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The Last Sane Dinner by Tim McNally

Posted by WineShow on 2005-12-04 15:20:30 (5345 views)

[New Orleans]
The Last Sane Dinner

It all began very early with the first ticks of the clock on Monday morning, August 29. There was an attention-getting initial gust of wind coupled with a light rain that passed through the Vieux Carre about 1 a.m. The rude intrusion into life was to come later, and not a soul who remained in the City was unaware that this night would be one of stories, of experiences, all of which would be told for many years, to coming generations.

Many of us, and most certainly our parents, had been through strong storms and they became names of legend. Betsy and Camille are the first two to come to mind. These storms wrought incredible destruction and tragedy to the area. Not too far away, they speak of Frederick, and more recently, Ivan. Still, people talked of such events with a casual “Yeah, I was there and lived through that” attitude.

Each succeeding breeze from this latest intruder, Katrina, grew gradually stronger, but not enough to interrupt sleep with their presence--unless the would-be sleeper felt the dread of not having done enough to prepare, or did not leave with the stalled caravan of cars that was heading very slowly, mostly not moving, to higher parts north of the Gumbo Bowl of the city.

Around 6 a.m., matters turned decisively worse. My wife, Brenda, our dog, Pookie, and I were settled in our French Quarter apartment. Okay, we should not have been there, but we were in a building surrounded by other buildings. Sixteen feet off the street and with two more floors above us, our thoughts were that this structure built in the mid-1800’s would hold. To be terribly truthful, however, we never thought that “holding” would be an issue. This storm would pass, as so many others had, and in two days we would be back home on the Lakefront. All those earlier warnings from other storms that demanded evacuation, and in the end did not rise up to justify the uprooting, had numbed us to Nature’s reality, and caused us to vastly underestimate what was unfolding right outside our door.

So it was that on this Monday morning at what should have been daybreak, we sat and listened to Katrina’s Category 4 or 5 wind gusts, accompanied by horizontal rain, roaring down narrow streets, now abandoned of all signs of life, including the inebriated, the homeless, and the hapless.

Bathtubs were filled with water in anticipation of what could be a worst-case scenario, and at about 6:45 a.m., TV screens went dark, as electrical power abandoned the City.

Hurricane-force winds built in frequency and intensity during a morning spent sitting, waiting, hoping, and listening. The constant sounds of glass being sucked out of store windows and smashing on the deserted streets kept us focused. Then there were the odd sounds of “what could that be?” at unknown and varying distances from the apartment, which was both our refuge and our jail. Even if we wanted to, leaving was not an option.

At 10:45, when we heard on our Eveready-powered radio from the lone local radio station still broadcasting in the City that the eye of the storm was passing just east of the Quarter, we knew the very worst of Katrina’s experience was over.

Great winds still blew, but we were safe. No windows lost. No buildings down. No water in the streets. No need for refuge or assistance. At least not now, not yet.

About 1 p.m. the Old Quarter was alive again. People emerged from their safe-houses, and walked among debris from assorted structures and glass littering the streets. Various parts of buildings sat twisted and broken, including copper sheets from roofs, guttering, pieces of wooden gingerbreading, and tree limbs--lots of tree limbs. From patios, grand lawns, and balconies, tree limbs and leaves were in abundance.

From the street below our apartment, directly in front of Antoine’s Restaurant, came the shouts of someone trying to get our attention in the same fashion that would have been in vogue 100 years before.

“Tim….Brenda, are you up there?”

Our dear friends, David and Ann Gooch, were checking to see if we were among the home and okay.

And so, with Katrina still making her presence felt as she took her last whacks at the City, we sat in our apartment, sipping on Montaudon Champagne, and discussing the morning’s events.

David is a descendant of the family from Pau, France, that more than 100 years ago decided to establish an inn and restaurant that is today famous around the world as the quintessential New Orleans dining experience, Galatoire’s.

He and his family rode out the storm at the restaurant in the 200 block of Bourbon Street, a truly safe haven.

We then walked the streets, meeting neighbors and friends along the way, and endlessly recounting feelings and events, as best as we could all perceive them from behind closed doors and covered windows.

The mood was not somber, but relieved. We were all fine. Without electricity, but fine. Most phones still worked. Not a single television station was on the air, and with only one radio station broadcasting, news was slim, but not grim. Not yet.

It was decided that on this particular evening, Day One post-Katrina, we would dine at Galatoire’s.

At about 6 p.m., we began, as with all of our previous Galatoire’s experiences, with Veuve Clicquot Champagne. The grateful gathered included David and Ann; Brenda and I; David’s mother, 97 years of age and still the picture-image of a grand New Orleans Lady; Brother Al, a sailor of note and sail-maker to the fleet at the many harbors on Lake Pontchartrain; the Gooch’s three sons, their cat, and their poodle named Clicquot.

The mood was light, and easy banter was exchanged among all participants (including plenty of warm pats for the four-legged attendees), with talk mostly about when the power would be returned, did anyone know where the storm went and what it did there, will we be back in business on Thursday or Friday, and can the Saints play their first home game in the Dome. News from the outside was scant, but the phrase “we really dodged a big bullet” was heard more than once.

As evening fell, Katrina’s final blow plus 6 hours, the final tinge of daylight was replaced by candlelight. No one had dined solely by candlelight at Galatoire’s in over 100 years. This historic fact was not lost on the family or their appreciative friends.

More bottles of Veuve Clicquot were popped, and the comforting glow of the candles seemed to accentuate the pleasant glow of our moods. We had all been through hurricanes before, and we knew life in this great City was resilient and desirous of maintaining traditions.

Three great fires, yellow fever epidemics, floods, countless hurricanes, even police strikes would not deter a population living in a bowl, surrounded by water, from their lifestyle, their enjoyments, and their comforts.

David volunteered to be Chef for the evening. His abilities in the kitchen and creativity were known to all gathered. We eagerly offered to serve as sous chefs, waiters, sommeliers, bus boys, or just to stay out of everyone else’s way.

Shrimp Remoulade, Crabmeat Maison, and other delicacies appeared, perfectly prepared and sauced. These fine beginnings, coupled with wines from Eberle and Justin and Drouhin, set the tone for conviviality and laughter. Ice had not yet melted in machines. Natural gas continued to flow. What did not work, cell phones, air conditioning, lights, and television, did not matter.

Our main course consisted of drum, salmon, trout, potatoes, all imbued with butter and grilled or pan-fried to a golden touch. And again, the wine flowed. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel.

The candles provided a radiant light over an amazing gathering of multiple generations who had much in common, yet in another scenario in a different place at another time, very little in common.

White tablecloths, linen napkins, fine silver, and china played their usual parts in the theatre of this cuisine that has been praised and discussed all over the world in periodicals, books, the internet, and talk shows. Tonight it was ours and ours alone.

The table was cleaned, then cheesecake and Port appeared. Savoring every sip, every bite, knowing full well that good things shared were the important things in a meteorological world gone mad earlier, but now gentle again.

As we bid our good-evenings and walked the four blocks through a completely lightless Bourbon Street, we looked up to a million stars over the City. No light contamination to block their twinkle, this also-new experience punctuated a surreal, yet still serene scene.

Bourbon was littered not with tossed-aside go-cups, or old Mardi Gras beads, or visitors who had been over-served, but with the detritus of Katrina. Signs over night clubs were hanging by a single cord, or had crashed to the pavement. Shattered plate glass provided a crunchy carpet. But no one, no reveler, no policeman, no lost tourist was around.

The pleasure of the evening was still with us as we walked, the memory of a memorable day that we will always have, now made sweeter by the contrast with what we did not know then.. Peace and life revived again, after the immediate effects of Nature’s fury had seemed to die down. Another New Orleans contradiction, of which the City has so many.

And it was now only 9 hours before we, and the entire world, would learn the fate of several relatively unknown bodies of water that define the boundaries between parishes, between neighborhoods. We could not know, nor even expect, that evening of Katrina, that a football field-long breach in the levee of the 17th Street Canal, or a similar breach awaiting at the Industrial Canal, or that a third gash in the City’s protection would appear in the London Avenue Canal. We could not yet imagine the struggles of those who, by pure luck, could easily have been us. We did not know, yet, what had happened, and how it would change everything, all that we knew and loved, probably forever. But we were glad that we were able to taste, one last time, before the world changed for New Orleans, the spirit of graceful living, good friends, and life's pleasures savored. And we know that one day, the City will revive, as it has so many times before, to offer such carefree times again and remind its storm-weary citizens why they are here--in this City, in this life.


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