Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thanksgiving List Time

Alright loved one, it's that marvelous time of the year again. My family has been doing the "things we're thankful for" list for almost 15 years no. It's morphed from a handwritten page in my mamma's notebook to a full-blown website with entries from people all over, often including some I don't even know. I love this traditon and encourage you to share your thanks with us.

My 2008 List:

New Orleans and a sense of hope
Barack Obama and a sense of hope
peach season in Georgia
paying off my car
youtube and subsequent early 90s dance parties
running into people you thought you had lost forever
crab boils and meeting friendly neighbors who hold them in your honor
premier's coffee bean selection
Monday night sewing club/crochet club/all-around crafty club
my KitchenAid food processor, thanks pops!
getting to see my niece three times already this year!!!!!
hearing Lucy call me Yaiya
hearing Donovan call me Teetee Laila
Italian cashmere, specifically the sweater I bought in Florence
jars of pear sauce and dilly beans preserved from my garden and lining my shelves
oysters; on the half shell at Redfish, fried at Casemento's and chargrilled at Drago's
Books: Mudbound by Hilary Jordan and Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
Memorable Meals: El Quenepo in Vieques with the most incredible grilled meats and passionfruit creme brulee, Il Fagioli in Florence with Florentine steak, fagioli ucce'letto, tortelli di spinaci and torta di fichi with vin santo
Movies: None come to mind but I have enjoyed watching the series Mad Men on Netflix
Music: Santogold

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A cocktail and a stick of butter, please!

Saturday morning, Rebecca and I rose early, put on our pretty dresses and went over to wake Amy up and go to brunch. We were torn between Mr. B's and Palace Cafe; Palace has such great turtle soup but B's has that amaaaazing barbeque shrimp! Anyway, neither one were open yet so we went to the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone for a glass of kir royale. I'm on vacation, I can have a cocktail at 11am if I feel like it, ok?!

We decided on Mr. B's and although I've been there before, I forgot that it has this old-world elegance to it yet it isn't pretentious or stuffy at all. Our team of waiters fell all over us, fluttering napkins and deftly gliding us into our chairs. We got a very nice salad to start but that's really neither here nor there. We all ordered the barbeque shrimp and were properly outfitted with bibs (you have to wear one if you're eating barbeque shrimp, no matter how silly you look) and then they dropped this magnificent concoction on us.

Rebecca enjoying her skrimps.

Amy enjoying male attention, I mean, getting her hands washed.

So, in case you don't know, barbeque in New Orleans refers to a sauce of butter, lemon, worcestershire, black pepper and more butter. Really, it's just straight up, flavored butter and it's fantastic. The recipe that Mr. B's uses, available online, calls for 3 sticks of butter for two servings. I'm not even kidding. I'm not sure what business we thought we had ordering a piece of hot buttered pecan pie but we did and it was also delicious, washed down with a glass of muscato. Since the trip to Italy, I am really enjoying dessert wine and how it complements the food.

After our decadent lunch, we headed off to the lovely City Park, thick and verdant with live oaks and Spanish moss, to go to Voodoo Music Festival. It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon and although I was still too full from Mr. B's, I did have a taste of an alligator sausage sandwich that was spicy and flavorful. I exited the show just past dusk to go meet Amy for dinner, the music still dancing in my ears as I made my way through the dark, tropical obscurity and in that moment, it all made me so nostalgic for the time that I lived here, spending evenings strolling in the hush of sticky nights, smelling jasmine and knowing I'd never have to leave or grow old or forget this wonderful time of my life. Sigh.

OK, onward ho! Amy has been raving about these chargrilled oysters at Drago's forEVA! I'd heard about Drago's when I lived her but it's located in Fat City, out in Metairie and I just saw no need to go there. They opened one downtown within the past few years, at the Riverfront Hilton and it's became one of Amy's go-to spots when in New Orleans. And for damn good reason. What do you know, the oysters were swimming in a pool of butter, with some lemon and parmigiano on top for good measure. Add to that equation the delicious, smokiness of the grill and I was in heaven. It was so good, I actually picked up the oyster shells and licked them, not even caring if I got some of gritty, flaky shell as well.

After Drago's, we met up with old friends and went to go dancing at Mimi's. Next up, crab boil at Mr Billy's, a tour of the Ninth Ward and Donovan's first trip to Cafe du Monde!

Friday, November 7, 2008


Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the back of the house, in order to shut off the front and therefore save hundreds on my already astronomical heating bill. I'm a big fan of men doing men stuff and women doing women stuff. Oh, don't groan, I KNOW I'm capable of taking out the trash but I'd rather not, cook dinner and call it a day. But, the annual move is a source of fierce pride for me. I don't know why, maybe it reaffirms my single woman status but anyway last Thursday found me schlepping the bulky mattress over my shoulder, reassembling the bedframe etc. Then I got to the TV. Everyone makes fun of me for this old thing but it still works and I've never bought a TV before, relying on roommates or castaways. Well, I unplugged the TV and started hauling when I heard a nasty sound. It seems I forgot to unplug the cable as well. So I effectively murdered my TV. And you know what, it's been over a week now and I really don't care. I was never a huge TV watcher anyways but I do enjoy watching hockey games and cooking shows and OK, I admit, I LOVE "So You Think You Can Dance" and reruns of "Designing Women" but....it's been really liberating. I highly recommend it, give it a try!

Forgetting My Cares in the Crescent City

Damn, I love New Orleans. Every time I go back, I'm reminded of how I first fell in love with the city and get crazy ideas about moving back, buying a little cottage in the Marigny, fixing it up and having seafood boils on Sunday afternoons.

I flew in Thursday night, to be greeted by a bunch of New Orleans ex-pats, now living in places ranging from Portland to D.C. Immediately went and checked into my hotel on St. Charles and can I get an amen for staying in one's own hotel room? Amy and I hit Casamento's uptown for dinner because you know I was DREAMING about my oyster po-boy all day! So, Casamento's is the greatest place on earth. It's been open for about 90 years, the owner is the son of the original owner and they don't even have deep fryers, they fry everything by hand in deep, ancient pots on the stove. I love it.

Anyway, as we were throwing down on some expertly fried crab claws and oyster po-boy (the gumbo was fine but nothing special), who did we see in the kitchen but our beloved Ms. Judy! Amy and I worked with Ms. Judy at Olivier's back 1998 and she was like our adopted New Orleans mamma. She came running out of the kitchen screaming "my babies!" as we all hugged and cried and the rest of the restaurant looked at us like we were crazy. Did I mention that I love this place? Because I do, deeply so. I haven't even lived there in 6 years but give me two hours and I'll run into someone I know!

Next we hit the bar at the Pere Marquette hotel to meet the lovely Rebecca and company. Chris was bartending, although that's kind of a bastardization of the term when referring to him. He's more a mixologist, gives talks at the Smithsonian and whatnot, he's the real deal. Anyway, I had three magnificent drinks there, the most delicious concoctions I have ever tasted. The first was a mojito-style cocktail but it was less minty and more ethereal and served straight up and very cold in a martini glass. Then, since I heard Chris makes the world's best Pimm's cup, I had to have it. But he only had enough for one so I graciously split it with Amy. Holy hell, have you ever had a Pimm's cup anywhere else? You won't want to after this! It had fresh blueberries, and raspberries, and, oh my! It was heaven. Finally, I had the Gin-Do, which is muddled with crystallized ginger and lemon and I don't think anyone should drink anything else ever again.

Friday morning we got up and decided to make reservations at Bacco for lunch, but wanted to start at Redfish Grill with oysters. Rebecca and I have this tradition of eating oysters for breakfast and I for one can never eat too many oysters. Within minutes of being seated we had a dozen BBQ oysters and a Redfish Grill lemonade. By the way, I remember loving this drink, it ain't all that. Tasted like cheap, pre-mixed lemonade and too much Razzmatazz. The oysters were another story, perfectly plump and seasoned, fried and tossed in that addictive mixture of butter and hot sauce and dunked into blue cheese. Oh my word. Then there were the raw oysters and I liked them better than the ones at Casamento's because they were more petite. I don't like the big ones that look like elephant boogars.

I think I said previously that I wanted a Pimm's cup at Napoleon House. I would like to strike that from the record. Nasty, nasty, nasty. Anyway, these cocktails at lunchtime were making me sleepy so we moved on to Bacco, where we ran into Stovall, who used to work at the French Quarter bar at the Ritz. I swear, you can't spit in this city without seeing people you know. So Stovall fixed me up with an espresso and we worked our way over to a table. Sadly, they did not have any carpaccio and carpaccio at Bacco is another Laila/Rebecca tradition PLUS I was stuffed from all the bread and oysters at RedFish so I opted for just an order of shrimp remoulade for my lunch. It was good, but I think the shrimp was a mite overdone. At that point, I didn't care because our old boss, Steve, swung through the doors to start his dinner shift and it was hugs and smiles all around. Not to mention that I saw another friend who I haven't seen since 2001 strolling down the street. This city is truly crazy. For dessert, I wanted Steve to make our old signature cocktail, the Lady in Red. It sounds kinda gross but I love it eternally; praline liquer, chambord, vodka and cream. Alas, there was no praline liquer at the bar and just when I was about to give up, that genius Stovall subbed Nocello and the rest is history. Oh yeah, and Rebecca told Steve to comp our check to, I don't know, say 22 cents? And he did. I love him almost as much as I loved my Lady in Red.

After a good, solid three hours of eating, Rebecca and I moved down to OZ and drag queen bingo. Now, DQB used to be hosted by the inimitable Bianca del Rio. The hurricance displaced her to NYC and it hasn't been the same since. HOWEVER, Laura informed us that Bianca was back in town for a guest appearance!!!!! I have to say though, she wasn't as funny as she used to be but I'll blame that on her being out of practice? What was great about it though was that Laura showed up after work and it's been forever since I've seen her. She was just as fabulous as can be and after DQB, we went back to her place in the Marigny to plot dinner plans. WE ended up staying close by and walking around the corner to the cozy, neighborhood Schiro's cafe. I was about to order the caeser with fried oysters but Rebecca told me that Schiro's got their samosas from Sara's, a great Indian place uptown. So we split samosas and vindaloo and saag paneer and doused everthing with tamarind chutney and it was fantastic. Then there was the achingly tender peach upside-down cake, which is made in-house by a friend of Laura's who is a baker extraordinaire. I think she mentioned something about a lemonade-chambord cake he makes or maybe I imagined it? Anyway, that cake was good!

The night ended in one of my favorite ways; sitting on the stoop with my girls and Laura's amazing neighbor, Mr. Billy. He's lived next door since 1971, but in New Orleans his whole life and he had these great stories about going with washbasins to catch crawfish that would just run across the road in season. After he came back from the Army and the government had constructed the I-10, that didn't happen anymore because they ruined the fragile ecoysystem for wild crawfish. I love stuff like this and Mr. Billy is an endless source of just such tales. He promised to have a crab boil for us on Sunday and by golly, he really did buy 40 pounds of crab the next day! Anyway, this is getting long so I'll return for the rest of the story ina few...Don't run away though because I have yet to tell you about Saturday and Sunday, which were perhaps the two finest eating days of my life. Wait, there have been a lot of those, well, I have a flair for hyperbole, what can I say?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Remembering Albert

A dear family friend passed away last week, unexpectedly of a heart attack. Albert P. Saladino was 56 years old. father of three and friend to the masses. His service was yesterday and the line out of the church spanned several hundred feet for the better part of an hour. I have never seen such a turnout nor could there have been any more fitting tribute to Albert. I was so moved by the words that his loved ones expressed that I came home and tried to sum up what everyone had said.

Michael, oldest son:

"WOW!!! That's what my dad would have said right now." He started with that and then went on to say that whenever he had to do some task such as this, his dad was the first person he'd turn to for help and not having that this week brought it home for him. Friends always told him his dad was cool before parents were ever considered cool. He said Albert was always pushing him to be his best and one time when Michael was having a hard time at school, Albert told him he needed to go in and talk to the teacher. Michael said that he didn't want to but Albert said "We're going in there." Albert had a passion for people and he translated that passion into being a father as well. He ended by thanking his dad for helping him to be great and saying he loved him.

Sammy, middle child:

Very different from the more reserved Michael, Sammy sauntered up with his "bodyguard," chewing gum and turning around his cap, a la Albert and with an impressively honed gumba-inflected speech, told some quintessential Al Saladino stories. My favorites included Albert being, at best, assistant coach on Sammy's baseball team but he thought he ran the whole league. Sammy would be on the pitcher's mound and Albert in the dugout, reaming the umpire out for bad calls. Sammy said he couldn't count on two hands the times Albert got kicked out of Shoshone Park. Another time while camping at Alleghany, Albert pulled up to where Sammy and cousin Nicky were standing in a car he probably paid $750 for and said "get in the car." The kids were confused and didn't know why he wanted them to get in the car but he just repeated "GET in the car!" So they got in and Albert pulled a baseball bat out from under the seat and went outside and beat the shit out of a bee's hive on the top of the cabin ("excuse my French," said Sammy). Then he got in the car laughing like a 9 year old or a maniacal hitman. Here are the life lessons taught by Albert to Sammy:

1. Work hard.
2. Always put family first
3. Look everybody in the eye when you talk to them
4. Try to make Sunday dinner with the family
5. And don't ever leave that table hungry!

Finally, Sammy said his dad always told him he was real popular. And then, gesturing at the church overflowing with people, he said "But he should have looked in the mirror, he really should have looked in the mirror on that one. And I got a lot of friends but in the end, he was my best friend."

Thomas Centolella, childhood friend:

Thomas said he met Albert when they were 13, as Albert was wedging himself into the basement window of a church with Tom's cousin Marty Rafaello, trying to sneak into a Friday night dance. They were "inmates" together at the all-boys Notre Dame Catholic Academy in Utica, at that he stopped himself and said "oh, is that sacreligious?" The minister congenially nodded his head and Tom said "whew, I am glad we're in a Universalist church!" He said they were more than friends, they were brothers. He has never laughed so long with anyone else though so much time and triumphs. Getting a letter or postcard from Albert was always an event, you knew he'd be saying something great. He pulled out a postcard from Albert, dating from 1980, when Albert was about 28. I, of course, can't remember the entire postcard but I'll try to sum up what I remember.

"Tomas, Here in the city....something about energy, sparks igniting, illuminating, it's time for a change! When are you coming back East? In Peace and Rhythm.......P.S. I gave a friend your address, I hope it's no trouble! (Hope is such a silly word!) Bye bye! Albert

The front of the postcard had a picture of a craggy cliff and a large rock, there was a man jumping from the cliff to the rock.

Thomas closed by saying that if we could all hope to pack as much life, love, joy and zeal into our lives as Albert, then hope was indeed a silly word.

Carlotta, coworker and bandmate:

Just because you like doing a thing doesn't necessarily make you good at it. I like to sing but I never had the confidence. Albert bugged me about getting in this band, Universal Mind and I said I was too busy working. He said "but this IS work!" I remember being in Albert's basement on Huntington and there was this song I always wanted to sing in church but didn't have the courage. Albert told me to go ahead and when I did he said I really belted that one out. So now I'm going to sing, in church, His Eye is on the Sparrow.

Comments from my mother:
Thanks for recording these thoughts Laila.
What I gleaned from all the speakers was this:
That Albert was a man that lived his life with all cylinders fired up. His element was FIRE; be it the flames of a bonfire, igniting sparks, or the smoke he left in his wake.
I always said that Albert was like a brother to me. Sitting in that church, filled beyond capacity with people that loved Albert, it was clear to see that EVERYONE thought of Albert as their brother. He not only looked you in the eye when you spoke with him,he pierced you, saw your true essence and gave you a loving push to bring that essence out and LIVE IT.