It was early afternoon on a gorgeous Spring Saturday in New Orleans and the days were just starting to feel warm, but not quite hot enough to have you dripping sweat after only dragging yourself off the couch long enough to get a nice, cold drink from the fridge. Shalom and I were lounging on the front porch of her half of a shotgun double on S. Saratoga Street, smoking cigarettes and sipping on our first cocktail of the day while watching the world roll by.
It wasn't long before we began to notice the strong scent of cooking coming from the other half of the house. As we sat there pondering what her neighbor was doing up so early (she worked night shifts in a nursing home), the tantalizing aroma just got stronger and stronger until my mouth was watering and Shalom's stomach began rumbling quite audibly. After a couple of hours, people passing by on the street would stop in front of the house, inhale deeply and inquire politely if there was a party going on. One laughing man on a bike said he smelled the food several blocks away and just followed his nose! We were just about ready to go next door, knock on the door and beg for scraps of whatever it was her neighbor was cooking, when the door opened on its own.
Miss Mary was a tall, older Creole woman with a commanding presence, brooking no nonsense from anyone, but always ready with a smile. She came out onto the porch knuckling her back and breathing in the afternoon air and we watched her, patiently waiting for her to notice us. I couldn't hold back any longer and blurted, "Miss Mary, what on heaven and earth have you been cooking in there?" She laughed and told us she was preparing food for a party later that night in honor of her nieces 18th birthday. Apparently, it was being held in the basement of a community center nearby and that hundreds of family and friends would be attending.
With a wave of her hand, she invited us inside to see what she was preparing. In Miss Mary's tiny kitchen, every available space was covered with food. There were layers of cookie sheets loaded with barbecue pork ribs and a huge, bubbling pot was on the stove filled with cooking oil, frying up the final batch of chicken wings and thighs. Large mixing bowls filled to the brim with potato salad covered the dining room table along with at least six, long Pyrex of dishes macaroni & cheese sitting side-by-side and several large pots of cooked rice rested on the hardwood floor. She even opened her oven to reveal four, gorgeous sweet potato pies glistening with a shiny, sugar crust that were almost done.
Basking in our awe and an image of confidence in her obvious culinary prowess, Miss Mary closed the oven door, turned to us and said, "Why don't you girls come along?"
We brought up our hands in protest, professing it wouldn't be right for us to crash a family event, stating that no one there but her would know us and we wouldn't want to cause any trouble, but thank you so kindly for inviting us...but all to no avail. "I insist," Miss Mary said, "you two young ladies will be my guests and no one will say otherwise when you're with me, don't you worry about it."
Later that night as we sat and watched the guests do the "Electric Slide" and saw our very first example of New Orleans "Bounce", the huge basement filled with guests and those who weren't dancing, were eating. I plowed my way through several pieces of perfectly fried chicken, some spicy barbeque ribs, mounds of potato salad and collard greens, a bowl of chicken and sausage jambalaya, a small bowl of rich gumbo, sweet cornbread slathered with butter and last, but certainly not least, a healthy slice of Miss Mary's perfect, sweet potato pie. Everyone was laughing, talking, recalling the days when the birthday girl was only a baby, sharing food, praising the cooks and going out of their way to shake hands, give out warm hugs and many a kiss on the cheek.
I realized I was witnessing something wonderful and rarely seen by an outsider. I had experienced the full warming effect of soul food.
Though the encounter might not resemble what I described, there are lots of fabulous restaurants in New Orleans that serve soul food straight from the heart and you would would be lacking taste buds not to recognize it. People all over the country know of the fantastic fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House or the Gumbo Z'Herbes at Dookie Chase, but there are a couple of hidden gems I visited that had me reminiscing that first experience.
About a week ago, I visited Two Sisters Restaurant located on Derbigny Street in the (recently) highly televised Treme district. Known widely as a source for some of the best "soul food " in the city, Two Sisters offers up dishes like turkey necks, collard greens, cornbread and oxtails. While there, I enjoyed a huge plate of crispy, deep fried chicken where the juicy, tender meat was practically falling off the bone. It was accompanied by a huge mound of buttery mac & cheese, well-seasoned green beans, long-grained rice, and sweet potatoes. My braver dining companion feasted on the rich, dark meat from turkey necks and the rest of his plate was filled with home made red beans & rice. Both of our plates came with two cornbread muffins topped with butter and a big scoop of creamy potato salad. It was a pleasurable shock to notice that our low priced tab for such a huge quantity of food.
Another great spot is Dunbar's Creole Cooking, a hidden gem secluded in one of Loyola Universities' cafeterias Uptown on Pine Street. Though I've head locals gush about their smothered okra. wondrous gumbo and fantastic fried chicken, it was a different, yet nonetheless delicious dish being offered when I visited. The lunch plate of the day was a delicious smothered pork chop with rice, candied yams, mustard greens and a large, square hunk of cornbread.
Though I've visited these places and was delighted by the food, I have still not experienced anything quite like that fateful evening in Spring so long ago. One thing's for sure, I'll be hard pressed to find anything that even comes close to Miss Mary's sweet potato pie...not to mention Miss Mary herself.