Friday, September 25, 2009

Of Holidays, Serendipity & the Green Goddess

If you grew up in those parts of the world that still hold onto trappings of the British Raj, you grew up thinking that a sign of cultured success was the family holiday home up in the hills or by the beach.

Alternatively, if you grew up in said Imperial Angrezi shadow but did your best to moderately protest such faux-pucca behavior, you and your parents shied away from a holiday home and instead returned to your grandparent’s place: an ancestral, mosquito-infested location where huge stainless steel tins of paapad were passed around and your uncles all had stories about every room and every wall, stories that got progressively bawdier as summer evenings wore on till your elder brother kicked you out of the room while he stayed put in a corner, the surreptitious bastard.

However—None of this holds true any longer. Liberalized global economies, stricter leave policies and those nifty mid-week discounts from travel sites mean that Heraclitus (a chap who had an incredibly hard time at school, I suspect) is your daddy; all you can do is get in short bursts of vivid experience every time your two weeks come around (unless you’re a bureaucrat or are French in which case mille pardons, you lucky sot.)

Right now, it’s not how well you know a place, it’s how many places you’ve been to—A night in Belgrade, three days in San Diego with cousins, an afternoon in Cannes, one in Catania and if it’s Tuesday it might as well be Belgium. One is made to feel there's something almost provincial about eternally returning to a single favourite holiday spot nowadays, my friend. Provincial and limiting.

Well then, if to be counter-culture these days is to swim against this tide of short trips and frequent flyer miles, I am the veritable Abbie Hoffman of holiday-making, the Timothy Leary of trip-planning. I’ll even say it--

My name is Priyanka Joseph and I’m an addict. It’s been four years since I first visited New Orleans, and I have been skulking back every summer since.

No one understands it much, except those wasafiri who tumble from all over the globe into New Orleans and have stayed put ever since. Home-grown locals are even more big-hearted than they usually are when they realize you’re in town for more than a photo-op or “material” for your next “piece”. Mid-Westerners and kids on Spring Break anxiously look away when you shoot the Death Stare at their year-round Mardi Gras beads, their Made in China feather boas sold up and down the outer streets of the French Quarter by enterprising second-generation Bengalis and Gujaratis.

And no, that is not a stereotype. All the Indian vendors I’ve run into in New Orleans have proudly attested to their regional identities while discussing mine in the same breath, bless their little hearts. They sit there smiling, the aunties and Uncles, amid the plastic boob necklaces, imitation hash pipes and epithet-tinged T-shirts while they wish you a good day after surreptitiously giving you a 10% discount. Don’t count on it happening often though—An Indian businesswoman will get carried away by that special brand of southern voodoo once or twice, but you must be quick: it is accompanied only by one or two subtle signs. Blink twice and it vanishes.

Most surreal events and places in Nola are accompanied only by one or two subtle signs.

For instance, no good bar in the French Quarter, dive or posh, is well-lit.

If the bar-tender is dressed fancy and you see bright lights, you’re in a tourist spot and unless you wish to invite my Death Stare, get out! This of course, is true only of establishments in the French Quarter. The Garden District, St. Charles and the CBD are where the smart young things of New Orleans go, and where like most smart young things anywhere else in the world, they enjoy the fixings that go with these more refined neighborhoods.

I stick to the French Quarter because visiting it every year is like meeting only the most beloved members of your family at Christmas except it’s summer in June and they’re not your family-- they’re members of an intimate, energetic, human circus who you know all by name and the moment you enter Bourbon Street you’re in it, Second Lining along with everyone else. The French Quarter is the last bastion of the city’s variegated past, and in every crack and courtyard, along every open drain and broken tile-work half-restored, in every old wall and re-painted sign the well-worn familiarity of a grand-parent reaches out to you.

And it’s not some secret club. Like a finely-trained acrobat, courtesan, juggler and the world’s greatest storyteller rolled into one, the Quarter draws you in only as far as you will go. A big hearted city, the biggest hearted in the States.

There, I said it.

The only folk disapproved of are posers and those who don’t know how to have a good time, and even they are tolerated till they try to pay their bill using a library card. Despite all the touristy trappings, besides all the people who show up figuring they’re going to be blessed with boobs, beads, cheap booze and perhaps even a piece of humanity culled from the hunks of Katrina debris, usually made up of narrated memories, water-marks and faded X’s on front doors, little souvenirs they can pack away with their shot glasses to put up on their mantelpiece in Middle Class, Anywhere—Despite all these little clichés, the City and the Quarter still find ways of sneaking into my heart with their secrets, year after year, every year closer still till the imprints they leave are like the toe-marks inside your oldest and most favored pair of chappals.

This year, the most vivid imprint I carried away from the city was of a meal I had at a small, privately run establishment that had only recently opened at the time. A meal that would have never happened if it wasn’t for a little web 2.0 magic.

Late on the Sunday afternoon that was our last day in the city, we sat in a Rue St. Anne hotel room and reviewed our list of Nola restaurants yet-to-be-experienced. Yes, there still was the old guard, the ones we always walked past and nodded a salutation to, the historical origins of fine dining in the city: Arnaud’s, Olivier’s, Brennan’s, Antoine’s, Broussard’s, GW Fins, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace. Legends are still told in the street regarding secretly guarded recipes, privately owned smoke-houses and the sort of tidbit goodness of the kind that could redeem your soul with a first-taste and cast you into hell at the exact same time for the lust surging in every fiber of your being at the mere mention of the Crabes mous amandine (Antoine’s) or the Wood Grilled Mississippi Redfish (G.W Fins’). And yes, this particular alchemy is not brought on by food alone.

The Big Easy is a human city. One that’s been torn apart several times in its history, by moral policing, race-oriented government policies, corruption, industry shifts, climate change and hurricane seasons. There’s so much of feeling up and down streets here that the air, especially in the hot, still summer thrums against your skin and you might just find yourself bursting into tears at the sound the old jazz-men of the Preservation Hall band make when they get into When the Saints go Marching in or Swing low, Sweet Chariot , or the insistent notes of the calliope coming off the Steamboat Natchez, for no other reason than this, this particular moment brought everything treasured about your childhood back to you in a single rush of merry-go-round sound. Oh there’s some strong stuff floating about, but that last Sunday didn’t feel like a day for reflecting on the past.

The day before, we had met and struck up an instant friendship with two transplanted locals, one a photographer and the other, a guide for the Haunted History tours. Both fantastic people, and that long afternoon spent in Pirates Alley is one of my happiest memories of New Orleans till date. We wanted more of that: to meet the people who have made this city their home to live and work in because there is no other place like it on earth. I was just about to sign out of Gmail when an email popped up from a dear friend in Madras, who declared that Neil Gaiman had delivered (pardon) an easter egg via Twitter, stating that if one was in New Orleans, one should up and over to the Green Goddess and pronounce the words, ‘Mezze of Destruction’.


Now one suspects that Mr. Gaiman is an honorable man, all things considered. Couldn’t help but wonder what spot that phrase could get me into though. A simple Google search brought up Chef DeBarr's livejournal and the restaurant's website. It didn't take long to realize we'd be dining at the table of chefs who did things with ingredients that Da Vinci did with set squares and a single argyle sock. Strangely, the place was a only street away. No one at the hotel had heard of it but we were far too hungry to be scared off. I put their lack of knowledge down to the fact the website said it had only opened a month previous to our arrival.

In a matter of minutes, there it was: a snug warm place opposite the Pelican Club. Dim lighting, check. No fancy outfits inside, check. In fact, since we were dining late on a Sunday night, no one else but us, either. Two apron-wearing men stood behind a counter, staring at us while we stared at them.

The first thing you notice is that you aren't treated as customers, cash cows or outsiders even, which are types of treatment you can receive elsewhere in the city, especially in the Quarter. And who can blame a body? Tourists truck in with their frozen daiquiris, their cargo shorts and their cranky toddlers and demand ketchup on a po-boy, jambalaya without rabbit and crawfish étouffée without crawfish.

But that hasn't bothered the proprietors of the Green Goddess. The moment we stepped in, we were treated as co-conspirators, as if there was a great game afoot that we could be a part of if we wanted to.

It was hard to whisper anything to a server, let alone a password, because there was Chef DeBarr, standing two feet away and asking what we were in the mood for. Also, there’s no polite way of vocalizing a password days. You can’t sit there with your knees politely together and murmur some rubbish in someone's ear. I laconically blurted out-- “By the way, I was told to say ‘Mezze of Destruction’!" before half-ducking under our table, ready for anything—an explosion, a dancing ferret, a talk-show host, a well-aimed wok. Instead, we were greeted by Chef DeBarr’s warm chuckle.

“Ah, so Neil sent you then? The Mezz! That's great-- Well, for today we have a variation on the Pimm's cup. Why don't you sit down, anywhere you want to.” He then proceeded to tell us that the easter egg was a little agreement Mr. Gaiman and he had going, a personal nod from his side to the Sandman book, Brief Lives. As he moved behind the bar with all the grace of a minuet dancer, he began throwing ingredient names at us, juggling them back and forth as he sliced fresh cucumbers fine, and mixed this most delicious summer concoction: according to Chef DeBarr, their Pimm's Cup is based on the British gin-based liqueur and is a wonderful summertime cocktail which always features a cucumber in the drink:

The Green Goddess at that time hadn’t a liquor license, a smallish hurdle only for the chefs at GG and one that has long since been removed. Chef DeBarr mixed us non-alcoholic cocktail juices the entire evening though, an intrepid taste-bud extravaganza that when savored felt like the best parts of Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss shaken together then served over ice.

From that moment on, we had Chef DeBarr’s undivided attention, which is the sort of exquisite pleasure that comes to you only thrice in your life, usually when you’re too young to understand the significance of what is happening. He brought out a salad to us, that in itself was an invocation to the little GG shrine up on the wall. In a vain attempt to partake of it in a civilized manner, we stared up at the intricate, beautiful patterns on the ceiling and examined the mystic, curly-ended cutlery, quickly realizing why Mr. Gaiman might like this place. Little did I know that this was only the beginning...

While poring over the menu-- rich with local produce and fresh ingredients-- we were told why this heirloom tomato was used, what that sausage tasted like and where it was made, and how the thai basil seed drink could just be the greatest invention, juice-wise, to ever come out of that lovely land.
The whole thing was a play, a musical in four acts from aperitif to dessert, and the wonderful staff at GG were star performers executing complex routines between kitchen, bar and our table, while stories were exchanged across the room: Chef’s admiration for Bengali five spice powder and his awareness of the merits of uthappam, our confused chorus of Indian dishes we love, Coop’s on Decatur and how on earth did you flavour gulf shrimp in this immortal fashion? What powers do you hide?

So we didn’t really say the last two, just mumbled our appreciation while wondering at our luck. Our next course consisted of a plate of beautiful duck and pork sausages served with sweet potatoes, a Southern-style bangers & mash entrée--

-- and a plump, stuffed pupusa:

During the beautiful meal he served us, Chef DeBarr told us in his quiet way about why he felt the city needed a place like GG, why he loved to cook, why he believed menus needed to change with the seasons as well as the current times: he mentioned a special Persian tasting menu he was putting together for July 4th in honor of the brave folk in Iran who were standing up for their basic freedoms and the right to a just political process. Our little way, he said, of standing with them. The man is intense the way only someone who enjoys what he does, where he does it and lives that passion everyday can be.

I wanted to bring him the cinnamon my aunt brought back for my mother from an ancestral tree in Kerala. I wanted to bring him Kalpana aunty’s maami’s sambhar podi. I wanted to say here, see these are all the tastes that have ever meant something to me: what can you make with them?

Came this close to making a blubbering fool of myself. Thankfully, the GG lassi saved the day, a sobering, cooling, cinnamon-salt rimmed reminder that the Green Goddess restaurant is something good that will last a long while, something we can return to again and again.

So don’t look at lists of what to do in New Orleans. If you’re a list person, go to Disney World. They’ll love you there. Once you step out of the shuttle bus or taxi onto cobbled or paved street, breathe in deep. That mix of smells, warm, turgid and inviting, part slow-cooking roux, part day-old underage puke, part unsolved murder, part sweat, part summer garbage, part heavy river, part dust, part dead, part Jazz trio playing till 3am, part Gulf Coast breeze over the Metairie Cemetery and all these people who come here for shelter, inspiration, comfort and carnival, year in and year out—This is what I call my spiritual home, while India’s an ocean away, chasing its tail in an attempt to catch up with the glitz and glamor of what is presumed to be the Good Life as per syndicated media reports, while a beautiful magic thrives in a city that even some natives of this continent will never have the pleasure of knowing as intimately as this mere provincial addict does.

Take it from a doubly Southern girl—Sometimes the best place to holiday in is the one you can come home to with just a single step off a plane.