I had originally planned to post this for Mardi Gras, but thanks to a local storytelling group, I was asked to tell this story for their "Kitchen Confidential" series tonight.
So, rather than wait, I'll go ahead and let you hear it too. Just in case you weren't around Hotel Congress in Tucson tonight. Bon chance, cher!
In 1988 I found myself on a trip to New Orleans with Mama. I was lucky to be the star student in my nursing program at Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina and was chosen to attend a medical seminar down there.
My brother, who was a travel agent had arranged a rental car for us to make the trip because Mama still drove a 1977 Mercury station wagon barely up to driving to the mailbox much less Louisiana. He'd also arranged for us to stay at a 5 star hotel in the French Quarter. This was no small affair because we spent most of our childhood staying in motels, if we were lucky and almost never chain ones. Many times our family vacation would consist of driving to Myrtle Beach about 4 in the morning, changing into swimsuits in the back of the car with the windows blocked by blankets and coming home when it got dark. In fact, before this trip a hotel with inside hallways was a very rare event in Mama's life.
I was trying desperately to be cool about the trip. After all, I was on a nice career track and looking forward to employment at a major hospital in South Carolina. I'd spent my summers flitting around California with my brother and staying at fancy hotels thanks to his job. But Mama was having none of this “fancy hotel” stuff! When she got ready to pack she hauled out her one circa 1960 suitcase and her array of plastic trash bags. After all, who needs luggage when your idea of luxury is an efficiency at the beach – meaning it has a couple beds and a kitchenette so you don't have to go out to a restaurant to eat!
When I saw the collection of bags I made a panicked phone call to my brother. “Eddie, she's got trash bags with her clothes in them! We can't show up looking like a bunch of gypsies!”
He quickly got her a new set of luggage, as a “late birthday present” that wouldn't be mistaken for the morning garbage pickup. So, packed and looking somewhat presentable we set off on a Friday morning for New Orleans.
Mama had always wanted to see New Orleans. To her it was an exotic place filled with people who spoke French and talked like Justin Wilson on The Cajun Cook TV show on PBS. She loved that show, as much for the silly stories as the recipes.
When we arrived at the hotel I pulled up in front and immediately a doorman and bellman approached the car as we got out. I popped the trunk and they began to unload our bags onto a cart. “What are they doing?” Mama tried to whisper.
“They're getting the luggage so they can take it to the room when we check in.” I replied.
Mama immediately stepped to the back of the car and informed the two older gentlemen: “He can get those! Just leave them there. We'll get them.”
I could feel my face go red. “Mama, it's their job to get our bags for us.”
“Well, there's no reason we can't take them to the room. They can leave that little cart.”
After a few tense moments I was able to convince her to leave the men to do their job and getting her to go with me to the check in desk in the lobby. Of course, I made the mistake of handing the car keys to the valet.
“Why are you giving him the keys? He can come get you if he needs the car moved! We don't even own that car!”
“Mama, he's the valet. He'll go park the car in the garage for us.”
“Is he going to bring the keys to the room or do you have to go get them from him?”
“He'll keep the keys and when we need the car we call the valet and he brings it to the front for us.”
I could tell Mama was dubious about this stranger and a “borrowed” car, but amazingly she let it drop.
Inside, I learned that my brother had outdone himself. We were assigned a very nice suite with a nice view. On the way up in the elevator Mama began to question the bellhop about New Orleans.
“Are you from around here?” She quizzed.
“Yes Ma'am. Born and raised right here in New Orleans.” He replied in that distinctive New Orleans drawl that is 2 parts Southern and 1 part Brooklyn.
“Well, you don't sound like you're from New Orleans.” She harrumphed.
“Mama, what is somebody from New Orleans supposed to sound like?” I butted in.
“Well, he sounds like he's from New York. I thought people in New Orleans sounded French? Do you speak French?”
“No Ma'am.” He replied.
Luckily, at that point we reached our floor and this uncomfortable exchange was interrupted as Mama got off the elevator. I caught the Bellman's eye and gave him a pained “I'm sorry.” look.
When we got to the room Mama was breathless. It had two bedrooms and a sitting area. The bathroom was as big as her living room and a balcony overlooked the street. She wandered around looking at everything while I concluded business with the bellman and tipped him. That tip did not go unnoticed.
“How much did you give him?”
“Mama, don't worry about it.”
“Well, for Heaven's sakes we were perfectly capable of pushing that little cart up to the room. I don't know why you had to pay someone to do that for us!”
“Mama, I didn't pay him. It was a tip. Just a thank you for helping us out.”
“Well, I help people out in the shoe store all day long and nobody tips me and I have sit there and try to stuff their feet in shoes three sizes too small because they're too vain to buy the right size! Not to mention those women that come in and don't even bother to put on hose before they go sticking their nasty feet in shoes they know they aren't going to buy!”
“Oh God” I thought. “Here we go with the “tipping is a waste of money rant.”
It wasn't that Mama was cheap. She was just careful with money. Tipping was something she didn't believe in because she thought people shouldn't expect extra money for doing their jobs. If a tip was to be given it was to be given to people who did things out of the kindness of their heart who didn't expect to get something in return.
Finally, we managed to settle in for the night. Well, with a minor kerfluffle over a coffeemaker on the bathroom counter. That was deemed quite odd. Why have coffee in the bathroom? Wouldn't it make more sense to put the coffeemaker on the dresser or that little table by the window?
The next morning I had to be up at the crack of dawn to get to the seminar. As I was getting ready I called down to the concierge and had them send up some brochures of things I thought Mama might enjoy doing since I would be gone the entire day. After all, we were in the heart of the French Quarter and everything was in walking distance.
“Well, I don't want to wander around a strange city all by myself. I don't know where anything is!”
“Mama, there's a man at a desk downstairs. He's called the concierge and his job is to help you with whatever you need. Stop at his desk and ask him how to get anywhere and he can tell you. He can call you a cab if you don't feel like walking...”
“I'm not paying money for a cab!”
“OK, fine. There's plenty to do right around the hotel. Look, see that big church out the window? That's St. Louis Cathedral. You can go in there and look around. It's supposed to be very beautiful.”
“What kind of church is it?”
“Oh God!” my brain screamed! “It's a Catholic church.”
“Well, I can't go. I'm a Methodist.”
“Yes, Mama you can go in. It's open to the public.”
“But don't you have to wear a hat or something? I don't know what to do with all that stuff they have. Don't you have to drink some water or wash your hands or something? What if they're giving out communion? They use real wine don't they? ”
“No Mama. The holy water font is for Catholics to dip their fingers in to bless themselves with the sign of the cross when they go in and you won't be forced to drink wine or take communion.”
“Well, it'd be rude of me not to do it and I don't believe in all that stuff they do.”
“Fine! Just take a walk. There's lots of things to look at!”
Finally, exasperated, I left Mama sitting with a cup of bathroom coffee and reading brochures. I had at least extracted a promise she would leave the hotel.
Off I went to my seminar and a quiet and relaxing breakfast at an upscale restaurant in the hotel where it was being held. Those pancakes with powdered sugar, beignets and cafe au lait never tasted so good as I was able to regain something of my self-created status as a erudite traveler.
Almost twelve hours later I found myself wandering through the French Quarter back to the hotel. I glanced around from time to time wondering if I'd see Mama coming out of shop or walking down the street. I should have known better.
Riding up in the elevator I hoped I'd find a note from her saying she'd decided to go out. Opening the door though, I saw Mama sitting with her feet up at the little table by the window. She had on her “housecoat” which is Southern for a thin cotton nightgown that buttons up the front. Her feet, clad in her favorite slippers were propped up on another chair. Packages of cheese crackers were scattered among sheets of paper on the table and she was drinking what I assumed was yet more bathroom coffee.
Much to my surprise though was the woman sitting across the table from her. She was an elderly African-American woman dressed in the uniform of the hotel maids. She too was drinking bathroom coffee and her shoes kicked off and her feet propped in a chair.
You know something? When your eyes roll completely into the back of your head it really hurts. The eye roll I gave was epic.
“Mama, what have you been doing all day?” I asked as I walked into the room.
“Oh, hey baby. I've been having the best time. This is Martha. She's works for the hotel and she came by earlier to clean but I told her we didn't have anything dirty so she said she'd come back later. When she came back we got to talking and since she'd finished up her other work I invited her for some coffee and we got to talking about family and all. You know, her family has lived her for, what did you say? 200 years? But they weren't slaves like the folks back home.”
At that I could feel the blood drain from my face and that woozy lightheaded feeling you get right before you faint. “Oh, dear God, if you are merciful God you will strike me dead at this moment and allow the earth to open up and swallow me whole.” I prayed.
Taking a deep breath I sighed and said, “Pleased to meet you Martha. I hope Mama hasn't wasted too much of your time or gotten you into trouble.”
“Heaven's no, honey. We've been having a good time sitting here and sharing recipes. I can't wait to try out this recipe your mama gave me for a pound cake.”
“Oh, yes, you'll love that one. I got it from another lady that my other son used to work with. Well, it was actually her mama's recipe. But, it's the best pound cake you'll ever make.”
Walking to the table I looked down at the stack of papers. Each was a recipe written on hotel stationery and there were at least a dozen or more in each of the women's piles.
Resigned to my fate, I settled in an armchair and waited for the recipe swap to conclude. After finishing the ones they were working on, Martha got up and put on her shoes. She thanked Mama for the visit and told me how pleased it was to meet me. Then she left.
“So, that's what you did all day? You sat in a five star hotel swapping recipes with the hotel maid? There's a whole beautiful city outside and you sat here swapping recipes? I guess I should at least be grateful you wandered downstairs to buy some cheese crackers!”
“Oh, no, I had those in my pocket book in case they didn't have vending machines in this fancy hotel.”
“Mama” I said in my “I've about had it with this homespun routine” voice.
“Baby, it wouldn't have been fun to see things without you. So, when Martha walked in and we started talking about how much we loved to cook we just got along so good. I had a lot of fun.”
The weird thing is, I have no doubt she preferred swapping recipes with the maid than seeing the beauty of St. Louis Cathedral. To her joy was something you shared. If she was going to enjoy New Orleans she was going to do it with someone she loved or she wasn't going to do it all.
So, the next day we enjoyed New Orleans. Well, at least as much as we could in a really bad rainstorm that turned out to be the leading edge of a hurricane. Note to self: Pay more attention to the weather when pretending to be an erudite traveler.
When we got home, Mama added Martha's recipes to her file. One of those recipes I have today. It's for a Mardi Gras Cake and I can't make it without thinking of Mama, Martha, New Orleans and bathroom coffee.
The weird thing is, as I got older I began to realize something about Mama. Those qualities of thriftiness, self reliance, and curiosity (even when slightly inappropriate) are the same qualities I treasure in myself. It wasn't that Mama was a hick although she loved to joke about herself as “Country come to town.” but rather that her working class manners dictated that she not ask others to do what she could do for herself. Whether it was cleaning up after herself in a hotel or carrying her own luggage. Even the “tipping rant” when I finally figured it out was disgust that people in service jobs were not paid enough to live without tips by customers of their bosses to make ends meet.
About three years ago, I got very sick and was in need of a liver transplant. My sister and I went to Charleston, SC for a week long bout of tests to determine if I could withstand the surgery. We stayed at one of my favorite hotels in the city. While not 5 star, they do have a bellhop. When we pulled up in a rainstorm my sister helped me out of the car. I stood tottering on a cane in the foyer and the bellhop quickly approached to help me inside. As he seated me in a chair in the lobby, I thanked him for his kindness. Then he said he would go out and help my sister with the bags. Before I thought about it I said, “Oh no, that's OK, she can get them.”
In that moment I flashed back to Mama, who'd passed away a few years before, ironically from liver failure, and realized I was my mother's child. Those Southern working class manners were a part of me and despite my years of trying to cultivate the air of a world weary traveler I would always feel a little odd having someone do things for me... even in this case when I obviously couldn't do them for myself. That's really not a bad thing. Although, I can honestly say that I have never used a plastic trash bag for luggage in my adult life. Thrift has its limits.
Mardi Gras Cake
3/4 Cup Nestle Butterscotch Morsels
1/4 Cup water
2 1/4 All Purpose Flour (sifted)
1 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Baking Soda
1/2 tsp. Baking Powder
1 1/4 cup Sugar
1/2 cup shortening (may use 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup shortening)
3 eggs (unbeaten)
1 cup Buttermilk
Melt butterscotch morsels in water in saucepan and let cool slightly. Sift together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and set aside. Combine sugar and shortening. Blend in eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. Blend in butterscotch. Mix well. Add dry ingredients alternating with buttermilk and beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Mix well on low speed. Pour batter into two 9-inch greased and floured cake pans. Bake at 375 degrees F for 25-30 minutes. Let cool and spread filling (see below) between layers and on top to within 1 inch of edges. Frost with Sea Foam icing (see below).
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. Cornstarch
1/2 cup Evaporated Milk
1 Beaten Egg Yolk
2 Tbsp. Butter
1 Cup Shredded Coconut
1 Tbsp. Chopped Pecans
1/2 Cup Water
1/3 Cup Nestle's Butterscotch Morsels
Combine sugar and cornstarch in 2 qt. saucepan. Stir in evaporated milk and water along with butterscotch morsels and beaten egg yolk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Remove from heat. Add butter coconut, chopped pecans and stir until blended. Set aside and let cool. Then spread between layers and on top of cake to within about 1" of edge.
Sea Foam Icing
1/3 cup Sugar
1/3 cup packed Brown Sugar
1/3 cup water
1 Tbsp. Corn Syrup
1 Egg White
1/4 tsp. Cream of Tartar
Combine sugar, brown sugar, water and corn syrup in saucepan. Cook on medium heat until mixture forms a soft ball. Remove from heat. Beat egg white with cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add syrup mixture to egg mixture in slow steady stream, beating constantly until thick enough to spread on cake. allow to cool until just warm and spread on cake. This will set up with about the consistency of Divinity fudge!
Note: You can enhance the vibrancy of the colors by using a touch of green food coloring for the Sea Foam Icing and a touch of yellow or blue and red (to make purple) for the cake layers.