by Paul Rest March 13, 2017
I was living in New Orleans. Don’t ask me how I ended up there, it’s complicated. But there I was and soon I was loving The Crescent City. I just seemed to fit in. I really don’t know why? I didn’t sound like I was a local and I probably looked like I was from “up north” by the way I dressed. Of course I had an attitude about the way things were done in this still very socially stratified and segregated city, but the folks there seemed to take to me in spite of my quirkiness.
The food, oh the food, I was in the heart of a type of cuisine I had never experienced before. Talk about local. I had had some of this localness growing up, but nothing like what was about to happen. This was local before local was local. What people ate mostly came from within miles of where they lived. The vegetables, seafood, meat, herbs, hot sauces, breads, beers, almost everything, came from right there in and around New Orleans. It was a combination of French, Creole, African-American and Cajun cooking. These were tastes that were explosively new to my underdeveloped palate. And I loved every morsel.
Every week on my limited budget I was making new discoveries. There was a place deep in the French Quarter that I just happened to find one day about noon. I was starving and casting here and there for somewhere to have lunch (read, “inexpensive”) when I discovered this joint. Guy Fieri would have moved into the apartment above in a second and adopted this place as his own.
I entered the front room that apparently was a bar. It was dark and filled with clouds of cigarette smoke. The jukebox was playing 78’s (that’s 78 rpm records for those who aren’t familiar with vinyl). There was a curtain and on the other side was a serpentine lunch counter. A woman noticed me and commanded me in a firm voice, “Over here honey!” She was pointed to a just vacant stool. I saw down and ordered what I saw everyone else order. Red beans and rice with a smoked ham hock. Bread was included. I wanted to get seconds but realized there was a line out the door. I paid my two dollars including tip (this was a while ago) and thanked the woman behind the counter. After that, whenever I stopped in, she would see me, catch my eye and I would be seated as quickly as possible. I was known. And I didn’t have to order. She put my plate in front of me with a smile. “Here you go honey child.”
People would come up to me on the street and share their favorite “secret” places to eat. I discovered the amazing place on Tchoupitoulas Street that had this killer oyster loaf (think a whole French bread loaf sliced down the middle lathered with butter after being scooped out and then filled with a dozen of the most delicious fried oyster you’ve ever tasted). There was the oyster bar in the Pontchartain Hotel I was told about and where I from then on would down a half dozen just shucked oysters with a beer before jumping on the St. Charles street car as I headed back to my flat after a night with friends in the French Quarter. The truth be told, I had never eaten a real (i.e. raw) oyster before, but quickly fell totally in love with the local bivalves. Another time I was taken to a nondescript cinder block building on the shore of Lake Pontchartain where I had stuffed myself silly on soft shelled crab, fried oysters and freshly boiled crawfish. The large room had ceiling neon lights, long tables for family seating. Zero amenities. For a room this size with probably a hundred plus people in it was very quiet. People were obviously concentrating on what was before them and not wasting energy on conversations.
And the beignets. A new friend I had just met took me there a few weeks after I had arrived. She and I went to the Café Du Monde. We were served our café au laits while waiting. And then this dish of heaven was put on the table before us. Growing up the Midwest I had had my share of donuts and delicious pastries, but nothing prepared me for that first bite, an explosion of confectioner’s sugar that covered my face and clothing. I didn’t care. The taste was out of this world. I quickly ate a second, then a third and a fourth. After, I must have looked like I was decorated for Christmas with powdered snowflakes because of all the confectioner’s sugar on me. Really. They do tend to explode when you take a bite. The Café Du Monde became a regular stop during the year I lived there. I took my parents there when they visited, and my sister, all my family. Everyone.
Okay, now about the honey. One of the families I met through a friend of a friend called me one day asking, “Do you like honey Paul?” I said yes and before I knew it was I was invited to help them harvest honey from their hives. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into but when I was told I could take home two-quart jars of honey I quickly put my reservations aside. I arrived at their home and saw that the kitchen table had been cleared of everything but an oilcloth covering. Before long, bowls of honeycomb began arriving from the hives outside. The whole room smelled of the richness of fresh honey.
“Like this,” my host said showing me how to break the comb apart into pieces. I grabbed a comb from the bowl I had in front of me and began following his example. Looking at the comb as I broke it apart, I realized there were still bee larvae in various stages in some of the individual sections of the comb. This was something of mild interest until I had one then another sensation. Bee larvae still in the comb were stinging me. Yet, the honey itself was acting as an astringent. There was no pain, just a slight sensation of the prick. The group around the table proceeded to break the combs into smaller manageable pieces that were then put in pre cut sheets of cheesecloth. Then we squeezed to force the honey out of the comb. It also acted as a filter, removing stray pieces of comb, dirt, bee parts and whatever else was there. It was work. I was sweating from the effort but enjoying every minute of this new experience. A second filtering with more cheesecloth produced a golden amber liquid. We filled jar after jar until a third of the table was covered with quart jars.
When we finished, we had lunch of local grilled Andouille sausages, French bread and a shrimp casserole washed down with cold beers. I looked at the far end of the table and saw the pieces of comb and detritus filled a number of bowls. My host explained that these would be left near the hives. The bees would recycle all: comb, unused honey, everything. “By tomorrow morning, nothing will be left,” he continued. He sealed my two jar of honey putting a piece of cheesecloth between the honey and the lid. The next morning, I toasted two slices of French bread, added butter and added the fresh honey. For the first time I had this sensation that I was eating something that came from my labors, from my hands (and thanks to the bees). It was and remains the best damn honey I’ve ever had.
Honey to and from the soul.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin