FORTY-THREE down and five to go. In the 43 days since New Orleans' pre-Mardi Gras partyseason began, the city has waded through a hundred or more parties and balls, now has only five more nights of midnight suppers with 4 a.m. finales to last through before it turns the city over to tourists fresh and ready for celebrating next Tuesday.
That's when the locals go home to recuperate. "We close," says David Gooch of Galatoire's restaurant. Business starts dropping off over the weekend, he explains, because "the locals won't put up with the noise of Mardi Gras." Besides, the tourists eat mostly hot dogs anyway.
Tony Moran's two restaurants "close -- except for the bar," says the owner-chef, who has been cooking in New Orleans "since I was old enough to walk." Next Tuesday is hardly a public eating holiday, Moran scoffs -- "No, it's strictly drinking."
The locals hole up at home, eating hamburgers and potato salad or maybe go so far as to serve grillades (veal cutlets cooked in tomato sauce), grits and red beans or black-eyed peas, as the Galatoire family will do. It's a quiet time -- and for good reason.
Officially New Orleans started celebrating on Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, when the first host served the first king cake -- a round coffeecake with a small porcelain doll hidden inside and decorated with sugar in the purple, green and gold colors of Mardi Gras. And that night the first king -- or queen -- was designated by finding the porcelain doll in his piece, and was thereby charged with giving the next party, where the next king cake would identify the next party-giver, and so on until the Lenten reprieve. That's how the chain of events goes.
La Marquise, New Orleans' only French bakery, ordered 3,000 porcelain dolls from Limoges, France, in anticipation of this year's parties. One bakery reported selling 15,000 king cakes a season. And bakeries all over town have been baking king cakes -- maybe with American coffeecake dough rather than the brioche dough La Marquise uses, perhaps with plastic dolls rather than porcelain -- but always in that inevitable round shape and always requiring yet another party in the wake of each.
Caterer Bertha Pichon, dubbed "the kosher queen of New Orleans" and often hired as party-maker for Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial and other politicians, has been booked solid for the last two weeks. Tonight, at the mayor's party for perhaps 1,000 people, she will set out two tables of roast beef and two of glazed corned beef (a trademark she has developed from 24 years of kosher catering). An oyster bar will serve 15 gallons -- that's perhaps 4,000 oysters. So far it sounds like a party anywhere. But only in New Orleans would you expect to find fried catfish and oyster patties, which are small cups of toasted French bread filled with oysters and mushroom sauce, the sauce alone requiring a gallon of the roux that is a New Orleans tradition.
If roux, the long-cooked browned-flour thickener, is the alpha of Creole cooking, pepper is its omega. Even in an ordinary month, Pichon uses about three pounds of pepper in her catering. Her garage kitchen is an ethnic hodgepodge, with a case of Tabasco, nine boxes of pepper -- black and red -- plus non-dairy creamer and matzo meal.
"I'm a very pepperish caterer," says Pichon, who also looks a rather pixyish caterer. "The people here in New Orleans like a little extra taste." But she does not pepper merely with abandon; there are rules to be considered. She uses crushed pepper rather than cayenne in her eggplant casserole, for instance, since cayenne evenly flavors the whole dish, and in this dish the pepper is "just supposed to come up every now and then."
Even in her kosher catering, Pichon, who learned to cook from her mother and started cooking for her 10 siblings at an early age, retains strong Creole overtones. "I kinda created kosher dishes," she says. "Basically I am a Creole cook." She cooks her red beans with beef frankfurters (explaining that red beans are not really for celebrations but mostly for fund-raisers) and glazes corned beef like ham. Oysters being verboten for kosher occasions, she serves trout rockefeller at bar mitzvahs. For her younger son's wedding, she touched all bases with one buffet table of stuffed crabs, another of lox and bagels.
Pichon dances as she cooks; in fact, she taught a friend to dance one day by handing her a spoon and demonstrating at the stove. She looks younger than her age, which she insists must be off the record; suffice it to say that her 31-year-old daughter and two sons, age 24 and 30, who help her run the business, were born when she was very young.
When Pichon, having to support three children, decided to become a kosher caterer, she went to work as a maid in Orthodox Jewish homes to learn the rules and to gain acceptance in handling kosher food. "The hardest thing to learn," she recalled, "was how to convince a rabbi that I wanted to be a kosher caterer." Her first kosher meal was red beans and rice, and smothered cabbage made with corned beef. By now she makes knishes, kugels and Passover desserts. And she serves kosher corned beef for the mayor's Mardi Gras ball.
Mayor Morial gets good Creole food for breakfast and lunch at his office as well these days, since he hired Agnes Johnson last March as an administrative aide responsible for the cooking at City Hall. But in the New Orleans tradition, Johnson is closing up shop on Mardi Gras day and staying home to cook for her family.
Johnson, like Pichon, learned Creole cooking from her mother, and was cooking for her family by age 16. But she came to catering late, only after she had retired from 35 years of teaching kindergarten. As a schoolteacher, Johnson taught recipes no more elaborate than peanut butter sandwiches and applesauce to her young students. But though she lives alone, she has always cooked for 20 people at least once a week, and cooks the weekend and holiday meals for her extended family. Small and frail, she doesn't look like an eater. But sleeping and waking she is a cook: "At night when I'd go to bed I'd think of something I'd want to cook. And I'd get up the next day and try it. If it didn't come out right the first time, it worked the second or third time."
In true New Orleans style, she serves an army-size pot of gumbo for three people, insisting, "You cannot make a little gumbo." And Johnson has more rules than a kindergarten teacher for the making of gumbo. File' gumbo -- thickened with powdered sassafras leaves -- is winter gumbo, she says, and is made with more ingredients, in her case veal, shrimp, oysters, crabs, hot sausage, smoked sausage and chicken. Okra gumbo is summer gumbo; it is cooling. Johnson's gumbo is mild and intricate, and famous in New Orleans. "I fry the meat -- that's the secret," reveals Johnson. Then she browns the roux for about five minutes before returning the meat and other ingredients to the pot.
Actually, she has a few other, less duplicable secrets. Not only does Johnson make her own hot sausage (which is based on veal and resembles blood sausage), but she uses freshly ground file' from her aunt's sassafras tree, and other relatives provide her with their freshly ground cayenne.
Johnson is a lady with a strong sense of Southern tradition. On her side table are four books: two New Orleans cookbooks, "Gone with the Wind" and "Roots." Hanging in a metal mesh basket in her kitchen are not onions, but sweet potatoes and mirlitons, those knobby pale green squash also known as chayotes.
For the mayor's breakfasts she serves good old fashioned grits, eggs, pork sausage, biscuits and preserves. Lunch, however, is lighter. "I've only cooked red beans once since I was there," she admits, adding that the mayor eagerly indulges in her pecan pie.
She is also firm about her traditional cooking techniques. "Most people don't wash their grits, but I do," she declares. And about red beans: "My red beans are creamier than Buster's," referring to Buster Holmes, who makes perhaps the most famous red beans in New Orleans in his corner luncheonette. With her red beans she cooks celery, onion, garlic, parsley, bay leaf and sometimes ham. Red beans, she insists, are the dish for Mardi Gras. "Just about everybody in the city, if they cook, that's what they cook that day."
One Mardi Gras, however, Johnson made up a new dish -- of mixed greens -- and it was a hit. And that's what she will cook for this year's Mardi Gras, for her mother's open house: a big pot of red beans, rice, her mixed greens, potato salad, maybe turkey. And, of course, hamburgers and hot dogs.
AGNES JOHNSON'S FILE GUMBO (20 or more servings) Oil for sauteeing 2 pounds stewing veal, cut into cubes 1 1/2 pounds chicken wings 1 thick slice raw ham 1 cup flour, approximately 2 large onions, chopped 6 large cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup parsley, chopped 3 bay leaves 1 pound hot sausage, cubed 1 pound smoked sausage, cubed 1 1/2 pounds crabs, cut in pieces (substitute 1/2 pound crab meat) 1/2 pound ring bologna, cubed (optional) 2 dozen oysters with their juices 2 pounds shrimp, peeled Salt and pepper to taste File' powder, about 2 tablespoons
In enough oil to film the bottom of a pan brown the veal, chicken wings and ham. Remove meats. In remaining fat stir flour, slowly letting it color to a rich, dark brown, stirring it constantly. Add onion, garlic and parsley and saute' until browned. Return meat to pot and add water to about 2 inches from top of pot and bay leaves. Simmer for 1 hour. Add smoked and hot sausage, crabs and bologna. Simmer about 45 minutes. Add oysters and shrimp, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer another 30 to 45 minutes. When ready to serve, stir in file' powder to thicken. Be careful not to add too much file' or to let the gumbo boil after adding it. Serve in large, deep bowls with rice.
AGNES JOHNSON'S STEWED SWEET POTATOES (6 servings) 1/2 cup butter 4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1 1/2 cups sugar (or less, to taste) 2 teaspoons cinnamon 2 cups water, approximately
Melt butter over medium heat. Add sweet potatoes and sugar and cook until tender. Add water and cinnamon. Simmer 30 minutes.
MIXED GREENS AGNES (10 servings) 2 bunches spinach 1 bunch turnip greens 1 bunch mustard greens 1 bunch collard greens 1 thick slice pickled pork or raw ham Oil for sauteeing 2 large onions, chopped 5 cloves garlic, minced 2 stalks celery, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon red pepper
Pick over and thoroughly wash spinach and other greens. Put greens with water still clinging to their leaves in a pot with the pork and cook until tender. Remove meat from the pot and fry it in a little oil until browned. Reserve. In enough oil to film bottom of the pan saute' onions, garlic and celery until wilted. Add greens and pork and enough water to barely cover the greens. Simmer for 45 minutes. Add salt and red pepper to taste. Simmer another 15 minutes. Serve hot.
BERTHA PICHON'S OYSTER DRESSING (Enough for 1 5- to 6-pound roasting chicken) 1/2 pound stale bread 1 quart oysters, drained and their liquid reserved 1 pound ground beef 1 small onion, chopped fine 1/2 cup celery, chopped fine 1/3 cup oil 2 cloves garlic, finely minced 1/2 green pepper, chopped fine 1 bunch scallions, chopped fine Up to 2 tablespoons butter if necessary 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper Crushed red pepper to taste (optional)
Tear the bread into small pieces and pour over it the oyster juices and enough water to make 2 cups liquid. Mix in ground beef. Set aside. Saute' onions and celery in oil until soft. Add garlic and green pepper and continue to saute' until they are softened. Turn the bread and ground beef mixture into the pan and cook for about 20 minutes. Add scallions and continue to cook 20 minutes longer. If the mixture seems dry, add the butter. Roughly chop oysters (not in a food processor or blender, but with a large knife). Add to stuffing mixture and simmer 3 to 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and crushed red pepper if desired.
Use to stuff a 5- to 6-pound roasting chicken or a breast of veal. It could also be put in a casserole and topped with bread crumbs, then baked until the bread crumbs are browned. It is also delicious used as a stuffing for boned chicken breasts, which are then baked at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.
NEW ORLEANS PECAN PIE (Makes 1 pie)
Pastry: 2 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup butter or shortening (or use half of each) 5 tablespoons water
Filling: 1/2 cup dark corn syrup 1 cup sugar 1 cup pecans Dash of salt 4 tablespoons butter 3 large eggs, well beaten
For the pastry, sift flour and salt into bowl. Cut in shortening with two knives until fat is well coated with flour mixture. Use fingers to mix until it forms small pieces. Add a little water and mix quickly with fingers. Add more water if needed for a firm dough. Knead dough on a floured board until smooth. Wrap in waxed paper and chill for 1/2 hour. Roll out and fit into a 9-inch pie pan.
For the filling, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, mixing well. Pour into pie shell and bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.