So, this weekend we were way down yonder in New Orleans. And I apologize in advance if I feel the need to quote any more cheesy old standard songs. Because if I do feel so inspired, I will go right ahead and quote them. Why? Cause I did it my way.
OK, enough of that. I’m hepped up on a Ghirardelli chocolate and caramel square and should quarantine myself until the sugar high subsides. And I think I might have a serious problem with food obsession, because just like I came back from Cartagena blogging about magic desserts to ensure a happy marriage, I’m back from NOLA thinking about nothing but food. But this time, it’s part my own lust for delicious regional cuisine and part act of God that has me inspired. It started out as a normal but fabulous day, like the one in Our Town, a regular day, only better. Better because I began it by eating an almond croissant and drinking café au lait at the Croissaint d’Or, a delicious bakery on Ursuline street in the French Quarter, which is around the corner from my favorite hotel, and, when she’s in town, down the street from my favorite celebrity, Zahara Jolie-Pitt.
So there I was, floating down Royal street, buoyed by a mix of fat, sugar and as much caffeine as sneaks into a decaf, when I passed an amazing sight: a St. Joseph’s altar had been set up behind St. Louis Cathedral. March 19th is St. Joseph’s day in the Catholic church (the Orthodox celebrate it sometime after Christmas), and the faithful observe it by setting up an altar laden with food. The next day the food is distributed to the poor in some cases; in others, you can just walk right up and help yourself, like a blessed buffet. Apparently, the St. Joseph altar is a Sicilian tradition, stemming from a year during the Middle Ages when drought was so severe there was the threat of a famine. The Sicilians prayed to their patron saint and promised that if he made it rain, they’d set up a banquet for him (kind of a good deal, since they’d get to partake of it too). The rains came and there was much feating and singin and dancin in the rain. (OK, I’m not sure about the last part. But there was a lot of food, for sure).
New Orleans has a big Sicilian population, and the parishes they belong to continue to set up a tripartite altar (three sections for the Holy Trinity) overflowing with vegetables, sweets and fish (no meat since the saint’s day falls during Lent). The altar I saw also featured a cake in memory of that Sicilian-American native son of New Orleans, swing and jazz star Louis Prima. I don’t know the words to any of his songs to quote them, but I sure wish I did because they have titles like “Bacciagaloop, Makes Love on the Stoop,” and “Felicia No Capicia.” Clearly, the man was gifted, but I found it touching to the point of almost tearing up (there was too much almond paste blocking my tear ducts to complete the act) that someone would leave him a cake when he’s been dead almost 33 years.
On every St. Joseph’s altar, there’s also a bowl of dried fava beans, and you’re supposed to take one for luck, because the fava bean is what saved the Sicilians from starvation. (I love fava beans, and it’s sad they have such a scary rep ever since Silence of the Lambs.) I picked up a bean for myself and my husband and gave another to a friend whom I met for lunch; she pulled out her wallet and showed me the fava she had saved from the first St. Joseph altar since Katrina; it’s been bringing her luck ever since.
Along with the favas, I encountered one more magic food while in New Orleans. And it wasn’t crawfish or po boys or turtle soup although I ate and heartily enjoyed all three. In fact, it’s a food I’d never had before and, based on the brief nibble of one I tried, don’t much care for. But it represented the successful end of a weekend-long quest. My husband Emilio’s grandmother went to convent school in New Orleans in the late 1940s and early 50s, as nice Nicaraguan girls did at that time. So she knows what it means to miss New Orleans (Oops! I did it again!) Anyway, when she heard we were headed there she asked Emilio to bring her back what he told me were “chocolate-covered marshmallows.” I pressed him for more info–surely she meant pralines or something; I’ve been in New Orleans dozens of times and never encountered a chocolate-covered marshmallow. He thought about it and recalled, “Mamina said the marshmallow and the chocolate were mixed together and then covered in chocolate coating.”
I still had no idea what he was talking about, so I asked some ladies who had attended the same school during the same era. “Is it Heavenly Hash?” one asked, and the rest all agreed it had to be. Where could I find this elusive substance? In any drugstore they told me. Sure enough, both the Walgreens and the CVS had Heavenly Hash Eggs made by Elmer’s, a Ponchatoula, LA candy company that’s existed since 1855, and has been making hash since 1923. In the first drugstore, I made the mistake of asking a teenaged clerk who had never heard of these, to the horror of her older colleague. I only bought a few samples there. But in the second, where I invested in the box of 24, my purchase got all the ladies behind the counter talking about how it was time to start on their kids’ Easter baskets–apparently, Heavenly Hash is a vintage candy that’s only resurrected at Easter, so our trip was perfectly timed. Proust had his madeleines, and Mamina has her Elmer’s Heavenly Hash, yet another example of the magic power of food–not only can it bring joy and luck, but it can also induce the hypnotic power of memory.