In Remembrance

Man reading newspaper and me

WTC Plaza, November of 1985, bronze statue of man reading newspaper (I am unable to find the name of this piece or the artist, although it is similar to The Man with Briefcase by Seward Johnson, which was found in the debris after 9-11)

On a recent Saturday morning, my husband presented me with several boxes of “stuff” from the garage and politely asked me to go through them. I believe my agreement to do so was in part due to some compromise where he agreed to do something for me that he didn’t want to do either. And so it goes in our 28-year old marriage: I’ll do this if you’ll do that.

In one of the boxes I was surprised to find a few items from my childhood. Not much, however, due to the fact that most of my childhood memorabilia was stolen from my parents’ house by Hurricane Katrina, who had the unbelievable gall to take their house as well.

The first item to surface was a page of poetry, written by me on my portable (manual) typewriter. Somewhere around 5th grade I had hoped and prayed that Santa would bring me a typewriter for Christmas. One of the first things I typed was the lyrics to a song I had made-up while riding my bike to and from the swimming pool across the street from my house. Sadly, that page was not among these papers, but I did find this page of seven short poems, neatly typed out in two columns. As much as I aspire to being a published author, I don’t think a book of poetry is in the cards. In analyzing these poems of a young Michelle, I did note some commonalities that exist in all grown-up Michelle: my love of rice, my desire to travel to foreign lands, my love of reading and being near water, deep feelings for my friend Marian, an obsession with yarn (still an issue), and cats!

Tucked behind the poetry was a torn scrap of green notepaper containing what can best be described as a short ode to my favorite time of day. This little gem is in my own handwriting, and while I can tell it is from when I was young because of the affected way in which I made the cursive uppercase “L”, I seem to already have sensed that returning home after a long day of work is the perfect time of day.

Digging further in this box of treasures I found a short story featuring as the main characters the two little girls who lived across the street from me in 1985. They were next door neighbors and best friends, and when I moved into a small rental house across the street from them, they “adopted” me as one of their own. Some days they spent more time at my little house on Robert Street than in their very own dwellings! In a nod to e e cummings, this little short story contains no uppercase letters. The short story doesn’t bear a title, but after reading it after all these years, I decided to call it “mimi and the tube steaks”.

IBMSelectricIITypewriterOperatingInstructionsI don’t remember actually writing that story, but I do remember, even then—more than thirty years ago—that in my little house on Robert Street, I had converted a walk-in closet in the hallway into a small writing studio. I moved the linens and cleaning supplies to the bathroom and cleared out the other junk that had found its way in there. I went to a thrift store in town and swapped an old beat-up chest of drawers for a small desk. It fit nicely under the shelving on the back wall of the walk-in closet. I ran an extension cord from my bedroom into the closet and hooked it up to a desk lamp and my IBM Selectric typewriter that my boss had given me when the first word processors were being brought into the law firm where I worked. I had visions of manuscripts lining the shelves, patiently awaiting their publication and eventual placement on the New York Times Best Seller List. Update: Has. Not. Happened. (Yet.)

Me on top of Empire State Building

Observation Deck, Empire State Building, November of 1985

The last notable item in the box of junk from the garage was a piece of my writing also from 1985, handwritten on pages torn from a yellow legal pad. Again, I don’t remember writing this, and frankly, I was rather shocked by it as I was reading it. It obviously is a reflection on NYC after my very first visit there in November of 1985. I managed to find photos from that trip that document visually what I wrote about in this piece. With the 16th anniversary of 9-11 in just one month, I share with you today (unedited) my thoughts on the majestic twin towers of the World Trade Center, as I reflected on them in 1985.

I recently returned from a trip to New York City. It was my first time in the “big apple” and so many things rushed through my senses, I felt the need to gather my thoughts on paper.

Atop WTC

Observation Deck of World Trade Center, NYC, November of 1985

My first impression was of the massiveness of the buildings. The streets – both sides – are crowded with them, like soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, single file, with their proud heads stretching upward to the sky. Some soldiers are taller than others, they are the young ones, new to the streets, each trying to grow taller than their neighbor. There amongst all of them are the twins, the tallest of all—the World Trade Center, with its two mighty towers, 108 stories high. The elevator ride to the observation deck is in itself comparable to a ride at the amusement park. Once on the top floor, one can walk the perimeter of the building—which is totally encased in glass. The eerie feeling of being that high struck me immediately. I had to sit on one of the metal benches which lined the windows around the top floor. After catching my breath, I began to walk around—I am certain my mouth was gaping open—the site of New York City spread out before me was astonishing. The image was no longer of soldiers standing single file, but of a mob of intense people, huddled together, awaiting the coming of some main event.

Brooklyn Bridge from WTC

View of Brooklyn Bridge from atop the WTC, NYC, November of 1985

When an old soldier can no longer march to today’s fast tempo, when the maintenance and replacement of his old “parts” is too costly—he is laid to rest, with the help of a wrecking crew and demolition equipment. And then as quickly as the old soldier leaves; a new, young soldier springs to attention in his place. He wedges himself into the same tired space, bringing new spirit, new architecture, new faces to the street. It is impossible to imagine creating a new structure in NYC, with its crowded streets, the throngs of people rushing, rushing, rushing everywhere. How does the heavy equipment arrive on the scene?

Anne and me in front of The Sphere in WTC Plaza

In front of The Sphere in WTC Plaza, with Anne, November of 1985

How is the concrete foundation poured? How do the large trucks of supplies make their way amidst the thousands of taxi cabs and hundreds of buses? Ah, but everything is possible in NYC. And, soon, the young, tall, proud soldier makes his way among the other giants. People scurry in and out of his revolving doors, up and down his escalators and elevators shopping, typing, learning, serving the millions of New Yorkers and visitors each day.

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Turning the Tables

The first time I really felt like a grown-up was when my parents came to spend the weekend with me in my tiny studio apartment. I cleaned like a fiend all week, shopped for all my dad’s favorite foods, changed the sheets and made my bed like a hospital orderly (I would be sleeping on my couch), and planned out every single cup of coffee, snack, and meal. I made sure I had some new magazines on the coffee table for my mom to flip through while watching tv, and I also put a fresh roll of toilet paper on the night table by my bed for her to use to “wrap her hair” before bed. When the weekend had come to an end, after morning Mass on Sunday and a nice lunch out compliments of my dad, I remember feeling completely drained, totally exhausted.

After that first time, and soon married with children, I always loved when they came to visit me, and I always felt so grown-up and responsible, taking care of their needs, taking my mom shopping at her favorite stores, taking them to Mass at our parish church where we knew everyone and everyone knew us. Years and years later, when they came to stay with me for a few weeks after having lost every single thing they owned in Hurricane Katrina, I fretted over them to the same degree, but that time it was out of deep concern and compassion for what they were experiencing. My parents are both gone from this world, hopefully enjoying eternal life and true peace after so much hardship, illness, and personal tragedy.

This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Pittsburgh to visit our older daughter. We stayed in a hotel Saturday night, had a wonderful meal Saturday night to celebrate Father’s Day and her birthday a bit early, met her for Mass on Sunday morning, and then enjoyed a nice lunch before my husband headed back home to Maryland. I stayed behind and spent the night in her apartment, as we are about to embark on our first ever mother-daughter trip. My daughter has a conference in Niagara Falls, and since I am out of school for the summer, I am tagging along.

Yesterday after my husband left us, we went out to do a bit of shopping. She took me to the two places I needed to go to pick up items I had mentioned I wanted, knitting needles and flip flops. Neither was absolutely necessary but she drove me around and waited patiently while I made my purchases. After a lovely dinner at the home of her friend’s parents, we returned to her apartment and watched tv and chatted. She fussed over me, made me a cup of tea, and after some wrangling, I convinced her to let me sleep on the couch since she had to rise early and dress for work today.

Today I have enjoyed a quiet and peaceful day alone in her lovely apartment, reading and doing a bit of writing. While saying my morning prayers, I prayed for my brother-in-law who is ill, in thanksgiving for my husband’s safe return home, and for my parents whom I miss greatly. As always, I also thanked God for the gift of my two beautiful daughters, now grown-ups living off on their own, far away from home, working and making a life for themselves. Being a guest in my daughter’s apartment has brought me much joy and a fond remembrance of hosting my own parents over the years. The tables have indeed turned.

To sleep, perchance to dream . . .

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2002 Pulitzer Prize, Spot News Photography, Steve Ludlum, New York Times

On the morning of September 11, 2001, before all Hell broke loose, I was at my desk working on a lease agreement for a tenant moving into one of the shopping centers managed by the company where I worked. As I worked, writing and editing legal language to insert into the document, I could hear people talking about an accident. We had an open office environment, and while I was enclosed in a cubicle, it had no ceiling or door. I was used to tuning out, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the conversations of my co-workers. I could hear talk of a plane crashing into a building in NYC. Voices around me became more and more agitated, however, so I got up to investigate what was going on. Within minutes, no one was working; everyone was congregating in the hallways or hovering over someone’s shoulder as they frantically searched the internet for the latest news. Someone shouted that the big screen projector in the board room was showing live feed from CNN so I rushed there. As I entered the board room, the second plane was hitting the second building. Then I heard that a truck bomb had crashed into the State Department, one of the many horrific examples of misinformation from that day among the many horrific examples of actual true information. Two planes crashing in NYC is one thing, but a truck bomb at the State Department meant that it had struck closer to home, so I ran back to my cubicle, grabbed my purse, and ran to my car. I had three goals as I tore out of the parking lot: pick up my daughters from school, make contact with my husband,  and call my parents.

There was no traffic yet but it took me many, many tries to get through to my husband on my cell phone, who only said, “I’m okay, gotta go,” and many, many more tries to get to my parents. My mother informed me that they were about to get on the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans, heading to a doctor’s appointment. I told them to pull over and not get on the bridge, and to turn around and go home. Was whatever was happening going on in other major cities? NYC and DC, perhaps New Orleans, too?

I was among the first of parents arriving at my daughters’ school, as I was only three miles away. I went immediately to the office where the school secretary told me, “Just wait here, the principal is speaking to the middle school students. We’ll get your girls in a minute.” No questions asked, she knew I was there to pick them up and get them home where I hoped we would all be safe from whatever was going on.

In the car I explained to them the basics, which was all I really knew at that point: two planes had crashed into two buildings in NYC, and there were all sorts of stories of bad things happening elsewhere, including in DC. Once home, I told them no TV but they could watch a Disney movie or go to the den to play. They were 11 and 9 at the time, and they did as I asked. I had planned to make lasagna for dinner that night so I decided I would go ahead and do that while I waited for further news from my husband. At this point it was virtually impossible to get through to anyone on the phone, landline or mobile. Being in the kitchen, making lasagna, gave me something to do.

As I finished up the lasagna and popped it in the oven, my husband got home. He told me what he knew, and we watched the news for a bit. At that point, the Pentagon had already been attacked, and the plane heading back to DC had crashed in Pennsylvania. A wave of fatigue swept over me, and I literally felt as though I might just collapse. So, I went to bed. I set the timer for the lasagna, told my husband to take it out when it was done, and I fell into a deep, deep sleep.

roy blanchard napping

My dad and one of his famous naps in 1990, Mozart keeping watch

For me, going to sleep in the face of such tragedy and chaos was not new. On November 22, 1963, I was in the second grade. Sometime just after lunch, there was a knock on my classroom door. My teacher went to the door and spoke to someone in the hall. When she came back into our classroom, she looked upset. She told us to put our heads down on our desks and sit silently until she told us we could sit back up. So, we did just that. Eventually, one by one, we were called out into the hallway, to be collected by our mothers, who had rushed to the school as soon as the news had been broadcast that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

kennedy assassination

Photograph by Justin Newman

In the car, she explained to me that the president had died. When we got home, just a very short car ride from my school to my house, she had me write a note to Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, telling her I was so sorry that her daddy had died. Then, my mother told me to go and take a nap. As a second grader, I was really past taking afternoon naps, but the strange events at school and being picked up early, along with the sad news about the president and writing the sympathy note, had made me very tired. So I went to sleep, and slept until dinner time.

Hurricane Katrina

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Growing up in southeast Louisiana, hurricane season was a familiar evil. From June 1st to November 30th of each year, my father carefully watched the news and tracked any storms developing in the Atlantic Ocean. He was an expert at predicting whether they were a real threat or not, and subsequently whether we would need to evacuate or not. In August of 2005, he was very, very concerned about Hurricane Katrina. As the storm developed and grew stronger, we talked many times on the telephone about it. He knew it was going to be a bad one and began making plans where to take my mother, who was not well. Not New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, as they would normally go to my aunt’s house in the state’s capital, but this time to Houston, Texas.

With the enormity of this storm, all news stations covered it extensively.  And, as my father had predicted, along with nearly everyone else in southeast Louisiana, it was bad. The levee had broken north of my hometown, allowing the mighty Mississippi River free “reign” over Port Sulphur and the surrounding towns. My brother broke the bad news to my parents, the sheriff’s office had been down the road and there was nothing left in my hometown, except the Catholic church, which had been gutted by the storm waters, but the structure was still standing. My parents were devastated, and my poor mother, unwell and depressed, could not even tell me where she was staying in Houston. I finally got out of her that it was a motel with a foreign name starting with l-a-q. Eventually I figured out it was a La Quinta Inn in the Woodlands, a development in a Houston suburb.

PS after Katrina

Port Sulphur after Katrina. Photo by Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Aviation Weather Center, et al

Slowly the news began to sink in, that my hometown was gone, my parents’ home and all their belongings, except for whatever they had managed to pack in their car before evacuating, were all gone, every school I had ever attended was gone, and the homes of all my childhood friends, the sites of many birthday parties and sleepovers, all gone. The final straw was several days later my mother saying that she had gone into the bathroom and sat on the toilet to cry, after discovering that she had brought pantsuits with tops and bottoms that did not match, and one each of several pairs of shoes. She was a homeless person without even a matching pair of shoes. I felt so helpless and exhausted that I just went to bed.

Not all of these stress-induced naps have been over death or destruction. In 1990, my husband and I had our first child, a beautiful angel of a daughter named Margaret after my mother and Bellavia after my mother-in-law. It had been a difficult climax to an otherwise easy pregnancy. I had gone in for my weekly appointment during my ninth month and my blood pressure was extremely high. It was a Monday afternoon and my parents were flying in that night to be with us for the birth of their first grandchild. My OBGYN wanted to admit me right away but I explained the situation to her and she allowed me to go home provided I went right to bed and lay on my left side until morning, when I would be admitted and induced. We got to the hospital at 7:00 AM as instructed, and by 10:00 I was in a room with a dripping IV full of Pitocin. Absolutely nothing happened all day. Finally, in the late afternoon they changed the bag, and I started experiencing labor pains. By 9:00 PM, fourteen hours after being admitted, I was dilated ten centimeters and began to push. No baby, no progress. After three hours, my OBGYN decided it was time for a C-section, so off I went for an epidural, the one thing I was terrified of and had rejected when the labor pains had worsened earlier in the day. Just after midnight, our sweetly sleeping baby girl was brought into this world without so much as a whimper.

bringing baby home

Proud parents bringing baby home, 1990

Two days later we headed home in the blinding summer morning sunlight to our downtown Bethesda high-rise apartment, to be greeted by my mother handing me a cup of tea and buttered toast. No cup of tea has ever tasted so good, and after having my little snack, I lay down on my bed with my little baby sleeping in her crib nearby, and I fell fast asleep.

palm terrace

Port Sulphur Roundup, 1959, yearbook ad

As a young tot, when my parents could not get me to sleep, my father would bundle me up and take me for a ride down Highway 23 South to see the only neon light in my hometown, a giant palm tree advertising the Palm Terrace Motel owned by Mr. Roy Treadway. Once I saw that palm tree, I would settle down and fall fast asleep on the front seat of my dad’s car. Even today, if I am riding in the car for any length of time, I can put my head back and fall fast asleep. I guess I have my dad to thank for this, because one of the great joys of his life was every afternoon announcing to all, “You know what time it is? It’s naptime!”

evening prayer

Pinterest, Franciscan University of Steubenville

One of my favorite prayers comes from the Compline, the evening prayers of the Catholic Church. At night, after reading for a while, I say my evening prayers as my mother taught me so long ago: Hail Mary, Our Father, Guardian Angel, and Glory Be, and now I end with this simple request for protection while I sleep and rest. Thankfully, sleep has always been a restorative wonder for me, and I thank God for the ability to shut out the stresses of the day. Never having battled insomnia as some of my friends have, I have often thought that the moment I lay my head down on crisp, cool sheets, after a long day, whether it be one of normal work or play, or one of tragedy and chaos, is truly the best time of the day. “To sleep, perchance to dream…”, of a better and brighter day tomorrow.

 

Comfort Food, or a Meal for Comfort?

GRITS socksI was born and raised in southeast Louisiana. I didn’t go far for college, only 100 miles, and after graduation I stayed in my college town until I moved to the Washington, DC, area in early 1988. Thus, for over thirty years, I ate, drank, and lived the life of a true member of “GRITS”, a “girl raised in the south”. (I didn’t come up with that clever acronym; it was on a pair of tennis socks I bought in a gift shop in the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, while on a business trip.)

I noticed the difference right away, virtually the first week after moving into my high-rise apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Each morning I would take the elevator downstairs to walk to work. Most mornings I would arrive at the elevator at the same time as another young woman, about my age, and as we left the apartment building she was always headed in the same direction as me. The first few days I smiled at her and waited awkwardly in silence to reach the lobby. After about a week, when we got in the elevator I introduced myself and commented that it looked like we were walking to work in the same direction. We made small talk until we reached the lobby and then she said, “Have a good day” and sped off ahead of me. I never saw her again, and I lived there for two and a half years!  Obviously she didn’t want to chat with me in the elevator each morning or walk with me into downtown Bethesda, so she altered her morning schedule to avoid me. In the inimitable words of Dorothy, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”.

I experienced this same distant behavior frequently in my early years living in the DC area. Some people speculate that it is because of the transient nature of the area, with people coming to DC to work on Capitol Hill, with the military, or at NIH. Even if they stay in the area long-term, living in the immediate suburbs is expensive and stressful, so most people move farther out where they can afford to buy a house and start a family. Once my husband and I had a family of our own and our girls were in school, we found friends amongst the parents of their friends as well as from people we saw at Mass every Sunday. Little by little we made ourselves at home here, but still something was lacking.

Food is the main tool I have used to bridge the gap between my southern upbringing and my life as a transplanted “Yankee”. (I know that there are those of you who will say that Marylanders are not Yankees but one of my father’s first comments after being told we were expecting his first grandchild was, “Damn, a Yankee grandchild!”) At my first job in Bethesda, I became the go-to person for desserts. I would surreptitiously find out the favorite cake or pie of my co-workers and bring it in on their birthdays. Eventually, I had people making special requests: red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, carrot cake with coconut-pecan frosting, Mississippi mud cake, Italian cream cake, Louisiana bread pudding with hard sauce, German chocolate cake, peanut butter fudge, chocolate pecan pie, mini-cheesecakes, triple fudge brownies—these are all tried and true favorites in my trusty three-ring binder of dessert recipes.

In the south we have a tradition of bringing a hot meal to a family whenever they are in need: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, recovering from surgery, moving into a new home, etc. Now, I know that this tradition is not exclusive to the south, and I myself have been the recipient of such kindness over the years here in Maryland. When we purchased our first home and moved in, the lady who was our home day care provider, almost like family to us, prepared a casserole of chicken cordon bleu for our first night in our new house. Yes, we ate it sitting on the floor gathered around the coffee table in the den, off of paper plates, surrounded by boxes and moving crates, but it was absolutely delicious and so appreciated. When I had the shingles in 2006, a good friend showed up at my door with a tray of Italian doughnuts: fried dough, piping hot and covered in sugar. If you haven’t experienced shingles (lucky you) you can’t even imagine how wonderful and comforting that tray of fried dough was—pure heaven. A year later, when my mom passed away, another dear friend dropped off a large container of her famous chicken salad with grapes, a platter of croissants, and a dessert. We had several great meals from that delivery, and while not strictly speaking a hot meal, one of the blessings of having a croissant stuffed with yummy chicken salad for dinner is that there are virtually no dishes to wash after.

For several years I made a large pan of lasagna to bring to friends. It seemed like the perfect meal: lasagna, garlic bread, and a salad. Now, I married an Italian and I love to eat at Italian restaurants, but otherwise I have no direct ties to that cuisine. I’m not even sure I like my lasagna so why was I cooking it for friends? Then, I switched to roasted Cornish hens on a bed of wild rice, a lovely meal, but surprisingly even people who love chicken are not a fan of the miniature gamy birds. Finally, it hit me—why not cook from my own roots? A pan of chicken jambalaya, a salad, and a baguette make a wonderful dinner, easy to transport and easy to reheat by the serving in the microwave. turkey and sausage gumboI recently took dinner to a friend who was recovering from surgery, offering a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo, potato salad, rice for the gumbo, and triple fudge brownies for her kids.

fire king tulip mixing bowl

Fire King Tulip Mixing Bowl (set of three), vintage (mid-1950’s). Source for photograph: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/32228953556014519/

Although I am completely happy with my current gumbo recipe, my potato salad is still an issue. I mean, technically it’s fine—homemade and well-prepared—but, I am trying to recreate the potato salad of my childhood, so fine won’t cut it. My mom was the go-to person for potato salad, not only in my family, but in my entire hometown. She made it for family get-togethers at my aunt’s house. She was always assigned it when the sodality ladies in my hometown church parish prepared food for a funeral reception. My dad would peel the potatoes for her, a whole 10-pound bag at a time, using a paring knife, never a vegetable peeler. He had learned this in the Army he said, and there was very little potato on those long spirals of peel that would collect on the spread-out newspaper as he worked. French chefs are judged on the amount of potato left on the peel, and he would have passed that course with flying colors. After the potatoes were cubed and boiled, she would mix up her dressing (mayonnaise, mustard, pickle relish, some of the juice from the pickle relish jar, and vinegar) and pile it up in a white mixing bowl with tulips painted on the sides. I loved that bowl and always thought I would end up with it, but sadly Katrina got it instead.

I’ve tried many different recipes over the years. I’ve gone with every potato that can be purchased in a normal grocery store: russet potatoes, red potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, etc. For a while, I only made German potato salad with the theory that if I couldn’t get mine to taste like my mom’s, then I would go completely out of the box and make something so totally different that any comparison would be moot. My husband wasn’t a fan, and he is particularly sensitive to potato salad where the potatoes aren’t cooked just right. So, I just gave up. I stopped making potato salad altogether. I never order it when eating out because it often has chopped boiled eggs in it, and that is the one thing (other than lychee nuts) that I absolutely can’t eat. I’m not allergic or anything, I just don’t like eggs, unless of course they are beaten up into a cake or pie or pudding or something else yummy.

After my father’s funeral in May, we all went back to my brother Tommy’s house for a family meal. My brother John Roy brought potato salad. I had asked specifically that he not put boiled eggs in it, and he obliged even though he prefers it that way. I took one bite and I was instantly transported to my mother’s table. There it was right in front of me. I asked him for the recipe and he just laughed (this is common in Louisiana).” There is no recipe,” he said, “it’s just potato salad.”  But, as always, I persisted, and so he gave me the basics and I vowed to try again.

When I made the gumbo dinner for my friend in June, I tied on my favorite apron and tried again with a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes, per my brother’s instructions. Yes, it was better—closer to my mom’s but nowhere near as good as my brother’s. I had even texted him several times while shopping for the ingredients to be sure I had it in my mind correctly, but still no dice. So, I’m not there yet. The elusive potato salad quest continues.

Bringing food to a good friend in need is an old southern tradition that I dearly love, both on the giving and receiving ends. “Can I bring you dinner?” just rolls out of my mouth the minute a friend shares difficult news with me. What better way to bring comfort to a friend other than a delivery of comforting food, regardless of the cuisine, recipe, or technical quality of the dish? Having a hot meal or a sandwich stuffed with a delicious homemade chicken salad in your own home prepared with care by someone who loves you is more than just a relief after a difficult day; it’s a reminder that home follows us, wherever we go, whatever we go through. And, as Dorothy says at the end of that timeless classic, “There’s no place like home.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I’ve told you about mine; now it’s your turn! What’s your go-to comfort food or favorite meal to share? Comment below!

Here’s a few recipes to get you started in this ageless southern tradition!

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Ingredients for gumbo

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 bunch of green onions, green and white parts, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Meat (dark and white) from one whole chicken (see below)
  • 1 pound cooked andouille or smoked sausage, sliced into 1-inch disks
  • 3 quarts chicken stock or water (see below)
  • 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • garlic powder to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2-3 tsp of Lea & Perrin
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked long-grain rice, warmed
  • 1 bunch of parsley (Italian flat-leaf if possible), finely chopped
  • Filé powder (optional)

Ingredients for homemade chicken stock:

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 large leek
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 large yellow onion

Directions for homemade chicken stock and chicken meat for gumbo:

  • Unwrap and rinse chicken, removing inner bag of chicken parts. Place whole chicken in large stock pot, including the neck from the inner bag. (Discard the rest of the chicken parts unless you want to fry up the chicken liver as a cook’s treat!)
  • In the stock pot with the chicken add
    • One large yellow onion, quartered (no need to peel)
    • Two large carrots (cleaned and scraped)
    • One large leek (sliced lengthwise almost to the root and rinsed carefully between the layers to get rid of dirt)
    • Two stalks of celery, rinsed clean, cut into halves
    • One head of garlic (no need to peel).
    • Fill pot with water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for one hour or until chicken is completely cooked through to 165 degrees.
    • Remove chicken carefully and set aside to cool. Using a spider or strainer, remove the vegetables and set aside. These veggies will not be used in the gumbo but are still very tasty! (The head of garlic is delicious squeezed out and eaten on bread or mixed into mashed potatoes!)
    • Strain chicken stock and reserve for use in the gumbo. Freeze any unused stock for future use.
    • Strip all meat from chicken and tear or cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
    • In a large skillet over medium-low heat, heat the andouille or sausage to remove excess fat. Drain on paper towels, and set aside with chicken meat.

Directions for gumbo:

  • While you are cooking the chicken and making the chicken stock, make a roux.
    • In a large saucepan over medium to medium-low heat, whisk together the oil and flour and cook, stirring constantly with whisk or wooden spoon, to make as dark a roux as you can without burning it. (The heat can be higher, but you must stir more assiduously to avoid burning it.) Be careful! A hot roux is as hot as caramel!
  • When the roux is medium-dark, reduce the heat to low and add the onion, bell pepper, green onions, garlic, and celery. Cook them in the roux until the onions are clear and have begun to brown a little, about 10 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  • Slowly add the chicken stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming from the roux. Add the chicken meat and sliced sausage to the pot, along with the salt, pepper, hot pepper sauce, bay leaves, Lea & Perrin sauce, and thyme.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce to low. Cook uncovered on low for about an hour. While it’s simmering, occasionally skim fat and foamy material from the surface.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer the gumbo, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 hours (it improves with time).
  • Remove and discard the bay leaves.
  • Check seasonings and adjust to taste.
  • Just before serving, add chopped parsley. Stir well and serve.
  • To serve, put about 1/2 cup of fluffy cooked rice in individual bowls and top with about 1 cup of the gumbo. Sprinkle with filé powder, if desired.

Gumbo recipe adapted from Washington Post food section, November 20, 2005, and from Blanchard/Songy family recipes.

Triple Fudge Brownies

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg. (4 oz.) BAKER’S Unsweetened Chocolate
  • ¾ cup unsalted sweet butter (1 and ½ sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (see note)
  • 1 tub of dark chocolate frosting

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large plastic or glass bowl, microwave chocolate squares and butter on high for 2 minutes or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted.
  • Stir in the sugar, the pinch of kosher salt, and espresso powder. Mix well.
  • Add eggs and vanilla; mix well.
  • Add flour and chocolate chips; stir until well blended.
  • Spread into foil-lined 13x9x2 inch pan that has been greased (spray foil with Pam).
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with fudgy crumbs. Do not over-bake. Allow to partially cool.
  • Open tub of frosting and remove the foil inner lid. Be sure to get all of the foil off of the rim. Microwave for 10 seconds and stir. Microwave again for 10 seconds and stir again. You are looking for a pouring consistency.
  • Pour frosting on top of warm brownies and set aside. Cool completely in pan or refrigerate for frosting to “set”.
  • Lift out of pan onto cutting board. Cut into 24 squares (6×4 rows). Cover tightly and store at room temperature.

Ghirardelli'sNote: if you want the chocolate chips to melt into the brownie rather than stay whole, do not use Nestle’s Toll House brand as they are specially formulated to retain their shape even when baked. To have the chips melt more into the brownie, use Ghirardelli’s chips.

Brownie recipe adapted from the side of the Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate box: Baker’s One Bowl Brownies

À bientôt

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I said my final goodbye to my dad or at least my final goodbye in this life. Being a faithful Catholic, however, I truly believe that I will see him again in eternal life, so perhaps Thursday’s goodbye was merely à bientôt.

Religious items from my father's funeral

Religious items from my father’s funeral

His funeral was beautiful. My brothers and I tried our best to include all the different branches of our extended families. An Irish priest, a longtime friend of the family, in his still thick Irish accent, celebrated the Mass, with another priest concelebrating. My older daughter was the cantor for the parts of the Mass and hymns, and my husband sang the responsorial psalm. My younger daughter, originally scheduled to read the first reading, served as lector reading both readings as my dad’s niece’s laryngitis kept her from doing the second reading. My nephews brought up the gifts, along with my mom’s niece and my parents’ godchild, my dad’s nephew. Pall bearers included my nephews and four men who were all very dear friends of my dad’s. Nearly a hundred people came to the church for the two-hour visitation prior to the funeral, and while there were many tears, there were also many light moments, reminiscing about my father’s legendary storytelling and practical jokes.

At the visitation, a family friend said to me, “Losing a parent is tough, but losing the last parent is something else, something greater.” He was so right. At my mother’s funeral, also beautiful with many family members and close family friends participating, I remember holding on to my dad’s arm. He cried throughout most of the Mass, and after that, he cried every time he went to Mass. He had been devoted to my mother throughout their nearly 53 years of marriage, but particularly so during the last fourteen years of her life, when he cared for her around the clock during many surgeries and medical treatments for heart and kidney disease. We all worried so about him and how he would cope with my mother’s death. The belief that they are together again is of some comfort, but losing him is the final ache in a series of pain that began with Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005.

As readers of my essays will remember, I lost my hometown to Hurricane Katrina, and along with my hometown, my parents lost their home and almost all of their possessions. My mother wasn’t feeling well preceding the mandatory evacuation order and did not pack to the same degree as she had for previous hurricanes. She later told me that she was lying on the sofa directing my father, tense and nervous about the storm, as to what to pack. Later, when unpacking her suitcase in a La Quinta motel room in Houston, she discovered she had mismatched pairs of shoes, pants with no matching tops, and an odd assortment of other items.

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

When news eventually arrived that the house was gone, and by gone, I mean totally gone-its remains were located weeks later on the back levee, broken in pieces-my mother was devastated and really never recovered from that. I recently learned from my mother’s sister, my beloved Nanny Pat, whose gift to my mother of a kidney in 1995 gifted all of us with twelve additional years with her, that my mother had said she really did not want to live through another anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. She died on August 23, 2007, just days before Katrina’s second anniversary. We all pretty much agree that she just gave up fighting as she had done for so long.

Everything changed after my mother passed away. In October of 2007, just a month and a half later, I realized I would never get another birthday card in the mail from her. My mother (as well as my Nanny Pat, who continues to this day in this family specialty) was a master of correspondence. She wrote to me almost daily during my four years of college, and sent many, many care packages. The contents were usually somewhat odd and I learned to open the care packages in the safety of my dorm room rather than in the student union where I picked up my mail. Once, the small box, heavily armored in scotch tape, contained about a hundred sticks of doublemint gumDoublemint gum (still individually wrapped, but loose, not in packages) and some personal sanitary products.

My mom sent out scores of greeting cards all year round. Hallmark was her favorite store, and no matter how poorly she was feeling, my dad’s offer of a trip to the Hallmark Gold Crown store was sure to perk up her spirits. Naturally, all birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays warranted a card, but so did the minor ones as well: Fourth of July, Halloween; if Hallmark had a card for it, a card was purchased. When family members married, their new spouses were added to the address book, along with their birthdays and special dates. My husband often remarked that he found it so touching, how my mom and my Nanny Pat never ever let his birthday or Father’s Day pass without Hallmark making an appearance in our mailbox.

My dad wasn’t much on correspondence although he would sign his name to any card my mom put in front of him. He was, however, very attached to his cell phone. While he never graduated to a smart phone, he and his flip phone were best friends. He was famous for calling people closest to him several times a day. While my mom’s cousin Anna was still alive in Glasgow, Scotland, he called her frequently. Once he pronounced his initial greeting, he immediately passed the phone to someone else. I will dearly miss talking to him and hearing his familiar “Whatcha doing?” which was always followed by a litany of what he had eaten that day, and sometimes, what he ate the day before. He loved to tell me exactly how he had cooked something. How many times did he tell me how he made his famous smothered chicken? “First, I rinse off the chicken pieces and dry them. Then, I lay them out on aluminum foil and season them with salt and pepper. Next, I brown them on all sides in a big pan with some olive oil. I set them aside and brown thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. When they are nice and soft, I put the chicken back in, add a little water, cover them with foil, and put the pan in the oven for about an hour. It’s so good it will make you slap your momma.”  This was always served with hot white rice and good French bread.

Food has always been an important part of the fabric of our family life. None of us were ever breakfast people, and lunch was usually leftovers or a sandwich (in my father’s case, a “half a sandwich”) but extensive discussions ensued each day about what would be cooked for supper. Most of the meals served at the supper tables of homes in southeast Louisiana need to be started early in the day and simmered for a long period of time. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage or ham needs to cook for hours. My dad’s smothered chicken also involves considerable prep and long, slow cooking. Gumbo is not a dish to throw together after work on a weekday night.

My parents also loved to eat out. My dad would first order his glass of red wine and settle in to study the menu, cover to cover, all the while asking what everyone at the table was going to order. He was always a gracious diner. I don’t think I ever saw him send anything back to the kitchen or complain about a dish served to him. He was not exactly a picky eater, but he was not very adventurous until he quit smoking in 1995. He claimed that his tastes changed after he quit smoking, that food tasted “more alive” and then he really branched out trying all sorts of things that shocked us, like Chinese take-out and delivery pizza. He loved to outsmart anyone at the table who was intent on paying the bill, often handing the waiter his credit card when he placed his order to ensure he would get the bill. The best you could do was to offer to pay the tip, and that was not always something you would win at either.

I feel so fortunate to have spent nine days with my dad in April, helping to get him out of the rehab facility he had been in and get him back home with my brother. My brothers and I worked together to make important health decisions for him. During that time, in spite of the stress and difficult decisions, my dad and I had such a good visit, shared some good meals, and had some nice chats. I was able to tell him thanks for being such a great father, for teaching me so much, for giving me a strong work ethic. None of that made it any easier when the news did come on Friday, May 8th, that he was gone. It is and will be for a long time incredibly hard. À bientôt, mon père, à bientôt.

A Narrow Sliver of Land

Map of Louisiana showing Plaquemines Parish in red

We all have our Proust moments: the singular bite of something that we loved and cherished in our childhood, re-tasted later as an adult, transporting us back in time to a particularly fond memory. Truman Capote, in his semi-autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory”, describes in great detail the food of his childhood in the Deep South during the Great Depression: fried squirrel, biscuits and ham, flapjacks, Christmas fruitcakes. Capote could not hardly write a paragraph without offering a food memory from his past and neither can I.

Just as with Proust and Capote, my childhood memories are also centered on the foods of my youth, and even today, small tastes of certain foods evoke large memories of my life lived on a narrow sliver of land called Plaquemines Parish. I grew up in the small town of Port Sulphur, located 45 miles southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana. Originally founded as a sulphur mining town, it became the crown jewel of the “fisherman’s paradise” and home to groves of citrus fruit. Unfortunately, Port Sulphur is now known for something else: the exact spot of landfall of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. And, on that fateful day, I lost my hometown.

turkey and sausage gumo

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo

My mother’s parents emigrated from Scotland in the early 1920’s when my grandfather was hired by the Freeport Sulphur Company. Unfortunately they both died before my mother finished high school so I never had the opportunity to experience “boiled mince”, which is the first dish she cooked for my father as a newlywed. It did not go over well. So, she learned her Louisiana-style dishes from my father’s mother, known affectionately by all as “Mama the Cook”.

red beans and rice

Louisiana Red Beans and Smoked Sausage

Great cooks abound in my family.  I grew up on several different variations of gumbo, my mom’s versus my Aunt Helen’s and later, my brother Tommy’s.  My dad’s stewed chicken melts in your mouth and my brother John Roy fries a mean turkey. We each make our own version of the Louisiana staple, red beans and rice with smoked sausage (mine is pretty good). My cousin Kim’s crawfish maque choux won a local cooking competition. And then there’s the best jambalaya in the world, made by my Uncle Guy’s brother, Joe.

Uncle Guy, whose first language was Cajun French, married my dad’s sister and went into the grocery business with my grandmother.  He cooked every day in the back of his grocery store. When shopping in the store with my mom, I made a beeline dash to the back of the store to see Uncle Guy. He was my godfather, and I was his “Michelangelo”, his nickname for me. He always offered me a taste of what he was cooking. I would ask “what is it?” and he would invariably respond “chicken”. I lapped it up, only discovering much, much later in life that I had been eating goat, snapping turtle, wild duck, goose, alligator, and more. These foods all seem exotic and distant now, but were perfectly ordinary and normal at the time.

I have many fond memories of Friday nights, when we would all meet at my Aunt Helen’s for dinner.  Being Catholic during pre-Vatican II times, we abstained from meat on Fridays all year-long.  Luckily, given the abundance and quality of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, this was not a problem. My Uncle Guy and my dad would go out to the “pit”, a separate building next door to their house that had a great indoor barbeque and a small kitchen, to fry whatever fish he had caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, usually catfish or redfish, sometimes flounder.  He would also boil shrimp and crabs (as opposed to steaming as is done in the Chesapeake Bay region where I now live), and when the season was right, we had boiled crawfish.  My Aunt Helen had a huge pot of seafood gumbo simmering on the stove in the kitchen, and next to it would be a big pot of white rice.  My mom made potato salad and for my cousin Keith “macaroni salad”, a cold pasta salad of small elbow macaroni, mayonnaise, celery, and pickles, and oddly enough, eaten on saltine crackers.  There would be snacks out, too, normal things like potato chips and French onion dip, but also another Louisiana specialty, shrimp mold, which is a cold shrimp salad made with condensed tomato soup, unflavored gelatin, chopped celery and other seasonings, poured into a ring mold, and then after it has set, eaten as a spread on Ritz crackers.

There were always multiple desserts, the domain of my cousin Penny.  Some of her specialties were red velvet cake, carrot cake, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and usually some crazy cold concoction like “banana split surprise” or some other instant pudding/whipped topping/multiple layered gooey thing.  We often made ice cream: banana, peach, or strawberry, in an old hand-crank machine filled with crushed ice and rock salt, later upgraded to an electric one. My dad’s younger sister, Hilda (affectionately known as Susie), also a stellar cook, would come in from out-of-town laden with goodies such as her specialty, pecan pie. And, if my Aunt Lillian was there, we would have her famous peanut butter fudge, a recipe we all thought went with her to her grave until I found a handwritten copy in an unmarked box of miscellaneous papers after moving 4,000 miles to Waterloo, Belgium.

There were lots of family members but also present were neighbors and outsiders too, people who had been in my Uncle Guy’s grocery store at closing time, or his fishing buddies like my mother’s cousin Duffy or someone I remember calling Uncle David (pronounced the French way to rhyme with “speed”).  We would all sit around the den and eat in stages, eat whatever was ready next and then move on to the next item, never sitting down to a table set with silverware and such.  The boiled seafood was eaten either in the pit or in the garage, on big tables spread with newspaper.  When the steaming pots were dumped on the tables, out would tumble perfectly cooked shrimp, crabs, or crawfish, seasoned to perfection with Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and the “side dishes”, corn on the cob, whole heads of garlic, and new potatoes, all cooked together, truly a one-pot meal.

Extra fridges in the garage or in the “sewing room” held sodas and beers, and everyone just helped themselves.  Of course, most women did not drink beer then, so my Uncle Guy was called upon to make his famous “Old Fashioned” cocktails for Aunt Helen and any of the other ladies who wanted one.  After dinner, there would be homemade orange wine, made from the citrus grown on Uncle Guy’s land, “Songy’s Evergreen”, and cherry bounce, a deadly potent liqueur made by fermenting fresh cherries with bourbon and sugar for several months, usually served over vanilla ice cream or pound cake. Aunt Helen had a large glass jug that sat in a wooden stand which would be rotated daily during the fermenting process. If the top wasn’t removed periodically to release the pressure created by the fermentation process, you were likely to find the walls covered in sweet, sticky, dripping cherry bits, sort of like stumbling upon a homicide scene right out of CSI New Orleans!

After the men were finished cooking in the pit, they would play “pedro”, a card game distinctive for the manner in which the cards were played, by thumping them down hard on the table. I can almost still hear the sound of Uncle Guy’s knuckles hitting the table when he played his card, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a beer in a frosted mug at his elbow, complete with his customary pinch of salt added to the foam.  The men didn’t seem to eat much, other than pieces of fried fish as it came out of the cast iron skillet in the pit while it was cooking.

When the card game was over, and almost everyone was loosened up from the beers and Old Fashioneds, the coffee table was pushed aside, the lights in the den were dimmed, and records were played on the stereo for the grown ups to dance.  Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, all were regulars at the Friday night parties.  While this was going on, my mom would give me the “signal” and I would reluctantly go to the kitchen and put the food away, unloading and loading the dishwasher, washing the huge gumbo pot, wiping down the countertops.

shrimp and crab stew

Shrimp and Crab Stew

Life first separated me from my hometown after college, and then more permanently when I moved to Maryland in 1988 for work and for love. But I returned home once a year, husband and babies in tow, for Christmas or Easter or during the summer, to visit family and get a refill of good food and the slow, laid-back lifestyle found only in Louisiana. During those years I made sure to learn the recipes for dishes that instantly transported me back home: the smell of a roux slowly cooking to the color of a copper penny, the smooth creaminess contrasted against the crunch of the celery in shrimp mold, the sweetness of crabmet juxtaposed against the cayenne pepper in crab stew, the irresistible velvety uniqueness of Aunt Lillian’s peanut butter fudge. Unfortunately, I never mastered Uncle Guy’s Old Fashioneds or Aunt Helen’s Cherry Bounce, but my daughters are both well versed in roux-making and beignet-frying, as well as how to determine if fudge has reached the critical soft-ball stage.

I’ve only returned to my hometown twice since Katrina, once in 2006 to see for myself the massive destruction, and then again, for my Aunt Helen’s funeral in 2012. It’s difficult to go back, and there is no one there to go back to. Except for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where I received my sacraments and was married, which miraculously survived Katrina’s violent flooding and high winds, there is no physical sign of my past in Port Sulphur:  my parents’ home, every school I attended, the homes of my childhood friends, my extensive collection of original Barbie dolls and their miniature exotic wardrobes, my yearbooks and mementos from high school, all gone.
As time marches on, and those I love age and leave me, all I have left of my hometown are my cherished Blanchard family recipes and memories like those Friday nights, sweet and poignant now, but taken for granted and viewed as an obligation by a sometimes sullen teenager. Home now means the place where my husband and daughters are . . . but deep down, home will always be that narrow sliver of land sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and the bayous of southeast Louisiana.