The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

May 28, 2016

Vicious Cuisine — How New Orleans just made me eat something very, very naughty

They say in Vegas that what happens there stays there, but for most of what happens in New Orleans, what happens there has an afterlife that wafts eveywhere. What I have done makes me want to confess in pre-Vatican-II Latin: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The French Quarter is a tourist destination for decadence.  I was not there exactly as a tourist when I committed my trespass against decency.  No, I was there on business, truly — getting my book The White Trash Pantheon (Vox Press, 2015) in local independent bookstores like Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley and Beckham’s Bookshop over on Decatur Street. I was literally minding my own business, that of poet, when I was seduced by the vicious underbelly life of the French Quarter to do something so unspeakable, I hardly tell you all now how decadent it was.

I am an unlikely candidate for temptation to commit the many vices present on Bourbon Street.  First of all, I drink in moderation whenever I drink.  As a woman of Irish ancestry, I have my ancestors’ hollow leg, anyway, unlikely to be overcome by intoxicants of the fermented kind.  The idea of vomiting on myself in an alleyway doesn’t sound like a fun afternoon, even in the rain. I am unlikely to seek out the ministrations of strippers and prostitutes.  Not even Sam Heughan taking off all his clothes would inspire me to find places to stuff dollar bills, and he is my ideal log thrower in a traditional Celtic caber toss, certainly. I have no desire for any perversion I could hire an illicit sex worker to perform.  My money is therefore generally safe on Bourbon Street, as is my soul.  The Lord’s Prayer asks that we be not led into temptation, and Bourbon Street is not a direct path to any temptation for me.  I see the end from the beginning there — vomit on shoes, throbbing heads, empty wallets, and a need to see the doctor, just in case. Bourbon Street does not lead me into temptation, even though it does not exactly deliver me from evil — if you don’t want a hooker on Bourbon Street, there are voodoo curses available for a price.  I am a generally forgiving soul.  I do not play with witchcraft — it’s not a toy; it’s not a joke; and malevolent intentions are in themselves curses on the holder of said intentions.

But Bourbon Street, named for the decadent royal dynasty that built Versailles, is not the only decadent street in the French Quarter.  Conti Street, named for one of the leaders of that dynasty, a Prince of Bourbon, held my decadent downfall a few days ago.  Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa.  I am an American.  I have American sins. Mea Maxima Culpa.

At a lovely new shop, I stopped as the rain burst from the sky.  The thing you see in the photo seemed to call out my name. It glistened before me as thunder rattled the pastry  cases at the shop. The French Quarter, after putting forth all other forms of temptation in front of me, finally found my kink, my proclivity, my sin.  Indeed, it is a sin akin to original sin — that of eating what one mustn’t ever eat. The object of my desire seemed to whisper what Stanley said to Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire right before he rapes her — “We’ve had this date since the beginning.” Like Blanche, I swooned and let myself be ravaged.

bacon donut

This is the bacon maple donut available 24/7 at Sweet Things & Grill #2 on Conti Street in New Orleans.

No one should ever eat a bacon-topped maple donut, but if it’s wrong, well, I didn’t want to be right.  The salty grease of the bacon mitigated the over-sweetness of the maple fondant frosting. It tasted like American imperialism, like land stolen from Native American tribes.  It tasted like the last day in the imagined chateau of the Marquis de Sade (who must have known the Prince de Conti for whom my fated destination with the donut was named), when all the other decadence was spent in his banned book.  It tasted like the fifty-first shade of gray.  It tasted like my mortality, embraced suicidally, as the paramedics placed the cold paddles on my chest and shouted clear, and I murmured, “no — let me go toward the light, that salty, maple light.”

It tasted like the end of Jim Morrison’s song, “The End.” It tasted like New Orleans, wrapped in bacon, slathered with syrup, demanding a perpetual carnival, then throwing the ashes from the smokehouse where the bacon was cured into the river at the Saint Ann’s Parade.  This is the end, my only friend, the end.  This is the end of America, its ultimate expression of selfish piggishness as the Third World starves.  This is the end, mon semblable, mon frère.

It was like I ripped the head off a chicken in a sacrifice to some shadowy Dick Cheney-like Orisha, then drank the blood from its neck, smearing the mess all over my white santera dress, then rolling my eyes back in my head, seeing a vision of the molecular structures of lipids and glucose in an orgy of stray atomic legs as I chattered like a blonde Fox News pundit as the crawl of words underneath my head ran like this: “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/ And all the children are insane /All the children are insane /Waiting for the summer rain, yeah”  — The end, beautiful friend, the end.

I wish, as I kneel here confessing myself to all of you, that I could tell you I was sorry.  I am not.  I will have to work out at my new gym in Algiers for at least a week just to burn off the calories that one donut put on my body, but how can I say I am sorry?  New Orleans made me eat it, the way it seduces all newcomers somehow.  I confess the sin of American gluttony and hegemony.  I confess the sin of re-appropriating Jim Morrison and Charles Baudelaire to hegemonic ends, the end.  Honestly, the donut was quite delicious, and if there is anyone who needs to gain at least twenty pounds for some reason, perhaps just one of them wouldn’t be bad.  I do not have that need.  I am at the gym now.  I was asked by the trainer why on Earth I would eat that bacon-maple donut, and I said, “It was like Everest.  I ate it because it was there.”

It was there, the full expression of our American flaws, the rock uplifted, slithering exposed. Yes, I ate that thing.  Yes, I need to sweat. Yes, the  end, the end.

For your own apotheosis via a bacon-maple donut, find it if you dare at Sweet Things & Grill #2, 806 Conti Street, New Orleans.

 

July 28, 2011

Strange Meat

Billy Holliday sang a very serious song about the South called “Strange Fruit.”  Let me offer you silly prose about strange meat.  Put away your copy of Julia Child — she didn’t write a recipe for this stuff.  In Mississippi, these venerable customs persist among sportsmen, and the resultant cuisine is astonishing.

GATOR HUNTING

The principal at my step-daughter’s school told me that gator hunting season has commenced.  To Yankees, the idea doesn’t cross our minds of looking at an alligator and not thinking so much that it toothsomely wants to eat us, but instead to say, “That thang shore would taste nice in a jambalaya tonight!”

I bet these boys clean up good, but if they invite you to dinner, make sure they're not cooking at home -- you don't know what-all you might get served.

For two weeks in Mississippi, particularly, I am told, at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, it’s open season on alligators. Men go out with rifles in boats and shoot the superabundant alligators that lurk in the marshy waters.  To my knowledge, no one in Mississippi has ever bagged a gator with a ticking stomach, like Captain Hook‘s nemesis gator had in Peter Pan.  It is rather the ticking in the hunters’ stomach, or perhaps the growling, that motivates this hunt, at least in part.  They drag the body of these big gators one at a time into small row boats and paddle back to shore to skin and cook.

I imagine the shoes, the bags, but steaks?  Gumbo?

They say it tastes just like chicken.  No thank you.  I’ll stick to chicken.

FROG GIGGING

No, this does not mean a French band is playing somewhere.  Frog gigging is a local custom along the Mississippi River.  It hardly seems fair.

Let me say first that Mississippi has no shortage of frogs and toads.  These are not rare Costa Rican tree frogs we’re talking about, with delicate sensitivity to the environment.  One day, I was picking up a shirt my husband had discarded outside so that I could wash it, and a giant bull frog leapt out of it into my face.  I screamed, and it hopped into the large irrigation ditch that runs through our property.  My dog often catches them and eats them.  Frogs are everywhere, under cars, leaping out of laundry, right by your big toe wherever you walk.

However, I have mixed feelings about something that local men here do (I know of no women) called frog gigging.  They go out at about 4 am on the river (again, in the same gator-hunting row boat) shine a bright light in the face of these many frogs, who remain motionless because they are stunned by the bright light, and the frog giggers stab them with pitch forks.  They eat the frogs’ legs, usually barbecuing them.

It may not mean that a French band is playing somewhere, but I nonetheless blame the French for frog gigging.  This is a Cajun custom — I live on the edge of Cajun country here.  I have never been so fond of cuisses de grenouille that I would consider them a delicacy.

Again, give me cuisses de poule a la Lyonnaise.  If it tastes anything at all like chicken, just give me chicken.

FISH GRABBING

Catfish is a staple food along the Mississippi.  Catfish is not really exotic at all.  However, when the catfish is not, say, ten inches long but a good yard or more — that’s exotic.

I am told, again by my step-daughter’s high school principal, that such a beast — a 50-pound catfish, can’t be caught with a line.  The waters where catfish can be found, unlike deep sea fishing, are too shallow for the physics to work in the fisherman’s favor.  There’s only one way to get one of those hefty muthahs — you need to get into the muck yourself with the bottom feeders and yank them squirming into that gator-hunting-frog-gigging-stank rowboat.  You need to stick your fingers into the dark silt of the river, in the shallows, and draw them through the dirt until you feel something animate.  It might be a catfish — it might be something far less edible, and you have to grab onto it and wrestle with it until it becomes yours.

This, by the way, is how my whole life feels in Mississippi — like my fingers are down in the muck, and I’m trying to wrestle  with something that might be wonderful, might be horrible, but I still can’t see it. It’s trying to get away from me, whatever it is, but I’m hanging on as well as I can in the slick filth.  I’m covered with mud.  I’ll never get this shirt the way it was in New York.  I’m fighting in the dark, but I might just be winning.

That catfish you wrestled with, neighbor, I would gladly eat a slice of that, once it’s cleaned.  I recommend hosing the rowboat down daily, though, maybe with with bleach as well as water.  It has held some strange quarry in its belly.

If I eat the catch of the day here, I suppose it’s bound to be strange, just like my life down South is strange.  There is a clock ticking in my stomach.  There is surely a clock ticking somewhere — I thought I heard it just now.

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