We’re at it again, another holiday as is evident by the cookies vying for attention on the counter. Mardi Gras is a holiday I could wrap my Sazerac-fisted hand around. Since we are not baking King Cakes, we are giving a nod to the holiday with Fleur de lis cookies splashed purple and green with sugar crystals. As we pride ourselves on being Equal Event cookie providers, the Fleur de lis are nudging up against gold dusted Oscars. It wouldn’t be a day in retail baking unless there was a bit of confusion between staff and patrons. Many of the baristas are unfamiliar with the Fleur de lis and keep pointing them upside down. Coupled with the fact that the Oscars do bear a striking resemblance to Mummies (“Are those Mummies?” “No, they’re Oscars.” “Oscar who?”) it’s probably best if I bow out of that conversation. Mardi Gras festivities and the Academy Awards ceremony are about to collide and I find the juxtaposition of these two events a personal aside. New Orleans triggers two pie memories; one rather glamorous, the other unpretentious, both incredibly delicious. My first visit to New Orleans was when I was working for a man who just happened to be an Academy Award winning actor. His 1956 Best Actor Oscar was for a role he had originated on Broadway and was many years later reviving in a National tour. For me, an extended stay in the land of beignets and etouffée was a gift in itself. Sweeter than the opportunity to explore the culturally opulent city was the chance to live at the Pontchartrain Hotel in the Garden District.
The St. Charles streetcar provided my transportation between the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street and the hotel. Hotel guests stayed in suites named for celebrity patrons; The Mary Martin or The Richard Burton or The Helen Hayes Suite. There were also long- term resident accommodations for those who called The Pontchartrain home. The hotel boasted three distinct food and drink emporiums. What I remember about The Bayou Bar was an old Steinway piano manned by Tuts Washington tickling the ivories and the walls covered in extraordinary murals by artist Charles Reiinike. The Caribbean Room was the beautifully formal dining room, as opulent as a debutante ball gown, famous for Trout Veronique. For many, the Pontchartrain’s Silver Whistle coffee shop was comfortably delicious and an alternative to the Caribbean Room. Sharing the same kitchen, a meal in the coffee shop could be a simple breakfast of blueberry muffins and chicory coffee or a lunch of their famous Avocado Pontchartrain, over-filled with Lump Crabmeat salad. The chance to enjoy the hotel’s signature dessert in both casual and swanky settings held great appeal for me. Mile High Pie was composed of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and peppermint ice creams standing tall in a pie shell, crowned with brûléed meringue and warm chocolate sauce. As a guest of Mr. Albert Aschaffenburg, the hotel’s proprietor, it seemed rude to not only order the dessert he suggested, but to finish it.
A pie of contrasts was found downtown at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. First, a little bit about my initial visit to K-Paul’s. My boss was a man of very specific likes and dislikes. Once I understood the reasoning behind his requests, it generally made perfect sense. Yet there were times when I was challenged by my “To Do” list. It often had ‘to do’ with seeking out or replacing or repairing or ordering a particular item. Each stop on the tour was new to me and therein was the rub. I really didn’t know the ins and outs of the city until it was time to move on to the next city. It is important to understand that my boss adhered to his own personal dress code which meant he dressed exclusively in Twizzler black. When the trunks and suitcases were unpacked at the hotel or at the house he was renting, everything hanging in the closet looked identical. Trousers, shirts, sweaters, all black. Even the beautifully soft-as-buttah Italian leather loafers, black. The loafers had not reared their ugly heads with a problem until New Orleans. The shoes were resplendent with gold buckles when we left the previous city. Somewhere between Atlanta and the City-by-the-Bayou, one of the buckles went missing. Guess who had the job of tracking down a matching buckle? Before you suggest that it might have been easier to return to the original source for a replacement, it was never that easy. Most of the prized possessions had a bit of a back story- oftentimes items were gifts or one-of-a-kinds. The congenial doorman at the Pontchartrain Hotel listened sympathetically and gave me a list of both high-end shoe stores and jewelers who might be able to help guide me on my quest for the elusive buckle.
Armed with a piece of Pontchartrain stationery scribbled with a series of names and addresses, I carried the naked shoe with me feeling cautiously optimistic. It was while traversing the streets within walking distance of the theatre that I spotted the line of expectant diners snaking around Chartres Street. The fact that K-Paul’s accepted neither reservations nor credit cards seemed not to squelch the spirits of the hungry mob. Clutching my brown paper bag with the Italian loafer, I made a mental note to return to K-Paul’s later in the day when the crowd had thinned. Three hours later with a friend in tow, I was successful in snagging a table for lunch. As far as securing a new buckle, I was still fostering a despondent loafer. My friend was mildly perplexed by the brown paper bag sitting on my lap under a white linen napkin. “Don’t you want to put that down?” she asked innocently enough. “No one is going to steal it.” In the past year one of the many things I had learned was that anything was possible. “I’ll just hold on to it,” I replied knowing that while trying to outfit one loafer seemed daunting, the idea of explaining why I was replacing a pair of shoes and buckles was more than I could bear.
Chef Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant was small, tables close enough together to ogle the meals on your neighbor’s plates. Reflecting New American regional cooking, the Cajun and Creole dishes were a delicious assault to the senses. Shrimp and crawfish swam against a sea of cayenne and Tabasco, tempered with dirty rice and hushpuppies. Lunch was starting to infringe upon my Buckle Quest but we couldn’t leave without having dessert. Chef Prudhomme’s Sweet Potato Pecan pie was a dessert I was totally unfamiliar with and that’s why I ordered it. Teaming two pie fillings in a single crust was a new-fangled idea and I loved it. The filling was warm with spice and sweet with brown sugar but then the pecans swept in under a cloak of Chantilly cream and I was a goner. It was simply Mardi Gras on a plate.
As for the loafer, despite an exhaustive search of the city I was unable to find a matching buckle. I did the next best thing which was to ship the shoes to the Assistant in Paris from whence they originally came. When I called to explain my predicament, the voice on the other end of the long distance line assured me in rapid fire Française that replacing the shoe accessory would be “Trés facile.” I guess what she really meant to say was, “Easy as pie.”
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm