New Orleans, LA - I was the visitor traveling solo at Cafe du Monde this morning, marching purposefully to the second last table by the take-out window to order a cafe au lait and beignets.  That was Bryanna’s table.

The Napoleon House

And this afternoon? While the tourists ordered up a

Pimm’s Cup at the Napoleon House, I forced down a treacly sweet white Russian at the bar, but not before toasting my friend, who had hideous taste in booze although she certainly knew how to pair Doc Martens with lacy pink sundresses and wild socks.

I tried in vain to find the spot on the wall beyond the pay phone where we scratched her name on the day of her memorial service in 1998.   It may be there still, beneath

Who Dat? scribbled in black marker or the earnest hearts and Chas & Karen 4-ever 2002.

 

So I seek out the foods she loved, at the seats I still think of as hers, in the absence of tangible proof that she once walked these streets.

When

Hurricane Katrina hit the city and the levees failed in 2005, the rushing water changed the local landscape.

 

Baton Rouge is now Louisiana’s largest city.   Restaurants here in New Orleans still struggle to find workers.  So many properties were destroyed that those who tried to remain and get by with waiter or hotel staff pay were faced with inflated costs to rent in the new seller’s market.   Drive through Treme, or the Ninth Ward, or Bywater and you’ll see boarded windows.   Until the last few years you could also see water marks, six- or eight-feet up the sides of the wooden shotgun homes that line so many streets in poorer neighborhoods.   What you won’t see in any numbers are signs of mothers with toddlers, or teens jostling each other, or old man shambling past.

 

Yet the city lives on through the sheer will of those who know what it once was.

 

In between the beignets and the white Russian I met up with a friend of a friend of a friend.   Lee Brasseaux hails from the Texas side of Louisiana and for the last 22 years has been a resident of the French Quarter.   We walked the 23 blocks from the Quarter into Treme, in the shadow of I-10, which long ago obliterated the leafy boulevard that cuts through a once vibrant black neighborhood.

Our destination was

Dooky Chase, the first fine restaurant in the 1950s that catered to black New Orleans while the whites across town flocked to Brennan’s and Galatoire.   President Obama ate here as a candidate and was famously scolded by Mrs. Leah Chase, the 88-year-old executive chef and Dooky’s iron-willed wife, for putting hot sauce in his gumbo.

 

Mrs. Chase, who is known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, still rules the restaurant, passing from table to table to sign autographs and chat up regulars like Lee. She is frail now, but alert.   We agreed to spend a day together in her restaurant kitchen, since she’s long ago stopped cooking at home.  She perked up: “We’ll make snapping turtle soup,” she said.

 

The restaurant was submerged after Katrina, and it took two years to even open on a limited basis, but only after the restaurant community raised $40,000 with a fundraiser featuring her gumbo z’herbes.  Lee said she couldn’t understand why so many people would chip in to restore her restaurant.

 

***

 

There was no dinner tonight.   A wild storm blew through the city, bringing with it 60 mile per hour winds and hail and torrential rains that turned the streets into impassable rushing rivers.   The weather person on the CBS affiliate warned of tornadoes.

Tomorrow, when the streets have dried, I’ll head back to the second table from the takeout counter, where I long ago sat with Bryanna, for the comfort of steaming chicory coffee and three powdery beignets.