Thursday, May 19, 2011

Taste of fried green tomatoes just another act of kindness

What's Special About New Orleans? Jazz Fest Version
By Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.
I've been back from Jazz Fest in New Orleans for more than a week. Sooner or later, I'll finish all the stories started in my journal from that trip.

What makes New Orleans special is the people in it. Everything, the music, the food, the culture, stems from them.

If these kinds of things were to happen once in a while, I’d write them off as random acts of kindness. In New Orleans, I have a new category: “Frequent acts of kindness.”

I’ve been writing for a couple of years about the people responsible for these persistent small acts that happen the way an unexpected afternoon breeze cools the thick summer air or a fabulous street singer pulls out a music case and begins serenading passersby in Jackson Square.

Is it something in the water down here? A secret ingredient in the gumbo, jambalaya, po’ boys, and other foods unique to this part of Louisiana? Maybe secret messages in the mix of Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, even hip hop that’s making it’s way into traditional music.

Whatever it is, it’s real and it still surprises me every time it happens. Sunday afternoon at Jazz Fest those kindnesses got sprinkled through the hot afternoon like pecans in pralines.

Juggling my camera, notebook, and a bottle of cold water on the way to the Gentilly Stage, I lose my grip on the bottle. Onto the dustiest part of the infield, of course. Dirt coats the bottle’s condensation like iron filings on a magnet. I stuff camera and notebook in my pack, begin to wipe the mess off the bottle, and keep walking.

Five steps later, a black hand waving a white napkin floats up from a man in a camp chair. Just that. Not a “Do you need this?” Or “Here, take this” Just a wordless gesture to solve an obvious problem.

I am floored.

I take the napkin. I stop and kneel next to his chair. And for the umpteenth time blurt out how often this sort of thing happens around here.

“My name is John Bernard. That’s the way we are here,” he says. That’s another thing about “here.” More often than not, people introduce themselves when they begin to talk to me. Don’t remember that happening in my neck of the woods.

“I’m retired military, used to serve in the Air Force up around Boston, “ Mr. Bernard volunteers in an accent so thick I ask him to repeat what he said.

“I love your city and the people in it,” I say, smile my thanks, and walk away. Once again, kissed on the cheek by New Orleans.

IMG_4531_2gray haired man who’s been sitting next to me way in the back of the Blues Tent during the Irvin Mayfield show decides to leave. 

The closure strings at the top of the narrow nylon carry case for the camp chair he’s just folded up keep getting caught in the legs of the chair as he tries to slide  it into the case. 

After his third unsuccessful attempt, a young woman sitting on the ground next to him leans over and holds the strings aside. The man smiles a silent thank you. The woman smiles back.

 On the way out of the Blues Tent, I stop to snap a photo of two women, telling them I’m taking photos of the glorious variety of hats on display. They oblige. 

We begin to chat. Soon we’re joined by two of their friends, Juan (who happens to be one of the sound stage technicians) and Sidney.

“We’ve lived in New York City and Boston. Boston is a cold city, not just the temperature,” Sidney’s lady friend says. “We welcome your presence here, it helps to make the city what it is.”

“It always surprises me that people here look you in the eye and greet you on the street,” I say to Sidney when he joins us.

“When we say hello to you, we’re acknowledging your presence,” Sidney says.
Simple as that. And it happens all the time.

Sunday, 7 pm, the last concert has finished, my traveling companion and I are heading for the exit.

“What are those girls eating?” I ask her.

Fried green tomatoes,” she says. I turn on a dime and approach them.

“How do they taste?”

“The bomb!” the first girl says, holding a small paper container with four lightly fried delicacies inside. “You can get them right over there,” she points with a plastic fork.

Two minutes later I pass the girls again. “You got the last bombs, they’re sold out,” I say, disappointment writ large on my face.

“You want one?” says one of the young ladies, holding out the tray with two left.

“Yes!” I’ve never sampled fried green tomatoes – I’m dying to taste one.

She carefully lifts a golden round from the container. “Swipe it into the remoulade sauce before you eat it… and don’t forget to share with your girlfriend!” she laughs.

My first taste of fried green tomato is a fabulous blend of light batter, soft, slightly sharp tang of tomato, and rich hit of remoulade sauce. But the lasting memory is of the ‘frequent acts of kindness’ showered on me randomly on this sunny New Orleans day at the Fairgrounds.

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