My first Thanksgiving dinner in New Orleans was eaten at Kolb’s Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, not many doors from Canal Street. Actually, the meal was a kind of belated Octoberfest, a memorable introduction to German food.
Kolb’s may not have been as fancy as I remember it — I had little experience with high-class eateries at age 21 — but there were white tablecloths, scurrying waiters, and a big menu displaying higher prices than I was accustomed to. It also listed several dozen German delicacies, none of which I’d ever tasted.
I got to thinking about that this week when I remembered that we’d better get something going pretty soon for Octoberfest. Since Kolb’s is long gone, Deutsches Haus — where we’ve spent many festive evenings eating sauerbraten and then dancing to the ompah band — would be wonderful, but there’s also an excellent Bavarian restaurant not far past Hammond on the road to Springfield. (It’s amazing how many good places there are to eat on the byways of south Louisiana; on a February trip to east Texas we discovered yet another one near Breaux Bridge.)
It was only shortly before I moved to New Orleans that I tasted my first raw oyster, at a downtown hotel in Jackson, Miss., where I had one of my first newspaper jobs. The other reporter having lunch with me challenged: “Bite it in the eye, Bettye!”
I spit it out. Nearly 60 years later I think that oysters on the half-shell are nature’s most nearly perfect food.
When I grew up during the war years in Texas and later during the early ‘50s in Mississippi, we didn’t have the same diet I’m accustomed to now. We ate chicken, pork chops and ham and sausages, minute steaks and stew, and catfish and the delicious bream and perch Daddy caught in the rivers outside the towns where we lived. Vegetables were cabbages and squash, turnip and collard greens, field and black-eyed peas and butter beans and corn.
We seasoned with salt and pepper and the same “trinity” used here in New Orleans, and nobody much in that part of the country used garlic until the WWII soldiers all came home and declared they liked it, after dining experiences in Europe. Meat balls and spaghetti was the only “Italian” dish we ate, and it wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I sampled pizza in a Times Square restaurant in New York.
When I was working at one of my first reporting jobs I read about a woman in Kansas or Missouri who’d “invented” what she called “soul food” — at least that was what she labeled the dishes folks in her neighborhood put on their tables — and I thought that was pretty funny because soul food, complete with cornbread, was what my family had been eating for years.
But Mother and Daddy had lived in south Louisiana for a year or two before I was born, and quickly began to consider oysters and shrimp two of the world’s delicacies. After they came back to the Ark-La-Tex, she managed occasionally to find them in Shreveport, but it was only rarely that we enjoyed such a treat. Then came our move to south Mississippi, only 70 miles from the coast, and we could have almost all the shrimp we wanted.
I thought the inhabitants of coastal towns were so lucky, having all that seafood, plus enough ethnic diversity to vary the menu so appealingly.
But back in ’58, it took me a little while to get accustomed to some aspects of this city’s cuisine: I remember going to a crawfish boil and eating nothing but the salad served along with the mudbugs. The hosts poured several hundred pounds of them out on newspapers laid on the picnic tables under a shelter in Audubon Park. I was grossed out. My abstinence was a far cry from the excitement — years later — of my 3-year-old grandson as he tasted crawfish for the first time at a family Good Friday boil. “Mam-Maw,” he squeaked, “these are way tastier than shrimp!”
And not too many years later, his little brother came home disappointed with the food at a short Cub Scout getaway. “They didn’t have any seafood to eat,” he lamented. “Not even oysters!”
Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times-Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.