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Native Tongues V: A nostalgic trip back through the Brennan family

Ti Adelaide Martin is the daughter of Ella Brennan and the neice of Adelaide Brennan, noted New Orleans restaurateurs and sisters, whose flagship restaurant is Commander’s Palace. Ti wrote the following monologue for “Native Tongues V: The Food Edition,” a series of monologues about New Orleans and its love affair with cuisine. The play, directed by Carl Walker, is onstge Thursdays through Sundays through April 24 at Le Chat Noir. Previously, NolaVie published Randy Fertel’s “Native Tongues” monologue. Ti and her cousin, Lally Brennan, write a food and drink blog called In the Land of Cocktails.

By Ti Martin

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that my upbringing was not normal.  (Glorious, eccentric, but not normal).  I remember years later reading Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil and thinking – sans the murders – that it wasn’t that strange at all.

Mom made many, many attempts to create the “normal” home life for my brother, Alex, and me.  The classic let’s-all-sit-down- and-have-dinner-together even worked for a while when we were really little.

See, Aunt Adelaide didn’t get up until after noon and never descended her grand staircase before 3, so she wasn’t ready for dinner at 6 or 7.  More like 10.  And even then, she ate on a TV table because there was no kitchen table – only copper-topped counters and two refrigerators, two stoves, two ovens, all the better for entertaining.  Entertaining for 2 to 200 and sometimes with very little notice.  For this, it’s good to own a restaurant.  And to have help that knows the drill.

How to explain the help.  Oh, my.  Well, there was Sadie, the cook.  Aunt Adelaide did not cook.  Well, on Sadie or Ethel’s day off, she would sauté liver in butter for Pud – the world’s most spoiled Yorkie that she stole from me.

Ti Adelaide:  “Aunt Adelaide, why do you feed Pud up on the copper kitchen counters?”

Aunt Adelaide: “I think it’s the only time she gets to look me straight in the face.  I want her to know what I look like. . .”

Clearly she had given this thought.  Okay.  Pud slept in Aunt Adelaide’s off-white four-poster bed with silk sheets and gorgeous lace.  Pud had ruined many a fine furnishing as a puppy, including chewing the tongue out of the polar bear rug on the floor.  Not sure how you fix that.  But Pud had royal status and went almost everywhere with Aunt Adelaide.  She preferred to be on Aunt Adelaide’s lap in the back of the Rolls.  The Rolls was a Silver Cloud limousine bought from the Queen of England’s fleet.  It was gorgeous, huge with teak wood, a bar, a TV, only truly sat three, including the driver, comfortably and almost never worked.  Aunt Adelaide would hire a limousine to follow her in the rolls because she’d been caught one too many times being picked up in front of the theater only to find the Rolls wouldn’t roll.

But the Rolls was outfitted with a bar, of course — all the better for those entirely predictable breakdowns.  A few “Sazeracs in waiting” in a chilled shaker – four dashes of Peychaud’s and two of Angostura – never the reverse – with the pretty little skinny rectangle of lemon peel (with the pith removed – always) floating in silver “go cups” glistening just a tad on the cup.  Dab a little behind your ear – for later use.

The “limousine to follow the Rolls” line of thinking was not uncommon.  I thought it was a little too coincidental that every time Aunt Adelaide took me on a glamorous trip to NYC to a Broadway play and 22 restaurants that the seats in front of us at the theater were empty.  I eventually inquired and …

Aunt Adelaide: “Well, I don’t know why I would go to the theater and not be able to see.  I am not as tall as I would like and there always seemed to be a tall man in front of me moving all about.  Jonny my ticket broker just started offering me the two seats in front of me.”

So – back to the entertaining – and the help.  Tibbs and Bobby.  Tibbs made it all happen.  George Tibbs could throw together a dinner for 200 with very little help from my Aunt Adelaide or my mother Ella.  That was the household.  Sisters Ella and Adelaide, my brother Alex and me.  Pud the Yorkie, Elvis Mae my lab mutt (stolen off the streets, my mother said) plus Tibbs and Bobby.

Out would come the tables, the double layers of table cloths with gold (underlay) to match the ceiling and the chairs you weren’t allowed to sit on – (“They’re accents”) – in the ballroom.  Yes, the ballroom.  22 x 44. Exquisite.  I remember showing it to a teacher friend of mine who had stopped by the house.  She asked if all the furniture was out to be cleaned.  “No, this room is just for dancing,” I said apologetically.  And dance we did.  I remember the night Carol Burnett decided to try to teach us all how to do a chorus line.

So the tables; they had to be dressed to the nines. Dripping with champagne glasses and silver everywhere.

There was a bar – a whole room with a bar in it – next to the ballroom. This is the bar where I learned to make a martini and then an old fashioned – at 11.  I think Mom and Aunt Adelaide thought it was a clever “party trick” to have my brother or I answer the door for guests and bring them to the bar and make them a proper cocktail before they came downstairs.  “Mr. Capote – would you like a champagne cocktail tonight?  By the way – nice velvet jodhpurs.”  Champagne cocktails, elegance and simplicity, a sugar cube in the bottom of a sleek champagne flute, drip 6 dashes of angostura onto it, fill with champagne and garnish with a twist.  Aunt Adelaide had a necklace that looked like a gold bar – at just the right moment when the conversation had quieted, she’d lean forward in her slightly décolleté top and push a little latch and three prongs emerged creating her swizzle stick necklace, which she dipped into the flute to re-energize her bubbles with the naughtiest smirk you’ve ever seen.  Truman Capote and everyone else crumbled in laughter.

(It is this bar where I once saw Tibbs, amidst a frenzy of preparation for one of hundreds of these parties we threw, take a big swig straight from the bottle.  He saw me.  I looked at him.  His look was as if to say, “Oh please, kid – I am working so hard here – give me a break.”  I did.  I loved him.  Never told anyone ‘til now.  So many little kindnesses had come in my direction from that man. It was easy to send one his way. Of course it did explain a little about the three times he managed to drive mom’s station wagon into the Palmetto overpass canal.  Tibbs never could make that turn.)

So the house is dressed, the lighting is just so, the music is going, racks of glasses and plates and linen are stacked behind the scenes. The thinking was always like restaurateurs – showmen really. Never let’em see you sweat. A good New Orleans hostess always wants to look like it was no trouble at all.

The dining room would be set with rows of wineglasses (white only – red had been banned after a couple of unfortunate incidents with red wine). We served Joseph Drouhin Macon Villages for years, until Mom got to be such good friends with Robert Mondavi.  It was “Bob white” for years after that.  The guests would take a beautiful plate from the sideboard and serve themselves Commander’s salad and demitasse cups of turtle soup to drink.

The hors d’oeuvres were always bite sized – easy to eat in one bite.  Pate’ de foie gras mousse on toast points, oyster patties, and daube glace’. You had to be able to eat your dinner with only a fork.  So Roast Tenderloin of Beef or Beef Bourguignon.  But for more casual parties, it was Shrimp Creole served elegantly over jambalaya with mini squares of pecan pie.

The food came over in the station wagon on trays from Commander’s and then was served in elaborate silver chafing dishes. Little pieces of paper would signal what went where days in advance – crawfish etouffee here, crabmeat ravigote there.  That brings us to Bobby. How to explain Bobby. Well here goes – About 6’4” – looked like a linebacker for the Saints.  Talked like Sissy in “Gone with the Wind. ” High, high-pitched voice.  And a swish?  I think he invented swish.  Just sashaying aimlessly around the house. Happy, pleasant. In the morning, Tibbs would tiptoe into Aunt Adelaide’s bedroom to take Pud for a walk – since Aunt Adelaide wouldn’t be up for hours, this was the routine. Pud would snap at Tibbs because she was so comfy on her lace pillow next to Aunt Adelaide. But Tibbs would win and Tibbs and Pud and Elvis would take a stroll around the block to St. Charles Avenue. Bobby was in charge of the afternoon walk. What a sight that was.

Bobby – again 6’4” and large.  He was always, always cold … so Aunt Adelaide had him wear a white cook’s jacket, but he always had under it a couple of sweaters. He wore this and a knit wool hat snug over his afro, with polyester tight black pants and platform shoes … in July. Pud and Elvis knew the routine, so they walked themselves and Bobby would sashay behind them mumbling or singing like Prissy. Those not used to this triumvirate would inevitably stare or hurry along in fear.

Years later, friends confessed that they were taken aback by Bobby the first time he answered the door. Towering, bundled up in all seasons, with the highest-pitched voice you could even mimic, “Hello, come right in Mr. Hudson – Ms. Adelaide will be down in a little while – may I get you a drink in the bar?” No doubt, Rock Hudson had seen a lot, but he did a double-take with Bobby.

My double-take came when Bobby wanted to show me a picture from his party the weekend before. Even as a fairly worldly New Orleans 12year-old, it took me a while to realize that one of the five women in the photo was indeed Bobby.

Ti: “Bobby – where are you?”

Bobby: “I’m third from the right, baby.”

Ti: “OH. WOW. Boy – you look” – desperately searching for just the right adjective – “wonderful!”

So on the nights of the parties, the house on Second Street would be glimmering. From the twinkling gas lamps and the big columns out front, to the hand-painted walls in the entry and up the winding dramatic staircase to the extra bamboo bar pulled out for the party and silver and lace galore. It was elegant – opulent even, but somehow a bit restrained – not overdone. Aunt Adelaide always said the house was so beautiful that it shouldn’t be over-decorated – the architecture of the house itself should show through.

This rule apparently did not apply to Aunt Adelaide’s clothes. You never knew what she would descend that staircase wearing. Pre Cher, pre Madonna and all of them. Aunt Adelaide saw each evening as an opportunity to costume. To play a role. Glamorous, eccentric and by the account of many of her contemporaries the most beautiful woman in New Orleans. It was a role she played less out of vanity and more just for the sheer fun of it.  Sequins, furs, jewelry, gorgeous shoes. On the night of her wedding her husband was said to have filled the pond in her backyard with champagne and to have drunk from her shoe.  Short marriage – fun wedding.

So the music would be going, the dancing would start and the food was always spot on.  Elegantly served and abundant – like the booze. And the personalities… abundant.


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