How To Get Swindled for Oysters in New Orleans, Part 4

New Orleans has the power to pause clocks. In the Big Easy, it feels as though Shanda and I are launched back to some past century where old laws keep developers are kept at bay. They limit donut chains and burger drive thrus, keep the beignets frying and the gumbo simmering, and maintain the fragrance of booze. The French Quarter is pungent with the smells... piss and booze, coffee and cigarettes. The textures of the place were like no where in America I'd been. 

We check into our hotel and immediately take to the streets, our legs aching for movement. Brass bands and karaoke blast from the street corners on Bourbon Street. Tuneless tourists crone along. And in my pocket, my cell phone chimes in with the dings of text messages,
 “How are you? Where are you? Drive safe. We love you.”
From Oregon, Indiana, Texas, South Carolina, Illinois, New Mexico, Kansas... I had a solid entourage among the karaoke with that wonderful ding.

In the morning, at Café du Monde patio, where only cash is accepted and beignets, the French donut, are the only menu item other than coffee, we joyously sit for a morning. The accompanying tink tink of the dishes, ceramic on ceramic, is almost harmonic with the place's chatter.

A lovely, albeit apathetic, waitress plops down two perfectly balanced café au laits and a plate of the beignets. I love watching the silent dust storm of powdered sugar being carried off by the breeze over the bricks. The servers are covered with a fine white paste, the thickness seems to tell of their tenure.

And the slightly greasy, sugary, doughy morsels on the plate... they were sheer and vivid joy. I could feel the entire outdoor patio pulse with every beignet-consumer’s giddy pleasure. Shanda and I happily joined in the pulsating. I felt a kid at Christmas - people bringing me sweets, all that sugary snow floating around.

The mural by the Cafe du Monde patio

The city also sounded a lot like laughter. The laugh I remember most is that of the middle-aged local fellow we dined with. He (let’s call him Kevin) chortled all the way home, I'm sure of it, after having swindled us two naïve tourists for at least 2 dozen oysters and a couple beers.

Our time with Kevin began as he walked with us through the streets of the French quarter, giving us the golden “local” take on the city – how it was before the storm, where his family had gone, who had the best jazz and the best oysters. Ooh Oysters… “Let’s go get some!”

Charmed by his tour-guide capabilities, and the absence of any sexual prowess, we agree and head to Remoulades. The three of us settle in happily at the oyster bar, where Joe schmoozes with the resident shucker. Kevin schmoozes and orders and eats, and then repeats. Plate after plate of oysters, he orders and eats and schmoozes, waving his hand with an “Bah!... No worries... It’s on me!”
Oysters on the half shell.
Charbroiled Oysters.
Baked Oysters - Rockefeller, Bienvelle, and Suzette.

Then quite suddenly Kevin needs to step outside for a “smoke break”. And with that… he wafts away down Bourbon Street like a breeze off the gulf, without even a dime for the cocktail sauce. The $100 restaurant bill is handed to us as the shucker shakes his head, and slips off his shucking glove. Tsk tsk Tourists, he seems to say.

But we’re too happy not to laugh at our naivete... See I have a theory that raw seafood gives a swift kick of endorphins to the head, so getting swindled in New Orleans for a few dozen oysters… Things could be worse. The night proceeds with a high buoyancy and only mild disbelief.

But the interlude over beignets must end, and the inevitable approaches. Shanda must fly back to Fargo and her husband Peter, and I must drive on to Charleston. We spend our final night together in a dingy airport hotel in Atlanta. We eat Papa John’s pizza, and appropriately, watch Tina Fey on 30 Rock. 


Traveling with Shanda and Tina Fey, Part 3

If you're just joining us... Welcome!  Catch up on this Road Trip series in... 
Part 1, Keturah's Fast and My Unexpected Road Trip
Part 2, Leaf Lard and the Woven Basket. 

Every road trip comes with an inherent romanticism, a keen sense of possibility as constant movement breeds unpredictability. Who you will meet, what you will see, where you will eat - it's all in constant flux. And the truth is... I’m a romantic deep down. Although previously the movement, of clock hands and cars headed east, felt ominous, something had shifted in Fort Worth. 
I began to feel the possibilities again.

In Fort Worth, my mother added to my woven basket - granola, cookies, cinnamon rolls wrapped in foil and smelling like Christmas. To the car I added my best friend Shanda, who had from flown in from Fargo, North Dakota with the sole purpose of sitting beside me in a car for 17 hours.
Fort Worth to Atlanta, with a two day stop in New Orleans. 

A George Strait spotting at the necessary western-wear stop in Cowtown!

With Shanda there, the possibilities felt endless. For this particular adventure, Shanda had made 10 mix cds to act as our soundtrack. So we set off on a Sunday morning, and popped in Road Trip Music, Part One which started off with a bang... "None of Your Business" by Salt-N-Pepa.  

There were four categories to this set of 10 cds.
1    1. Texas Travellin’ Tunes
2    2. Moving Forward! 
3    3. Road Trip Music
4    4. Break-ups Suck

She’d also brought a gift - wrapped in a colorful scarf, she called it my “Congrats on Not Marrying That Guy!” gift. (Not because she didn’t like the guy… It’s not always about him. Sheesh.) I reluctantly decided to wait to open the gift, delaying gratification so as to cushion a future hard moment I was sure would come. So I placed the gift in the backseat next to the cooler, grinned at Shanda, and drove on.

Riding shotgun, Shanda planted her feet on the dash and her pink sunglasses on her face. 
Volume up. Windows down, we sang and played air piano to "Anthony’s Song" by Billy Joel from Moving Forward, part 2, "Idiot Wind" by Bob Dylan from Break Ups Suck, part 1, and "Africa" by Toto - Road Trip, part 3. I could feel the clocks turning back.

Back to moments in college where we had embarked in cars with similar senses of playfulness. Back to junior year of college as our group of women drove 24 hours straight from Goshen, Indiana to southern Florida in my tan Buick Century, equipped with a boombox powered by D batteries. Shanda and I improvising songs about passing scenery when the batteries died. I owned a video camera at the time, which would get promptly propped on the enormous dashboard when we hit a lull. We recorded such traveling classics as "Hello, I'm a Truck". (Of note, all these tapes got stolen in our Goshen House Robbery 2005. So if you're out there putting our "music" on the internet... Well... please don't.)

In the blue Subaru we considered the way we and our lives have evolved, how lucky we were that our clocks were still coordinated. We have gone through the celebrations and devastations with each other long enough to know what questions needed asking and which ones were answered long ago.

Me: “How is your brother doing? How are you feeling about God in the midst of the healing process?”.
And how is your mother holding up? How is her garden?
What’s happening with your thesis?  

We talk of her wonderfully solid marriage to a fantastic man, what shade of pink is her favorite at the moment, and how shockingly - her best time of day is now morning.

Shanda: “What hobbies will you take up in Charleston?”
“Where do you envision working?”
“What was your favorite thing about Santa Fe?”

I talk about how much I loved the coffee shop in Santa Fe, and decide on paddleboarding as well as becoming best friends with Sean Brock, considering our mutual love of pork.

At some point (because dietary precepts don’t count in the car) I realize I’m literally pouring Cheetos into my mouth. Pouring. I decided this was actually not a low point, rather it's just what you do when you’re driving cross country pretending to be 20 again: you pour Cheetos, chew endlessly on Twizzlers, and drink way too much fountain Pepsi.

Somewhere else in East Texas we decide on fried okra, BBQ chicken, and a disappointing taco from the taco joint welded to the Shell station. 
Shanda (with a tone of sarcasm and sorority girl foodie): "Do you like think this like local, organic, free range beef?"
Me: "Oh Yes. Definitely yes."  

We listened to Tina Fey talk about breastfeeding, laughing the way we did in Goshen when we would go Baggin’. Baggin’ involves duct taping a fast food to-go bag on top of your car and then driving around town with the radio blaring.
Well-intentioned folks at stoplights then try to alert you to this fast food catastrophe,
“There's a bag on your car!”
You reply, with a confused expression,
“I’m sorry, what? I can’t hear you over the music!”
They yell, they scream, they point, they lean out their car window, they get out of their car,
You then erupt in juvenile laughter. Because, like Tina Fey on breastfeeding, this is always funny.

Driving into New Orleans on the highway surrounded by water, the skyline of the beautiful city emerged, punctured with the Superdome. We discuss the trauma of Katrina that engulfed the space, curious of what the space held for us. 

I can smell the sea. 
I can feel our freedom and our excitement. 
I can taste the imminence of oysters. 
My gratitude for the depth of these simple, timeless things with me in this car is palpable.

Stay tuned for Part 4... Oysters and Beignets in New Orleans! 


The Leaf Lard and Woven Basket, Part 2

To get caught up, check out Part 1 in this series, Keturah's Fast and My Unexpected Road Trip.

My car and the clock did indeed move forward that first day on the road. Both of them barreled across west Texas towards my first stop in Fort Worth, the city where I grew up and where my parents still call home. In some sense, the car seemed to move with its own beastly agency; I was just its stubborn cargo in the driver's seat - shell-shocked and sad, albeit resolute.

I recalled the first line in Keturah's entry for February 7th, 1972: I'm still somewhat in a daze. 

Although the car's movement paused very few times that day, I did insist on a break at a funky roadside diner around Amarillo for fried okra. The young counter girl eyed me with curiosity as I sat at the booth, alone, eating a simple meal of okra and ranch dressing. Staring out at the care, I took stock of my traveling companions…

They were the things I dared not put on moving trucks - Keturah’s and my diaries, a box of quilts, my baby blanket made by my grandmother, the fabric a print of Amish girls in bonnets.

My woven basket sat in the passenger seat, buckled up because its weight was setting off the “Buckle Up Please” sensor. Over the years, that basket's belly has carried so many memories –  garnet yams for a first date curry, a bottle of red wine for dinner party hosts, chocolate chip cookie ingredients. People’s eyes always light up at its arrival. Children tend to swoon… a colorful woven basket is the sweet promise of surprises.

That day on the road its contents were just for me... 
Peanut butter
Raspberry jam
2 apples
16 oz. Indonesian coffee, ground for an aeropress

In the backseat of the Subaru was a cooler - the old, dingy one I borrowed to pack the pint-sized mason jars of leaf lard I'd so lovingly rendered myself. Fearful the lard would somehow spoil during the drive, I fed the cooler ice cubes at my few stops as though it were some starving child.

With great irrationality, these were the things I clung to tightly as I drove. Isn’t this what we all do, with greater or lesser novelty? Move through life, holding close the things we consider dear? Mennonites are notorious for simple living, but even we have our precious ties to the tangible things that shape us.
Mine...  an Amish baby blanket, 2 boxes of diaries, leaf lard, and my woven basket.

**Special Thanks to my nephew Zeke who joined me in the photo shoots... lard never looked better. 

And stay tuned for Part 3... My dearest friend Shanda jumps in the car and we head to New Orleans!


Keturah's Fast and My Unexpected Road Trip

Great Grandma Keturah’s diaries, the ones I once traversed the Puget Sound for, recently made a trip in a large Rubbermaid container, each book wrapped cautiously in tissue paper. They travelled in the back of my blue Subaru, and sitting beneath Keturah’s Rubbermaid was my own, another blue box - full of my diaries.
I sat in the driver's seat.
My woven basket in the passenger seat.
Santa Fe, with a surprised look in her eyes, in the rear view mirror.
My precious cargo and I head east.

These books of Keturah’s – encapsulating her life from 1945 to 1987 - are generally quite tedious to read. Their contents are mostly records of the names of visitors, notes on the baking of bread and pies, butchering pigs, farm chores, and more visitors.

Dinner menus are listed day after day: chicken dinner, offelkuchen, milk pies, coffee cake, egg sandwiches, and infinite amounts of coffee.

With a handful of poignant, glimmering exceptions, there is a hardly a deep thought within the pages. On the day of the Hiroshima bombings, she cans 100 quarts of corn, and a week later scrawls in the margin: “Japan asking for peace…”

But as I packed the car for travel I couldn't ignore Keturah's world. 1972 to be exact. Because in that year an unexpected event amidst Keturah's daily grind unfurls. On January 30th her husband Fred, who she affectionately refers to as Pop, dies suddenly while sitting in his living room chair. And everything, with a great heaving gasp, shifts. Three months after his death she has to move from the farm she loves dearly and into the local retirement center, The Villa. I was reminded, especially as I prepared for that unexpected road trip, that indeed life does not always unfurl how we expect.

My own unfurling is about departure, not death. Thankfully, I have no concept of how Keturah felt in 1972, losing someone after 38 years of marriage. But an unexpected shift  – I can relate to that. You see Santa Fe was to be home, but it has ultimately become a stop on the map. So I picked up my life in the desert, my pots and pans, my Rubbermaids full of our diaries, I considered my options, and headed east for Charleston, South Carolina where my sister Sarah and her sweet family reside. Across 7 states and nearly 2000 miles I drove in the blue subaru to what is now my new home in Charleston. 

Somewhere in eastern New Mexico

Starting out from Santa Fe, as the desolate roads and big dry skies of eastern New Mexico stretched out before me, Keturah’s 1972 was somehow soothing. A reminder of the normalcy that is change.

After Fred’s death, Keturah does not speak of an intentional fast. She does not even elude to it, but in her entries she immediately stops providing her dinner menus. No more talk of pie or bread or coffee. Perhaps it presumptuous, but to me Keturah is fasting - a kind of ritualistic pause so as to mark the importance of her pain.

Keturah also appears to have gone back to previous entries, ones before Pop’s death, and add recollections. Often in a different color ink, one that seems to carry the hue of a grief.

January 6, in blue: ... We went to the villa this afternoon to see Aunt Mamie.
In black: This was last time Pop saw Aunt Mamie. 

January 26One of those mornings when there is much to do and hard to decide which to do, that would be worthwhile…. I did get some pies made – apple, milk, and blueberry. Pop likes the milk pie best so do I.
Scrawled in the margin: These are cold days.

January 29Today I really worked, cleaned, changed our bedding, put bedroom curtains up. I did not take time to do much cooking. We sat down at 9 o’clock this morning to rest a bit and listened to a good talk over Newton station by Ella Mae Miller.

Then her handwriting turns tight, letters pressed against one another:
... The little girls brot some big icicles over to show us and Pop went to the door to see them too. Again our supper was egg sandwiches. Pop went to bed not feeling good even earlier in the evening had terrible pains too I called Cora to tell her we would not come tomorrow but she pleaded so Pop reluctantly concented. After a late bath I finally got to bed he was waiting for me. Little did I think it would be our last night together.

In the margin, underlined severely in black ink:
Pop’s last day with us.

What would I go back and add to my diaries about Santa Fe?
Ate green chiles at La Choza for the last time.
Last time to bake with Willem. We made challah and I made an apple tart. 
These were such sunny, windy days. The moths came up from the ground and the cicadas buzzed, and I baked bread for the first and last time in this home.

Last meal eaten with Willem and the CloudCliff crew

We cannot coerce clocks. They rebel against our every effort, and as much as we try and seduce them, their lean towards movement is relentless. We ask: Could the pain pause please? Could we go back please? Keturah’s retro-entries and presumed fast, to me, are her attempted coercions.  

Keturah’s grief takes its own time. For weeks, she speaks almost solely of her visitors and the weather. February 9th to February 26th, most of her pages sit as blank and desolate as west Texas. Sometimes the day of the week is scrawled, lonely on the page. 

February 14: Monday
February 18: Saturday

But the clocks, like cars, do move forward. The tick-tock of hands around their circular bodice resound with a particular hope. Even in the midst of the most profound grief, a woman may find a bright color, a big sky, a burst of flavor. I see Keturah’s flash of hope, and thus a hint of my own, in her day with Cora on March 6 in which she lists her dinner menu for the first time since Pop died on that Sunday in January.

March 6, 1972: Cora comes for a visit, Keturah goes on a drive with her friend and later writes:
Came home eat supper together, Cora’s stuffed peppers, smoked turkey sandwiches. Strawberry shortcake and coffee…