I had two different friends use the expression “cultural shift” this past week, and since neither of them are anthropologists—or would that be sociologists? well they aren’t that either—I have to assume something is going on here. These were conversations about the new management, or non-management, structure known as “holacracy,” and about the plus-size woman who rocked a fierce top at Old Navy and told the world about her experience. Completely different topics but what they share is the “choir” theme, as in “all God’s children got a place in the choir.” Not that I am objecting to that! Let the record show that I do not have a problem with God’s children clapping their hands or paws.
But then another friend told me about the Marcy’s Diner fuss. Some mom was soaking up the social media sympathy after a diner owner somewhere in Maine screamed at her toddler. “Remind me to tell you the papa rossellis story!!” I messaged her. But since I am always looking for blog fodder, I have decided to tell it to you all, now. Here, then, is a tale of bad restaurant behavior before the age of social media shaming.
This all happened probably thirty years ago, so some of the details are naturally a little fuzzy. But for some reason connected with a departing flight, or maybe an arriving flight, Allen and I and his sister Ann decided to kill some time before the trek from my parents’ house to the airport in Kenner by enjoying a nice meal just across the parish line at West End. This was two decades before Hurricane Katrina would wipe out the handful of restaurants surrounding its cratered clamshell parking lot. Somehow—maybe the wait for a table everywhere else was too long—we wound up at Papa Rosselli’s.
This must have been during one of New Orleans’ warmer months, because the air conditioning was on. But not on enough to satisfy the large party at a nearby table (as you can see it was not a big place) who at some point after we had ordered our food renewed their complaints about the ambient temperature. We were not sure how long they had been complaining, but the older woman who had taken our order finally walked over to the thermostat and dealt it a vicious twirl. “I’ll freeze your asses off!” she declared, in a threatening tone.
The young man in the party who was the chief complainant had a few choice things to say about this, and I unfortunately don’t remember any of them, but it escalated to the point that the entire table rose to leave. A girl who had been in the bathroom for the entire thermostat action sequence emerged only to see her group filing towards the door. She asked what was going on, and one of the other girls sighed—now, you have to imagine this in your best heavy Yat accent, rhyming “John” with “yawn”—“We gotta go. John started his shit again.”
John had a couple more things to say, loudly, none of which I remember but it must have been about driving away good business, not knowing how to treat customers, etc. Just then the older lady, who by this time our family thought of as “Mama Rosselli,” came out of the kitchen carrying a shallow bowl of gumbo.
“You lucky I don’t trow dis gumbo at your ass!” she cried, and certainly in my memory she reared the bowl back, like a quarterback looking for an open receiver. Then, without spilling a drop, she deftly slid the bowl in front of Ann, whose order it turned out to be. “Enjoy your gumbo, dawlin’,”she said, and headed back to the kitchen.
The door closed behind the departed guests. Mama emerged from the kitchen once more and cranked the thermostat back to a normal temperature. Ann, terrified of becoming the next victim, spooned up her gumbo. It was delicious.
Like I said, this was back in the day, so all we got out of it was a humorous anecdote. But imagine this happening now. John and probably some of his friends would be Yelping up a storm. His girlfriend, meanwhile, could tell lovelorn dot com about not having been able to enjoy a restaurant meal for six months, and strangers in the comment section would advise her to dump his sorry anger-issues butt. Ann would perhaps Instagram the gumbo, maybe with a caption about her narrow escape. Mama might—who knows?—craft a blog post about the bad behavior of Kids Today, and how it was making her and her husband want to give up the restaurant business. And any, or all, of these internet offerings might achieve the mysterious viral status.
Remember the crying baby in the Maine diner and the screaming diner’s owner? Well, the mama isn’t the only one who got some internet loving. Turns out quite a few people registered their support of the angry owner.
You see, in our new cyber holacracy, everybody can have a support group. They spring up like mushrooms after rain. Remember that post you did about finishing your first 5K and it got a hundred and twenty-eight likes, some of them from people you don’t think you would recognize if you actually ran into them, unless maybe you’d had a lot to drink? Remember the bullied bus monitor who got $700K? It’s so easy to be positive on the internets.
And then there’s the flip side of that. As anybody who glances at the comments on al dot com knows, it’s also terribly, terribly easy to be negative. The same folks who once jeered at public hangings are out there waiting to tell you the difference between who’s and whose, or how to raise your kid, or how fat you look in your Old Navy top, or to start a Twitter feeding frenzy that pretty much destroys you. In real life, not virtually.
Alone in the glow of our monitors or hunched over our phones, we are free to, with a minimum of effort, be our best selves. We can be moved to tears by videos of joyful homecoming queens with Down’s syndrome, sprinkling exclamation points throughout our affirmations of the indomitability of the human spirit. And behind our cloaks of anonymity or even without them, we can be our worst. We can forget that we ever made a mistake, or not care if we have. We can join with the like-minded to hurl the hot gumbo, over and over again. I hope the anthropologists—or is it sociologists?—are studying this “cultural shift” and what kind of effect it will have on our society. Until then, y’all be careful out there.
Recipe! Well, I made a quick shrimp étouffée the other night that was pretty good (although probably not as good as Papa Rosselli’s). Here are my two Creole Cookery Secrets: oven-browned flour and Better than Bouillon lobster base. The flour you have to make in advance and it stinks up the place but it’s wonderful to have in the freezer. Cover the bottom of a shallow pan, like a jelly roll pan, with flour and bake it in a 400° oven for about an hour, until it is the color of a Kraft caramel. Stir it every fifteen minutes or so. It will smell just horrible. Then put it in a ziploc bag and freeze it. The Better than Bouillon you may have to go to Fresh Market or someplace for, but it keeps forever in the fridge.
Okay. To make the étouffée, chop an onion and a bell pepper and two or three celery stalks pretty small and sauté them in a few tablespoons of oil. I forgot about garlic but you should probably put a couple of minced cloves in. When they are translucent, add about 1/3 cup browned flour—mine is always lumpy so I add it through a sifter—and make sure it is all coated by the oil. You might have to add a little more oil. Now you will have this kind of paste, just like if you had stood there stirring and stirring to brown the flour in the oil, but with less oil and a lot less work. Add the lobster base, a heaping teaspoon dissolved in about a cup and a half of water. Or if you don’t want to wash the measuring cup, add the water and then spoon the soup base in and stir it up in the pan. Stir till smooth and add some other seasonings. I used a couple of shakes of Tony Chachere’s, and maybe a teaspoon of thyme, and chopped up all the wilted parsley in the drawer which was maybe two packed tablespoons. Bay leaf is nice too but I just now realized I forgot it. I told you this was quick.
If it looks too thick, add more water. Let all this simmer on low for half an hour or so for the flavors to marry or live in sin or whatever flavors are doing these days. Check it every once in a while in case you have to add more water. Then turn the heat up, add the peeled shrimp—we had a pound and a half—and cook it just till the shrimp are done. Serve over rice, or grits makes a nice change. This amount served 4, just barely.