Native Tongues: The Food Edition is part 5 of director Carl Walker’s popular (and often outrageous) local monologues. Part of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (which begins Wednesday), the show debuts on Le Petit Theatre’s main stage (616 St. Peter St.) on Sunday, March 27, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25.The play then premieres April 8 and runs for 3 weeks at Le Chat Noir. To celebrate the return of Native Tongues, we offer a monologue from the show by Randy Fertel, local raconteur, writer, and author of the forthcoming book The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steaks, a tale of two distinctive people — his parents — and their fascinating worlds. But that’s a story for another day. Enjoy.
Earner (pronounced Earna) Sylvain
Housekeeper for Ruth Fertel for 42 years
A monologue for Native Tongues
Yeah, cher, I took care of dem Fertels. Forty-two years. Till Miz Rut’ die’. I was 26 when she hire’ me. Onliest job I ever had.
Actually it was her boy Randy hire’ me. I just move’ to town from Edgard, up river in St. John the Baptist parish ‘n got lost on dem damn busses. Had to get from the Desire Projects passed the St. Bernard Projects to out by Mirabeau. Just built dem houses back then. Hardly any trees or grass. When I knock’ there on Seville Drive, 1247, yellow brick house, little boy open. Said his mother tire’ of waiting, went fishing. Book in his hand, he be reading like always. Ten years old.
I say, “I come for the job.”
He say, “OK.” Went back to his book. Dat Randy!
Heehee, dat was the interview. I show’ up the next Monday ‘n’ Miz Rut’ left money on the yellow Formica counter to make groceries. I’ walk on over to Parkchester to the A&P ‘n National. Funny thing is, I didn’t meet Miz Rut’ for 3 weeks. That was some busy lady. She workin’ at that Tulane Med School then. Lucky her—and him—I wadn’t no axe murder’.
Funny, Miz Rut’ grew up on the river too, down by Happy Jack in Plaquemines. I guess we just two ol’ river gals.
You know, the regular. Iron’, cook’, vacuum’. Miz Rut’ wadn’t real p’ticular. ‘cept when it come to food. She could cook, now. ‘n’ she wanted things her way. I grew up on the river, you know, cher, ‘n’ I hung on ma mere apron. Ma mere, Pearl Sylvain, made the best crawfish bisque ‘n’ we all help’. Like we make it on the river. Got that 40 lb sack ‘n’ berled ‘em ‘n’ peeled ‘em, scoopin’ ‘n’ savin’ the heads. Over on Arts St., ma mere make the gravy ‘n’ the stuffing ‘n’ we all sit ‘round t’gether stuffin’ dem heads. Miz Rut’ help’ me buy that house ‘n’ we 4 gen’rations live’ unda dat double shotgun roof. Proud a’ dat.
Miz Rut’ ‘n her boys loved dem some crawfish bisque, now. I bring it by the gallon. But Miz Rut’ always say, When Earna’ came, she couldn’t berl an egg. But, hell, if she wanted her meleeton smothered with shrimps her way or green peppers stuffed her way, dat’s the way she got ‘em.
Boy those kids could eat. They got fat on my cookin, no sheeet! They never got along except there was enough food on the table ‘n’ they always was. Even if they was enough, they’ fight over who get the piece of pannée’ meat wit’ the bone. They love to suck out dat marrow, ya know, cher.
Dat Jerry, when he like what he eatin’, you hear him hummin’. When he got his car, that red GTO from Mr. Joe, he’d come back from A&G with a whole apple pie ‘n’ grab a fork. No plate. Right out of the cardboard box. Loved the crust. Then you’d hear da humming. ‘N red gravy, hoowhee, dey could put some spaghetti ‘n meatballs away. Or spaghetti ‘n daube — like Miz Rut’s fam’ly make down in da country.
Miz Rut’ married dat Joe DiMatteo ‘n’ he made me make the red gravy his momma way. She live’ by the track. He ran that Parkchester Shell station. Grease monkey, but he dress nice, like’ starch ‘n’ a crease in his white shirts, with “Joe” over the pocket, his initials in gold in his belt buckle.
Never understan’ what she saw in him. Never understan’ what she saw in any her mens.
His Sicilian momma red gravy so thick it bubbled up like hot Steen cane syrup. Took all day. First you sweat the holy trin’ty ‘n garlic in olive earl. You add you a can a’ tomato paste, makes it like a red roux ‘n’ cook dat down a while. Then you put you 2 whole cans of tomatoes through the mill. Add sugar at the end, maybe a tablespoon for the whole pot, cut da acid. Miz Rut’ said it rival Turci in the old days, dat place use to be on Poydras downtown.
Mr. Joe he like’ thick slices of eggplant fried ‘n’ I’d slide them into the gravy to mix they flavors in. Or he’ want you to berl egg’, then fry them in the iron skillet to give ‘em a crunch before dey join the meatballs. Just like his momma.
But dat Joe, when Miz Rut’ bought the restaurant he tried to tell her how to run it. He Sicilian ‘n’ he a man so he know better. One day she come home from her split shift ‘n’ dat lazy man be takin’ a nap in her bed. She chase’ him out wit’ a pot a’ half-cook’ rice, sail it right by his head. Almost hit him right upside the head. Heehee. After Miz Rut’ moved from Seville to ‘dose two shotgun double behind the restaurant on Broad ‘n’ Orlean, now, dat was nice. More house t’ clean but I could make half my groceries next door in the walk-in cooler. Butter, milk ‘n’ eggs, ‘n’ the holy trin’ty—I’d just grab ‘em. With that salad station, I never had to clean a head of lettuce. ‘N’ all those dressings they made: fresh-made chunky blue cheese, white folk like dat, remoulade with lots of garlic, may’naise ‘n’ Zatarain mustard, French dressing full of paprika ‘n’ Wooshtersheer. The Thousand Island called for a gallon a’ relish ‘n’ ten dozen egg! Nothin’ too rich for Miz Rut’.
If Randy there, I tell him to put down his book ‘n’ send him next door with Miz Ruth’s biggest bowl. He come back with a big smile ‘n’ a salad full of artichoke hearts, chopped berled egg, Creole tomatoes, asparagus, shrimp berled in Zatarain, topped with crumble’ blue cheese, ‘n’ smothered in with Italian dressing. Man dem Fertel could eat.
You know, they fight over the right way to cut a Creole tomato. Never did get it
straight. Nobody ever happy. But they love fightin’ about it.
Me, I just like me some red beans that I’d push around on the plate, or some yakamein that I get from the corner store. Me, what I like is Snickers ‘n’ Oreo cookies. Wadn’t good for my pressure, but what is?
I’ll tell you what make my pressure berl. Dem men. Miz Rut’ like’ herself some mens I wouldn’t trust with my first or last nickel. Not just Joe. Dat Ralph, sold franchises for her, he was always over here for dinner ‘n’ playin’ gin rummy all night long. Cher, Miz Rut’, now, she had a weakness for dat Ralph. He couldn’t keep his hand outta her pocket. ‘N’ she pay dat man’s gamblin’ debt. ‘N’ Dan, with all his power, lording it over everybody, for me he always the guy who drove a ratty old Chevrolet when he come work for Miz Rut’.
When they fuss at me I tell ‘em, I don’t work for you, cher, I work for Miz Rut’!
Mens, who needs em?
Yeah, sh-t-stirrer, dat’s what dey call me, ‘cause me, I likes to stir da pot. When Miz Rut’ send me to pick up the daily work at the restaurants ‘round town, dey’s always something I can say to stir ‘em up. The white folk in the front done something to stir up the kitchen? — I make sure they remember it. Manager been messin’ with ‘em? That’s a bit of pepper for the stew. Stirrin’ the pot, best way not to be the stew meat.
When ma mère Pearl die, Randy son Owen, he must be eight, he say what they was all thinking, “does this mean no more crawfish bisque?” I took a couple years off, out a’ respect. Then one spring, there it is, crawfish bisque as good as ever. Dey beamin.
‘N’ she say I couldn’ cook. . . .