THOMAS HEAD (this essay was first published on December 15, 2010)
It was Christmas of 1978. My two-year-old marriage was already in trouble. A mutual love of food and wine and cooking initially attracted Alice and me to each other. We celebrated our wedding in Boulder, Colorado, with a grand buffet for 100 friends and family, and we cooked it all ourselves. But it became more and more obvious as the months progressed that we got along better in the kitchen than in any other room of the house.
It was our year to spend Christmas with my parents in north Louisiana. We were scheduled be there for about a week, and during that week, my family, knowing of our interest in food, tried hard to show my new wife the best cooking our family repertoire had to offer. In West Monroe my father, a master of the grill, cooked the fancy filet mignons that Alice had sent him as a Christmas present. We ate the traditional Christmas dinner with turkey and fresh ham and cornbread dressing and my mother’s famous congealed salad called Pink Fluff. This was followed by the usual dessert extravaganza of fruit cake, coconut cake, caramel cake, chocolate cake, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, and ambrosia. We drove to Harrisonburg to visit my mother’s family and ate fried brim and hushpuppies. My aunts made the family recipe for Blackberry Roll, blackberries wrapped in a biscuit-like dough, poached in a cloth, and served with hard sauce. They slyly joked to Alice that it tasted better if the sheet it was rolled and cooked in had been slept on first.
The idea of a full week in north Louisiana with no distractions from marital tensions and family scrutiny wasn’t appealing to either of us, so we decided to break up the trip by driving to New Orleans for a few days of eating. Alice had never been to New Orleans, and this was my first trip since I had discovered an interest in food. Even though I grew up in Louisiana, the Baptist-dominated north Louisiana of my childhood had little in common gastronomically or culturally with the fleshpots or the cooking pots of New Orleans.
The five-hour drive down to New Orleans from Monroe was tense, but as soon as we arrived in New Orleans, got installed in our hotel and ate our first dozen oysters at Felix’s, the emotional atmosphere changed from mutual recrimination to mutual delight. We ate our way through the city for the next few days—breakfast beignets at Café du Monde, barbecue shrimp at Pascal’s Manale, baked oysters and marinated crab claws at Mosca’s, muffulettas from Central Grocery, turtle soup at Commander’s Palace. Everything, even dishes I had eaten many times before, tasted fresh and new. For those few days we were again the good friends who became lovers though our mutual love of good cooking and eating.
I can’t claim that a weekend of eating in New Orleans saved my marriage. It didn’t. We eventually moved to different cities, ostensibly for work reasons but really to get away from what had become an unbearable situation for us both, and divorce inevitably followed. But Alice and I still agree that this weekend of eating in New Orleans stands out as a bright spot in some troubled years, reminding us both of the joy of sharing food and wine that made us think we would spend our lives together.
Thomas Head is a food and travel writer based in Washington, DC. For 15 years, he was executive wine and food editor of Washingtonian magazine. He was the magazine’s primary restaurant reviewer, and his monthly “What’s New” and “Best Bites” columns in The Washingtonian established themselves as the place where Washingtonians look to find out what’s new and what’s hot in the Washington restaurant scene.
In April of 1988, Head founded the Washington Executive Travel Report, a widely praised newsletter for business travelers to Washington. Before beginning his own publishing venture, he was senior federal relations officer and director of public affairs at the Association of American Universities, and worked for the Tosco Foundation and Tosco Corporation, directing the corporation’s legislative and environmental information services in Washington and Boulder. He is a former professor of English literature at the University of Colorado and has written on nineteenth-century English theater.
Head now writes regularly on food, restaurants, and travel. As contributing editor and acting food editor of Working Mother, he wrote numerous articles for the magazine on food, entertaining, and cook books. He was founding editor of a monthly travel section for Roll Call: The Newspaper of Congress, and his work has appeared in Garden Design, National Geographic Traveler, Food and Wine, Food Arts, Nation’s Restaurant News, and various airline magazines and newspapers. His monthly column, “Head of the Table,” appears in Leader’s Edge magazine. He edits the newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance, is a member of the board of directors of the Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation, a member of the advisory board of Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. He appears frequently on radio, television, and online talk shows to discuss Washington restaurants.
He is a member and former Senior Warden of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.