A stir in the upscale restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills was evident as soon as the men with the forest-thick beards and camouflage gear entered, accompanied by wife, kids and entourage.
The group instantly seemed out of place among the lunchtime crowd of sharply attired patrons, many in suits and ties.
But it was immediately clear that more than a few of the customers recognized them as the Robertsons of A&E's
It was late February, more than nine months before "Duck Dynasty" became the lightning rod for one of the year's most contentious TV controversies. At the time, the Robertsons were in the midst of a whirlwind promotional tour for the launch of the show's third season.
The family had just finished a photo session on the hotel's rooftop for an article scheduled for the Sunday Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. Minutes later, there were sitting down with a reporter -- me -- who was seated at the head of a long table, poised to ask the most popular family on television about life, fame and duck hunting as they ate.
Not the best or most comfortable situation for an interview, but it was the best that could be done on their tight schedule, which included an appearance later that day on "
Of the hundreds of people I have interviewed this year, I am most often asked about the Robertsons: "What are they really like?" "Did they really dress that way?" "Did you like them?"
A few of the bolder inquisitors have asked, "Who were they with you?"
The home base for the family is in the bayous of Ouachita Parish in the Monroe area of northeast Louisiana. I'm African American. So some wondered whether I sensed any chill or hostility.
Those reflections have naturally become more relevant with the recent controversy surrounding "Duck Dynasty" and the inflammatory comments about gays and blacks made from by patriarch
So, in light of all that has happened in the last few weeks, I've had even more cause to think about my lunch with the Robertstons, and put it into perspective with what seems to be their philosophies.
The bottom line: Of all the celebrities I have talked to in the past year, the Robertsons rank at the top in terms of politeness, personality and warmth. They were gracious and cooperative during the photo session, and were responsive to my inquiries.
I was particularly drawn to Jase Robertson, one of Phil's sons, and his wife Missy, who sat on one side of me. They seemed genuinely interested in me and my job, and we established an easy rapport.
As Jase dug into a mountain of French fries, Missy spoke about the family's initial skepticism about getting involved with the show: "We thought they would want conflict, and that's not us at all." The couple spoke of being deeply religious and of how the Robertsons donate generously to charities.
But I was most charmed by "Miss Kay," the matriarch, who received me so warmly I felt like a long lost friend. When she told me that I had to come by for one of her home-cooked meals -- the ones that look amazingly tasty on TV -- if I was ever near their home, I subconsciously began making plans for a visit.
Willie Robertson, the CEO of Duck Commander, sat on the other side of me. He was also polite, but a little more distant, leaving the table a few times for phone calls. Because he is the main force behind the company and the show, I suspected that breaking bread with a reporter was likely a few notches down on his priority list.
I also recall that the Robertson I had the least interaction with was Phil. Like he does in every episode of "Duck Dynasty," he delivered grace as the family members bowed their heads. He was farther away from me, and there were plenty of other family members to talk to.
By the way, none of that talk revolved around gays or blacks. No questions on those subjects were raised. At that time, there was no reason why they would have been asked.
As they lunched, a few customers approached the Robertsons to tell them how much they loved the show and the family's values. Phil, Willie and the others graciously thanked them. The affection they showed each other indicated that their on-camera chemistry is not a put-on.
Looking back on that day is not meant as a defense or analysis on the current firestorm enveloping "Duck Dynasty." The furor is not likely to subside soon.
But a glimpse back on a moment in time when "Duck Dynasty" was just a simple series with offbeat folks that made its fans smile might provide reflection and food for thought during the holidays and the new year.