t worked since. If one subtracts an entire city from the Bon Appetite thesis, twenty percent of the nations top dining was wiped out in one windy day.

The road to restaurant revival on the banks of the Mississippi River will be long and arduous. The clean up will take months. Perishable food is involved so the job will be neither hygienic nor easy. We must remember that the restaurants, too, closed for business that Saturday night, and haven’t been reopened since. Toxic flood waters rose to as high as 15 feet in certain sections of the city. Electricity has been off for weeks and coolers and freezers are still full of abandoned and rotting food.

In a recent Associated Press article, Donald Link, co-owner of restaurant Herbsaint (one of the properties featured in the Bon Appetite piece), said, "I looked at the lost food– the pig heads in brine were the worst and I thought I can't do this. I can't take it."

Nevertheless, Link summoned the will and used a commercial gas mask borrowed from an oil refinery to empty Herbsaint’s five coolers and freezers that were crammed with spoiling inventory. Before the job was finished he had filled 70 large trash bags.

Link plans to reopen sometime in October, but first the restaurant will have to be decontaminated and all new equipment will have to be purchased.

In New Orleans, millions of dollars of inventory— some of the world’s best tasting inventory— was wasted. It is hard to get a grip on the scale of this disaster as it relates to the New Orleans and Gulf Coast restaurant business. One can take Donald Link’s story and multiply it by thousands. From the little po-boy shops to the convention hotels, the job of clean up and decontamination will be grueling, problematic, and nauseating.

On the second day after the storm, I collected a few of my managers and cleaned the six coolers and two freezers at my Hattiesburg restaurants. Although the food had been held without electricity for two days, some had remained under forty degrees, and most was still cool to the touch. As I began to stack boxes of produce on the sidewalk, an amazing thing happened. Residents and evacuees, who had been wandering through the parking lot in a state of post-disaster shock, looking for food, water, batteries, or an opened drug store, began forming a spontaneous line. We were able to give all of the safe and usable food to those in need.

The restaurateurs of New Orleans weren’t able to give away their inventory and a lot of them haven’t even been able to return to their properties. Some will reopen; others are rumored to be closing permanently. My guess is that the city’s thriving restaurant trade will return, and quicker than expected.

Before long, the French Quarter will be filled with tourists. The aroma of fried-seafood poboys and gumbo will fill the air. The Uptown and River Bend eateries will open their doors and welcome the world with open arms. I’ll be there with an empty stomach and a hearty appetite.

Tomorrow, if Bon Appetite were to compile an updated list of the nation’s top five restaurants— even with all of its eating establishments closed— New Orleans would still make the list. The ranking wouldn’t be for sentimental reasons, or for being the cause celebre, but because New Orleans’ food is just that good.

Hurry back, guys. We’re hungry.

For those interested:

New Orleans Hospitality Workers Relief Fund
4550 Post Oak Place, Ste. 100
Houston, TX 77027

New Orleans Rebirth Fund
1051 N. Third Street, 5th floor
Baton Rouge

Monday, September 12, 2005

My Coast

Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancin' in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans

-- Jimmy Buffett

The Gulf Coast is my second home. I grew up one hour due North; in the Piney Woods of Hattiesburg, Miss. But my childhood summers were spent on the Gulf.

In my youth, I spent countless hours fishing, shrimping, and crabbing in the Mississippi Sound— usually more interested in catching the saltwater bounty than eating it. My adult years have been filled cooking the plenteousness the warm, Gulf waters has to offer.

Cooking and eating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is unlike that in any other place. There is a certain reverence attached to the process. A definite pride is taken in the simple practice of boiling shrimp or picking crabmeat. Sharing a meal of fresh out-of-the-water seafood is a pleasure many in this country, especially those who are landlocked, never enjoy. It is one, I am sad to say, I have taken for granted.

Today, the coast, as I knew it, is gone.

Hurricane Camille, the gold standard for storms in this area, swept through in ’69 and made a clean sweep of the Coast. Long-standing restaurants and cafes were instantly wiped out. Many were rebuilt. The casinos blew in 20 years later, and bellwether institutions such as Baricev’s and Fisherman’s Warf gave way to behemoth structures filled with blue hairs flown up on junkets from Tampa, playing nickel slots and smoking Salem Lights. Through it all, the food remained.

Food is the common bond.

My Jackson friends, Ben and Dero Puckett, owned one of those century-old majestic homes on Scenic Highway 90 in Pass Christian. For the last 35 summers the Puckett’s have spent Memorial Day through Labor Day in that beautiful and stately home. It was purchased just a few months before Camille blew in. Ben rode out that storm in a second floor closet. Just weeks ago I ate my first lunch in that house. The Pucketts prepared a beautiful meal of crabmeat au gratin, fresh fruit, and a cold shrimp salad— a true Gulf Coast feast.

Seafood is the lifeblood of the area.

Today, more than 50 percent of the restaurants in the three-county stretch, from the Louisiana state line to the Alabama border, are gone. Another 15-20 percent of restaurants in that area sustained major damage and may be out of business for up to six months. All of the other dining establishments on the Coast received, at the least, minor damage.

Upon returning from a three-day trip to the hurricane-ravaged area, Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, stated, “There were two things that made a lasting impression on me. The first was the absolute vicious power and enormous size of the storm. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated. The second was the incredible attitude of our restaurant brothers and sisters. In the midst of death, destruction and despair, the restaurant industry, TO A PERSON, showed nothing but compassion for their community and fellow human beings.”

It’s not just restaurateurs, it is everyone. It has been said that only in times of crisis do we discover the true strength of a community.

While eating what would turn out to be my last meal in the Puckett house, I thought back to all of the summer lunches that must have been shared in that dining room, all of the shrimp that had been boiled in the kitchen, children, and later, grandchildren who splashed in the salt water just across the street. A row of brick steps— and memories— are all that remain.

My coast is now a world of brick steps without porches, concrete slabs without houses, fishermen without boats, and restaurateurs without buildings.

However, Mississippians are a resilient people. Our forefathers came to this area— machete in hand— and fought mosquitoes, tics, horseflies, rabid animals, malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease, stifling clouds of pine pollen and scorching heat. We have endured war and occupation, floods, storms, depression, recession, tornadoes, hurricanes, all manner of natural and manmade disasters, and we are still here. We have taken the worst of what life and nature has given us and we have prevailed.

In the not too distant future, we will once again share a meal of fresh-from-the-water seafood. Restaurateurs are a hearty lot. The next Baricev’s or McElroy’s will open their doors ready to feed the world. Mary Mahoney’s is still standing, others will rise.

We will prevail.

Sun shines on Biloxi
Air is filled with vapors from the sea
Boy will dig a pool beside the ocean
He sees creatures from his dream underwater
And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The link below is an excellent site to view an insiders digital diary of the days leading up to, and after, hurricane Katrina http://www.kodakgallery.com/Slideshow.jsp?mode=fromshare&Uc=14ewb3ap.b147fdut&Uy=nyvoby&Ux=1

Stay tuned
Notes, Thoughts, Hurricane Fatigue, and Hope

Living one hour north of the Gulf of Mexico has its advantages. Then again…

I hope to never again take electricity and running water for granted.

After seeing hours of bad news on television— people shooting rescue workers and doom-and-gloom talking heads— it’s good to know that there are people out there getting the job done. It’s good to know that the Red Cross, the National Guard, and hundreds of other agencies are working tirelessly to save and restore lives.

Tens of thousands of electric power workers are working day and night throughout the region, praise the Lord for the power workers.

There are thousands of heart-moving stories out there. Stories like the Kensington Woods Church of Christ in my hometown where members from all across the country went to work immediately sending tractor trailers to the area filled with water, food, baby supplies, chain saws, generators, cash, and gas. The members of the church then distributed all of those items throughout the community without care to church affiliation. Just one requirement was needed: being in need.

Neighbors are helping neighbors. Strangers are helping strangers. All with one common goal: the attempt to restore normalcy.

Sometimes it is not until you lose something that you appreciate it.

Two days after the storm, I was sitting in the dark eating a sandwich. It was a sandwich made of cheap, pressed luncheon meat, Bunny bread, and Creole mustard. That simple meal might as well have been Prime aged New York Strip and a two-pound lobster tail. Actually it might have tasted better than any steak and lobster meal has ever tasted. It was at that precise moment that it struck me… Creole mustard is a beautiful thing.

Creole mustard, unadorned. No special seasoning on the meat, nothing extraordinary about the bread, nothing complicated at all, just plain old Creole mustard. Simple, easy, uncomplicated— like life should be. Maybe as life will be, again.

A week after hurricane Katrina my house is still without electricity. Yet, I have a house.

Tens of thousands have lost everything. Everything. Everything is too much.

Nevertheless, there is still good news out there. There is still hope.