Monday, June 28, 2010

Cheating ain't fair...for now!

While I was in California visiting my crazy, beautiful family, I over-indulged on the local food knowing I wouldn't get another chance at it for a while. I decided not to cheat this past week because my extravagant dining behavior cost me a weight gain of five pounds, but let me tell was worth it!

I mean, how could I resist a delicious super burrito from La Cumbre?  Could you?

And I couldn't possibly say no to clam chowder and sourdough french bread at The Fish Market...

I had no choice but to eat or fall down at The Chieftain...

Not to mention the fact that my whole family wanted to ply me with Persian food.

There is simply no way I could refuse when my Aunt and Uncle went through so much hard work to treat me to kebab.  I didn't even get the opportunity to share with you my meal at Chao Praya, quite possibly one of the best Thai restaurants in the South Bay.

But, I am happy to say that I have been back on track in the past week and couldn't be happier to be back in New Orleans where I belong.  I definitely plan on cheating this Thursday and I have a whole list of fantastic restaurants to choose from.  It's so good to be home!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A day of debauchery at The Chieftain

When Shalom and I get together, a brief lunch stop can unravel into a day-long binge and that's exactly what happened when we stopped into The Chieftain.  We had planned to stop by her office in San Francisco and then head to the grocery store so I could make dinner when Shalom suggested we pop in at the corner bar for some lunch.  A couple of drinks turned into a couple more and before we could say "five o'clock rush hour," both lunch and dinner passed us by in the darkened bar on the corner of 5th...but I don't regret a single moment.

Opened shortly after the Prohibition repeal in 1934, The Chieftain (formerly known as the M&M Tavern) is a San Francisco landmark that became a journalistic hub due to its prime location near both the Chronicle and Examiner newspaper offices. It is the epitome of a great Irish pub with a long mahogany bar, excellent beer on tap and delicious, yet simple cuisine.  The Chieftain is also the quintessential sports bar that hosts events around all sports, especially rugby, football and soccer. When we arrived, anxious soccer fanatics crowded the small corner pub, yet they were almost silent in their reverent attention to the FIFA World Cup Finals.

We squeezed our way through the avid sports fans whose eyes were glued to one of the many large screens and managed to find two empty stools at the bar.  Shalom ordered a margarita while I selected a Stella Artois, one of the many great brews they had on tap.  I placed our first and what I mistakenly believed would be our only food order while watching the fanatics watch soccer.

We decided to share their Corned Beef & Swiss Sandwich featuring thinly sliced corned beef slathered with their own house mustard on a soft bun served with thick-cut steak fries.  It was not difficult to polish off the meal since we were sharing it, but it was clearly not enough to last us all day at the rate we were imbibing,  We had already polished off another round before the last fry left the plate.

The third beer I ordered (can you see the drunken direction we were headed in?) was called Prohibition Speakeasy Ale created by a local brewery in San Francisco. It was extremely "hoppy" with a smooth, caramel finish and it was not difficult to slurp my way through several pints.

Shalom was feeling extra adventurous and decided that we should try one of the pub's signature cocktails,  After debating between several options including "The Panty Dropper" (Square One Vodka, Midori, pineapple juice and a Grenadine sinker), we decided to go with the "Coconut Shamrock."  This particular concoction is creamy and sweet with Baily's, Kahlua and Malibu Rum.

After several hours of drinking, it was mandatory we eat again before we even considered stumbling out of the bar.  We ordered two more plates to share: the BBQ Pulled Pork Stuffed Mushrooms and the Prince Edward Island Mussels.  Although I enjoyed both appetizers, I couldn't help being partial to the mussels, which were steamed in Bushmills Irish Whiskey and swimming in a garlic cream sauce with some house-made brown bread served on the side.  The mussels were perfectly cooked and bursting with flavor and I couldn't stop myself from soaking up the cream sauce with a thick slice of buttered bread.

After nearly seven hours in the pub, and several cups of coffee, it was time for us to head home.  Although I didn't get to make the dinner we had planned, I still had an excellent time at The Chieftain spending time with Shalom, making new friends and partaking of the pub's fantastic menu. As I am writing this blog, I am reminded of the many journalists who used to frequent this very pub, stopping in for a quick ale while they scribbled away, elaborating a story on their latest lead.  How cool is it that my latest lead would originate from The Chieftain itself?  Very cool indeed...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Freshly squeezed at Cafe Van Kleef

After we left Mexicali Rose, my friends wanted to introduce me to one of the coolest jazz clubs in Oakland, Cafe Van Kleef. Known for a killer Greyhound, Cafe Van Kleef is located in the "Oaksterdam" district of downtown Oakland at 1621 Telegraph Avenue. The nickname developed quite recently due to the numerous cannabis clubs, cafes and dispensaries opening up in the area offering medical marijuana in both smokable and edible preparations to certified patients.

On the outside, Cafe Van Kleef reminds me of something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but inside there is such an crazy, eclectic mix of decor it's difficult to pinpoint.  There are all kinds of classical details like busts, columns and urns, but my favorite feature would have to be a huge painting that covers the entire wall opposite the bar.  The painting features a number of famous personalities throughout history all sitting in a cafe eating and drinking together.  I was able to recognize Freida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh and the Dalai Lama

My friends were eager for me to try Van Kleef's signature drink, the Greyhound which is simply vodka and grapefruit juice.  The key to the bar's success with this particular cocktail (as well as other citrus cocktails) is the fresh squeezed juice.  Our Greyhounds (modeled here by my dear friend Scott) would have served as the perfect breakfast beverage because of its star feature, a full quarter of a large grapefruit sitting on top!

If you've read some of my earlier blogs, you'll know that the Circle Bar in Lee Circle was one of our (Shalom and I) most favorite hangouts.  Well, for a strange twist of fate and yet another example proving how small this world really is, one of the bartenders who now works at Van Kleef's formerly worked at the Circle Bar in New Orleans.  What are the chances?  Even more amazing, the San Francisco Chronicle recently dubbed Cafe Van Kleef as "one of the five places in the West that would do the Big Easy proud."

We relished the rest of the evening perched on high, well-padded stools around a large table, sipping our fresh fruit cocktails and enjoying the live jazz band cranking up the volume at the end of the hall.  I almost felt like I was back in New Orleans for a moment with the wailing sax, friends both old and new mixed with delicious cocktails. If you ever find yourself in Oakland...I highly recommend Cafe Van Kleef.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A novel classic: The Mexicali Rose

On 7th and Clay in Oakland, California lives what is touted as the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area, the Mexicali Rose. Open since 1927, this classic restaurant was completely unknown to me until just this past weekend. During the 33 years that I lived in the Bay Area, I had become familiar with many of the cities, from San Francisco to San Jose and there were very few towns that I had not explored. Oakland just happens to be one of them. I can't tell you how cool it was to visit my friend Shalom in a Bay Area city where I felt like a newbie as opposed to an old hack.

In New Orleans, Shalom and I used to go out for a huge breakfast at 5 am after a hard night of drinking and it seemed to me that Mexicali Rose is the Mexican equivilant of St. Charles Tavern.  The food may not be spectacular but there was a lot of it for a great price in a comfortable atmosphere.

We pulled into the small parking lot outside the Mexicali Rose at around 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night.  The restaurant was full of diners crammed into red leather booths with wood-flavored Formica tables, a stark reminder of late 60's and early 70's decor.  I couldn't help grinning at the walls featuring large murals of Incan-like art (also very 70's) as we slid into a large circular booth in the corner...the only one that would hold a party of five and reserved, as it seemed, just for us.

We were immediately served tortilla chips and a searing hot salsa. Someone requested a pitcher of margaritas as we browsed the menu.  From their a la carte options, I selected the Chicken Enchilada with Chile Verde sauce while my friends ordered Pork Burritos, combination plates of Chicken Enchiladas and fresh Tacos. We also put in an order of guacamole, a must-try according to my friends. I have to admit, I was a bit fuzzy on the other orders since my friends had showered me with libations before we even arrived at the restaurant.

Along with more tortilla chips, a huge pile of guacamole topped with grated jack cheese was brought to the table and no one hesitated before grabbing a chip and digging in.  It proved to be fairly tasty and chunky with avocados.

My eyes popped when I saw my friends' entrees arrive. The burritos were easily as big as my head! At only $8 a plate, Shalom and Scottie's entrees could easily provide them with sustenance for several days.The burritos were tasty too, loaded with chunks of moist pork, lots of melted jack cheese, rice and refried beans. My enchilada was a much more manageable size, not to mention slathered with a tasty chile verde sauce that was tangy and plentiful, which I preferred over the red sauce on Shalom's burrito.

Although we couldn't help but giggle a bit at the "classic" atmosphere and our handwritten "reserved" sign posted on binder paper, the Mexicali Rose is, nonetheless, a great spot for affordable Mexican food in Oakland...especially late night. We ordered another round of margaritas (heavy on the salt!) and discussed where to head next. The night had only barely begun...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Blowing my diet at The Fish Market

Since I have been visiting my family in California, my eating regimen has been a total bust.  Although I have been getting out and about more than usual, I have been balancing the new exercise with a healthy dose of local cuisine.  For example, the other day my mother offered to take me to lunch at the Fish Market. My internal struggle lasted only a fraction of a second before I said "Okay!"

What? Stop looking at me like that!  How could I say no to lunch at The Fish Market?  You expect me to refuse a chance to eat their decadent clam chowder? Or miss tasting their sourdough bread slathered with butter?  I think not...

The Fish Market is a local restaurant chain that started in 1976 when a sport fisherman and a boat captain got together and decided to offer delicious, fresh seafood at an "honest" price.  Although the seafood at The Fish Market is diverse, fresh and very delicious, I have to argue that the price isn't all that affordable...not when it costs $13 for a half-dozen oysters, but I digress.

My mom and I arrived right after the lunch rush on a Friday afternoon.  As soon as I walked into the restaurant, a flood of memories washed over me with the smell of fresh seafood.  I remember coming to the Fish Market every year on my birthday and ordering a live Maine lobster with a cup of clam chowder or coming to the restaurant with my mom for a special lunch, feasting on huge salads featuring avocados stuffed with crab or shrimp.

We were seated in the back of the restaurant facing the water (a man-made canal that runs through San Mateo and Foster City).  We made our selections quickly and relaxed while reminiscing about our past experiences there.  Another server made his way to our table with some ice water and a bread basket featuring a half-loaf of their delicious sourdough bread. I discovered that they get their bread fresh from La Boulange based in San Jose when all this time I thought they made it there.

The bread is so delicious and perfect with a nice cup of New England Clam Chowder, which came out next.  I am a huge fan of clam chowder, creamy and chunky at the same time, rich with the flavor of fresh clams.  The Fish Market has always done this soup great justice and I can't resist ordering at least a cup every single time.

For our main dish, my mom and I decided to split their Fish & Chips Combination plate featuring panko fried Sea of Cortez prawns, Massachusetts sea scallops and Pacific lingcod.  When it came out, the waitress had kindly pre-split the entree for us, which I though was a nice touch of quality service.  Everything was so tasty, fried perfectly in the panko crumbs and still moist with no nasty rubber-like texture...especially the scallops which are so delicate.  The seafood was also served with coleslaw and french fries plus a nice tartar sauce for dipping.

So, even though it wasn't an "official" cheat, I couldn't help enjoying myself, hanging out with my mom and savoring the flavors from my past.  I figure after this trip, I will come back home to New Orleans and re-start my diet.   I promise!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A ladies' lunch at Pho Saigon

It seems that more than allergies, large hips and early onset gray hair runs in my family, there's also the love of pho!  Just the other day, my sister suggested lunch at a small Vietnamese restaurant in Foster City called Pho Saigon and much to my surprise, my mother and niece were equally excited to go! Well, my brother Bijan wanted to go too, but he was working in the South Bay that afternoon.

Anyhow, three generations of Ranjbar women traveled to our old family business location to enjoy some delicious pho for a light lunch.  You see, my father opened the first video store in Foster City over 25 years ago and "Foster City Video" only recently closed, but not before Pho Saigon opened next door.

Located in a fairly new strip mall, Pho Saigon is a clean, well-lit and well-decorated establishment with a welcoming staff and comfortable tables.  Almost before our butts hit the chairs, our server came to our table with ice water and menus.  Everyone else already knew what they wanted, but I was busy searching the menu for their won-ton soup.  I just had to try it as I wanted to compare their version to my favorite, Pho Tau Bay in Gretna.

We placed our order and like quicksilver, our dishes poured out of the kitchen.  First to arrive were the shrimp spring rolls that proved to be fresh and wonderfully herbal with lots of basil rolled with large pieces of shrimp.  We all dipped liberally into the peanut sauce that was plentiful and delicious, although it seems my niece Arissa was not yet willing to give it a try.  I will give her time...after all, she already loves Vietnamese noodles at only 4-years-old!

Our entrees arrived and my mom proceeded split her pork and shrimp vermicelli bowl with Arissa while my sister (Mina) and I prepared our steaming hot soups. Mina went straight for the fresh basil and lime, quickly adding them to her soup like a seasoned pho professional while I reached for the spicy Sriracha and sweet Hoisin sauces.  The pork in my mother's vermicelli bowl was tangy and tender, really quite tasty with a little extra sweetness from the sauce.  Both she and Arissa had no difficulty finishing their meals and still found themselves quite satisfied.

My large bowl of won-ton soup was nice...I was hoping for a more prounounced broth, something deeper and richer in flavor, but it was still good and quite filling with large won tons and a ton of egg noodles. I guess I am setting myself up for disappointment by comparing every won-ton soup I try to Pho Tau Bay, but it only makes me realize even more how much I belong in the Crescent City.

In any event, it was a nice, leisurely lunch with the ladies that I wouldn't have traded for the world.  There is simply nothing like visiting with my family and being a cool aunt.  I can't wait for the day when my niece is old enough to come and hang out with me in New Orleans...that's when she'll really discover how cool Auntie Kim can be!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Plied with Persian food...

Since I have been back in the Bay Area, my mother has been making all kinds of delicious Persian food, something I never get when I am at home in New Orleans.  I can always make it at home, but most recipes feed a small army!  Anyhow, I will enjoy it while I can.

The picture below is of Baghali Polo.  It's one of my favorite Persian rice dishes with small Lima beans, lots of fresh dill and a pinch of saffron mixed into some incredibly fantastic, scrumptiously nutty Basmati rice. My mom is a master of creating "tadiq" which is the crispy rice and potato that cooks to golden brown perfection  on the bottom of the pot.  Try not to be too jealous!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Reliving the past at La Cumbre

Ever since I moved to New Orleans, I have needed for nothing in the realm of incredible cuisine. From gumbo to pho, the Crescent City has a lot to choose from, but there is one item it lacks: an delectable, yet affordable burrito. Whenever I come back to visit my family in the Bay Area, I have to go to one of my favorite "hole-in-the-wall" taquerias, La Cumbre.

La Cumbre has actually been around a lot longer than I thought.  Back in 1967, La Cumbre  got its start on Valencia Street in San Francisco, setting a standard for "Mission-style" burritos in Northern California. I was surprised when my sister informed me that she actually went to high school with the owner's son and it was he, as well as other friendly recommendations, who got my sister (and thus my whole family) hooked on the excellent burritos at La Cumbre.

Whenever I go, I can't help but order a Super Chicken Burrito featuring their delicious "BBQ" chicken, black beans, jack cheese, Mexican rice, guacamole and sour cream.  They are HUGE and can easily feed two people for only $7.95.  Plus, you can go to the salsa bar and load up on pickled jalapenos, pickled carrots, salsas and chips...for free!  La Cumbre's salsa verde is far and away one of the best taqueria salsas ever and I love to pour little blobs on my burrito before each bite.

The Bay Area is definitely not lacking in great burrito spots.  In San Mateo alone I used to frequent Three Amigos and Las Palamos among others on a regular basis, but I will never pass up a burrito from La Cumbre.  I think soon New Orleans will have more choices for cheap, delicious burritos, but until then I will just have to reminisce about the place I grew up with.

Much needed serenity at the Japanese Tea Gardens

In the past month, I discovered that my father's health was rapidly deteriorating. Through the years, he's endured asthma, emphysema and two triple-bypass heart surgeries. After several frantic telephone calls and too many unanswered questions, I returned to my birth city of San Mateo to be with my family during this difficult time and to more closely monitor my father's condition. On the day I left Louis Armstrong Airport headed for San Francisco International, my dad was admitted into Peninsula Hospital after they discovered he had a blood infection. Before he was admitted, his condition was so bad that he couldn't walk at all and could barely form his words.

In the past couple of days, I have watched the color return to my father's face and strength return to his limbs after being treated intravenously with antibiotics. Being the father of four children (and two grandchildren), plus being the "alpha" male among his brothers and cousins, when my father loses strength, it's like the entire family feels a loss of stability. My mother and sister were especially affected in their daily efforts to care for him and interpret what the doctors meant behind all of their words, but we all needed a break when the smoke had finally cleared.

We decided to take advantage of an unusually gorgeous day (summers in the Bay Area are notoriously cold) and visit the Japanese Tea Gardens in San Mateo's Central Park.

Although I hadn't visited this gem in at least 20 years, it seemed like the perfect outing. As we entered the wooden gates to the garden, I almost gasped...I had almost forgotten how beautiful they were.

A landscape architect from the Imperial Palace of of Tokyo designed the Tea Garden for the city of San Mateo back in the mid 60's commemorating its designation as a "sister-city" to Toyonaka, Japan. The garden features bamboo groves, a tea house, a granite pagoda and a large koi pond. The flora is gorgeous at any time of year, but it is especially impressive in the springtime and winter.

Although the Japanese Tea Garden is located right in the heart of downtown San Mateo, there is an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility present in this more intimate version of the gardens in San Francisco. Many people have weddings here and it's easy to understand why.

My sister, mother, niece and I wandered around the little paths, crossed the small wooden bridges and peered into the waters of large koi pond. Strolling through these simple, yet elegant surroundings did a lot to help us renew and regenerate after the stress of almost constant uncertainty. I could feel the tension draining from my sister and mother as we enveloped ourselves in its serenity.

Next time, I hope we can bring my dad too.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An affordable cheat at Cafe Rani

Due to my current financial situation, selecting cheat meal locations that are also affordable can truly be an onerous task.  The spoiled foodie in me can't help wanting nothing but the best (what I wouldn't give to dine at Lilette, Gautreau's or La Petite Grocery!), but any eateries with an average entree price over $15 is, sadly, out of my monetary reach.  Last week I had selected a small restaurant close to my house offering cuisine that had piqued my interest.  Unfortunately, when John and I were standing outside of said restaurant looking at the menu posted by the front door, we felt a bit squeamish when we noticed that there wasn't even one entree under $20.  Needless to say we were forced to change our plans.

After driving aimlessly down Magazine Street for a while just hoping to spot an interesting, yet affordable location to dine, I spotted the elusive sign for Cafe Rani. In a previous attempt to visit the cafe, I had so much difficulty locating it, I simply gave up.  It seemed somehow a twist of fate that its location was revealed to me and I chose not to fight the cards as they were dealt.  This is my 39th cheat and since I lost two of the pounds I gained last week, I am back to a grand total loss of 60 pounds.

Cafe Rani is tucked into the back of a large courtyard on Magazine located right across the street from Belladonna Day Spa.  When we entered the cafe, we were able to select our own table and chose a spot in the back for privacy.  The decor is relatively modern and clean with framed black & white photos of New Orleans spaced evenly along the walls, simple wood chairs and linen covered tables.  I couldn't help noticing that several of the photographs weren't mounted properly in their frames and were slipping down into obscurity.

Pushing the minor irritant aside, I scanned the large menu that featured mostly salads for something naughty to eat.  I realize that Cafe Rani emphasizes healthy cuisine (thus the proliferation of salad entrees), but I was here to cheat, so I selected the heaviest items I could find on the menu.

We started with a Shrimp & Crawfish Bruschetta.  There were rosemary ciabatta "croutons" or triangles topped with shrimp, crawfish, artichoke hearts and tomatoes sauteed in a lobster butter.  Although the dish didn't look very pretty (or it could have simply been a lighting issue), it was quite tasty and even possessed a bit of a kick with some added red pepper flakes.  It was a tad greasy, but hey...who was complaining?

Shortly after we gobbled down the appetizer, our entrees arrived.  John ordered the Tandoori Tuna Steak sandwich served on a wheat bun dressed with mango aioli, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. From a choice of sides, John selected their potato salad to go with it. Although I loved the curry flavor of the tuna balanced against the sweetness of the wheat bun, the tuna wasn't cooked quite right.  John had requested the tuna be very rare (like any good tuna steak should be) and simply seared on the outside.  Whoever prepared it must have not had the grill/pan hot enough because the tuna had just barely turned white on the outside.  All in all though, the dish was tasty and the bacon enhanced potato salad was the star on his plate.

On their website, Cafe Rani touts "one of the best burgers in town" so naturally, I ordered a burger, but not just any burger.  I selected the Creole burger topped with andouille sausage and served with a house Remoulade and cocktail sauce on a wheat bun.  The Remoulade was delicious but spicier than I am used to and I liked the wheat bun and sausage, but the burger itself was rather dry (I requested it to be cooked medium) and there wasn't any real flavor in the meat itself.  It was served with regular Zapp's potato chips sprinkled with Tony's.

I couldn't leave the restaurant without ordering dessert (naturally), so I selected the Double Chocolate Fudge Cake and we also ordered a couple of lattes on a tip from our friend Lorin Gaudin. Apparently, Cafe Rani gets their coffee from The Coast Roast, a Mississippi roaster who has their own retail store front in Long Beach.  The lattes were aromatic and creamy, just incredible and as good as any California roaster I've ever encountered.  The cake was rich and decadent with a moist crumb and a thick vein of chocolate fudge (almost the consistency of a ganache) that we inhaled with ease.

Best of all, we were very pleased when we received the check and noticed that it wouldn't break the bank. Hurrah for a delicious, yet affordable cheat!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Making up for lost time at St. Joe's

As soon as I stepped into St. Joe's on the corner of Magazine and Joseph Streets, I was immediately upset that it took me so long to finally get there.  Ever since that crazy first year in New Orleans with Shalom, I developed an affinity for the "dive bar" and St. Joe's delivers.  The wooden bar is long and narrow with a shortage of available seating; one small table at the front window and stools along the bar.  The combination of dim lighting, religious iconography and a bunch of old fashioned mirrors gives the space a Gothic feel but the drinks are what it's all about.

When I asked for a cocktail recommendation from Paul, a longtime fixture of St. Joe's who's been intoxicating patrons for the past ten years, he suggested I try their signature drink, the Blueberry Mojito.  Since I have been literally inundated by mojitos in the past few months, I really wanted to try something different.

Patient with my indecision, Paul kindly offered another option, a margarita.  But what makes this margarita different from any other?  St. Joe's creates their own sour mix with fresh lemon and lime juice, exactly how a traditional margarita should be.  With speed, precision and a heavy hand, Paul whipped up a delicious, yet classic margarita in a tall pint glass with brightly colored salt around the rim.

The simple cocktail was tart and refreshing (not syrupy-sweet) and I found it difficult not to gulp the concoction like a fresh glass of lemonade.  When Paul noticed me taking notes and snapping pictures, he said "If you've never been here before, you should go check out the back."  I looked past the small pool table and turned back to my most helpful bartender and said "There's a back?"

If he hadn't told me I never would have known, but if you venture through the large door behind the pool table, traverse a small storage room and come outside, there is a wonderful patio space that you never would imagine existing in a bar like St. Joe's.  Past some larger tables, they have built a gazebo-like structure featuring a full bar with a mixed Asian-themed decor!  Large brass Indian statues and Taj Mahal cut lattices are lit from above by a large cluster of red Japanese lanterns.  Although no one was out there (it was still early in the evening), I was told that hanging out in the back was the "place to be."  It certainly looked like a party waiting to happen...I could just picture clusters of people out in the "Shangri-La" patio having the time of their lives.

By the time I returned to the main bar, I had finished my margarita and I was ready to break down and try the Blueberry Mojito.  I was a little nervous because fruity-flavored mojitos I have tried in the past severely disappointed, but this was something else.  By muddling dried blueberries with sugar and fresh mint, they have created a fruit mojito that surprised me by being absolutely awesome.  It wasn't too sweet and the blueberries simply added to the summery feel that is already a distinct characteristic of the original cocktail.

As I sat and sipped, I couldn't help thinking how much fun I could have had at St. Joe's if I had only taken that first step inside the bar almost seven years ago.  A little sadness seeped into my previously chipper mood when I realized how much I had missed, even though I thought my local bar repertoire was pretty complete.

I raised my glass and made a private little's to making up for lost time!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Books: The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish

In the premiere episode of HBO's Treme, there is a scene where John Goodman's character is ranting about the levee failures to a British television crew.  At one point, the journalist questions the reality behind the rumors that  local city officials blew up part of the levees in an attempt to drastically eliminate the poor neighborhoods on the edge of town and save New Orleans from the majority of the flooding.  Aside from hilarity that ensues (Goodman's character tries to throw the video camera into the river), the reporter actually made a really valid point.  In the flooding of 1927, blowing up the levees and flooding an entire parish is EXACTLY what local government did in a vain effort to save the city.  Why wouldn't people believe they might be capable of doing it again?

Just recently, I finished reading The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by Elise Blackwell, which was published in 2007, only two years after the Corps of Engineers' most heinous failure.  At first, I thought to myself "Not another Katrina book!" In the past few years, I have been bombarded by them and I'm just not ready to relive that horror again.  But this was something quite different...

It begins with an old man by the name of Louis Proby who has been watching the news, tracking the incoming storm and is reminded of his youth when tragedy threatened his home town of Cypress Parish, the Great Flood of 1927.   

The story turns back to this time of innocence for young Louis and you follow his ascent to manhood alongside the rapidly rising river.  We get to watch Louis mature from worshiping his father and his first fumbling attempts at making love to drinking his first glass of champagne and his impression of women in short skirts...the ones his mother always warned him about.

This book is so simple, yet so full of vivid characters, scenery and plot.  It's a story of generational differences, coming of age and natural disaster all rolled into one.  Along with Louis, you get to experience a multitude of different perspectives on life, even though you stay with him throughout the entire novel. His character is comparable to a sponge, soaking up what he likes and needs about other folk's ideas and discarding the rest.

More than anything, I was glad that this particular novel wasn't really about the 2005 flooding at all.  It was a unique, well-crafted story that offers a tiny glimpse of life along the Mississippi in 1927 and the struggles of one very special and very observant young man as he climbs his way into adulthood. 

Did I mention that this is the second time I've completed this novel?