When Tuesday morning’s Advocate brought the news that star chef John Besh will soon reopen the Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel, I began humming “Memories” from The Way We Were.
That’s from the soundtrack of the 1970s movie starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and it popped up in my head because I’d checked out and watched the video from the Amazon library only a few weeks ago.
Besh’s announcement brought an avalanche of memories to yours truly. When I went back to work for The New Orleans States-Item in 1966 — after seven years on the mommy track — the big editor quickly made me food editor. Not because I had any aptitude or appetite for the job, but because the reporter who’d not very happily held that post demanded it.
In those days being a food editor in this town usually didn’t take up more than a couple of hours of one’s working week; all you had to do was decide on a theme — Spring Salads, Thanksgiving Temptations, Choices with Chicken — and supply the art department with some of the appropriate photos from the scores that streamed in from PR and advertising firms. Then you’d edit the accompanying recipes for the linotype operators in the composing room and bingo! — you had a food section.
But these efforts earned me a seat at some of the most prestigious restaurant tables in New Orleans, because on some occasions I’d actually sub local stories and interviews for the “canned” copy.
A place in the Caribbean Room — on several occasions when it was proper to invite the press in — was one of the perks of the job, courtesy of owner Lyle Aschaffenburg and his son, Albert.
But the cuisine, charm and courtesy of the white-tablecloth dining spot wasn’t the only thing I loved about the Pontchartrain Hotel. The late Don Lee Keith, at one time a reporter on The Times-Picayune, and I often had lunch in the coffee shop, which I learned only this morning is called the Silver Whistle.
Don Lee and I — both Mississippians, he a native and me having spent part of my growing up years there — would drive to the hotel singing at the top of our lungs hymns we’d learned during our Methodist Sunday school days.
Once arrived, we’d order big avocado halves with soup ladles full of crab meat on top of them. The lettuce underneath was garnished with plentiful slices of tomatoes and boiled eggs, and all was delicately kissed with a sort of Caesar dressing. We’d finish with the hotel’s famous “mile-high” pie.
The tab for the crabmeat confection was $4.95. I don’t remember whether the pie came with it, or cost an extra dollar or two.
After I became editor of the States-Item Women’s Section and then Lifestyle editor on that paper, home cooking and dining out stories took off, part of a national trend. Richard Collins was our first restaurant critic, and reporters like Renee Saucier, Harriet Cortez, Renee Peck, Sandra Day and Dale Curry elevated our food sections to their proper place in New Orleans culture.
One certainly can’t expect chef John Besh to deliver delicious fare at the price I paid for a crabmeat-stuffed avocado back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I hope that together we make many more good “memories” when he’s open for business on St. Charles Avenue.