Thursday, December 09, 2010

Mercury on a Rising Mississippi

Was I in Paris? Palermo? Havana? Walking along a dark street on my way to a dinner appointment I was reminded of the day that had just unfolded. December in an antique of a city. Cold, misty; still hazy from a million nights of hedonism, chastened by a river.

I started with Sherry, a Fino. It seemed to be a good choice with the amuse bouche of candied pecan, Rio Star grapefruit, lying in a mousseline of bacon. A little micro greens thrown on the top, it looked like a deconstructed Christmas tree, and it did match well with the salty sips of the Spanish wine.

Earlier in the day, we drove around the Vieux CarrĂ©, looking for parking spaces, feeding the meter, walking into wine shops and prehistoric restaurants. Everywhere I saw folks I hadn’t seen since before Katrina. The wine director of a venerable dining institution, still sitting in the seat in the cellar where I last saw him. Since then, water, then heat, then mold, reduced the priceless assortment to an insurance claim. The accountants took the check and told the director to make the list look good. But they didn’t give him the money to do it. After a lifetime of cuddling and nurturing his collection, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Port, Madeira, Barolo, you name it. Now, the cages are empty. Like a wild dog pack wandering on a Godforsaken plain, silently wailing for their homeland. Unspoken memories of a better time reduced to a dirge heard by no one, save the lone stroller on a dark night in the dead of winter.

Another stroll to a wine shop. Along the way, the photography gallery that I knew and loved was missing. As were so many things in the city after the hurricane. “We lost two years of our lives, gone. For nine months we walked around our broken town, unable to comprehend what just happened. A cup of coffee, a box of nails, maybe some sheetrock. And then the waiting, for the government assistance, the insurance claims to be processed. We lost two years of our lives.” So one of the people I hadn’t seen since before 2005 told me.

The next dish arrived, a chilled soup. I ordered a Riesling. Cream, apple, no animal. The previous 24 hours provided with more than enough of animal, pulled pork, lavish and troppo, troppo. In the back of the lunch room earlier that day, I saw them bring in what looked like a body and set it on a table. We were in a butcher shop. I went back to see what was going on. As I walked in to see, a butcher was hacking off the head of the pig. I was reminded of one of those horrible Al Qaeda hostage videos. The assistant next to the butcher was preparing a spicy sauce and dipping bright red hot sauce into the mixing bowl. I ran into the bathroom, my nose started to bleed.

After that lunch, we made it to our next appointment with couple of bottles of Burgundy opened, a simple Beaune and a more elaborate Vosne-Romanee. At a shop, specializing in Burgundy, at the end of bus line somewhere on the other said of the large park.

There was a building, also renovated after the disaster, now filled with Burgundy and Barolo. People in this town still need to talk. “There was this guy, an accountant, who was always complaining about the city. He hated it, the crime, the corruption, the slow ways. And then Katrina came and washed him and his wife out of the city., Several years later I was talking to him on the phone, asking him how life was in Carolina or Virginia, or wherever he had made it to. He said he and his wife were homesick.”

The pasta dish is set before me, ribbons, brown butter, steaming, not too much. Nothing overdone. I ordered a glass of Verdelho, from California. The Scholium Project. The Cornellissen of California? It matched perfectly with the dish. I saw the sommelier dart through the dining room, tried to make eye contact.

Yes, I feel for you, New Orleans. And though many people have abandoned you, and even as folks return to visit and do their looky-loo, the lives of the people, those who stayed, they are the blood pumping life back into you.

The wine store owner needed me to know things. He opened up a 12 year bottle of Barolo to keep me from going back outside into the bitter cold that was coming off the Mississippi. We talked about the wine, I thought of the importer, whom friends tell me is Anti-Semetic. I wondered how much I knew of their feeling would affect the way I thought about the wine. A day before in an Italian spot, the gal who was cutting the prosciutto stopped for a moment to light the 7th candle on the menorah. And then placed it next to the prosciutto on the slicer.

The next dish arrived, a risotto. I had ordered a vegetarian (save the bacon amuse bouche) meal. I saw again the sommelier and asked the server if she could stop by. “She just left.” Really? I imagine she was still there, but didn’t press. What could we do, at this hour, anyway?

Folks I have been with, these past few days, they are the ones living it. Not the tourists, who, coming for their moment of debauch, still comment as they walk down the street and smell something not encountered behind their gated lives. “It smells like sewage, we must be in New Orleans.” Did I just hear that? Where have these people been the last five years? Would they have walked past the smoldering Twin Towers in October of 2001 and say, “Smells like burning flesh and gasoline, we must be in New York.” No, that would be considered profane and vulgar. But the bent little Crescent City will endure more onslaughts. And will rise higher than any man-made towers.

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