Loss, Cheese Sandwiches and Café Brûlot


The Brice Familt tomb in Metairie Cemetary

The Brice Familt tomb in Metairie Cemetary

As a child I had terrible insomnia.  I would lie in bed with books all around me, reading late into the night, filled with despair that I’d never fall asleep. My father had insomnia too, and once in a while, I’d hear a tiny tapping on my bedroom door.

“Are you awake?” he’d whisper. “I saw the light on.”

“Yes,” I’d whisper back, putting my book under my pillow. “Yes, I’m awake.”

He’d open the door a crack, revealing his own haggard sleeplessness. “Wanna come have a cheese sandwich with me?” and off we’d go in our pajamas, tip-toing through the dark house, past snoring siblings and down to the kitchen, where we’d make Swiss cheese and mayo sandwiches on sliced bread. Simple though the food was, it represented comfort, the end of a lonely night, a mooring against the darkness.

I came to New Orleans in May to complete research on a novel I’m writing that is set there in 1878. My mother and sister came with me, New Orleans being one of our favorite cities. Our ancestors are buried there too, and when we three Moss women visit New Orleans, we make a pilgrimage to the Brice Family tomb in Metairie Cemetery to “see” the family. I bring a little bottle of gin and we share a toast, each of the living taking a sip from the bottle, and pouring the rest on the granite steps for those within who might be thirsty.

This particular visit, we ended up at a restaurant we’d never visited before, one we always thought of as a place for tourists just off of Bourbon Street in the Quarter. We wanted to talk quietly and ducked into Arnaud’s where there was live music playing, dim lights and a lovely menu. We weren’t enormously hungry so we ordered gin martinis (needless to say), a plate of chilled, fresh Louisiana oysters on the half-shell and three Arnaud’s salads with celeriac and pistachios. The trio was playing Fats Waller as we ate, drank and chatted. We were in accidental heaven.

The author's grandmother (and namesake) Rosina West when she is about 19, around 1913.

The author’s grandmother (and namesake) Rosina West when she is about 19, around 1913.

Not wanting the evening to end, we asked for the dessert menu, and Mom read the following out loud to us: “Café Brûlot: Coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cloves, cinnamon sticks and Orange Curacao. Flamed with Brandy.” She looked at my sister and me, and we said, “Yes,” in unison, our waiter assuring us that we’d made the right choice.

As the Brûlot cart arrived, Mom said, “You know, my mother used to make Café Brûlot, after she moved to New York. Whenever friends from New Orleans came to visit, she’d make it for them up in the Washington Square apartment, to make them feel at home.”

The entire restaurant watched as the waiter cracked cinnamon sticks into the copper bowl, added whole cloves and brandy, put the bowl on top of the blue ring of fire and then, voila, lit the bowl of brandy itself. We gasped. He deftly cut the clove-studded peel of an orange and poured the flaming brandy over it, making a spiral staircase of flame, and causing the entire restaurant to burst into spontaneous applause. Sometimes being a tourist is just plain fun.

A few weeks ago, my father died, and I keep thinking of those cheese sandwiches we shared in the middle of the night, of sitting together in our pajamas discussing Harriet the Spy (a book Dad had bought me at a yard sale). It is moments like that which create true friendships. Who would have thought, 40 years ago, that it would be this image of my father and me that would come back to me so vividly after his death?

Dad’s remains have been sent to Metairie Cemetery and we’ve received word that he’s been placed in the family tomb with my grandmother (Rosina West, for who I am named), my great great grandfather, A.G. Brice, and the rest of the family. We are headed to New Orleans in December, my mother, my sister, my husband and I, and we’ll make the pilgrimage again with our little flask of gin, this time, for the first time, to visit my father there, hard as that is for any of us to imagine.

Our food and drink rituals connect us as a family. Perhaps it’s what connects all families. I like to think of my father being welcomed there with Swiss cheese sandwiches and Café Brûlot. I can’t think of a lovelier way to spend a long, dark night.


N. West Moss is working on a novel set in New Orleans in 1878 as well as a collection of short stories that take place in Bryant Park in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Memoir Journal, The Blue Lake Review, The Westchester Review and elsewhere. She is a finalist in the 2013 Shelby Foote Essay Prize from the Faulkner Society in New Orleans.


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