I chose a corner chair in The Old Coffee Pot cafe in New Orleans’ French Quarter and studied the menu. There was not one item that would not appeal to me at some hour of the day: French toast, which in charming New Orleans fashion is called Lost Bread; spicy gumbo; white beans and Creole sausage, and wonders of shrimp and crawfish.
It was my last lunch in New Orleans, and as I had not yet done so, I ordered a local favorite: red beans and rice.
“Red beans and rice is a Monday tradition,” the waitress drawled. “Know why? ‘Cause the housewives had to do the washin’ on Monday, so they put the beans on and let them simmer all day.”
That classic dish is a staple at The Old Coffee Pot, a down-home eatery on St. Peter Street next door to the jazz of Preservation Hall and Pat O’Brien’s pub, home of a powerful rum drink called the Hurricane.
I liked the food and the mood of The Old Coffee Pot, where breakfast is served from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and lunch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For me, this has been a year of American travel, a time of Kansas City barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s; of Southern fried chicken in the antebellum town of Madison, Ga.; of blackened catfish at the enormous Bass Pro sports gear emporium in Springfield, Mo.; of Alaskan salmon at the Chena Pump House restaurant in Fairbanks; of chile rellenos in a back room of the historic Maria Teresa adobe near Old Town in Albuquerque; of savory Chinese treats at Chin-Chin in New York City; of Dove bars on the boulevards of Washington.
Listening and Smiling
This has been a year of listening to Americans and smiling at what I have heard.
From the next table at The Old Coffee Pot that noon, an intense woman said with a sigh: “Like being drunk. It just isn’t worth it anymore.”
It turned out that she was talking about eating spicy food. Her twang was not of New Orleans.
In my perusal of words I learned that the grassy median strips in New Orleans streets are called “neutral grounds.” That dates to the time of rifts between residents of the old French Quarter and the upstart Americans who built homes on the other side of Canal Street.
“Meet you on the neutral ground!” a jogger will call in passing.
And I learned something of the language of steamboat whistles on the Mississippi River. As we approached the dock in Hannibal, Mo., the captain of the river boat Mark Twain told me that steamboat whistles were great communicators in the heady days of the 19th Century.
By tradition, each boat still has a distinguishing toot, so that those on shore know which vessel is coming into port. As we approached the pier he warned us to cover our ears. Then he unleashed a low, proud blast: long, short, short, long, short. Balloons went up. A calliope broke into “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”
The diverse accents of this great land add to the joy of heartland rambles. The people of the Missouri hamlet of Versailles, for example, call it Vur-sales not Vare-sigh.
“But,” I asked a fellow at the county historical museum, “wasn’t the town named for the palace outside Paris?”
“No,” he said with a grin. “It was named after Versailles in Kentucky. A lot of migrants came from there. Or maybe it was Versailles, Ohio. Either way, it’s Vur-sales. Take my word for it.”
This has also been my year for presidential libraries, national parks and forest preserves.
The biggest moose I saw was not the proud beauty who posed in the midnight sun at Alaska’s Denali Park, but a mighty bull who crossed the narrow country road in front of my slow-moving car outside Center Sandwich, N.H.
‘Run From Moose’
I remembered that our bus driver in Denali had said: “Run from a moose, not from a grizzly.” In New Hampshire I stayed in my car and took aim with my camera.
The written words of travel can be as vivid as the spoken. In the Seattle-Tacoma Airport I sat by a 9-year-old who was heading home after a vacation with cousins in California.
His T-shirt message: “There’s no place like London, Paris or Pedro Bay, Alaska.”
In Anchorage I read sweat shirts that pointed to recent winners of the rugged Iditarod, that thousand-mile dog-sled race between Anchorage and Nome: “Alaska: Where men are men, and women win the Iditarod. 1985-1988.”
In this Thanksgiving season I count it a blessing to have visited, even if briefly, all 50 states. As a friend of mine bubbled at a champagne party in Kansas City: “The freedom to travel is as sacred as applehood and mother pie.”
Her blush was all-American rose.