Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Literary Gala, Southern-style

The next stop on our summer road trip was Madison, Georgia, where my literary agency was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Knight Agency was founded by agent and author Deidre Knight in 1996 and through its cluster of 100-plus fiction and non-fiction authors has launched more than 600 books. The party was attended by two bus loads of authors--mostly women. My husby joined a few other husbands in the shadows to crow or commiserate the life of an author's spouse.

Deidre held the party at the offices of The Knight Agency in Madison in order to give her authors a look at the offices where the business of selling books takes place. The offices reside in an old craftsman cottage on a shady street in Madison, billed as the "town Sherman refused to burn" during his punishing push through Dixie. We were led through the offices and to the backyard where a party pavilion was set and lined with twinkle lights. Everyone had their fingers crossed during the drive into Madison, praying the rain that wet the highway on the way to the party wouldn't flood the gala in the town Sherman so admired.

Under the pavilion we found everything you'd expect at a Southern party, and more. Intelligent and witty conversation bubbled like the peach mimosas; a classical guitarist filled the air with a melodious sound-drop, and the food was right from a Southern Living cookbook. Most decadent was a sweets station where pecans and sugar were cooked onsite to praline perfection. There was as much buzz about the pralines as there was about books.

My agent, Nephele Tempest, paused with me for a photo before we entered the party. Nephele opened the Knight Agency's West Coast offices just over a year ago and has already gathered an impressive group of authors and has made several sales. She reigned queen of her cluster at the party, introducing me to my sister authors and sharing insights into what's coming up.

Later in the evening my husband and I joined Kristin Nelson, president of Nelson Literary Agency, at a table with a lovely couple who live next door to Deidre. I asked which of the two was the romance author, and got a good laugh. Turned out neither of them are authors, but both are avid readers.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My Homage to Margaret Mitchell

The first road trip we took with our kids they were four and two years old. We packed a potty chair, activity kits, juice boxes, and those kid-proof "My First Sony" walkmans. The kids whined and cranked a bit, but we made it from Laguna Hills, CA to Houston in three good days. Yesterday we drove from New Orleans to Atlanta--an easy six-hour-drive--and you'd think my 19 and 17-year-old offspring were kiddies again. They had snacks, sodas, iPods, and laptop PCs to watch movies, but they picked and snapped at each other like a couple of old married folk.

The Atlanta Marriott Marquis where we'd booked for the night was crawling with women in town for the Romance Writers of America annual conference. I stuck up a conversation with Suzanne Simmons, an author of 40-plus novels, in the executive lobby of the Marquis. She shared a bit of her writing journey with me and encouraged me to keep my klunky name--Carolyn Burns Bass--when I publish. I've always thought Burns Bass was an odd conjunction; Burns, a verb next to the noun Bass. My kids often tease me with variations such as Carolyn burns fish, Carolyn burns hamburgers, Carolyn burns everything (not true!). Thank you, Suzanne.

The highlight of our stay in Atlanta was my pilgrimmage to the Margaret Mitchell museum. I first read Gone With the Wind during the summer in between seventh and eighth grade, and have re-read it several times since. Margaret and her husband rented a tiny apartment in this gracious Peachtree Street Victorian charmer while she wrote GWTW. I walked through the house tour with eyes wide open and spirit sensitive to the muse that dwelt there as Margaret composed one of the greatest American novels of all time. Margaret didn't think much of her prose, as she had great heroes among authors. But history thinks otherwise, and I agree.

Look closely and you'll see me on the front porch sitting, rocking with the vibe of another era.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Evesdropping in New Orleans

Overheard between a vendor and a local in New Orlean's French Market, July 23, 2006:

Local: How's business?
Vendor: Shitty.
Local: Tourists not buying?
Vendor: It's all those volunteers.
Local: Why doesn't someone tell them we don't need volunteers gutting houses, we need a revolution.

French Quarter Gallery

The beat goes on in the French Quarter. Click below to view my photos of New Orleans French Quarter, July 2006.

French Quarter Gallery

Katrina Gallery

Click below to view my photos and commentary on the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina in New Orleans

Katrina in Mississippi

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Dining Around New Orleans

The Crescent City is a haven for foodies. Although it’s renowned for Creole and Cajun, the two styles of cuisine it birthed, New Orleans has a wide array of international culinary choices. Hailing from Southern California where we have every kind of cuisine imaginable, we’ve decided to concentrate our dining on the foods that grew up here.

We choose the Cookin’ Cajun kitchen inside the Creole Delicacies gourmet store in the Riverwalk Mall for our first lunch. Chef instructor Saundra Green dishes us up some chicken and andoille sausage gumbo, red beans and rice, baked chicken, and Marti Gras salad. Cajun cooking just doesn’t get more real than this stick-to-your hips and thighs lunch. I sample the selections, but wind up with a huge plate of Marti Gras salad. Tara, who’s attending cooking school, and I try to figure out what the dressing is made of, but Saundra won’t give us a clue. She baits us by saying we have to come to a cooking class to get the recipe. Sold. I make a reservation for Thursday’s class.

Later that night a group of us from the ALEA conference head toward the French Quarter under the guidance of Tara, and discover Oliver’s Restaurant. Three generations of Arnaud Olivers run this charming Creole restaurant. I order the shrimp scampi, which I learn originated right here in the city of food. Tara, the most experimental of all of us orders the Rabbit. Now I must digress here because I’ve known Tara since she was ten. Let me tell you, this little girl was a picky eater. But then so were my two kids, Elisabeth and Jonathan. I discovered things they would eat heartily and would make them frequently. Tara loved my beef and bean burritos, so every time she was over for dinner I’d cook up some spicy ground beef, add the Rosarita refried beans, shredded cheddar jack, and roll it in a big flour tortilla. It became a standing joke that all I could cook was been and beef burritos. That Tara wound up in cooking school and is now ordering the Rabbit delights me as much as if she were my own daughter.

Wednesday night the ALEA attendees are treated to a night at The House of Blues. Our kids went out on their own for dinner and guess where they wound up? They call us from their booth in the dining room at the House of Blues to let us know the power’s out and the restaurant is dark and eerie. We’re bussed over in a drizzling rain, while lightning flashes through the dark clouds. We listen to the band do cover versions of classic R&B tunes before deciding the hors d’oeuvers are just not worth waiting in line for. We head down to the dining room and enjoy a good meal without waiting in line.

The next two nights we eat dinner in the hotel at ALEA vendor chow-downs. Hilton did well in feeding the crowd, but we’re happy when Saturday rolls around and we head down the road to Mulate’s for some Cajun cuisine. The food at Mulate’s is delish, but the atmosphere is better. A zydeco band is playing bayou music and several couples doing country swing on the dance floor. Before long a fine southern gentleman approaches our table and asks our 19-year-old daughter Elisabeth to dance. She accepts with a big California smile and he guides her to the square. She’s been country swing dancing with friends from college, so she picks up his lead and away they go.

Later he sits down with us and tells us his story. He says he’s so old he knew the Dead Sea when it was only sick. Actually, he’s 86, a New Orleans native and a Mulate’s fixture. He tells us about going through Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 and hopes he never has to go through another hurricane.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

French Quarter Still Lives

My daughter’s best friend since elementary school, who’s attending the Culinary Institute of New Orleans, has met us at the mall for a happy reunion. Tara’s been here since January and navigates around the city with a food compass. She knows all of the best restaurants, all of the good food markets, all of the culinary legends, and regales us with the history of Creole Cuisine and Cajun Cooking.

Tara leads us around the French Quarter, peppering our walk with spicy New Orleans legends and salting it with savory snippets of gossip. Downtown New Orleans and in particular the French Quarter was built on the highest ground in the area. When the levee broke, water from Lake Pontchartrain flowed into the downtown crescent as far as St. Charles Street, bypassing most of the French Quarter. It was the brutal arms of Katrina that tore boards from storefronts, punched out windows, and spewed water into the shops.

On the third day after the storm the sun came out. And so did the looters. With every law and emergency worker that didn't abandon post busy rescuing people, guarding merchandise was a low priority. Stores like Lisette Sutton's Creole Delicacies were stripped. In addition to such necessities as food and water; clothing, cosmetics and drugs, twentieth century pirates commandeered liquor and cigarettes, designer duds, jewelry, electronics, and anything they could barter for a buck. Not since the days of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte has Pirates Alley seen more thievery.

We pass Café Du Monde, crowded with tourists and others sinking beignets into café latte. Jackson Square is powdered with pedestrians, bicyclists and the lovely horse and carriage charmers that lend romance to the French Quarter. Stores and restaurants are open, people are shopping, drinking, laughing. Life is all about us.

Friday, July 21, 2006

New Orleans T-Shirts Say Everything

T-Shirts for sale in New Orleans French Quarter July 2006:
  • Make Levees Not War
  • FEMA: The other four-letter word
  • I survived Katrina and all I have is this stupid T-shirt
  • Tourists go home, but leave your dollars
  • Save New Orleans - Stop Global Warming
  • Willy Nagin and the Chocolate Factory (cartoon of mayor Ray Nagin as Willy Wonka)
  • Meet the Fockers (with faces of Ray Nagin and other Louisiana politicians)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Crescent City Awakening

I’m up with the sun this morning, and the first thing I do is throw back the drapes. I saw a glimmer of the Mississippi River last night, but this morning I’m stunned. The river cuts through the city like a Chinese dragon, sparkling with scales of sunlit current. Before me is a huge crescent of land, one of many that form in the arches of the giant dragon called The Mississippi.

I’ve been through New Orleans by way of Interstate 10. It was nearly 20 years ago, I was pregnant with my first child, and we were pedal to the metal to get to North Carolina to drop off our truck with my husband’s family before moving to Japan for our three-year tour. New Orleans was only a blur of bridges and a stop for lunch somewhere off the interstate. Waddling around the French Quarter with my big ole baby-bump just didn’t sound like fun. I’m sorry now that I don’t have that memory of what New Orleans looked like before Katrina.

So I’m anxious to get out of the hotel room and into the Crescent City. My husband has a full day of classes, so he takes off to join the rest of the pilots in a night vision goggles training session. Leaving my son still exercising his dreams, my daughter and I head across the hotel to the Riverwalk Mall. I’m saddened to see many of the shops still closed up; some completely vacant, others with signs promising to open soon. We stop into Creole Delicacies, a little gourmet shop and learn why New Orleans is considered the friendliest city in the country.

My son, 17, is with us now. He’s hungry and just a bit growly like teenage boys get when their belly is empty. At the back of the gourmet shop we discover a little dining room and a show kitchen. Although the tables are filled with a production line of gift basket preparation—Cajun spices, pralines, New Orleans memorabilia—the ladies working the basket assembly welcome us and offer us lunch. My son’s had his tongue set for a big ole burger, but the only thing on the menu here is baked Creole chicken, gumbo, red beans and rice, and Marti Gras salad. I ask the woman in the apron what she’d offer a grumbly teenage boy, she nods and tells me, “I know what you mean; I have a 17-year-old son.” So she heaps him up a giant sampler plate with half a chicken it. Jonathan eats, and eats, and eats some more, but not even Jonathan can finish.

We’re the only ones in the dining room, which we learn is really a classroom. Striking up a conversation with the woman in the apron, we learn her name is Saundra and she teaches Cajun and Creole cooking classes right there in the kitchen. She introduces us to Lisette, who owns the store, and before long the stories spill out.

Saundra lost her home and everything in it; trinkets, and trophies, treasures of a life born and raised in New Orleans. She still can’t talk about it without her eyes misting and her voice cracking. Lisette didn’t lose her home, but her mother did. Lisette, who along with her husband Dana, owns Creole Delicacies, lost their stores to looters. All of the Riverwalk stores were looted—all except the Christmas Store. Honor among thieves? Make your own conclusions in that.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Midnight in New Orleans

I didn't choose New Orleans as my vacation destination; it chose me. Or rather, the Airborne Law Enforcement Association selected the city for its annual convention and I'm along for the ride. My husband is a police pilot and this is his annual gig.

Travel, meetings, conventions, incentive trips are my business. So, how could I pass the opportunity to see New Orleans stretch forth its arms in its first season after Katrina.

We arrived late Monday night and jumped into a taxi around midnight. Our taxi didn't take us through the French Quarter, but straight down Canal Street and to the Hilton Riverside's front door. One of the first things I do upon entering a hotel room is open the curtains to check out the view. Even at midnight our room on the 20th floor didn't disappoint, though it only hinted at the spectacular sight that awaited.

As a travel marketing consultant, my trips are usually filled with appointments, planned activities, pre-arranged meals. This trip is a mix of business and pleasure, my family is with me, and I'm in a city I've never yet explored. I can't wait to see what tomorrow holds.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fourth of July Under the Sun

Everyone loves a parade. I caught this lovely lass under a parasol at the Fourth of July parade in Ontario, California.