Those first months in New Orleans, I was working very hard at the University of New Orleans so that they wouldn’t uncover me and send me back to New York.
When I drove back in the evening to the French Quarter where I lived, I was too tired to fix myself dinner. Instead, I went to the Verti Marte for dinner. Or, rather, to buy my dinner and take it home.
The Verti Marte is a small market on Royal Street at Governor Nicholls, not far from where I lived at 729 Ursulines. It’s a cramped place, as tightly laid out as a submarine. Two people cannot walk down one of the two short aisles at the same time. The food on the shelves is out of the “Leave it To Beaver” era. Some cans and boxes I hadn’t seen since I was a boy in the 1950s.
In the back, though, at a counter, behind slanting glass, are long rectangular stainless steel containers full of different kinds of food.
The Verti Marte! It inspires a kind of lyric rapture. I think about it and I feel like I’m Shelley. I want to write a poem: “Hail to thee, blithe Market!”
The food? Well, yes, very New Orleans. Meaning, weight watchers, abandon all hope ye who enter here. But…so…good.
To wit: Barbecued ribs. Blackened catfish. Crab cakes. Shrimp Creole. Stuffed pork chops. Turkey and dressing. Cajun red beans with smoked sausage. Meatballs. All delicious. (Paging Mr. Shelley for a better word than “delicious.”)
And: the best meat loaf (called “Grandma’s Boarding House Meatloaf”) I have ever had the privilege to put into my mouth. I can taste it now. I can see it now. I can smell it now. I am like a Great Dane drooling now, lakes of spittle coursing down my chin.
And you get two sides. Lima beans. Mashed potatoes. Dirty rice. Mac and cheese (outstanding). Broccoli and cheese. Many more.
Behind the counter, Ken and Rikki. They were welcoming, funny, attentive, inquisitive and helpful. Everyone should make themselves a stranger from time to time to understand again how powerful these gestures can be to the heart.
I’d order. Main dish with two sides. (8 out of 10 times, meat loaf.) They put it warm in a box container. Handed to me, felt heavy as gold bullion. I bought a few beers.
I went back to 729 Ursulines, the box warm in my hands, the gorgeous smell wafting out. Sat down, and, though eating alone, I was happy.
Rocked in the sweet arms of Verti Marte.