Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Wedding Carver

The Wedding Carver
Have Knives, Will Travel
Being retired from gainful employment has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main drawback is that, my fixed income (yes, I’m on one of them) is trying to extinguish my cavalier flame of living large and tipping big, and I hate that. It has a lot to do with the amount of money that I don’t have for extended periods bellied up to a bar or letting someone else cook for me at a fine dining establishment. And, it has to do with my inability to leave my hard driving, freewheeling, ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’ personality behind with my hairline, waistline and twenty-twenty vision.
Therefore, I’ve taken random employment; one of my gigs is cutting up dead animals at special event gatherings such as rehearsal, wedding and company awards functions.
Tonight, it’s a wedding with all the stops pulled out at one of my favorite French Quarter restaurants. I won’t mention names, but it’s a place that, I tell folks, can furnish anything you want and can afford. From an intimate private dinner for two, to twelve hundred of your closest friends, you can get anything that you’re willing to pay for, from piped in music to sixteen pieces of guitar slamming, horn playing rock your sockers metal head maniacs. Ice sculptures that dispense martinis, flame throwing dessert stations, low, medium and high grades of alcohol. Do you want fireworks? Second lines? Mystics and mind readers? Clowns? Would you like the friggin’ circus?
Do you want passed hors d’oeuvres, sit down dinners, buffets, oyster shuckers or a person or two to slice meat thinly, smile broadly and be ready to cut the cake when the time comes?
Tonight ‘s wedding is all of that. The band commands such a draw on the electrical output of the place that the air conditioning (after running at full capacity all day) is cut off. I’ve come to naming functions; this one is the ‘women in tight clothing and men with powerful credit cards’ types. But it will only be a more sophisticated version of the ‘women with braided armpits and men with little dental work’ functions that I’ve worked elsewhere.
First to arrive, by a good forty-five minutes, is the parents of the bride. Madame explains that the groom is ‘allergic’ to alcohol and will be drinking ice tea, Red Bull and ginger ale. I wonder if that is a new concoction or his actual menu of choices. Then Mama checks out seating places for the elderly, is assuaged by the marketing manager and witnesses the arrival of the flowers, which to me look like they’ve been stolen from a funeral parlor.
Now the chandeliers are being lit, candles line the entranceway and the ‘thirty minutes before’ icing down of the liquids that require it. The party starts at six after the ceremony; passed appetizers until eight, food (including two carvers) in two rooms from six to nine, band starts at seven and stops at ten. There are two meetings with management and staff to co-ordinate the function. Extra furniture has been stored in rented trucks and, of course, nobody shows up until six twenty-five.
I am in the second room with a sixty pound haunch of beef, five-hundred volts of heat lamps and knives honed to deadly edges, my co-carver is in the next room with access to a half a dozen deep fried turkeys.
Here they come; a random husband (Jack) hits the bar for drinks for him-n-her, drops off hers (Jill) and heads back to the bar for another for himself…there’s gonna be a heartache tonight. Terminally thin women start with Cosmopolitans, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Maury want to know if there’s any coffee, the groom’s friends that never learned to dance or dress and the bride’s friends that did begin ungainly mating rituals. Lawyers and Dentists in seersucker (Dentists have suede shoes) arrive; Doctors in white linen, older women in two piece suits, younger women in strapless whose breasts don’t quite fill up the cups and the requisite ‘Parachute Woman’ promenade the rooms looking to be looked at. And me cutting up dead cow.
A buddy of the groom has brought his own thirty two ounce cup that he wants filled with Jack and Diet, uh oh, and young Jack is on his sixth beer this hour. He’s telling a group of his peers jokes that only he finds amusing, his peers are more amused by him and his condition. His wife has given up on him and has joined a coterie of the thin ones that won’t be having any dinner.
You can tell that the newlyweds have had a long relationship;-- she starts drinking and he fills his plate to capacity.
The door to the courtyard is on a spring strong enough to stop the charge of a water buffalo and some of my amusement will come from the imprisonment, between door and jamb, of young children, the frail and inevitably…the bride’s train.
The photographer hits the buffet about an hour and a half in; the band will hit us at break time. You can tell the band because they are dressed better (or worse) than the guests and they’re not fooled by fillers like potatoes, jambalaya or fish. They hit the raw bar and the protein (not the pate though) and of course the alcohol. I just keep cutting.
The band takes a break for the toasts. Uncle Maury, who’s been yelling his conversation because he’s half deaf, winds us up with and the man hasn’t held a decent job in thirty YEARS!!!”
Then, the testimonies: A teary eyed pair of young women: “Trish and us have been best friends since third grade and, like, we’ve never seen her looking soooo HAPPY!” The kid brother; I brought them together…” The Father: I’m sure that they’ll be as happy as her Mother and I have been”--- (right). The Buddy “I remember the night Keith came home and told me: ‘I’ve met the woman that I’m going to marry”, The older brother “At least now she’ll have someone else to fight with!” And on and on.
Then cut the cake (never smooth going), smear it in each other’s faces (like that hasn’t been done before), a thousand photos (and selfies), throw the bouquet (that weighs twelve pounds) and every one second lines out except the six or eight that want to close down the bar. Too late, things are wrapped, stacked, put away, closed and already the crew is moving tables for tomorrow night’s functions. One room is having a sit down ‘Divorce Dinner’ for 48 people; the other room has a wake with a replica of the deceased in potato salad. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Central Grocery

Central Grocery
            If I were sight impaired and someone walked me through those doors I would know the perfumed vapors of an old timey Italian market. They’re the smells of garlic, olives, cured meats, hard cheeses and old appetites satisfied. It is an olfactory equivalent of being wrapped in your grandmother’s wool shawl on a cool autumn night; yummy, secure, safe. Linzalone’s in old Chelsea, Molinari’s in North Beach, Central Grocery in New Orleans.
I recently sat down with Tommy Tusa, third generation owner/operator of Central Grocery at his shop at 923 Decatur Street in the French Quarter. As we all know, Salvatore Lupo (Tommy’s grandfather) is said to have been the originator of a more than extraordinary sandwich, a sandwich that is as indicative of New Orleans as the Mississippi River: The Muffuletta. Tommy is tall and trim and, if such a word can be used, dapper in appearance. His age is nebulous; he appears to be ten years either side of fifty years. He and his cousin Frank Tusa run the day to day operations. Like all true Sicilians, Tommy talks as much with his words as with his facial and physical expressions. We sit at the far end of the eating counter, he, of course sits where he can see his employees and the action.
PL: First of all, can we tell everyone, once and for all, what is the proper pronunciation of the sandwich?
TT: Muffuletta, pronounced “moo-full-lette-tah!” People call it a lot of other ways; we don’t really care, as long as they want one.
PL: And the name means?
TT: From what we can make out from the stories that my mother tells, it probably came from a baker named Muffuletta and was called Muffuletta bread long before we started making it into a sandwich.  That’s as much as we can make out, we don’t know if it’s true but it stands to reason.
PL: How did the store get started?
TT: My grandfather, like a lot of Italian immigrants, came here and worked in the grocery business. In 1906 he opened his own grocery about a block away and in 1919 bought this property and opened this (gestures). The Market workers used to come in and buy the ingredients for the sandwich from us, then they’d go outside and buy some bread from a pushcart, sit on barrels and such places, eat the bread (tearing motion) and ingredients. Then my grandfather got the idea of making the sandwich. There were at least six Italian bakeries in the Quarter at the time; in fact there were shops like this all throughout the neighborhood.
PL: This used to be a large ethnic neighborhood. Do you ever see that coming back?
TT: I remember like it was yesterday, the ice house, the fish markets; no, I don’t see it ever being the same. My father was raised in the French Quarter. It was a real neighborhood up until about 1950 and then it started to change. Now what we have here (indicates the street) are these street people; they sit outside panhandling, they camp out at night and you have to clean up after them in the morning, their garbage, food scraps, beer cans. You have to chase them away during the day “you can’t sit here, you can’t sit here” you’ve got to keep telling them. They’re ruining businesses and no one is doing anything about them.
PL: I was told that it’s their first amendment right.
TT: (raised eyes) Yeah, the ACLU…. What about our rights?
PL: Onward. Your mother wrote a cookbook? (1980 Marie’s Melting Pot)
TT: Yes, my mother and my two grandmothers; it took three or four years. Writing recipes, testing them and cooking, cooking. I remember the stories, my mother tells all the old stories, I know those stories. My mother lives in Covington, she’s 103 years old and frail so she doesn’t do interviews… obviously.
PL: Any thoughts on retiring? Any other family members coming in?
TT: I’ve worked here since 1970 so that’s forty-five years; no, there’s me and my cousin and there’s no other generation coming up behind us. Besides, what would I do if I retired (shrugs)? Stay at home and be bored?
PL: Were you looted during Katrina?
TT: Yes, all the businesses were. We opened after three months, and one day after that, Jim Belushi came in and saw that his picture was still on the wall and he pointed and said “well, at least they didn’t get me!!” We get a lot of celebrities in; I’ll show you the photos. Goodman (John) loves the Muffuletta; he can’t eat it here because they (gestures at the customers) won’t leave him alone.
PL: How many sandwiches have you made?
TT: on a busy day we’ll make about five hundred
PL: So you’ve made a million Muffulettas
TT: More than one million. A few million, at least. We’ve been in business over a hundred years (looks at me to indicate that I should do the math). And we ship. Overnight, next day delivery.
PL: What do you see as the future?
TT: Kids these days, they don’t know how to work; you have to tell them over and over how to do the same thing. You tell them to stay off their cell phone and then (making an imaginary call at waist level) you see them in the corner. I’ll tell you a story; when I was just starting working here, one day I made myself a little sandwich and sat down; my uncle came up to me and said “what are you doing?” and I told him. He said (slightly raising his voice) “Hey! You don’t eat here, you eat at home, after you get off; now, get back to work!” And that’s the way it was. Nowadays…
PL: When I was a kid, I had a friend named Rocco, my mother used to call him a “Bacciagalupe”. When I asked her what that meant, she would just point at him and say “Him, he’s a Bacciagalupe!” Do you know what that means?
TT: (laughing) Yes, I’ve heard that word; I think it means wiseguy or weirdo or some such character.
PL: Now, here’s the big one; what advice would you give young folks coming up? What advice do you give your children?
TT: I have two daughters and grandchildren. What would I say to them? (looks heavenward and then into my eyes). I would say “Do whatever you do to the best of your ability. Do it well; and never never give up. Never let anyone discourage you!”
And then, like a true business owner, he shook my hand, thanked me and said: “I’ve got to (indicating the sandwich counter) get back to work.”