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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New Orleans, Today and Yesterday

New Orleans, Today and Yesterday

Crowds at Central Grocery Co.

I must admit, today’s New Orleans is no longer the New Orleans of my misspent youth and wistful dreams.  But, memories are kind, and if the city falls short, perhaps it’s my memories that need adjustment.  Oh, the faded visions of the women who were prettier, incomparable food that changed my expectations forever, aromatic beer that washed down sea brined oysters, and starry nights that made me never want to leave!

The reality of today’s New Orleans is as sad as seeing an old lover in a nursing home.  Oh, yes, it gets worse.  Time doesn’t march on, it stomps, wearing jack boots.

The French Quarter’s sidewalks are like broken teeth, and roads have potholes big enough to bait a hook and give it a try.  Swamps and tangled jungles of millenniums past seem to be creeping forward again.

Sad, because the French and Spanish, Cajun, Creole, and African people have given New Orleans every cultural chance to rise above the muddy waters of the Mississippi, to push back against modernity.

In decades past, was the French Quarter really so crowded that I couldn’t find my feet?  I don’t remember a two-block line on Decatur Street waiting for chicory coffee and beignets at the fabled Café du Monde.  Not to worry.  These days there are several locations scattered around the city. But, it wasn’t really the coffee that called; it was an atmosphere of the clip clop of horse drawn carriages and timeless views of the wrought iron fence enclosing Jackson Square.  Café du Monde in a mall just can’t compare, beignets or not.

Could be that my expectations are just too high, or maybe I’m just too damn old to fit in.  On the streets of today’s New Orleans, the young women wear ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts, as tasteful as a smudge of dirt on a hamburger bun.  Their faces look as if makeup was applied by Stevie Wonder. Tattoos, or as I called them, body-graffiti, adorning every inch of skin, and smart dressers stand out like Tuxedoes at a beach party..

The good news is, there is still much to enjoy in New Orleans. The French Quarter still boasts of elegant restaurants and glorious street jazz.  Only a short walk away, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas offers a truly marvelous adventure in aquatic life.  I watched penguins fed by hand, and personally hand fed stingrays. Give yourself lots of time!

Another attraction not to miss is The National World War II Museum. Displays and recordings and films (Don’t miss the films!) lead you all the way through.  A friend of mine told me he spent four hours there.  I said to myself, no way, then spent four and a half hours myself and only felt as if I’d seen a portion.  All phases of one of the greatest conflicts in all of history, is right before you.  Better than any history class and a hell of a lot more fun!  Visit this fabulous museum!

B-24 Liberator 

A mockup of the D-Day Invasion at Normandy, France, June 6, 1944

So, how did the city get it’s name and what’s all this Frenchy stuff?  Only time for a thumbnail sketch. 

The French arrived in 1682, and Nouvelle Orléans was founded by Jean Baptist Le Moyne is 1718.  In 1763, the Spanish took possession. 1800, France reacquired the city and the Louisiana territory.  Then in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought the entire territory for 15 million dollars, which was about 3 cents an acre, and almost doubled the size of the United States.  And by the way, Orléans is still a city in France!

So now my pagan readers are tired of rich history and ripped jeans culture. “How ‘bout them damn restaurants? I don’t go to Nawlins for no damn museums!  And I flunked historeeee three times.”

Ah, I detect proud members of the drinking class.  So, I’ll heed your plea and mention some restaurants.

Antoine’s:  A noble restaurant, visited by royalty and celebrities for ages.  Exciting to soak in the elegant atmosphere and be served by waiters in black suits and white shirts, but for the exorbitant prices you pay, you can find better chow, if not better ambience.  Ask a waiter to show you around and impart some thrilling tales of Antoine’s glory days.

Red Slipper:  A small chain, with outlets around the city.  A wonderful breakfast with a variety of eggs Benedict and don’t forget to try the award winning Bacon Bloody Mary.

Gianna:  An Italian restaurant owned by the wonderful butcher shop, Cochon.   Best food of any variety I had on this visit to New Orleans.  Gianna features northern Italian Cuisine, meaning very fresh pasta with cream sauces rather than the red sauces from the south of Italy. Wines are superb and the bar will satisfy your every alcoholic dream.

It’s easy to give up on this interesting old city, but adjust your view and spread your wings.  Enjoy the French Quarter and street jazz, but don’t stop there.  There’s a new New Orleans that has much to offer.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Mixed Emotions Tangled Rhymes

Mixed Emotions Tangled Rhymes

I began this poem inebriated
And waited ‘til that state abated.
Then I found quite soon in time
I twisted words to make them rhyme.
And so I moved to blanker verse,
But soon commenced to shout and curse.
Then blanker verse became quite worse!
Words began to curl, not rhyme.
It happens to me all the time.
Now why can’t porridge rhyme with marriage?
And why does cupid rhyme with stupid?
Wait a sec, I got that solved.
From one source they both evolved.
Now if I can just untangle, 
Reasons for both jing and jangle
And why can’t we just jingleangle.
Now that my rhyming urge is sated
I’ll raise a glass to inebriated.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Stroud's French Onion Soup

Stroud’s version of French Onion Soup

This version of French Onion Soup is one of my staples.  Simple.  Easy.  Even I can make it.  All it takes is time…a few hours of time.  But, the convenient thing is, you can put the main ingredient in a large, covered stock pot, pop it in a slow oven and not have to think about it until it’s time to fix supper.  Even then, you’ll have time to pour a generous wine and procrastinate, which is one of my specialties. Best of all, this can be supper all by itself!

While we’re procrastinating, let’s talk about the origins of this famous French delicacy that may not even be French.  Some say it’s derived from broth served during the Roman Empire.  I doubt any modern day historian actually tasted it.  Well, ancient history can often be only a wild ass guess anyway.

More recently, jump forward to the French King Louis XV (1710-1774).  The story goes, he returned from a hunting trip and there was nothing of interest in the castle larder, so he had some staring scullery surfs cough up some of their last onions pronto.  Not likely in my opinion. First off, came back empty handed? Didn't pop off a few royal deer with the royal musket?  Bet the royal brush beaters felt the taste of the lash for that!  

Peasants may have been starving, but unlikely the King and his court shared that fate. But, I could be wrong, and maybe the soup was the reason the King was also known as Louis the Well Beloved (Louis le Bien Aime), but then again, he died a hated man.

In America of the 1960s, I wouldn’t doubt that Julia Child had a hand in rekindling the soup's  popularity.

Don't know about the historic versions, but there are any number of differences between Julia’s Soupe à l’Oignon and mine.  First off, she takes the short cut of faster cooking. For another thing, her recipe uses yellow onions.  I prefer sweet onions. She adds sugar.  I do not. Also, I use a healthy pour of bourbon in my broth.  I suspect my three faithful readers will object to this gross misuse of Kentucky’s finest straight bourbon whiskey.  Fear not.  There's more in the cupboard.

On with the show.

Stroud’s version of French Onion Soup
Serves 4 as a main course

Heat the oven to 250ºF

5-6 large sweet onions, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly
8 pats of salted butter, or more to taste
1 Tablespoon flour
1 Cup bourbon
1 ½ quarts of beef broth.  I always use Bovril!!! About a Tablespoon per cup of water.
Hearty bread slices cut in quarters, slathered in olive oil and salted (using olive oil instead of butter adds to the crispness)
Slices of Provolone, Swiss, habanero cheddar, and shredded Parmesan cheeses
Olive Oil

Put a few Tablespoons of olive oil in a stock pot, add the sliced onions, toss, cover and slide it in the preheated oven.  Cook for about 4 hours, or longer. At the two hour point, add 4 pats of butter and put the pot back in the oven.  (Although I haven’t tried it, I think cooking the onions in a slow cooker would work just fine.)

When ready, the onions will be slightly yellow to brownish, and translucent (not the deep brown color you get when onions are caramelized).   There will also be a good bit of liquid in the pot.

Remove the pot from the oven and put it on the stovetop at medium heat.  Add salt and more butter.  Stir until the liquid has evaporated.

 There will be brown bits on the bottom.  Pour in the cup of bourbon to deglaze the pot and let it simmer for a few moments.  You’ll get the bourbon flavor without the alcohol taste.

Add the beef broth.  I always use Bovril!!

Keep the soup at a low simmer, turn the oven up to 325ºF and bake the seasoned bread until crisp.  

When the bread is ready, ladle the soup into large bowls, put pieces of bread on top, then layer the cheeses over the bread.

Bake in the 325ºF oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Stand by to be thrilled when you hear your sniveling guests beg for more.

Sweet onions, butter, and most of all, long, slow cooking make this a soup you’ll be thinking about all day tomorrow!

Serve more wine with the soup and keep the bourbon handy, just in case. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Tomatillo Salad Dressing

Salad dressing?  Oh, much more than that!

First of all, I NEVER buy salad dressings.  Never say never?  Well this time I say it with fearsome pride.  If you’ve got a blender or a fork to stir oil and something acidic, you’re set to defy the limits of the salad dressing aisle and cast off that loathsome cloak of unhealthy serfdom.

This time my salad dressing adventure began with my curiosity over tomatillos. Don’t remember using them in a recipe.  Of course, copious quantities of fermented grape juice may have dulled the memories.  Or perhaps it was memories…..well, let’s leave it at that and just say it was memories I’ve learned to block out, as well as their names and how they cruelly broke my ever hopeful heart.

But, back to tomatillos.  Little green tomatoes, si?  Well, kinda.  Same family, but are all siblings the same? A solid no, and especially not in the nightshade family!  Tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, potatoes, petunias, chili peppers, paprika, tobacco, and even some deadly siblings, such as the belladonna, join together in one unhappy clan.

Tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomatoes, are native to Mexico and have been cultivated since the pre-Columbian era.  Pre-Columbian? you might well ask.  Yes, for engineers and math majors, pre-Columbian refers to the time before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.  We’re talking all the waaaaay back, into the deep pre-history of the B.C. days.

Yes, yes, I hear the complainers at the back of the room whining, so, leaving your knowledge incomplete, I’ll move on to the recipe.

Tonight, I wanted to make a tomatillo salad dressing, but found that I stuffed so much in the blender that I’d concocted a cross between a sauce and a salad dressing.  So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you make this delicious…whatever you wish to call it…you’ll find it goes well on salad, or roasted vegetables, or roasted meat, or (depending on the consistency you desire), even makes a splendid dipping sauce for crisp tortillas.

Now we’ll really get down to it!

Tomatillo Dressing

Heat oven to 425ºF

3 Tomatillos, husk removed, then sliced in halves
1 Jalapeño, cut in half and seeds and stem removed
1 Poblano pepper, cut in half and seeds and stem removed
½  of a large, sweet onion, roughly chopped
1 heaping teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika 
Juice of 6 small tangerines (or more to taste)
½ Cup olive oil
One strong handful of fresh basil
One strong handful of fresh cilantro
1 level Tablespoon of salt (or more to taste)
4 Tablespoons honey (or more to taste)

Puttin’ it together:  Line a baking pan with parchment paper.  Place the first four ingredients on the sheet and sprinkle with paprika.  Roast for about 20-25 minutes (every oven is different) until the vegetables are beginning to char.

Put all the ingredients (including the charred vegetables) in a blender and puree.  Add more olive oil as needed to get the consistency you want.

Taste and add honey and salt as needed.

For the salad, mix several varieties of lettuce, cabbage, celery, bits of peeled tangerine, and anything else your heart desires.  I like to add a few cashews to give it some extra crunch.

This will make about 3 cups of salad dressing.  Put any remaining dressing in the frig.  Pat yourself on the back, grab another cup of vine juice … makes the heartbreak easier to live with!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Kingsley Plantation, Florida

Anna's house in the foreground, the main house behind.

The Kingsley Plantation

Closer to Jacksonville, but still not far from St Augustine, Kingsley Plantation, situated on Fort George Island, near the mouth of the Saint John’s River, is a fascinating place that in many ways represents the complexities of both slavery and the making of America.

When you drive down the two miles of dirt road, through the verdant forest, and approach the Kingsley Plantation, the first thing that catches your eye is a stark white, roofless building, no bigger than your bedroom, made from something you can’t quite put your finger on….Stone? Mud?  You don’t stop because you’ve almost there, but you wonder, What the heck was that?

Slave House with a reconstructed roof.

Then you park your car in the spacious parking area and can’t help but stare at the expansive openness of the grounds, with a semi-circle of those same white, roofless building behind you and several large, roofed, clapboard buildings that extend almost to the water’s edge.  Peacocks and peahens strut here and there.  You know from the start, exploring this wonder is going to take awhile and I assure you, it will be a pleasure every step of the way.  There’s a soft gentleness to the place. You’ve found a treasure, but not quite sure why you feel that way.

The wonder of it begins almost immediately.  When Zephaniah Kingsley first built this plantation in 1814, sea cotton and indigo were the cash crops.  Walk to the small white picket fence area close to the parking area.  You’ll see indigo plants and read the fascinating facts about this simple weed-like bush made famous in the modern era by the color of blue jeans.  The indigo plantings are only a first taste of what will be an eye-opening afternoon.

Harvesting and especially turning indigo plants into dye was smelly, hazardous work.

Entry to the plantation is free and offers the chance to step back into history that comes alive.  It’s the story of a planter and former slave dealer who cleared land to grow crops, with free men and slaves and a wife who was a former slave. All but the main house are open for you to explore, although the house is open at various times.. Towering, moss covered live oaks and tall palmettos dot the property, which spreads and extends to wide, gently flowing river.

For more information on celebrations and days with the main house will be open, click on:  Kingsley Plantation

Construction of the main house.

The Barn, mainly used for the tedious job of separating cotton from the seeds.  You can try your hand at it in the National Park store in the main house.

One small corner of the inside of the barn.
Another view inside the barn.

My parents were South Carolinians and I still have kin in that state, so I’m not a newcomer to plantations.  But all plantations are not alike, and depending on the location, they can be remarkably different.  Why different?  Mississippi became a state in 1817 and Alabama in 1819.  South Carolina and Virginia were two of the original colonies. What did that really mean to the history of American slavery?  The laws affecting the early states were United States laws and especially in the matter of slavery.  Strict.  Often harsh.  Spanish laws were more liberal when it came to race.  Kingsley Plantation swirled and prospered under the laws of both.

When the plantation began in 1814 planters came under the laws of Spain and then for a short while under British law, and then Spanish again. At various times Florida was fairly lawless, even after Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1821.  The territory became a state in 1845. Before then, even the boundary between Florida and Georgia was not clearly defined.  Not only turbulent times, but a turbulent area.

Now, the planation which was once a vast area of cotton fields, and indigo, where sugar cane fields spread before you, and expansive vegetable gardens served to feed both the free and slave families, is no more.

The plantation view from the St John's River. Note that the thick forest now begins almost beside the main house.
The once open fields today are thick with a forest of tall tree and underbrush and high, twisting vines.  However, much of the living area is as it was, with a plantation house, barn, and various other buildings, including a semi-circle of slave houses.  Remember that small, stark white roofless building you rushed past on the way to the plantation?  That was a slave house, as were those arrayed in a semi-circle.  Along with the barn, they are constructed of a material called Tabby, a kind of crude concrete, whose main ingredient is oyster shells.  Crude it may be, but it’s lasted for centuries.

The Tabby wall of a house.

Making Tabby

A whitewashed corner of the barn.

To truly appreciate the history of Kingsley Plantation, we need to once again step back into history.

As noted, under the Spanish, laws about slavery were less strict, recognizing free men regardless of race.  In fact, Kingsley’s wife, Anna was an Africa wife, whom he legally freed.  She became a slaveholder herself and played a great part in running the plantation, especially after Kingsley’s death.  In 1837, out of fear, during a period of almost constant conflict, she and her children fled to Haiti and acquired a new plantation, only to later return to Florida.  Then came the Civil War, which she and her children managed to survive. She last returned to Kingsley in 1870.

Of necessity, my summary has glossed over the richness and depth of the history of the Kingsley Plantation, and Zephaniah Kingsley and his remarkable wife, Anna.

There is so much more to see and learn, about this spectacular place and not just about the plantation, but the tumultuous story of northern Florida.

A visit to Kingsley Plantation will open your eyes wide, and expand what you thought you knew.  This is history as it should be seen and should be taught.  Personal. Searing. And as close as we can come to reliving the making of this part of America.

Another Link to the Plantation:  Kingsley Plantation

Kingsley Plantation, 11676 Palmetto Ave.     (904) 251-3537
Open 9:00 am – 5 pm, seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.  Audio tours available until 3:30 pm