Tea for two old friends.
There's nothing like an old friend -- someone who represents a mobile version of home, who knew you when, who can give advice or call you out based on a memory from before you were in double digits. Dana and I met in elementary school. When she helped throw my wedding shower at Alice's Tea Cup last fall, she reminded me of a long-forgotten fancy birthday tea I hosted in middle school. Some things really don't change. But it's good and necessary for culinary tastes, and friendships, to evolve over the years, and I can track the growth of our friendship through the meals we've shared. In both friendship and food, for years to come we'll continue to discover new similarities (one birthday she tasted the truffle salt she gave me, then bought herself some too), and differences (for years I wrongly assumed that she also likes black licorice).
The mustard-crusted Saturday night salmon special at East West Bistro in Athens, Ga. was extremely flavorful, with just the right tang and texture giving way to silky fish. Or at least that's how I remember it. It was 1997 and Dana was visiting during my freshman year at the University of Georgia. While I'm not sure what else we did that weekend, I do remember our surprise when we ordered the same exact thing at every meal -- and so began our routine of ordering meals together.
One of the best days I ever had in New York was a weekday joy ride during my first summer there. We overspent on champagne grapes and other gourmet fruit at Dean & Deluca in SoHo, then rode the Staten Island Ferry back and forth. Later that afternoon, our very first cell phones, which coincidentally matched, had bad reception as we walked through Battery Park and she told me it was because of the heavy cloud cover. I believed her. We saw Sam Shepard's True West, then took a cab to the still on the cusp Meatpacking District for drinks at the now-closed wine bar, Rhone, which was owned by the uncle of a kid we each used to babysit for. Then we shared curried mussels in herb cream sauce at the Belgian brasserie Markt (which has since moved to East Chelsea). This was before I fully grasped the reality of having a credit card, and before the Meatpacking District turned into a grownup version of Disney World. After Dana left, New York began to feel like home.
Eight years later, Dana and I are having drinks at The Columns Hotel in New Orleans. When she arrived from Pittsburgh a few hours ago, we dropped off her bags and walked the few blocks from my house, along the grand, romantic, oak-lined, bead-bedecked St. Charles Avenue. It's the main Mardi Gras route, and beads hang year-round from the trees. We sit on the handsome white porch that faces St. Charles and decide what to share. The crowd during this Tuesday cocktail hour is tourists and baby boomers. "Louis Malle's Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields was filmed here," I say like someone who's actually seen the movie. (It's now in my Netflix queue, right behind A Streetcar Named Desire.)
Dana drinks her first Pimm's Cup; Pimm's is a gin-based liquor that's typically stirred with seltzer, lemonade, and a cucumber stick. It's somewhat like a liquored up iced tea and very refreshing. No one bar in New Orleans makes it the same as another. I'm in the mood for something stiffer and order a Sazerac, a classic New Orleans cocktail with rye whiskey, bitters, and typically Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liquor. I learn something new when it comes to the table -- Dana won't take even a sip, she doesn't like the smell. A few days later, when I discover that she doesn't like licorice, I put two and two together.
After we order, she tells me things I don't remember about my wedding, and we talk about the death of an old friend's father and wonder about the state of theater in New Orleans. She tells me one of her friends said she couldn't imagine living here post-storm, and describes the way her friend pictures the city. I'm angry and saddened by this, because I know her friend is both wrong and right. From our vantage point the city couldn't look better, but at a condemned housing project a few minutes away, pictures still hang on walls that residents weren't allowed to return to.
The crabcakes are rich, lightly breaded, and unlike many a crabcake in my lifetime, taste like crab. We soak up every glop of the creamy, tangy remoulade sauce. The Oysters Rockefeller come not in the shell as expected, but as a luscious oyster casserole layered with spinach, parmesan and breadcrumbs. Dana orders another Pimm's, I switch to a Mint Julep.
Feeling gleeful and still a little hungry, we take our respective first rides on the St. Charles Streetcar, a somewhat reliable form of public transportation that goes from the French Quarter through the Garden District, to the Tulane and Loyola campuses and back. It was a very big deal this past winter when it started running for the first time post-Katrina. We get off near Tulane to go to a bar called, for better or worse, Cooter Brown's, which has perfectly spiced Bloody Mary's and large local oysters on the half shell. We split a couple dozen, which at $5 for 6 oysters is less than our Bloody Mary tally, then teeter back to the streetcar. The humid, lightly flowered, tepid air that hits my face as we ride back to the house reminds me of childhood. I reach for Dana's hand.
Inside, I have the urge to make coffee -- I need to sober up a little before bed. This is a new, more adult drinking ritual for me, instead of the old, skip brushing teeth and fall into bed, spinning one. "I'm going to make coffee, you want?" I yell to Dana from the kitchen. "If you are!" she says. "Did I really need to ask?" I mumble to the walls of my new home as I grab a second mug.