September 5, 2015
STRANGERS: Mary Burns, Buzzy “Beano” Langford & Brobson Lutz
LOCATION: Antoine’s, 713 Saint Louis Street, New Orleans
THEME: Reflections on Hurricane Katrina one decade later
On a decadent Saturday afternoon in August in New Orleans, I had an orgy.
An orgy of appetizers at Antoine’s, just to be clear. I was halfway through a meal with three long-time residents of the city who’d previously been featured on Dining With Strangers. We reunited to discuss the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and in the first part of this two-part article the locals told me the good and bad — and that they’re ready to stop talking about it.
So it was that after snacking on souffle potatoes and sipping at sazeracs, the conversation shifted on to what this trio have been up to since they first dined with a stranger.
Dr. Brobson Lutz, the city’s former health director, had helped me organize the get-together at Antoine’s in the French Quarter, just one of many old school restaurants where he’s a beloved regular. We were in the wood-paneled Escargot Room, decorated on one wall with a massive engraving of a snail. And the amount of food before us was just as big.
This was our appetizer “orgy” as the doctor had called it, to chuckles from the other diners: myself, zydeco dance teacher Mary Burns and musician Buzzy “Beano” Langford.
Our stellar waiter Charles — the fourth generation of his family to work at Antoine’s — opened the door to the room as he and other waitstaff brought in our appetizers. With a smile, he looked at the snacks and said, “I’d like to take a minute to talk you to about them.”
A minute? There was so much food I figured it’d be an hour before we ate.
Before us were plates of many of Antoine’s specialties, including several escargot dishes apt for the private dining room. Up first was escargot Bordelaise: snails basted and baked in a red wine and garlic sauce and topped with French bread crumbs and a mix of cheeses.
I’d never ventured to eat snails before but I’m glad I tried. The mollusk had a somewhat meaty texture, but any of its flavor was masked by the delicious toppings.
The other plate of snails passed round the table were Escargot Bourguignonne, served in a traditional garlic butter and parsley sauce. I didn’t try these, but the plate was empty when we left the restaurant.
Then Charles pointed to plates of oysters laid around the table.
“Hope ya like oysters!” laughed Mary, her Louisianan accent twisting the word “oysters” into something like “ersters” — and bringing back memories of my interview with Mary from May 2014 when she guided through my first, and probably last, taste of a raw oyster.
Mercifully, the oysters before us had been baked.
There was the classic Oysters Rockefeller, baked on the half shell with the unique dark green Rockefeller sauce created by Antoine’s in 1889. The restaurant swears to secrecy for the recipe, which is copied at other restaurants around town. But Charles said that many other venues use spinach for the green hue, and vowed that you’ll never find that in Antoine’s sauce.
We were also treated to Oysters Thermidore. Again the bivalves are baked on the half shell but this time topped with a bacon and tomato sauce. These were irresistible.
“Now this Thermidore is actually my favorite,” said Brobson, reaching for some.
On the next plate was a serving of Oysters Foch, fried and served on toast buttered with paté and a Colbert sauce of meat glaze, butter, wine, shallots, tarragon and lemon juice.
Rounding out the appetizer orgy was a plate of shrimp served with remoulade dreissing. Brobson waited until Charles had left before he tried one, then declined a second.
“The shrimp have no taste to them,” he said. “They’re machine peeled.”
That echoed a criticism Brobson had raised back in October when we first met over dinner at Galatoire’s, another French Quarter fine dining spot. He lamented that upscale restaurants are increasingly peeling the shrimp in massive machines rather than by hand. After boiling, the mass-peeled shrimps end up tasting like rubber, he told me.
The thumbs down for the shrimp at Antoine’s was the only complaint I heard the entire time during our lunch at Antoine’s. Everything else was eagerly snapped up by me and the three strangers, which made me wonder how people in the city manage to stay in shape.
“You sweat it off,” laughed Buzzy.
Mary, 68, nodded. “It ain’t easy. We zydeco!”
With a flourish of her handkerchief, Mary grabbed her napkin and waved it around in the air. She moved her hips while still sitting down, giving us a mini-zydeco show.
During the first part of the interview, she told us about the good and bad in New Orleans 10 years after Katrina. She feels that the city is becoming “neutralized” and losing its unique character. But as long as Mary is on the dance floor, that character remains.
She was a teacher at a Cathloic middle school for 30 years. When “the storm” hit, she had a grueling experience being shunted away to ride out the aftermath at an abandoned school, before breaking out on her own and marching down the broken levees to get home. It was an amazing story when she told it back in May 2014, and for her the memories are just as vivid today.
Shortly after Katrina, Mary and her husband, who later passed away, were part of the protests on the levees against alleged U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mismanagement. That caught the eye of a Washington Post photographer who took snaps of the Burns family protest. When it came time for “K10” as the locals call the storm’s anniversary, the Post again featured Mary. She looks solemn in her photos, but meet her in person and her effervescent personality is quick to show.
Last July, Mary visited the Olympic Village in Utah. She boasted about riding the bobsled, saying, “By the time I got to the bottom of the track, I thought all my body organs had broken loose and were floating around in my body like a gumbo! It was terrifyingly exhilarating. Thought I died!” she said, twisting “thought” into “tawt.”
With a smile, Mary told me how she’s “trying to grow old with as little dignity and grace as possible. I live to zydeco. I zydeco to live.”
Then Mary turned to face Buzzy. “Oh, he’s so cute with his frosted tips!”
Buzzy, 62, was dressed in a black shirt that contrasted with three colorful wristbands and a splash of blonde tinting the tips of his dark hair. He smiled at Mary’s compliment.
Buzzy plays guitar for the four-piece band The Topcats, a New Orleans cover band that has performed together in its current configuration for more than 25 years. He also writes and performs his own music. Back when we met in August 2009, he told me how the immediate aftermath of Katrina was bad for business — but then the bookings came rushing in, as people were looking to hire bands for fundraisers, recovery concerts, and the like.
“The first year and a half after the storm it was crazy, we were booming,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s gotten better or worse since. It’s kind of leveled off.”
The Topcats occasionally perform on the local Channel 4 news playing a couple of minutes to promote a show they’re doing or a festival they’re taking part in. “That’s the best advertising you can do, better than any paid advertisement you can buy” because of the exposure, Buzzy said.
“He’s so cute on TV!” said Mary, winking. She’s seen him before, and she also recognized Brobson from his appearances on local television doling out medical advice.
“And I see him at the festivals,” said Mary, nodding to Buzzy. In fact, one time she even got up on stage with The Topcats and danced along with them — back when Buzzy and Mary were strangers. But after an often raucous lunch filled with laughter, I don’t think they’re strangers anymore.
Beyond continuing his work with The Topcats, Buzzy said he’s also working on trying to finish four albums of his own material, describing his music as “kind of retro pop.”
At that moment, our waiter Charles returned with dessert.
I call it dessert but that’s an understatement. It was a huge baked Alaska, mounds of cake and ice cream topped with meringue. It’s delicious, irresistibly sweet.
Anotine’s had even iced the words “Dining With Strangers” on one side and my name “Anthony” on the other, so I had to get a picture with this self-titled pudding.
“Oh no! They spelled your name incorrectly! It’s Ant-knee!” said Mary, laughing. Ever since I first met her, Mary has pronounced my name with a New Orleans drawl. “Just turn it round to the opposite side,” she said to Charles, gesturing for him to hide the side with my name on it. “Bless your heart, darling,” added Mary, cracking herself up with a laugh.
“You know I’m right,” she said in Brobson’s direction.
Brobson nodded. His accent also makes my name sound like “Ant-knee.”
“You’re in love, I can tell,” said Mary, winking at the doctor.
“Definitely,” he replied with a sly grin.
Dr. Lutz was the city’s health director for many years and is now in private practice, specializing in infectious diseases. Given his expertize — he remained in the city helping with medical needs immediately after Katrina — he’s often on local television talking medicine, as well as making appearances on national networks.
“I see you all the time,” said Mary.
Brobson used to a have a dial-in show, though these days it’s all pre-recorded without public interaction. He misses the days when strangers could dial in and ask him questions, and jokes that he still hopes for the day someone asks him, “What should I do about vaginal dryness?”
Mary arched an eyebrow. “What would you tell them?”
Brobson winked. “I’d tell ’em that in Alabama we always said that it’s a fool possum what can’t make its own grease,” he said, making the table erupt in laughter. “I’ve been waiting 35 years for that question but I’ve not had it yet!” he said, wiping a tear of joy from his eye.
Beyond his ongoing work on local television and his time with his private practice, Brobson keeps busy in and around the Quarter. He tends to his beautiful house (it’s where Tennessee Williams used to have an apartment) and his many hobbies, as well as plenty of dining out.
And it’s not just fine dining. Toward the end of our lunch, Brobson, Mary and Buzzy talked about all kinds of New Orleans food and how it’s changed over the years since Katrina, either for the better or for the worse. They even spent several minutes in serious debate over whether the local Café Du Monde (famed for its fried beignet doughnuts) has slipped in quality by slightly reducing the amount of time that it leaves the dough in the grease.
As lunch came to an end, Mary surveyed the now-empty plates. With a grin she looked at us and said, “I don’t think I’m gonna gain a pound, fellas. What do you think?”
Buzzy smiled in response.
Mary then faced me. “You sure know how to throw a party!” she said.
I told her how it was Brobson and his long-time French Quarter connections that had helped us secure the Escargot Room and the fine appetizer orgy. That was enough to have Mary beam with delight and yell, “Thank ya, darling!” to her new-found friend.
And with that, it was time to leave.
On the way out the door, Mary couldn’t resist a last little dance with her napkin. Despite all the pain and suffering she — and thousands of other New Orleanians — have had to deal with in the decade since Katrina, Mary said there’s no choice but to keep dancing forward.
“When we hear that music, we still get that white hanky out our purse,” she said, flapping the cloth around the room and swaying to and fro, imagining the music. “This ain’t the party I hoped for, but I’m while I’m here, I’m gonna wave my hanky and dance till the big daddy in the sky takes my T-Bird away!”