Stirring up memories
From Biloxi to Beaumont
June 7, 2006
Last Thursday, it started all over again. You couldn't miss it. Another hurricane season is at hand. At our house we didn't need reminding, for a couple of weeks ago we made the drive from Bainbridge to Houston.
Clayton Penhallegon, who had made a driving trip in Louisiana not long before, had warned me that no matter how well prepared I was, I wouldn't be ready for what we saw. He was right.
I was glad we went and sorry we did. Things were worse than we had thought, but things were better, too.
We've visited and loved New Orleans for years. One of the joys of living in Bainbridge and having family in Houston is that New Orleans lies roughly half way between.
Once again, we headed the Jeep west on I-10. We decided to stick to the Interstate, and except for a traffic snarl in Pensacola because of bridge repairs, things didn't look so bad. We pushed on through Mobile, and then we saw the turnoff for Biloxi.
New Orleans may be our longtime favorite, but since we've been making this drive for almost twenty years, Biloxi is a favorite as well. Not for us the casinos and lavish entertainment, though that's fun too, it's the quiet shore, the old homes and Beauvoir.
Especially Beauvoir, the stately and tranquil retirement home of Jefferson and Varina Davis, where Davis began to write his memoir, "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" in the adjacent Library Pavilion.
We decided to leave the Interstate and check out Beauvoir and the rest of the coast. Clayton was right. We were unprepared. Only a few miles off the protected Interstate it looked as if Katrina had happened last month, even last week. But all is not devastation. There are signs of rebuilding, and homes, though still deeply scarred, are still occupied. Plenty of optimists live in Mississippi.
Some of them work and support Beauvoir. There on the peaceful sunny afternoon, again we found the home being lulled by the lap of the gentle Gulf tide, but with a difference. Beauvoir, as well as the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, sustained huge losses; the Library Pavilion was destroyed. This was not, however, a scene of despair, but one of action. Workers swarmed the structure. A sign in front urges passersby to contribute to the restoration effort. They plan to reopen in June, 2008,
We continued, wide-eyed, down US 90, until a washed-out bridge sent us back to Interstate 10 and our New Orleans destination.
Again, good news and bad. The bad first. I-10 goes through badly damaged East New Orleans. The devastation extends right up to the highway. Apartments are empty, houses crushed, businesses closed.
Not so in the French Quarter. It isn't business as usual, but business is well under way. The bands were playing and our host at the Cornstalk Hotel made us welcome. He used the same words we saw painted on windows and displayed on signs—"We're Back!" And lots of businesses, but not all, are up and running. An old favorite, Sbisa's Café apparently is gone, but a new favorite welcomed us. We first encountered The Palace Café on Canal Street on our visit last summer—instant affinity, then and now. Plus, I'd read how owner Dickie Brennan was back the minute he was permitted in. He opened up the kitchen and rather than let his food go to waste, he began serving up meals to exhausted policemen and other rescue workers.
We asked for the special seats we'd enjoyed before at the counter gazing through the wide picture window onto the bustling kitchen. These are first-come-first-served, no reservations. I think they are the best seats in the house. We looked onto the dessert section where the pastry chef turned out one work of art after another. I loved the custom baked individual chocolate cakes ("order early," Troy, our waiter warned us). But by the time we filled up on roasted loin pork (fourteen ounces) and shrimp Tchefuncte, we had no room for dessert.
Next morning we headed out early to beat the crowd at Café du Monde to have beignets and strong New Orleans coffee before hitting the road. But alas! There was no crowd; in fact, when we arrived just before eight; there was no one, for the famed eatery where around the clock, a crowd and a wait for a table was the norm is now shuttered until 8:00. We were among the first seated, and when we left, sugar-filled, almost an hour later many empty tables remained.
When we headed home after a good visit with friends and family, we swore we'd stick to the Interstate. Then we hit the traffic backed up at Beaumont, just inside the Texas border, we suddenly remembered—road repairs from that other weather-witch Hurricane Rita. What to do? Sit there all day? Or...
"I've never been to Sabine Pass."
"Neither have I. Dick Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass—let's go!" The Jeep crept to the next exit then took off down a state highway. We stopped in Bridge City before looking for the battleground and found the same "We're Back" spirit. At Esther's Fine Cajun Seafood on the Port Arthur side of Rainbow Bridge spanning the Neches River they were still painting the roof, but already serving up mighty good food. Bob had grilled crawfish and shrimp; I opted for shrimp in Pontchartrain sauce over a baked potato. They didn't offer me a recipe but it was good enough that I came home and figured it out. I served it over brown rice.
Sabine Pass Pontchartrain Sauce
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 cup Chardonnay
1 tablespoon butter (has to be butter)
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup stock (fish or chicken)
1/4 cup mushrooms, chopped very fine
1 small green pepper, chopped very fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup butter, chopped into 1 tablespoon pieces (has to be butter)
Salt, black pepper, cayenne and tarragon to taste
Cook the Chardonnay and the onion together over a low fire until the wine reduces and the onion is very soft and transparent.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in another heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until blended. Add the stock a little at a time, whisking constantly until blended and thickened. Add the mushrooms, green pepper and garlic. Reduce heat to very low and continue to cook the vegetables are soft. Remove from heat and add the pieces of butter in pieces until melted. Add to the wine and onion mixture. Blend well over very low heat. Season to taste with salt (may not be needed), black pepper, cayenne, and tarragon.
Serve alone or with seafood, chicken or veal over rice or a baked potato.
We stopped at Sabine Pass to see where Dick Dowling and "42 Irish Patriots" fought off 48 Union transports loaded with over 5,000 soldiers and accompanied by four gunboats one hot September afternoon in 1863. Rita's got the State Park closed but we got to see the monument. Then we worked our way across the marshes and beaches of Southern Louisiana awed as much by the spirit of the folks as the damaged caused by Rita and Katrina.
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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network