Monday, December 03, 2007

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow



At a book signing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast last week, I was hit with a blinding jolt of reality.

I have been a victim of out-of-sight out-of-mind Katrina apathy. My hometown of Hattiesburg was hit hard. Yet we bounced back quickly.

At Pass Christian Books— a small, independent bookstore which used to overlook the Gulf of Mexico— business is not the same. As with most beachfront structures in Pass Christian— and all along the Gulf front in the post-Katrina world— only a slab of concrete remains.

Pass Christian Books has moved five miles north of the beach to Delisle, Miss. until the city’s infrastructure is restored.

I am a huge fan of the old-line seafood restaurants of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I have fond memories of eating at Baricev’s, The Friendship House, McElroy’s, and the like. I have always encouraged support of the independent restaurants of the Coast.

One restaurant that I must have passed a thousand times, but never once visited was Annie’s at Henderson Point. As with most of the independent restaurants within a few blocks of the Gulf, Annie’s was a casualty of Katrina. They, too, moved to Delisle after the storm.

As Wyatt Waters and I signed books we ordered a cup of gumbo from the newly relocated Annie’s (now Café Annie located next door to the bookstore). The gumbo was rich, the roux was dark, and it had the distinct taste of a well-made crab stock in the foreground.

As I finished my gumbo, I felt an overwhelming pang of guilt for not visiting Annie’s in its original location.

Annie’s restaurant opened on Henderson Point in 1928. The family-run operation withstood three hurricanes, two fires, and everything that Mother Nature could throw at it until Katrina blew through the Coast in 2005.

Annie Lutz— who recently celebrated her 89th birthday—has been working in the restaurant since she was a little girl and still mans the cash register out front. Her niece, Jackie Jex, says that Annie’s been there “Since she was able to reach the counter.”
Annie lived her entire life in an apartment attached to the restaurant. It’s gone, too.

In addition to excellent seafood gumbo, Café Annie serves a full array of old-line Coast favorites such as Trout Amandine, broiled fish, and Italian-inspired seafood dishes which have been the mainstay of independent Gulf Coast restaurants for over a century. As Jex gave me an oral history of the restaurant while pointing to photographs on the walls, I lamented the fact that I would never again know the restaurant in its original state.

The day before the Coast book signing, I was at a book event in New Orleans. During a conversation with a New Orleans customer, Hurricane Katrina came up. As the conversation moved to national attention and national media coverage of the event in the months following the storm, the New Orleans woman apologized to me for all of the coverage that they received and offered an, “I’m sorry” saying Mississippians hadn’t received enough of the attention.

I told her that everything is O.K. We never wanted a lot of attention. We took care of ourselves, we took care of our neighbors, and our governor took care of the rest.

To a person, everyone who bought books at the Pass Christian book signing had lost all of their cookbooks— and their homes along with them— to the storm. No one complained. No one seemed resentful. They had gotten on with their daily lives and to the business of rebuilding the Coast. “It’s only stuff,” one woman commented.

It’s people like Scott Naugle at Pass Christian Books, Annie Lutz at Café Annie, and the customers of those, and many other, businesses who have rolled up their sleeves and are back fighting the good fight— the daily fight, the hard fight— and doing business in what remains of a storm-ravaged community.

At Café Annie, 80 years of Gulf Coast restaurant history have been reduced to a small wall of black and white 8 x 10 photographs. There are hundreds of businesses with similar stories all along the Gulf. Let’s throw apathy to the wind and keep them in sight, and in mind, during the holiday shopping season, and throughout the coming years.



Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

1 /2 cup Canola oil
3 /4 cup Flour
2 Tbl File powder
1 cup Onion, diced
1 /2 cup Celery, diced
1 /2 cup Bell pepper, diced
1 1 /2 cups Fresh okra, sliced
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 1 /2 lbs Shrimp, small
2 tsp Salt
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
2 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Thyme, dry
1 cup Tomatoes, diced, canned or fresh
2 quarts Shrimp stock
1 Tbl Hot Sauce
1 /4 tsp Cayenne pepper

2 cups cooked white rice

In a large skillet, combine oil, flour and file powder to form a roux. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until roux is very dark (be careful not to burn). Add
vegetables, garlic, spices and shrimp and continue to cook for five to seven minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Meanwhile, bring shrimp stock and tomatoes to a boil. Slowly add roux mixture to boiling stock and mix well. Lower heat to a slow simmer, and cook 10 more minutes. Add hot sauce and cayenne pepper.

To serve, place 2-3 tablespoons of rice in a bowl then pour the hot gumbo over the rice.

Yield: 1 gallon

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