Étouffée

When I was a kid, I collected menus. In those days it was considered a complement to the restaurant to ask for a menu. I had menus from Joe’s Stone Crabs in Miami Beach, Luchow’s in NYC, and Antoine’s in New Orleans. My father was complicit in helping me collect. Other boys collected baseball cards. I collected menus.

I arrived at Loyola University of the South, New Orleans, Louisiana, in mid-August 1975. It was hot. Very, very hot. And muggy. My parents dropped me off at the back door of the men’s dormitory. Everything outside smelled bad. I was 18 and wanted them to just go away.

But they did not go away.

They drove down St. Charles Avenue and checked into the Pontchartrain Hotel. Nice place. Great bar.

I was expected to join them for drinks and dinner. They had not said when they would be leaving town. I just wanted to hang out with the other kids I knew from my hometown that were also attending Loyola. I feared my parents would stay for the full four years.

My father allowed that we would be going to Corinne Dunbar’s for dinner and that we would go collect Olga Wagner on the way. Dunbar’s was an old lady’s Victorian mansion. The restaurant opened in 1935 when Mr. Dunbar died and the well-healed Mrs. Dunbar found herself financially embarrassed; i.e., dead broke. She got rid of most of her furniture on the first floor and put tables everywhere. She served a pre-fixed meal of New Orleans classics. Payment from “guests” was done discreetly as you came in and well before you sat down.

Olga was a friend of my grandmother’s. I knew Olga from trips we made to New Orleans with my grandmother who was a native. My grandmother was Olga’s husband’s secretary during World War I. She and Olga spoke French to each other and became friends when they were both young women. Ultimately my grandmother married my grandfather and moved to Florida but she and Olga stayed in touch.

By the time I got to college, Olga was ancient with blue hair, and octagonal wire rimmed glasses. She did not own a pair of pants. She had an entire drawer full of gloves.

After a drink at the hotel we drove uptown, Octavia Street, to a duplex Olga owned. She had the second floor and rented out the first floor to tenants I never laid eyes on. There was also a basement. More on that later.

We climbed the stairs and were shown into a front room with a Princess Bokhara, elephant foot pattern rug, various antique furnishings and a “hi-fi” full of opera and show tune records.

Olga kept a respectable bar in her dinning room on top of a George IV sideboard from her family’s long lost plantation. The home place was called Bois de Fleche. Hanging above the booze was an original Marie Adrien Persac depicting the family plantation. He is the same Frenchman that drew the famous Map of the Lower Mississippi that acts as a pedigree for those that trace their family back to the slave owning plantation class and were proud of it. The painting above the bar was intended to show the viewer the extent of the plantation owner’s wealth, including his home, his out buildings, and his slave quarters. At the forefront of the painting is a house garden brimming with plants. The only featured people in the thing are a white woman in ante-bellum garb and a young shoeless black man who is obviously a slave. The two seem to be involved in a conversation about the vegetables for the table in the big house. At least that is what I tell myself.

Olga Delhommer Wagoner was part of the plantation class of people.

We went on to Dunbar’s. By 1975 Dunbar’s was in its dotage, which is a bad place for a restaurant. They still had a black butler to greet you at the door and usher you in. Your drink order was taken by a black parlor maid. The only food related memory I have about dinner were the oysters. Artichokes and oysters. Sublime. I also recall a fragment of conversation between my father, a foodie before there was such a thing, and Olga.

Dad said something about calling Dunbar’s for a reservation when he was told by Antoine’s that they had no available tables for the foreseeable future. Olga, the definition of Southern gentility, seemingly changed the subject and asked if Mom and Dad would be staying long. I leaned in listening and hoped to hear my father say that he would be on a plane out first thing in the morning. Instead he said he was going to stay in town for a few days and “help” me pick out my freshman classes.

I wanted to die.

Nobody needs help picking out freshman classes. These decisions have been made long before you arrive. There might have been one elective. Two tops.

My nightmare came true. They stayed and stayed. I swear they were there a week. My parents were in fact in the same line in which I stood to register for one class or the other. Dad would introduce himself to perfect strangers who would later become my friends and fraternity brothers.

I was mortified.

At some point the day after dinner at Dunbar’s, I was informed by my father that I was to meet my parents at the hotel and that we would be dinning at Antoine’s.

In 1975, New Orleans, like St. Louis, was a closed society. You did not just call Antoine’s and ask for a table. You had to know somebody who knew somebody. At home, Dad was a serious somebody. In New Orleans, he was a tourist that paid cash.

Antoine’s has two main dining rooms. One out front can be seen front the banquet (sidewalk) through the Parisian café-like windows complete with the little half white curtains. If you go through the front door, the room is on your right as you present yourself to the Maitre de Hotel who stands behind his pulpit and wearing his tuxedo seemingly only to tell the great un-washed that they would not be eating at Antoine’s anytime in their natural lifetime. Behind that room was a much larger room with a smaller dinning room off to the left of that.

In the small room, on the left, in the back, way out of the view of the hungry tourist on the sidewalk, is a very discreet little door.

I do not remember how we arrived at Antoine’s, but we did and instead of walking in the front door, we just passed it by as if it was not there. With Olga as our leader, we went through a small iron gate to the left of the front door and walked along the side of the restaurant.

When we got to the little side door, Olga rang the bell and we waited. The door was opened by a man who said, “Why Mrs. Wagner!  How good to see you.” Olga said “Hello (whatever his name was) we will be four and I would like George or Sam Le Blanc to wait on us.”

We were shown in and seated at a great table in the big room and, in fact, one of the Le Blanc brothers waited on us.

I had the greatest meal, up to that point, of my life.

Oysters Rockefeller.

Filet mignon smothered in Marchand de Vin Sauce.

Puffed fried potatoes.

Baked Alaska.

Sweet Jesus.

I figured out, that night, that Olga Delhommer Wagoner, had clout.

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