One day my dorm room phone rang. My roommate answered the call and took a message for me from Olga. She said she would be by to “collect” me for Mass on Sunday morning.
I had her number and called her back. To her message she added that I should wear a jacket and a necktie as we would be going to “luncheon” after Mass.
I said “Yes Ma’am.”
After Mass, Olga drove me, in her 1965 Oldsmobile Delta 88, without functioning seat belts (terrifying), to Moran’s Riverside above Café Du Monde. It was there, in this holy place, that Sauce Béarnaise was made known to me. And it was good.
After lunch I talked Olga out of her keys (she had thick cataracts) and we drove uptown to Martin’s Liquors. At home we did not have liquor stores like Martin’s. What we did have was not open on Sundays. This was a liquor store with a valet. Everybody knows New Orleans is famous for tolerating, even celebrating, the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, but a valet?
After you gave over your car to the valet, you walked in and an attendant got you a shopping cart and let you know that if you needed anything by the case, he would get it for you.
I pushed the cart and Olga led the way. I learned that the good hooch was on the top shelf and the rotgut liquor was down near your shoes. Olga also explained that “Champagne” was made in a certain part of France and the rest, no matter where it was made or how much it cost, was white wine with bubbles. Olga was, when it came to Champagne, not judgmental. When it came to people that drank Champagne, judgment was a different matter. I looked at the bottle and it looked just like a Champagne bottle. Foil, Wire cage. Mushroom like cork.
Olga referred to both Champagne and sparkling wine as …wine. She told me that it did not matter whether you were serving a genuine bottle of Champagne or a cheap bottle of Napa bubbly, (remember, this was 1975 which was a time before America discovered wine) you asked your guest if they would like some “wine”. If your guest was accustomed to drinking real Champagne, they would what they were drinking as soon as they took their first sip. If, on the other hand, they did not know the difference, which in 1975 was far more probable than not, you would avoid embarrassing your guest by making their ignorance a topic of cocktail conversation.
Olga was the master of the genteel.
Olga allowed that she was fond of a California sparkling wine called Châteaux Napoleon and that she needed a case to store in her basement. We bought the sparkling wine, a couple of single malt Scotches, Kentucky bourbon and a case of dry Riesling that Olga “took” with her lunch. We “collected” the car, already loaded with our booze, and went back to Olga’s house. I hauled the booze upstairs and the sparkling wine down to the basement.
The basement was at the bottom of a very narrow set of stairs that were well worn by a hundred years of foot -fall by the owners, tenants and the help that worked there.
I am six feet tall. At least I was back in those days. The basement clearance under the water and gas pipes overhead, was scant. Everything down there, including utility cabinets, walls, clotheslines, etc., was very, very old. It smelled wet. I was too ignorant at the time to know but New Orleans, as in all of it, was built below sea level. More particularly, below the level of the Mississippi River which flowed by only a few blocks from Olga’s house.
The basement was poorly lit. I found the place Olga told me to put the case of “wine” and I got the hell out of that basement.
Upstairs, I had a shot of Harvey’s shooting sherry. Olga taught me that sherry, especially a dry shooting sherry, is a wonderful elixir made to get you over that dry hump between your luncheon Riesling and a real drink, or two, at five o’clock.
Like Olga, shooting sherry is now extinct.
After I said my goodbyes, I walked the two blocks back to St. Charles Avenue and caught the “belt” (streetcar) back to Loyola.
I do not remember missing out on a thing when it came to going to college in New Orleans. My freshman year, I lived in a dorm. I hung out with kids my own age. I stayed up late. I drank too much and wore my hair long. I also went to class, studied the odd subject here and there, and otherwise progressed normally through school. I did not yet have an automobile so that kept me close to the streetcar line.
I was a big boy and I was away from home for the first time. I was loving it. During my junior year of high school my father dragged me all over the Southeast showing me one college after the other. I kept telling him I was going to Loyola.
“What if you don’t get in? The Jesuits don’t let just anybody in there, you know.”
“I’ll get in” I told him and I did.
My parents expected good grades and good manners in exchange for their funds. I squandered some of their money on food and good liquor but as long as my father had heard of the hotel bar I charged to the credit card, nothing was said. I delivered on the grades and the manners and my parents kept me in tuition, pocket money and eventually, transportation.
Through all of the Fall of my freshman year, I kept getting phone calls from Olga Wagner.
Even if I had been so inclined, and I was not, I could not have declined any offer Olga made. It would have been like telling your grandmother you could not come see her on account of your busy schedule getting trashed with your buddies.
So, I always said, “Yes ma’am.”
At some point between the late nineteen teens and 1927 when my grandmother married and moved to Florida, she made friends with Olga Wagner. My grandmother was secretary to Olga’s husband, Joe.
All of my grandmother’s family remained in New Orleans and, throughout the depression and WWII, my grandmother regularly made the trek between Tampa and New Orleans.
The friendship she made with Olga Wagner remained strong enough that when my parents married in February of 1954, they stopped in New Orleans on their Honeymoon road trip from Tampa to Denver where my father was stationed as a lieutenant in the Air Force. They arrived in New Orleans just before Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday.
As children we were regularly told of my parent’s stop over in New Orleans after their wedding. Probably more often by my grandmother. For her, New Orleans was the Holy Land.
We were told that Mr. and Mrs. Wagner and Mr. and Mrs. L’Ouve, Olga’s sister Isabel and husband “Lee”, played host to the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn at the Boston Club, on Canal Street on Fat Tuesday. The balconies and windows of the Boston Club were the best vantage point in New Orleans to view the Mardi Gras day parade without actually rubbing shoulders with the “great unwashed”. My father said that if you held out your hand, a waiter put either food or drink in it. Until the day he died, he remained impressed by the effortless splendor of the Boston Club on that Fat Tuesday.
Although I had been told all about the Honeymoon and the Boston Club before I got to Loyola, nobody ever told me that Olga’s husband, Joe Wagner, hung himself in the basement of the house on Octavia Street. He did it later the same year as my parent’s visit. My grandmother never spoke of it and she died in 1973. It was probably my father who told me. I suspect that he wanted to help me avoid walking into a propeller blade given that I was hanging around with Olga on such a regular basis.
Nobody ever said why he did it. It may be that nobody knew. That is way it is with suicide.
In any event, I never brought up the subject with Olga. I did think of Mr. Wagner, hanging from those water pipes and whose picture was nowhere to be seen in that second floor home on Octavia Street, every time I went into the basement to fetch a bottle of “wine”. He must have been mighty short or he wanted to die so badly that he did not bother to put his feet down.
When I was 18, I did not realize that very old people, that were not felled earlier in life by a merciful Mother Nature, began their walk into dementia by repeating events that were important to them long ago.
Olga was one of three children. Jean, Isabel and Olga. I can’t recall the birth order. In any event Jean died young, of lung cancer, in the mid to late 1930’s. She had been sent to the cooler weather of Ashville, N.C., to recover from surgery, and it killed her. That left Olga and her sister Mrs. Isabel L’Ouve to live on Octavia Street and Jefferson Avenue, respectively. Their houses shared a common backyard corner.
About the time I showed up in Olga’s life, her long term relationship with someone else was coming to a close.
Olga and Isabel both had maids. These women were sisters to the sisters. I got the impression that this arrangement dated to the late 1930’s. Olga’s maid was named Pearl and, for the life of me, I cannot think of the name of the other sister. Isabel’s maid. Pearl’s sister. Her name only came up in the context of one story that Olga told over and over.
Whatever the woman’s name was, she had been dead at least ten of fifteen years before I showed up on Octavia Street.
By 1975, Pearl’s knees were shot and the days of climbing a long flight of stairs to look after Olga Wagner were over. I never met Pearl but, from the way Olga talked about her, she had just left retired recently. By 1975 that could have been several years. Recall that Olga was over eighty when I got there in 1975. If Pearl was her age or older, we would be talking about a couple of very old ladies.
Olga had somebody coming into the house to clean and she still had her crawfish connection “down the country” in Jeanerette, La.. This was the Étouffée connection.
At some point I was invited to have lunch at Olga’s house. I think that was the only meal I ever ate in that house. Women like Olga did not cook. They did not even learn to cook. That day Olga set the dining room table with her sterling silver. The table stood in front of the sideboard and the Persac painting of the plantation, hung over the sideboard.
Lunch amounted to a scoop or two of white rice and a generous ladle of a “gravy” like sauce that allowed about a dozen Crawfish room to float. This was my first Étouffée.
The Étouffée hook-up was not a can from a chain grocery store nor a prepared meal from a swanky gourmet market but rather frozen individual portions of Crawfish Étouffée (pronounced A-two-fay) brought to Olga’s door in a large cooler by a man and his wife from Jeanerette, La.. They made regular hauls like foodie bootleggers when crawfish were in season. They would call on several Uptown old ladies. These people were somehow known to Olga and they still lived near the old plantation. Keep in mind that Bois De Fleche plantation was built in the 1830’s. These relationships with the people and the food went way, way back. I at Olga’s house there when she took a delivery. Money was never discussed, nor seen, but it had to have changed hands.
I helped unpack the small containers and put them away in the old style freezer chest in the kitchen.
We had our lunch of Étouffée and rice. The Étouffée had a buttery, silky texture to it. It was made from a dark red roux with a well diced Holy Trinity, garlic and parsley. Probably celery too. There was more than just a kick of cayenne pepper in that Cajun stew. That burn created the perfect palate for the slightly dry, iced cold Riesling.
I had never tasted anything like it. My grandmother’s chicken gumbo was good but I realized at Olga’s table that my grandmother had been dumbing it down on the spice to lure her grandchildren over to the dark side of Louisiana cooking.
It was over the Étouffée from Jeanerette that Olga told me the story of Pearl’s sister.
While I was focused on the crawfish, Olga started to run her fingers over a wide crack in the center plank of her vintage dining room table.
Olga explained that Pearl had a sister. The sister was Olga’s sister, Isabel’s maid.
I knew that Isabel had been dead since the early sixties.
“Well she just fell over in the kitchen!”
“I called for an ambulance and they sent these men.”
Apparently, Pearl’s sister, either while working at Olga’s house, which was not uncommon, or visiting her sister, had fallen over dead in Olga’s kitchen. When she told the story, it was as if it had happened yesterday. I do not know if she died in the 1950’s or the 1960’s. Once you were on the second floor on Octavia Street, time moved at Olga’s whim. It did not seem important to Olga to tell whomever was listening to her story, when it actually happened. You were there to listen.
“Well! They arrived and picked up (Pearl’s sister) and they THREW her on my dining room table! It never occurred to me that they would throw this very large woman on my dining room table! They cracked my table!”
I can’t eat étouffée without thinking of Pearl’s sister’s body laying across the dining room table of this eighty-year-old, blue-haired, white gloved, plantation born, uptown lady. The irony of the deceased’s remain’s placement on a table in front of that particular Persac painting, is inescapable. (That painting now hangs in the Louisiana State Museum.) I suspect that Olga’s decision to tell me that story, while we ate Étouffée delivered from the environs of Bois de Flèche, was not an accident. Given her advancing senility, her timing spoke to an uneasy conscience. I was a very young, very uneasy audience.
The recounting of the story did not include Pearl.
Nothing about the poor woman that dropped dead in the kitchen.
Nothing about this woman who damn sure did not come in the front door and climb the front stairs.
Nothing about a large working woman that climbed the same back stairs to die in the kitchen floor.
Nothing about the same narrow stairway that Joe Wagner descended on his way to his noose.
Nothing said about the twenty or thirty years the four women had managed two households that were within a kitchen window’s view of each other.
Just the crack in the table where the where the ambulance guys landed this big dead girl in an effort to try and save her life.
I loved Olga but I could never listen to that story, nor eat Étouffée, without thinking of Pearl and her sister.
I heard this story at least a dozen times before Olga died in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. She never varied in the meter or the prose about Pearl’s sister’s death.
It was the same with her stories about her lost diamond bracelet, the ice cold Martini on the Cathay Pacific flight to Japan or how her brother-in-law, Lee, vice president of the Whitney Bank, used to take her, without Joe or Isabel, to Habana, Cuba, for business. The story was always told the same way. The stories never changed in form or content. The emphasis, the inflection were always the same. Olga’s stories were Xerox copies of important moments of times long gone when she had a firm grip on her faculties.
½ cup of vegetable oil
½ cup of all purpose flour
½ cup of finely diced bell pepper (any color)
½ cup of finely diced green onion
½ cup of minced celery
½ cup of finely diced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
48 oz. of store bought chicken stock
White pepper, cayenne pepper and salt, to taste. (Quarter to a half teaspoon of each.)
1 Teaspoon of powdered thyme
1 Teaspoon of Gumbo File
2 pounds of Crawfish or Shrimp
In a large heavy bottomed pan, heat the oil on medium. When the oil is very hot, dump in all your flour at once and whisk constantly. Turn down the burner to medium low. Moving the pot on and off the heat, keep moving the whisk through the roux, without burning. When you have a roux the color of wet Georgia clay on a fender, take it off the heat.
Add in your vegetables, reserving the garlic. Put it back on the fire, medium low, and sauté until tender. Add the chicken stock a little bit at a time. (Note: you may not want all 48 ounces. If you want a thicker Étouffée, add less.)
Add your other dry spices and the garlic. Cook for another 10 minutes then add your crawfish and or shrimp for another 5 minutes. (Note: It is at this point that you may either throw in your crawfish and/or shrimp and cook for long enough to cook the crawfish and or shrimp, or, you can throw the whole business in the freezer.)
Serve over sticky rice. Serves 6-8.