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  • Nov 29 / 2008
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Is It Wine Yet?

Clyde Bruckerhoff, Vintner Extraordinaire

When we first moved to St. Louis in 1995, we rented a small house on the edge of a pumpkin farm in the bottomlands near Creve Coeur Lake (a house that had been submerged in the “Flood of 93,” but that’s another story). It was there that we first met “Farmer Clyde,” the crazy old coot who grew the pumpkins and immediately appointed himself our guardian angel. Two years later, we were evicted to make way for a state highway expansion, and Farmer Clyde helped us move our stuff to the next house we’d rented, in Balwin, just south of Queeny Park. Two years later, we were evicted again, to make way for a developer. When we first came to look at (what would be) our next house, in Bridgeton near the airport, we peeked in the backyard and came back to the car with downcast faces to alert the kids that there was a big hole in it. “Swimming pool!” they all shouted. My kids aren’t stupid.

But we had another surprise in store for us. There were vines growing all along the chain link fence that enclosed the backyard, and by early summer we had confirmed that they were concord grapes. Being a farmer and knowing that we were New Orleanians, Farmer Clyde proposed that we make wine. The resolution passed unanimously.

We collected the grapes in September, stomped them, let them sit for a week, and then pressed them with an ancient apple press that Clyde had found in a mudhole down in St. Genevieve and extracted with his old Oliver tractor. Then we poured the juice and hot sugar water into a barrel, plugged it, and asked Clyde the question that had been haunting us: When will it be wine?

Clyde’s not the most straightforward person in the world, and he succumbs occasionally to the rural temptation to bamboozle the city slicker, so we always interpret his responses carefully. But, when he allowed as how we might be able to “taste” it around Halloween, we protested vehemently: “That’s more than a month away.” He complimented us on our mathematical prowess. “But when will be able to drink it?” we demanded. “You could tap a bottle for Thanksgiving, but it won’t really be wine ’til Christmas.”

Well, we tasted it at Halloween and it was terrific! No, Clyde said, it wasn’t wine yet. Hmm. Is he serious, or just tantalizing us? It was impossible to know for sure, so we let it sit. At Thanksgiving, it was far superior, and we realized that Clyde had been right: it wasn’t really wine yet at Halloween. Now it was wine! Right? No, he said, not yet.

Clyde has a sadistic streak, and we were beginning to think it was showing, but we held off. Then, the week of Christmas, we tried it again and wondered how we could have been so stupid. That junk we’d tasted before was just hopped-up grape juice. Nothing like wine at all. This was wine! Wasn’t it?

Clyde held a glass up to the light, admiring its color. He tilted the glass and watched the fluid coating the inside slowly recede to level. He smelled the bouquet, took a small sip, and licked his lips.

Well? Well?!!! Well?!!!!!!

At last, Clyde nodded. It was wine!

This morning we drove down to St. Genevieve for the funeral of Clyde’s dad, Willie Bruckerhoff, who died Tuesday at the age of 91. This year’s vintage — sure to be a very good one — is dedicated to him.

  • Nov 28 / 2008
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Christmas Traditions

"Clara" in Christmas Traditions 2008

The Christmas Traditions outdoor pageant opened in St. Charles, Missouri today. My eldest daughter, Maria, joined the cast five years ago as “The Flower Girl.” For the last three years, she has been the assistant director, designing the annual brochure and collectible character cards, assisting with character auditions and costume design, etc. This year, my third daughter, Isabel, is taking on the role of “Clara from the Nutcracker” (see photo above). Old St Charles, from which the Lewis & Clark expedition was launched over 200 years ago, is kind of like the French Quarter in New Orleans: lots of historic buildings now housing boutiques and restaurants. If you happen to pass through the St. Louis area between now and Christmas, make sure you cross the Missouri River, visit Main Street in St. Charles, and say hello to Clara.

  • Nov 28 / 2008
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Wise Men Bearing Gifts

At Christmas time, when our thoughts are preoccupied with the presents we plan to give and the presents we hope to receive, it would not be amiss to reflect upon, and express gratitude for, those gifts that have been bestowed upon mankind over the centuries and of which we are but the most current beneficiaries. — “Wise Men Bearing Gifts,” F.R. Duplantier, 1986

This is an abridged version of an article I wrote late in 1986, just after I got married and returned to the Church (it all happened at the same time, and so fast). I was feeling philosophical, and grateful, and decided to write an extended thank-you note for the wisdom of the ages. My wife and I spent our first Thanksgiving together (and enjoyed a belated honeymoon) at a friend’s cottage on Cape Cod. It was just the two of us, and a bunch of dead white men: Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, John Locke, et al. They ate very little, respected our privacy, and helped tidy up. We had a great time together. Nevertheless, my wife made me promise: on our second honeymoon, I’ll leave the old guys at home.

  • Nov 27 / 2008
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What Are You Grateful For?

Keeping a list of the gifts we have received can be a good way to develop our sense of gratitude and to sharpen our ability to recognize the hidden benefits in things that have not come giftwrapped. — “Thanks for Everything!” F.R. Duplantier, 1987.

Bob's mailbox sign, a Bridgeton landmark, Thanksgiving 2008

My life, my wife, my family, good health, unemployment — those are the things I’m grateful for. Yes, even unemployment, which gives me extra time to appreciate the other four things, and to reflect on the most important gift of all: the promise of salvation.

  • Nov 26 / 2008
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Movie of the Week: Nothing in Common

Sometimes it takes a great shock to remind us what our priorities should be. We may take offense at the suggestion that our ambitions, our lusts, and our greed are more important to us than the health and safety and happiness of our loved ones, but how often do we find ourselves acting as though they are? — “An Adult Movie Rated PG,” F.R. Duplantier

Having worked in a couple of advertising agencies, I can vouch for the verisimilitude of the one depicted in Nothing in Common. As the product of an unhappy marriage that lasted 41 bitter years, I can also attest to the accuracy of the parental relationship therein portrayed, first as backdrop to the story, then as its main focus. As a kid, I wondered what was wrong, and why my mother and father didn’t love each other the way other kids’ parents did. As an adolescent, I found the prospect of a marriage just as bad as theirs terrifying. As a spouse, I hope I’ve learned from their mistakes and that my luck will hold.

  • Nov 25 / 2008
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Happy Birthday, Dad!

My papa was a great old man. I can see him with a shovel in his hand. — Clarence Carter

L: Pop ponders how to pick pod from 15-ft. okra stalk (NOLA, c 1968) R: Son with shovel in hand (Brockton, Massachusetts, 1986)

They didn’t call me “Patches” when I was young (why, I don’t know), but I can see my father with a shovel in his hand, and he was a great old man. November 25th is/was his birthday. If he were still alive, he would be 87 today. He died just after Christmas in 1990. I was working in Appleton, Wisconsin at the time and flew down to New Orleans for the funeral in January. Upon my return, I was fired. 1991 was getting off to a good start.

For as long as I can remember, my dad always had a garden, a vegetable garden, with okra and tomatoes mostly, and whatever he felt like adding in any given year: bell peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc. Whence the shovel, which, as I got older, was more often in my hand than his. He was the one who liked okra and tomatoes, but, somehow, it was me who got to do all the digging and weeding. For years I dreamed of escaping from the gumbo plantation and making my way along the suburban white kid’s underground railroad to store-bought food and freedom. Which I eventually did. Funny thing, though. One day, at the ripe age of 30, I finally got married and bought a house with a nice little side yard that just cried out for — a garden! Ever since, I’ve grown okra and tomatoes just like the old man; and some day my kids will remember me, I hope, with a shovel in my hand.

  • Nov 24 / 2008
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Your Weekly Politickle

Five years ago this week, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I got an urgent email from John McCaslin, the great Washington Times writer and all-round good guy, who for several years previous had been gracious enough to include my politickles on a regular basis in his “Inside the Beltway” column. He was just finishing up his column for the next day, had a tiny space left, and wondered if I could write a limerick on order for Thanksgiving. Needless to say, I dropped everything (which probably wasn’t much, as I was unemployed at the time) and put the old thinking cap on. Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving? What memories does that particular holiday conjure up? Ah, yes. Lots of good food, and the agony — for a kid, at least — of having to wait half the day to eat any of it! Thus, “Gobbler” and a new politickle tradition (the annual Thanksgiving limerick) were born (see archive below).

Each year at this time, I put the thinking cap (beret, actually) back on and try to dredge up something from my childhood (and adult) memories of Thanksgiving from which to generate a limerick: being glad to have guests over but hoping they won’t overstay their welcome (2004), being completely unable to fathom the appeal of cranberry sauce (2005), eating too much on purpose (2006), remembering in the midst of self-engorgement that some people aren’t so lucky (2007), looking forward to the annual opportunity to ogle the Rockettes (also 2007), and realizing in late adolescence that not everyone in America has the same Thanksgiving meal that New Orleanians do (2008). Click on the embedded links in “Ooh La La!” for some dandy recipes.

This year, having called the family together for a brainstorming session, I got lucky and wound up with two good ideas for a Thanksgiving limerick. I’ve got the one for 2009 already written, and for that I’m truly grateful. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a year to read it.

OOH LA LA!
A fried turkey injected with spice,
Shrimp-stuffed mirlitons and dirty rice,
Pecan pie, oyster dressing
How we rush through the blessing!
Yes, a Creole Thanksgiving is nice.

Archive:

GRATITUDE
If you’re thankful for your lot
And all the things you’ve got,
Then say a prayer
And give a care
For someone on the spot.
(2007-1)

FAVORITE DISH
How much better can Thanksgiving get?
In my bedroom a 60-inch set,
And in HD displayed
This year’s Macy’s Parade:
Waking up to a scrumptious Rockette!
(2007-2)

SATIETY
With the turkey and trimmings procured,
Our Thanksgiving repast is assured,
But it won’t be complete
‘Til we sit down to eat
And the family’s as stuffed as the bird.
(2006)

CIRCULAR SAUCE
If your husband’s a Thanksgiving fan
And a cranberry sauce kind of man,
You might make him a batch
Of the sauce all from scratch,
But he’ll miss that weird goop in the can!
(2005)

THANKSGIVING
Lord, we ask of you a boon:
To bless our guests this noon.
We’re so grateful they
Could come today —
And have to leave real soon!
(2004)

GOBBLER
Hold your horses; we’re not in a race.
Get that drumstick away from your face.
Now put your fork down
And stop making that frown.
You can eat when we finish the grace.
(2003)

Last week’s limerick:

NO CHILD LEFT
If a kid is a bit of a scamp
And resists the new socialist stamp,
He will be reassigned
And his mind realigned
At a reeducational camp.

  • Nov 23 / 2008
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The Portable New Orleans

Soon after we moved to Boston in 1986, people started asking my wife and me if we missed New Orleans. We had a ready response: “Not really. We brought our cookbooks and our records with us.” (And, of course, we brought ourselves, the coolest couple in the whole dang town — though you’d never know it, to look at us now.)

Food and music are the essence of New Orleans. With copies of Talk About Good, River Road Recipes, and the Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, we expatriates have all the resources we need to enjoy la belle cuisine (though finding the required ingredients at an affordable price, or reasonable substitutes, is often a challenge). With albums featuring the best music of Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, Chuck Carbo and the Spiders, Beausoleil, et al., we have la musique necessaire to set the proper mood. We can laisser les bons temps rouler wherever and whenever we want to.

  • Nov 22 / 2008
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Food, Glorious Food!

My parents were both good cooks, and my six siblings and I ate well growing up: chicken gumbo, breaded veal cutlets with red beans and rice, stuffed mirlitions, eggplant casserole, crawfish bisque, boiled shrimp and crabs, etc. For certain meals, however, like fried chicken, a kid had to move quickly if he wanted to get the pieces he liked best (for me, the side breast) and enough of them. It’s taken me years to get out of the habit of bolting my food, and to avoid making myself sick at all-you-can-eat restaurants.

Unfortunately, my parents did not pass their cooking skills on to me, which is to say that I never bothered to learn them. So, when I first lived on my own as a young bachelor and had to cook for myself, my nightly repasts became suddenly spartan. In fact, it usually took three nights to complete a meal. I would fry up a pork chop on Monday evening, heat up a can of corn on Tuesday, top it off with a can of petits pois on Wednesday, and begin another three-course/three-night meal on Thursday. Sunday, I would ride the bus out to my parents’ house and remind myself what it was like to have a real meal.

When I moved to Lafayette in January of 1976 for a half-hearted stab at graduate school, I lived on boudin and chocolate chip ice cream, which I bought, almost daily, at a little grocery right next door. On the other side of the store was a pool hall that served the best Cajun gumbo I’ve ever tasted. As a native New Orleanian, I may be an apostate; but, to this day, I prefer the Cajun gumbo to the Creole.

In December of ’76, I got the chance to help establish and edit a bilingual tabloid called La Gazette des Acadiens (1976-77) and soon chucked graduate school. My first decision as editor was to hire my mother to write a regular cooking column.

La Gazette was a terrific little paper, but, like most start-ups, survived less than a year. Soon I was back in New Orleans, where I eventually managed to pass myself off as an advertising copywriter. Working in the central business district, just across Canal Street from the French Quarter, meant that I could have an excellent lunch every day, what with dozens of sensational, affordable joints all within walking distance. Deciding which one to go to was simple: the day’s craving would dictate the venue. Fried chicken called for Portia’s on Rampart Street, an oyster poboy could only mean Acme House on Iberville, seafood gumbo led inexorably to Mother’s on Poydras, etc.

Fastforward several years. I’m married and have kids of my own. Inside, my wife does the cooking; outside, at the barbecue grill, I’m the occasional master of incineration. Then, what happens? I lose my job and find myself going stir-crazy looking for something to do around the house. My wife’s absorbed in homeschooling the kids and doesn’t have time to prepare a hot lunch, so I figure I’ll give it a shot. Much to my surprise, I discover that I enjoy the hour or two it takes to prepare a decent meal for a large family, and that I actually seem to have a knack for it. Well, what do you know? My parents did pass their cooking skills on to me, after all.

So, here’s my advice to all the unemployed dads out there: Pitch in, start cooking, and bon appetit!

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