Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A New Orleans diary: Why food matters in the Big Easy

Domilise's / Nothing fancy or elaborate.
Just one of the best meals in the Big Easy.

New Orleans takes its food seriously – gumbo, red beans and rice, and beignets come to mind – and it's been said that you can't come to the Big Easy and not eat a po-boy sandwich. So, why not try the best – even if it's made to order in a hard-to-find location up river from the French Quarter, where parking is difficult at best and getting a table (there are only five) or a seat at the bar (there's about 10 of them) is a matter of good timing. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, the locals swear by this hole in the wall kind of place.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar consists of a single-room bar
and dining area with five tables and about 10 bar seats.
Such it was on a recent Friday afternoon while visiting New Orleans that my wife and I dropped in at Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar, tucked away at 5240 Annunciation Street (corner Bellecastle), and treated ourselves to a po-boy sandwich for lunch. We had an hour to kill before we had to be on the highway headed west toward Lafayette in the Acadiana region of Louisiana to attend our nephew's wedding celebration.

We first visited Domilise's back in 2001 – pre Hurricane Katrina – and it was an enjoyable experience. So it was on our next visit to New Orleans earlier this month, we knew we wanted to revisit Domilise's.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar is an Uptown New Orleans restaurant known for its po-boy sandwiches. For the uninitiated, a po-boy is a traditional Louisiana sandwich served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread that's known for its fluffy center and crispy crust. The restaurant was founded in the 1930s by the Domilise family, who I learned lived in the house above the single-room bar/dining area. It was run by Sam and Dorothy "Miss Dot" Domilise for more than 75 years until her death in 2013. Although it was closed during Hurricane Katrina, since reopening Domilise's has been more popular than ever – acclaimed by many, including CNN's Anderson Cooper as well as Anthony Bourdain, who once filmed a spot on location for his Travel Channel program No Reservations.

My Domilise's meal /
A delicious ham and Swiss po-boy,
Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style chips,
Barq's root beer.
During our recent visit, my po-boy of choice a ham and Swiss cheese dressed with spicy Cajun mustard, shredded lettuce and pickles while my wife opted for a turkey dressed all the way. Both were made with love by the sweet ladies who manned the kitchen. The reasonably priced menu is full of excellent choices, including shrimp, oyster, catfish, roast beef and sausage, and come in two sizes: small and large. The small was plenty large for my appetite. Along with my fabulous po-boy, I complemented my "meal" with a bag of Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style potato chips and a bottle of Barq's root beer.

We sat at the bar sipping on our sodas and munching our chips – and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere – while our po-boys were being prepared with TLC, waiting for a table to open up. By the time our order was called, a table materialized by the back entrance. Nothing fancy, but plenty of space to spread out and enjoy our delicious – albeit sometimes messy – po-boys. Looking around as we ate, I couldn't help but notice we were likely the only tourists mixed among a crowded room full of white- and blue-collar locals who swear by this place for a great meal.

Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar /
Uptown at the corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle.
As Tom Piazza points out in his insightful 2006 book Why New Orleans Matters, "the real neighborhood places, tucked away usually in some unlikely corner of a residential street, animate the day-to-day grass roots culinary life of the city. There is nothing fancy or elaborate about these places to say the least, but also nothing humdrum or mass-produced, or even lackluster ... It is a point of honor to make food that tastes good – I don't think a New Orleanian would even understand the concept of turning out blah food so you could just eat and run.

"You can go into the most unassuming place – say, Domilise's, a sandwich shop with a hand-lettered sign in a very modest corner house a block from the river in a residential uptown neighborhood – and get a meal that you will remember for the rest of your days. Or at least for the rest of the day."

Indeed, you see food is a part of the rhythm and life of New Orleans, and it doesn't get much better than this. There's a reason that Domilise's is one of the best at what they do.

Photos: Cover photo courtesy of Google Images. All other photos by Michael Dickens © 2017.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Resolved: It's time to READ more books


We're a week into March – spring is almost here – and although I didn't formally jot down any New Year's resolutions for 2017, if I had, one that would have been near the top of my list is my desire to read more. "So many books ... so little time," reads the slogan printed on one of my tattered, well-worn navy-colored t-shirts that I bought a few years ago at The Elliott Bay Book Company, situated in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. It happens to be one of my favorite independent booksellers in the entire country – and it's always on my things to do list whenever I visit Seattle.

When I say to you that I want to "read more," by that I mean read more books. While I stay abreast of current events by reading The New York Times daily, both in print and online, and give a good read to periodicals like The New Yorker and Monocle, the London-based monthly that covers world affairs, culture, food and design, now, every day is like engaging in an American Civics class thanks to the narcissist behavior and dystopian actions of our current president. And, I should mention that perusing my Facebook news feed has become a necessity in order to stay current on what's trending with POTUS 45, too.

But, what about books, you ask? Yes, books, remember them? Books are the foundation behind what made Amazon.com one of the most successful online retailers. Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Netflix, before texting sapped all of our intellectual energy, there were books. I have several bookshelves at home that are lined with hundreds of titles that I've bought or received as gifts over the years. Let's see, I'm proud of my collection of books by The New Yorker writers Roger Angell and Calvin Trillin, among many, and I enjoy reading books about baseball, my favorite sport. However, a few years ago, in a space-saving and budget-cutting effort, I trimmed back on the number of new titles I bought and, instead, decided to start making better use of my local public library.

Looking back on 2016, I can say without boasting that I made good use of my Oakland Public Library card. I checked out about a book a month. One thing I've learned about libraries is this: If you're willing to wait for a popular best-seller or a new title to become available, checking out library books is a good way to save money (and, I might add, bookshelf space) while also showing support for our public libraries.

Both Comedy Central's The Daily Show and the New York Times Book Review are pretty good indicators for learning about good books to read. Before he left The Daily Show, former host Jon Stewart always brought out the best in authors. You could judge by his interest in a book if it was worth reading. New Daily Show host Trevor Noah is carrying on the tradition begun by Stewart.

Among the books which I read during 2016 were:

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert Reich.

• I'd Know That Voice Anywhere by Frank Deford.

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America by Calvin Trillin.

Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins and Shop Around: Growing Up with Motown in a Sinatra Household, both by Bruce Jenkins.

Indentured: The Inside Story of Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera.

Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession by William Skidelsky.

Among the ties that bind these titles are my interest in non-fiction, memoirs, sports, and music. And, of course, good writing and good stories always garner my attention.

Looking ahead, I ask: Is it possible that I can increase my output this year so that I'm reading an average of a book a month? Let's see, I've already started Writings on the Wall: Searching For a New Equality Beyond Black and White by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and I'm nearly finished with the current Michael Lewis book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. 

Also, I received Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey Through the Soul of the South by Susan Puckett as a Christmas gift from my brother, and I recently bought an autographed copy of Trevor Noah's Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. 

Finally, I've got Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the acclaimed 674-page memoir by Elvis Costello that spans his almost four-decade music career left over from last year's reading list that I would like to start this year.

There's plenty to look forward to reading while trying to forget everything that's going bad with our democracy, thanks to a certain POTUS. Now, if I can just remember to stop turning on the TV.

Photo: Stained glass sign at The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, courtesy of Google Images.