Monday, June 15, 2009

Nutrias, Yashicas and Warm Pots of Gumbo

I visited New Orleans for the first time when I was eleven. My Aunt Carmol was an elementary school teacher, and she made sure my brother and I saw every historical site, museum and park in the City. Having grown up in rural northwest Louisiana, New Orleans was the first cosmopolitan area I ever visited. It was not the last, but it remains in my mind as the most unique city in the United States and perhaps the world.

My first visit was not my last. As a college freshman, I marched in the Venus parade during Mardi Gras, experiencing Bourbon Street and the French Quarter for the first time as an adult - or at least close. Most of that particular visit was spent in a drunken haze, much in the manner of college students today visiting the City and savoring Mardi Gras for the first time.

I worked in the City once during summer break from college. My job title was assistant micro-photographic technician seismologist. From my salary of two dollars per hour, you can tell the description was just a bit overblown, but it did look good on my resume. I bought my first camera that year - a 35 mm Yashica range finder, and New Orleans provided a plethora of scenic opportunities.

Shortly after that sweltering summer I married a girl from Chalmette, a city separated from New Orleans only by name. My marriage to Gail did not last but during our seven years together, I learned to love her French Acadian parents, Lily and Harvey, and her entire family. It is a shame sometimes that you cannot divorce a wife and keep her family.

Gail had two brothers, six sisters and many aunts, uncles and cousins. Most were wonderful cooks but none better than Gail’s mother Lily was. No two pots of gumbo are ever exactly alike. I know because I have consumed my fair share. Taste, as I guess just about everything else, is subjective. That said, Lily’s gumbo was the best I ever tasted and, in my opinion, the best in the world.

Harvey, Gail’s father, was a cattleman and fur buyer. During trapping season, raw fur filled the shed behind Harvey’s house. He gave me a lesson once on how to grade a nutria pelt. Like calculus and religion, the lesson did not stick. One short story - Harvey and Lily once found six-hundred dollars in cash in their deep freeze. They did not have a safe and trappers do not take Visa or MasterCard.

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