Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Time in the City

Nona's favorite Christmas song was "Silver Bells." When I was a little girl, I thought "the city" in the song was New Orleans. It was the biggest (and only real) city I knew and my favorite place on Earth -- especially at Christmas.

Some four decades later, I've traveled much farther to much bigger cities. But New Orleans still is most dear to my heart -- well, except maybe for Paris.

My most treasured New Orleans memories date from December 1968 when we lived in the CBD.

My father was then the food and beverage director for Kolb's restaurant on St. Charles, a New Orleans institution, and the lunch spot for the city's downtown businessmen and shoppers. We lived upstairs on the third floor.

That old building was a den of curiosities, the type any eight-year-old dreams of exploring. Though the restaurant sold as much remoulade and red snapper as it did schnitzel and bratworst, the vibe was definitely Old Bavarian with a pulley style fan system operated by a giant Ludwig, a glass case filled with vintage beer steins and a china cabinet of delicate Bavarian china figurines, including an 18th century card game and a young courting couple.

But it was the restaurant's downtown setting that really provided the Christmastime magic that helped me forget that I didn't live in a house with a yard in a neighborhood full of kids.

In addition to the wonderful Mr. Bingle marionette shows and toy department at Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street, there were the ornate window displays at MB's rival , D. H. Holmes, the equal of any I've seen in New York or Paris.

That year, one window recreated an animated London Christmas straight out of Dickens, complete with an elderly lady roasting chestnuts, a roguish street urchin picking pockets and a Gothic cathedral that swung open its doors to reveal a golden Nativity scene against a red velvet back drop.

In the opposing window, opulent masked 18th century revelers garbed in pale blue, white and silver brocade, satin and fur, promenaded endlessly through arched white columns in a recreation of a Venetian Twelfth Night Ball.

A giant Santa Claus graced the facade of the downtown Sears at Common and Baronne where I jonesed over a jewelry box shaped like a Swiss chalet. A windmill wound up the music box to make the little ballerina inside twirl to the tinkling melody of "Fascination." A secret velvet-lined drawer under the windmill was the perfect place to hide my only piece of "real" jewelry, a birthstone ring.

On Sunday mornings, my mother and I attended eight o'clock Mass at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception on Baronne and afterward peeked in at the infamous lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, then officially called the Fairmont though everyone still called it the Roosevelt.

We shopped for Christmas treats at the only grocery store near us -- the tiny A&P in the French Quarter, and in spite of the winter chill, enjoyed chocolate or strawberry sodas at the Walgreen's lunch counter.

While the rest of New Orleans headed to Kolb's after a busy day of shopping, our favorite downtown dining spot was the old Morrison's cafeteria on Gravier, the most beautiful cafeteria dining room I have ever seen. It was like eating in the square in Old Mexico with Spanish tiled floors, a twinkling "starlit" sky, and the facade of an old tiled-roof village with grille-work balconies and candlelit windows. I believe there was even a fountain.

We moved from New Orleans early in 1969, and though I have been back to the city many, many times since then, until this past weekend, I had never been back at Christmas time.

Most of my old haunts -- Maison Blanche, D. H. Holmes, the downtown Sears, Kolbs and the Morrison's ain't dere no mo'.

However, our little A&P, little changed, still operates down in the Quarter as Rouse's. The Fairmont is now officially restored to its former glory and called the Roosevelt once more. Its Christmas lobby is still a treat to behold. Across the street, the Jesuit church has also been spiffed up. The Walgreens, too, still stands, and for all I know still sells the world's best chocolate sodas.

However, these days, my shopping break libation of choice is a Sazerac in the Roosevelt's Sazerac Bar.

Turtle Soup

Perhaps Kolb's most beloved dish was their turtle soup. I remember one salesman ordered a big bowl of it every time he made a sales call and bought a gallon to take home. I haven't been able to find Kolb's recipe, but here's an authentic Creole turtle soup recipe from the blog Nola Cuisine

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Feast of St. Lucy

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Lucy, one of the two December celebrations that helped children growing up in Croatian households on Point Cadet take the edge off waiting for Christmas to arrive.

Like the Feast of St. Nicholas which is celebrated on Dec. 6 (read my St. Nicholas post here). St. Lucy's day is a relatively simple, yet much anticipated, occasion honoring one of Europe's most beloved virgin martyrs.

Sveta Lucia, as we called her, lived in Sicily during the late third century, early fourth century. Despite the Roman emperor Diocletian's ban on Christianity, Lucy converted after her prayers to God apparently cured her mother of a bleeding disorder. Lucy pledged to stay chaste and devote her life to Christian acts rather than marry the rich pagan to whom she was betrothed.

Her would-be suitor was so incensed by her rejection, he turned her in to the authorities for bringing food and drink to Christians hiding in caves and tunnels (she allegedly lit her way through the dark with a candle-studded wreath on her head)

After attempts to drag Lucy to a brothel and force her into a life of prostitution failed, as did efforts to burn her at the stake, her frustrated captors finally gouged out her eyes and stabbed her through the neck with a sword.

She was canonized by the Catholic church and today is best known as the patron saint of the blind.

Her feast day is widely celebrated in Sicily, Northern Italy, Croatia, Bosnia as well as Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark and several other European countries. Though Scandinavia today is largely Protestant, natives of these countries have loved Lucy ever since Christian missionaries convinced them she was a worthy substitute for the Norse goddess Freya in 1000 AD. Many of Scandinavia's traditional St. Lucy customs of today are actually ancient Norse traditions reattached to our girl Lucy.

Families in Hungary and Croatia sow wheat seeds on the Feast of St. Lucy (or sometimes on the Feast of St. Barbara on Dec. 4) which sprout by Christmas Day and are placed near the Nativity creche. My family never did this. I think this was more of a northern Croatian custom.

My family's St. Lucy's day celebrations unfolded much as they do in northern Italy where Santa Lucia delivers treats to children on the back of a donkey. We left out a bowl with carrots and lettuce for the donkey. St. Lucy left the bowl filled with candy -- and what candy -- fancy imported treats filled with jellies, liqueurs and flavored creams, molded into fantastic shapes and wrapped in beautiful foils.

We also lit candles in a tribute to St. Lucy's symbolic association with the Feast of the Lights -- lighting the way through the darkness of Advent to the joy of Christmas.

There are many regional recipes associated with St. Lucy Day celebrations -- hot buns in Sweden, cuccia, a kind of porridge-y dessert, or biscotti in Sicily. I don't remember my mother making a specific St. Lucy Day treat, but if I were to pick a traditional recipe to celebrate the day, it would be biscotti (also called biscutine) or perhaps this Venetian frico, fried cheese wedges

Santa Lucia Frico (Fried Cheese Wedges)Approximately 3-4 oz. shredded or grated hard cheese depending on the size of the skillet. Parmesan, Machengo Romano or cheddar work best. Semi-soft cheeses like mozzarella and Monterey Jack also work but will make a chewier frico. Very soft cheeses like brie or Camembert will not work and should not be used.

Spread the cheese in a thin, even layer in a 12" non-stick skillet. Some cheese varieties will require more cheese than others to completely cover the bottom of the skillet.

Place the skillet over medium heat and cook until the cheese releases all of its moisture and looks oily and bubbly over its entire surface. The cheese will melt together and form one large cheese pancake.

Use a spatula to lift one edge of the frico - the bottom should be well browned and the cheese should hold together firmly. It shouldn't be stringy or goopy.

Flip the frico and brown the other side for a minute or two, then remove from the pan and place on paper towels to drain. It will firm up and become very crisp as it cools.

Cut into wedges and serve.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jingle, Jangle, Jingle ... Here Comes Mr. Bingle!

If you grew up in what is now known as "Who Dat Nation" (ie: New Orleans area and the Mississippi Coast) your Christmas included Mr. Bingle as surely as it included pusharates, fig roll, Christmas Eve gumbo or oyster dressing. The little snowman with holly wings and an ice cream cone hat remains so beloved by folks of a certain age, that sometimes it's easy to forget that he was just once just a marketing gimmick for Maison Blanche, one of the late, great New Orleans department stores.

When my daddy loaded up the Chevy Impala and took us on our annual Christmas shopping trip to downtown New Orleans (he loved the hustle and bustle of the city this time of year), the day was not complete without a stop by Maison Blanche's Canal Street window to await the raising of the red velvet curtain on the Mr. Bingle marionette show. Then you went upstairs, browsed the toy department, a Bingleland extravaganza with elaborate toy displays and Bingle dioramas, and had your picture taken with Santa Claus.

Of course, we didn't have to go to New Orleans to see Mr. Bingle. In Biloxi, if you had a good antenna, you could pick up WDSU-TV, one of the local New Orleans TV stations, and get the televised 15-minute Mr. Bingle show, which was part of their midday show, right in your living room. Afterwards, we'd walk around imitating Mr. Bingle's high-pitched voice and singing his little jingle -- which would drive the folks crazy -- all day long. (I have a theory that Mr. Bingle and Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live, were twins separated at birth. Strong resemblance, same voice. You decide.)

Sadly, for better or for worse, times do change. Maison Blanche was sold a few times, most recently to Dillards, and the flagship store closed in the late 1990s.* I truly believe that in a few years no matter where you go in the world there will be only Dillards and Belks department stores, Regions banks and CVS drugstores. And the world will be a much lesser place.

It is a testament to the New Orleans community, so famously resistent to change, and their lawyers, most of whom were raised on Mr. Bingle, that the sales contracts always contained a "Bingle clause" that covered the legal rights to Mr. Bingle.

Mr. Bingle survived. Thank God for those Sazerac-sipping lawyers in their seersucker suits!

Every year at Christmas time, you can still buy a stuffed Mr. Bingle doll, Christmas ornament or other memorabilia, at a handful of Dillards stores. And if one of these Dillards isn't in your neighborhood, you can always buy them online. This year's retro edition is on sale now through December 12!

If you don't know (or just don't remember), the Mr. Bingle back story, the folks at Dillards have provided an "official Mr. Bingle web site" with the little guy's history, some recipes and craft projects and even an audio clip to one of those shows. Click at your own risk. You won't be able to get that jingle out of your head for days.

For a more nostaglic, non-corporate take, on Mr. Bingle, visit the Mr. Bingle fan page where you can share your memories with other fans and collectors. This page is not affiliated with Dillards.

And if you're still feeling the need to share with other MB devotees, there is even a Mr. Bingle Facebook group page.

For more on the Mr. Bingle mystique, read this 2004 article about his never-ending appeal.

Bingle Food

Back in the day, after you'd done your shopping in downtown New Orleans, sat on Santa's lap and watched the Mr. Bingle show, you couldn't head back to Biloxi until you'd had chocolate or strawberry soda from the Walgreen's soda fountain -- and picked up a sack of jellied orange slices from the candy counter -- and a plateful of hot beignets, loaded down with powdered sugar from Cafe du Monde.

If this little trip down Memory Lane is making you nostalgic, and you don't have time for a holiday road trip to New Orleans, you can fake it using one of those packaged Cafe du Monde mixes almost every grocery store sells. Or you can make them from scratch using this Paula Deen recipe or the one on the Mr. Bingle web site.

If you're more of a Rice Krispies treat fan, you might prefer to make Mr. Bingles from one of the (now out of print) Mr. Bingle cookbooks.

* The New Orleans Ritz-Carlton hotel stands in the former Maison Blanche location today.