Monday, November 29, 2010

Starbucks Days

During these Baton Rouge days over the past two weeks Starbucks has been an almost regular stop on my travels around town and country. Not really a signal that the ubiquitous green, black and white logo is a special sort of magnet pulling me daily toward its caffeinated charms, but more a mark of dependance on the available WI-FI Internet connection. In spite of living most of the time surrounded by and embracing the tools and objects of time past, the vintage fountain pens, old spoons and dishes, the preference for books instead of Kindle or iPad, in spite of these and other ‘old-timey’ interests, I have to admit my addiction to being wired up for a little time each day. To get that online fix during these days of vacation at 1051, the nearby Starbucks has provided a solution to connection problems in the house.

Figured if I was going to write something about sitting around Starbucks I could at least find an interesting factoid or two about the company. It was founded in 1971 by three fellows in Seattle, an English teacher, a history teacher and a writer. No one involved is named Starbuck, and the name comes from a character in Moby Dick. The first mate on Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod is named Starbuck. The number could be a few more or less, but you will find Starbucks in about fifty-five countries worldwide. The first branch outside North America opened in Tokyo in 1996. By the end of March 2010 there were 877 stores in Japan. If you're planning a trip to Tokyo, guaranteed you will find the Starbucks urge easily satisfied. In more than one part of the city there are even Starbucks on opposite corners of an intersection. One of the best, at least in warmer months, is the larger of three stores in western Tokyo’s Kichijôji area, the one located at the back of Tokyu Department Store with it’s wide and spacious deck opposite The Gap. Comfortable spot to pass an hour or two on a spring afternoon. The photo here was taken at night and doesn’t really do justice to the terrace atmosphere. The Japanese are no different from many in other countries who frequent Starbucks, and hang out there with their laptops and schoolbooks, or a group of friends. They love their coffee just as we do, and I would bet that business is booming there.

These past days have given me a chance to 'eavesdrop’ on conversations and attitudes in a not-very-Cajun Starbucks located at the Towne Centre mall in the Goodwood area of Baton Rouge. It’s an upscale kind of place, and the people flowing in and out are well-dressed and well-spoken. One man I’ve noticed on several occasions always has a thick book from the more difficult shelves; yesterday was The Decameron by Boccaccio. Three girls from LSU like to study here, but you have wonder how much of that gets done between the cell phone texting and the peals of laughter. Business meetings are happening at every other table, and Bluetooth phone calls from every direction make you wonder if you’ve stumbled into a rest stop for schizophrenics. Is it just me or is it hard to get used to people sitting in a chair talking and gesturing to an invisible presence? A note about the Starbucks employees here and elsewhere—No question there are exceptions, but my experiences have always been good whether in Louisiana, Florida or Japan, the service friendly and efficient. Just don’t ask me about the low fat pumpkin brulee holiday frappaccino. I’m a straight coffee kind of guy.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Breakfast at Parrain’s

Food has lately been at the forefront of conversations and gatherings, probably a characteristic true of many people celebrating Thanksgiving around the country this week. For the more fortunate it’s been a blitzkrieg of eating that has us still groaning with the abundance of it all. Lots of remembered favorites, new recipes and flavors that linger on the palate for a day or two, and a refrigerator half full of leftovers. “Do you want a turkey sandwich?…Hey, how about a piece of mince pie?” Had to answer no this time and confess that I’m full of turkey and dressing. “But hey, let’s jump in the car, take a drive and find a place to have a bite to eat.”

At the risk of overkill, today’s post again features Louisiana food, or the type served at Parrain’s seafood restaurant on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge. Not that old, Parrain’s opened in September of 2001. The waiter offered an interesting tidbit of information about that: The opening was originally planned for September 11, but a slight complication in New York City that morning put a stop to most things, including restaurant openings. In the nine years since then, Parrain’s has become a Baton Rouge favorite for Cajun seafood dishes. The name of the restaurant comes from the Creole-French word parrain for ‘father.’

Sunday brunch at Parrain’s is a popular time, but we got there early enough to get a comfortable table beside a window half full of banana leaves. The restaurant isn’t small, but some sections give the impression of being busier than others, with a loud clatter of dishes and voices. Our table was in a quieter corner. The brunch menu for today offered five special dishes, with the alternative of ordering from the regular menu. The five specials looked pretty good, and we ordered the first choice, something called Eggs Grace. Here is a description straight from the menu: French bread toasted and topped with grilled tomatoes, fried catfish filets and poached eggs smothered with crawfish etouffée and served with grits. It’s a tempting plateful, but maybe more the thing for someone with an appetite. First look makes one wonder if all those flavors are going to work together, and for the purist they might not. Eggs smothered in crawfish etouffée is a combination I first had last Monday in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, one that I was eager to try again. As for the catfish, it fits right in as long as you eat it still crisp and not drenched in etouffée. The way it is served at Parrain’s makes that easy, with most of the etouffée soaking into the French bread.

But others may opt for the Boudin omelette—a three egg omelette with boudin sausage and pepper jack cheese topped with white gravy and served with grits and a biscuit. Or the soft shell poach—a bed of spicy hash browns topped with a fried soft-shell crab and poached eggs, finished with hollandaise sauce and served with a biscuit.

It might be hard for anyone to eat like this every day, and I can’t imagine many do and still keep a healthy heart, but for a different kind of brunch or breakfast, these Creole recipes are a delicious alternative. I will miss them when I return to Florida in a few days.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cherry Pie, Billy Boy

Thanksgiving is a celebration that was for many years far removed from my Novembers. Not recognized as a holiday in Japan, the fourth Thursday of the eleventh month is there just another day of the week. Naturally, for all the years before moving to Japan, big holiday feasts in late November were a regular part of my year, and like most Americans, I always looked forward to them. This first Thanksgiving since returning from Japan has been a time with the old friends that have been mentioned in these pages over the past week. Those friends have done a great job of reacquainting me with the food and customs of this old Pilgrim holiday.

Thanksgiving happens twice in one week around here. Thursday was day number one in Walker, about twenty miles east, where we went to partake of a grand turkey-spread with all the fixings, and also to visit with old friends. We waddled home from there after several pounds of turkey, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, green bean casserole, rice and gravy, salad, and a whole array of pies. Friday was a rest day, but it all started over again on Saturday with another and almost as big Thanksgiving dinner for the more immediate family. Once more the tables and counters were loaded with all the traditional favorites, but this time with a special cherry pie that to my tastes was a big cut above the average. The pie had a tart flavor, far cry from the dominant sweetness of most pies, and since I was around the house watching my friend Dee make all the pies, I got a few shots of the process, and later begged for the recipe. I know nothing about baking pies and have not tried making this one, but I have eaten the pie and can vouch for its more than merely cherry flavor. Dee does a good job with it.


2 cans of pitted tart cherries

2 Pillsbury ready-made pie crusts (long red carton)

⅔ cup of sugar

3 tablespoons of cornstarch

½ teaspoon of almond extract (optional)

About 2 tablespoons of butter


Drain the cherries, but reserve the juice from one can. Put the cherries and juice in a saucepan, stir in the cornstarch and sugar and cook over medium heat—stirring continuously—until thick and clear. Pour the cherries into a bowl and stir well, adding the almond extract if you choose to. Flour your working surface and roll out one of the pie crusts, using a rolling pin on it just a little. Place it in a pie dish with the edges draped over the sides; trim where necessary. Next, pour the cherry mixture into the pie dish and spread it evenly; dot the cherries with butter. Roll out the second pie crust and cut it into strips a little under an inch wide. Lay the strips across the cherries weaving them into a lattice. Crimp the edges with a fork and bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes, or until you have a golden brown crust and bubbling red cherries.

And there’s a delicious cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy.

Raymond's lagniappe . . .

Those Thanksgiving days started early. And always the talk: Uncle Roy and his sugah die-bee-tees, cousin Sue marrying a Thibodeaux boy from Louisiana, Jimmy Gaines (a third cousin) having a spell with his heart and only forty-two. With the women along the sides fanning away any flies, the homemade wooden tables were stretched out end to end and bore the marks of countless gatherings, when hot dishes slipped off crocheted table pads and darkened the varnished surface, dishes of black-eyed peas and butterbeans and field peas and okra and platters of boiled crabs and fried chicken and bream and bass and rabbit and squirrel and boiled crayfish, bowls of strawberries and cream churned from cows milked before dawn, lemon and egg and coconut and apple and cherry pies. Later there were buckets of homemade ice-cream and fireworks at dusk, the lighted punks held by all the older children like fireflies in the evening air. --- excerpt from Swimming Underwater

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wet Leaves

Weather has changed in Louisiana and the cool autumn temperatures with unclouded skies have retreated, been shoved aside by cold temperatures and wintry rain. First sight this morning was of a wet neighborhood soaking under steady rain. A day for sitting around the crackling glow of a fireplace reading or watching one of the several football games on television, getting up once in a while to nibble Thanksgiving leftovers and gaze out at falling rain and patches of brown leaves plastered on brick and car.

But the rain and cold weren’t enough to keep me from going out to look for a recently released book on my watch list. During the two days in New Orleans this week I was in at least half a dozen bookstores, but didn’t see the long awaited second volume of Christopher Isherwood diaries, The Sixties: 1960-1969. Certain that it was scheduled for release in late November, I drove over to Barnes & Noble and found it right off. Got a free one-year B&N member’s card in the process, with the usual $25 fee waived for Black Friday. But a trade-off came in the shape of badly bent reading glasses. Would have sworn they were okay when I walked in the bookstore, but I must have sat on them at some point. I was lucky to find an optician nearby.

The cold, wet weather here is the first I’ve encountered since leaving Japan in April, and perhaps not surprisingly has turned my thoughts to the Tokyo Novembers I am most familiar with. Flipping through the catalog of photos on my iPhone, I uncovered a couple of November snapshots in Japan. Nothing special about them, except that they stir something piquant in my memories. A strawberry plant, dried red peppers, a gingko tree half green, half yellow, ordinary images that in some way or another resonate with the first cold rain of a Louisiana November. A phone call from beachside in Florida tells me that it’s all sun and clear skies over deep ocean blue 700 miles east.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

French Quarter Idyll

Not long back from two days in New Orleans, city most recently famous for Katrina, and long famous for its cooking, its jazz, Mardi Gras, French Quarter and excellent bookshops. Spent the time there with my lifelong friend, Raymond, and it was a grand two days and nights. The best of times it was, but with all that we arrived back in Baton Rouge tired and road beaten.

Large amount of walking during the New Orleans hours, but how else can you absorb the fullness of the streets with all their sounds, sights and smells? A dozen or two reasons make Raymond and I the best possible travel mates, and we are especially in tune with and about the art of book buying and collecting. That pursuit was a big part of the hours we roamed and rested. Crescent City Books is a book lover’s dream, The Librarie Bookstore, Beckham’s, Octavia Books and perhaps the best of the lot, Garden District Book Shop, where a superb collection is watched over by a friendly and helpful crew. Raymond has better control of his wallet than I do. He came home with two books to my seventeen.

There’s little need to crow and croon about the food in New Orleans, which is famously good. Any way you turn it’s easy to find good spots for local specialties like crawfish, stuffed softshell crab or red beans and rice with boudin sausage. We had it all and the very best was at Pontalba House on Jackson Square. On the way south yesterday we stopped in LaPlace for lunch at the Bully Bar and had a couple of great po-boys, crawfish and catfish.

We wandered in and out of French Quarter bars all day and night, and in the process of testing our endurance, met a few people who made the good time better. Unlikely that any of those people will ever see these words, but I’m shouting out anyway… You entertained us, assisted us, explained and smiled—Appreciation and thanks to Melanie, Jake, Michelle, Frank, Julie, Corvana and T’meeka. We brought a little of your smile back to Baton Rouge. Hats off to the Marriot Hotel for platinum-like service; you all did good.

Raymond says he’s too tired for lagniappe tonight. That’s our loss, and we’ll be looking for more later.

Top photo: A house on Chartres Street that caught my eye; in the bottom photo Raymond studies a menu in the Garden District, visualizing a Cuban sandwich.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

1000 Words

Afternoon in the French Quarter, New Orleans—Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Heading South

We left early this morning headed for points south, for small towns draped in Spanish moss and Cajun history, towns where swamp and bayou are never far away. Perhaps to many unfamiliar with the southern parishes of Louisiana, towns like Breaux Bridge, St Martinville and New Iberia ring no bells and offer up no particular images. The area is a major area of sugar cane production, fields of cane lining many of the old roads; small and old towns settled in the latter half of the eighteenth century, each prominent in French Acadian-Creole culture and history. Breaux Bridge is fifty miles southwest of Baton Rouge and is called by many the “Crayfish Capital of the World.” St Martinville is sixteen miles south of Breaux Bridge and is slightly famous as the site of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s love poem “Evangeline.” New Iberia has a rich Civil War history, and passed a portion of the war as a Union occupied town. These days it is probably most famous as the setting for the hugely popular Dave Robicheaux series of novels by James Lee Burke.

We arrived in Breaux Bridge in time for breakfast at Chez Jacqueline on the main street of the historic district. Not really certain it is an authentic Cajun style of eggs, but we wolfed down plates of fried eggs topped with crawfish etouffee, bowls of grits and a loaf of French bread. First place I’ve ever encountered free refills on the orange juice. Bad luck for us, many of the antique shops were closed, yet tantalizing with views through windows of old junk we wanted to look at and perhaps buy.

A short drive took us to St Martinville where we spent a couple of hours walking around the very expansive Longfellow Evangeline State Park on the banks of Bayou Teche. This is a beautiful park and offers a particularly good example of how the early settlers lived, how they built their homes, lived harmoniously with the local Attakapas, and battled the dangers of climate and disease. A great tour worth going out of the way for.

Last on our roadmap was New Iberia, a place I was especially eager to see because of my enchantment with the images wrought by James Lee Burke in his books. Hard to avoid saying that most of the time here was a disappointment, for no other reason than the shortage of stores and restaurants open for business. We walked blocks up and down, then drove in circles looking for even one place offering something to eat, but could find nothing until the lady in the Allstate office directed us to The Pelicans on the banks of Bayou Teche. Not a fancy place, but they serve a tasty shrimp po-boy.

Back in Barton Rouge around 7:30, and thinking about tomorrow’s trip to New Orleans.

Raymond’s lagniappe

‘My memories of growing up—the peculiarities around me that were the norm—are like the photographs stored around me, in the attic, in boxes and desk drawers, as book marks in books not finished, some mildewing and yellowing and fading from the dampness of too many tropical storms over the years. My memories are photographs: single instances of a peculiarity that I’ve time-shifted to now and, no doubt, one day, like those rusting tintypes of ancestors stored in a trunk somewhere, those memories will also be subject to the heat and dampness and the stillness of growing old in Louisiana.’ —excerpt from Southern Snapshots

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Flowers from Japan

A big part of Saturday echoed with the roar of football crowds cheering hometown teams. Around here the roars were for the guys in purple and gold. Not an easy victory, but LSU managed to somehow squeak by with a winning touchdown. A good win, no doubt, but a performance that left many fans wondering how the team they watched today will fare next Saturday against an Arkansas team that looks mighty strong, at least on color TV.

Today I am trading in football for drama. Once upon a time I played football, and like many of my young teammates dreamt of later glory on the scrimmage line in LSU’s Tiger Stadium. But that all got bumped aside when I discovered the fun of playacting in school plays. Suddenly the interest turned from floodlights on the playing field to spotlights stage right. After the school plays came community theatre and involvement with the Baton Rouge Little Theatre. There has always been a warm spot in my memories of the time spent doing plays and musicals there. The last production I saw there was West Side Story, directed by my lifelong friend (and current host), Dee. That was about ten years ago. On the boards now is that old Frederick Knott chestnut, Dial M for Murder. I will be in the audience for a performance later today.

Raymond’s lagniappe

‘Forty or forty-five years ago, the Beatles at City Park in New Orleans.

Sitting high in the small stadium makes everything small in the photographs taken. Small people dashing toward the stage in the end zone, some avoiding tackles by the police, one policeman’s hand high on the thigh of a young girl he tackles, her dress gathering in folds at her waist.

Later, after the concert, walking French Quarter streets, watching couples, avoiding bums on dark corners with their hands extended, glancing in store windows at the reflection, exhilaration now a sense of loss, old buildings and smelly streets of uneven brick better than the drive back to nighttime marsh.’ —excerpt from Southern Snapshots

Note on the top photograph: An autumn flower arrangement by a good friend in Japan. The three components are kaki (persimmon), kiku (chrysanthemum) and the tiny purple umonodoki flowers, a name I do not know in English.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Acorns & Earphones

Still surprised by the winter-like chill of these Baton Rouge mornings. Outside now on the patio but suitably layered in enough cotton and denim to buffer the cold. Helps too to have a steaming cup of Community coffee and a warmed up leftover sweet potato hushpuppy from last night’s dinner. The light is good here beside the small pond dancing with bright orange carp. It filters through the leaves and falls to the brick in restless patches that jitter in concert with the breeze nudged leaves overhead.

Light, breeze and chill aside, this hour on the patio is bound up in Florida responsibilities and the necessity of making a telephone contribution to HOA affairs, attending by phone. In all truth, if one has to attend a meeting, a sun-glazed patio sounds a better spot than a clubhouse meeting room. But the fact that I’m on holiday and eager to spend the time with friends usually absent makes sitting still with cellphone earplugs tedious and antsy.

The birds have returned. Dee was elbow deep in her seed mixing pots earlier and the garden feeders have been filled. Redbirds are still holding their distance, waiting perhaps for the first rush of hungry birds to thin out. A mockingbird overhead is now singing out the news of fresh seed.

LSU football is on the agenda today, the long well-worn rivalry between our hometown Tigers and the boys from Ole Miss University in Oxford, Mississippi. The pre and post game traditions of Saturday football are elaborate in this part of the south, and we have something of a party planned here at 1051, with friends coming over to watch the big gridiron clash between the Tigers and Rebel Bears. I have for years been removed from these celebrations and now find that somehow the excitement is coming back with the anticipation.

Raymond’s lagniappe

‘In a Jamboree game at Memorial Stadium we run the reverse five times and then Bill fakes the handoff and half the other team comes charging through the line to smear me for a loss; just before they do I show empty hands and we all turn and watch as Bill weaves his way downfield. I run for a long touchdown but it is called back and the shortened game ends scoreless. The rest of the games we win, many of the players going on to play junior high and high school ball. Although we go out for practice in the seventh grade a few times, Bill and I discover DRAMA, realizing football practice takes places at the same time as rehearsals, girls without pom-poms more plentiful around the stage, recognition coming without battering heads and bruising bodies.’ — excerpt from Swimming Underwater

Friday, November 19, 2010


Went wandering yesterday around southeast Baton Rouge and somewhere along the way bumped into a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Very probably my car sniffed it out all by itself, a skill picked up from other wanderings. The Toyota has reminded me on more than one occasion that its favorite place for resting is the parking lot in front of a bookstore. Who am I to argue?

For a list of reasons, the Barnes & Noble I browsed yesterday was more inviting than my usual B&N in Daytona. The arrangement of books is easier to follow, there are more armchairs for reading in a mush of comfortable cushions and the shelves holding new fiction are fuller with more titles. Not sure I understand why that would be, but it could be because this store is designated as a superstore. Whatever the reason, there were three or four titles I wanted to buy, but managed some often absent control and in the end bought only one.

Dog Stories, from Everyman’s Pocket Classics is a handsome little volume of stories from an impressive list of writers who include Anton Chekhov, G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Lethem, Doris Lessing and fifteen others. As the title implies, the stories all revolve around dogs. After reading Lethem’s story of Ava, the three-legged and full of love pit bull, I knew the book had been a good buy. “Garm—A Hostage” by Rudyard Kipling is a gem of a tale set in colonial India and about a bull terrier of extraordinary intelligence. Some will call Kipling an acquired taste, but this story is fueled by a bond of love and trust that would affect the most dour of readers. In another story by Patricia Highsmith, we meet an aged dog living with a cruel and uncaring master in a New York penthouse. Highsmith is famous for her fiendish characters, but this time the ending is happy.

Good collection. Give it a look next time at the bookstore. Dog Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell; Everyman’s Pocket Classics 2010.

For dinner last night we went to the Acme Oyster Bar for a grand feast of grilled oysters, fried catfish stuffed with crabmeat, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice and gumbo. Let no one tell you that Louisiana is without a classic cuisine. This Creole-Cajun style of cooking has its origins in the old dirt floor kitchens of poor people from south Louisiana, but its rich and earthy flavors have tamed giants. If ever the question arises, ‘Why should I go to Louisiana?’ the answer is simple: Go for the food.

Raymond’s lagniappe

‘That first real 35mm camera, a Topcon D-1, black, about the size of an open hand, carried everywhere when young, plenty of film to shoot the dark water of the Mississippi reflecting blue sky and green trees along willow-choked banks. Those black and white negatives from the Topcon show river traffic from the levee in Baton Rouge, crowded Third Street, the Sears store, Walgreen’s Drug Store, the Paramount Theatre, Piccadilly Cafeteria where black men in white shirts carried food trays to the tables for tips, the Istrouma Hotel, Liggett’s Drug Store, H.J. Kress with toy-filled windows, the City Pawn Shop, and Claitor’s Bookstore in the hot summer stillness, the sagging shelves crammed with adventures, the memory of them like a photograph.’ —excerpt from Southern Snapshots

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Morning Quiet

The house is quiet early in the morning, unmoving except for a faint churning of mechanical heat somewhere behind walls. One of several cats stalks a moving shadow, slinking soundlessly between chair legs and stacks of books. Now and then comes the hiss and rush of a passing car on the street outside, or the dry crackle of newspaper pages turning, Miz Dee moving from South La. Business to People, seated in a pool of brightening light, her face and coffee cup silhouetted against the glass. From my place among these sofa cushions is a view out onto the 6:30 chill of a patio table still scattered with the leftover tokens of last night’s patio madness. Some bottles and glasses, an empty pack of cigarettes, a candle or two, and the errant leaf blown from the Bradford Pear, now floating with curled edges in a half-glass of beer. In this season the brick tiles are half covered with fallen leaves, a red-brown scatter jostled and shifting in the movement of November air. Birds are few this morning only because their special mix of thistle and sunflower seeds is still in unopened bags, and the feeders are empty of even the last half-hidden morsels. They seem faithless creatures deserting the garden at the first twinge of hunger.

My first full day in town yesterday was a blunt force reminder of the traffic that has characterized Baton Rouge in the aftermath of Katrina. People here will tell you that it all began with the grand exodus from New Orleans before and after the hurricane, and is exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure in the city’s street plan. Wednesday saw me driving in parts of town that I remember as wooded land, but now seethes with service roads, ramps and high speed car chases. Oddly enough the route I followed turned out to be easier than the directions, though it never provided an escape from the hot metal stricture of a thousand moving cars.

In only two days I seem to have become a familiar figure to the neighborhood walkers. For the second morning I encountered a small cast of jogger-walkers, most of whom offer a wave and a friendly smile. While only a few streets away the stream of traffic keeps air heated and grainy, in the virtual forest of Old Goodwood a wealth of green and fewer cars work to keep the air crisp and fresh. It must be related to the concrete surface, but I am walking faster here a distance equal to the Florida walks. Maybe it’s the new shoes.

Raymond’s lagniappe

‘Summer nights here in Baton Rouge trucks from the Louisiana Department of Insect Control hiss between houses and apartment buildings along adjoining streets, the compressor on the back shooting out a white spray like seeds from the crooked funnel of a harvester. A yellow light flashes on the top of the truck in a neighborhood where once lightning bugs blinked and flitted along childhood streets and among bushes and in treetops, and sometimes die only when caught and their glow smeared across the front of T-shirts.

— excerpt from Southern Snapshots

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Walking Under Oaks

The long drive yesterday from Florida’s east coast to Baton Rouge, ark of my childhood, took a lot out of me. But eleven hours behind the wheel will do that, and arriving car-tired was little surprise. A hot shower washed a good bit of the tiredness away, and seeing again my two oldest friends, sitting together, talking, laughing, remembering—It was like an adrenaline shot straight to the heart. How much better can the hours and days ahead get?

Things are different here in the land of Tabasco, oyster po-boys and pecan pralines. Sort of figured I would sit in Raymond’s house and be granted instant Internet access on this MacBook Pro, with WI-FI snaking invisible from inside the house walls and embracing the laptop. As it turns out the Bluetooth and WI-FI are dead in the water at 1051. Looking into the why of that today, but for now the nearby Starbucks offers an easy solution.

Walked early this morning for a long distance on Sevenoaks Avenue. Of course, I remember it all from the years of growing up here, but once again the droop and swag of huge old oak trees captured my heart and gave a lightness to my step. This area is one called Old Goodwood, and is a place where building was conceived as non-invasive residential architecture, and where ground plans were laid out around and between tall moss-draped oak sentinels. There is a feeling almost of breathing green. Walked past Goodwood Elementary and recalled the afternoon basketball games, halcyon days when twelve year-old boys in blue and red challenged the boys in maroon and gold, and pert, red-haired Nannette cheered us from the bleachers.

Been my hope for awhile that friend Raymond might be willing to add some native thoughts to my Louisiana impressions, a perspective of his own. Let’s call it lagniappe—a Cajun word for a little something extra.

‘Nights with a breeze blowing in from across the Amite River, no glow from Baton Rouge in the distance, pull a mattress out on the porch of the camp and sleep with sounds of crickets and frogs near, and when waking during the night to turn over, opening eyes like a camera lens and seeing the lightning bugs flickering among the dark trees. Wishing it could be but knowing the impossibility of truly capturing for memory this fresh everydayness.’ — excerpt from Southern Snapshots

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Louisiana Bound

Though my memory may be flawed, I believe it may have been mentioned at some point in these posts that I grew up in Louisiana. It will surprise no one to know that even now my head resounds with images and memories of that locale, and books either about, or set in Louisiana are quick to grab my attention. Any book lover would find much to like in the work of Louisiana writer, James Lee Burke, and among his many gifts as a writer is an unparalleled and completely individual skill to paint pictures of Louisiana’s landscape. In many cases those descriptions come close to taking the breath away. And believe me, as one who grew up there, his scenes of Louisiana have the unmistakable ring of truth. Seems as though every Burke book set in south Louisiana that I read calls me back, beckons me ‘home.’

Within an hour of posting this, I will be on the road heading for Louisiana. I’ve decided to spend a couple of weeks visiting old friends and family, enjoying a reunion Thanksgiving, and also—ice cream on the cake—touring the old towns and sites of Cajun Louisiana south of Baton Rouge. I call it the James Lee Burke-Dave Robicheaux tour.

And so, for the next couple of weeks, and whenever the travel allows or provides a WI-FI connection to my laptop, Scriblets will be more of a travel journal than anything else. Hopefully, I can share some impressions and photos of the more interesting sites, and perhaps even encourage some words from my oldest friend and writer, Raymond.

Bye-bye to Florida and the beach for now. When next we meet it will be among the live oaks, the Spanish moss, and buckets of crawfish and boudin sausage.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stories from the South

With no special incentive behind it, I pulled an Ellen Gilchrist collection off the shelves this afternoon and sat down to read a handful of her always “Southern delicious” stories. The Washington Post once described this Mississippi born writer as ‘a national treasure.’ That is clearly high praise for a woman who was forty-five at the time her first book was published. Questioned on this late start to writing, Gilchrist once replied, “I was too busy living.” And who could doubt the illumination that this ‘living’ has brought to her writing?

Novelist, poet and short story writer, Ellen Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1935. She studied under the renowned Eudora Welty at Millsap College, but it wasn’t until 1981 that her reputation was made with the short story collection, The Land of Dreaming Dreams. Three years later she won the National Book Award with her collection titled, Victory Over Japan.

She has created characters who reappear in her stories in different phases of life, and together these stories form an interconnected body of fiction. In a 1999 book, The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, author Margaret Donovan Bauer said, ‘Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work…is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve, it is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle.’

But don’t let this interconnectedness lead you to believe that the stories depend upon a specific chronology. All of Ms Gilchrist’s stories are indisputably stand-alone works, and enthrall the reader with or without knowledge of connected stories. Her stories of Rhoda Manning, Traceleen, Nora Jane and Miss Crystal capture the reader despite order or date of publication. These wonderfully eccentric characters light up the author’s prose in each and every appearance regardless of sequence.

The stories that brightened my Sunday afternoon all come from the collection published in 2000, Ellen Gilchrist, Collected Stories, and are “Victory Over Japan” and “Music” from the 1984 book, Victory Over Japan, and “Drunk With Love” and “The Young Man” from the 1986 collection, Drunk With Love.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Getting Lost

Those who would like to hear a clip of music related to this post, can scroll down and click on the embedded YouTube file before continuing on.

One of the most romantic and tragic musicians of the twentieth century was jazz trumpeter and singer, Chet Baker. He was another of those gifted but troubled artists for whom a balance between private and public life was an ongoing struggle. The movie star good looks and rare musical talent were fatally paired with heroin addiction, troubled relationships and frequent incarceration.

For many years the Chet Baker sound was only vaguely familiar to me from unnamed background music in dark cocktail lounges and the occasional mention of his name in passing conversation. His heyday was a tiny bit early for me to remember him or his music from my youth. Prior to about ten years ago when I found one of his 1954 recordings discounted in Tower Records, Chet Baker’s music was not anything I could talk about. The 1954 recording I stumbled upon was Chet Baker Sings, an album recorded with his own group, Pacific Jazz. I read later that it was a record that increased his popularity, but on the other hand alienated him from his traditional jazz fans, who preferred his trumpet without the vocals. I am unable to comment on that particular nuance of purist jazz, but for me that early album was a huge eye-opener.

Chet Baker arrived in California from Oklahoma, where he was born in 1929. He was a big part of what was called in the 50s the “cool jazz” school. He first gained notice in 1952 as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. It was with this group that he recorded the almost iconic “My Funny Valentine.” Most will describe Chet Baker’s trumpet playing as sweet-toned, clear and almost without vibrato. He matched his vocal style and feeling to his playing—gentleness and unmistakable clarity. One of the amazing facts about his lifelong playing was that he never learned to read music. Instead he had a perfect ear.

Thanks in large part to his ongoing heroin addiction, Baker’s life was a litany of troubles. He spent long months in jail, he lost teeth in a street fight, and that coupled with the deterioration of his teeth led to dentures. He had to learn to play the trumpet all over again to compensate and stopped playing for almost two years.

He spent the last ten years of his life in Europe, and even though his troubles continued there, jazz critics consider his later recordings his best. He died in 1988 after falling from a window in his Amsterdam hotel, a few days after his last performance at the jazz bar Dizzy in Rotterdam.

For those unfamiliar with this musician, a whole world of musical genius awaits you in the recordings of Chet Baker.

The YouTube clip is one of “Let’s Get Lost” written and recorded in 1988 for a Bruce Weber documentary of the same name, a rather gritty film of the musician’s life.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chicken Soup for the Lazy

Once upon a time grandma made chicken soup almost good enough to cure cancer. It had a flavor that made you think it was distilled from everything in the world good, and if you had to, you could live off of it and nothing else. But these days few have the time to make such time consuming soups. I’m neither a devoted cook, nor one with the accumulated skills of a grandmother who has never heard of ‘instant.’ There are things I won’t even attempt to cook because they take too long, or involve tedious preparations. But at the same time, I like to prepare fresh and healthy meals as often as possible.

Today I had a hankering for chicken soup, but didn’t get home in time to prepare the soup one-hundred percent from scratch, starting with raw chicken and a pot of water. Grandma is probably shouting “No! No!” from her kitchen six feet under, but I decided to make what I call chicken soup for the lazy.


5 carrots

3 stalks of celery with the tops

1 large onion

1 zucchini

2-3 cloves of garlic

1 can of navy beans

2 thirty-two ounce cartons of Progresso chicken broth

½ of a cooked chicken

4 cups of filtered water

3 tablespoons of olive oil



Zatarain’s Cajun Seasoning


Chop the onion, celery and carrots roughly. Slice the zucchini lengthwise, then into ¼ inch pieces. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the onion, celery, carrots and garlic to the pot and stir well. Allow the vegetables to cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring often. Pour the chicken broth over the vegetables and raise the heat a notch. Add the can of navy beans and the chicken. I prefer to leave the chicken in good sized chunks, a couple pieces still on the bone. Season with salt, pepper and a good sprinkle or two of the Zatarain’s. Put a lid on the pot, but not a complete seal. Let it simmer for about 30 minutes before adding the zucchini slices. Cook the soup for another 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve over Jasmine rice. This soup is good with garlic toast, but French bread might also be a good match.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America