Today I accomplished an amazing feat. I managed to use the word “y’all” five times in one sentence without even trying.
“Hey y’all, if y’all wanna bring y’all tickets to the register I’ll get y’all yall’s drinks.”
No, no, please, stop applauding. I have already congratulated myself enough. I never knew I talked like a New Orleanian until I left New Orleans.
I also didn’t know I ate like one until I moved here.
I just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, a memoir of the conception, gestation, incubation, and coddling of her love affair with food. I love reading foodie memoirs. I like to think of myself as a foodie, but really I’m only trying to justify the money I spend in fancy restaurants. Sure, I can speak half-intelligently about food preparation and presentation, and I certainly know by now what I like and dislike. I’ll put just about any weird concoction in my mouth, from goat wontons to ramen noodle sandwiches.
But the reason for this letter is that I wanted to tell you about the time I met Emeril Lagasse when I was fifteen. I was working in a frou-frou grocery store in New Orleans where we invited celebrity chefs to do a live in-house cooking demonstration once a month, right there next to the deli counter. And when I say “celebrity chefs,” I’m talking about “that guy who runs the hundred-year-old po-boy shop down on Canal,” or “that Joisey lady who started cooking at Brennan’s a month ago.” They were celebrities to us New Orleans folk, not to the rest of world.
So when it was announced that Emeril Lagasse was coming to prepare food for us, we were pretty excited. I was chosen as the plebian ambassador who would greet Mr. Lagasse and help him set up his table and ingredients. This was presumably due to the fact that I was immune to being star-struck; John Goodman was a regular at the store and always chose my line because I was the only employee who had not asked about Roseanne’s off-camera antics.
When Emeril arrived, I pretended not to know who he was, a difficult feat thanks to the chorus of “BAMs” being offered by the line of pubescent cashiers behind me. We set up his table and his little Bunsen Burners, and he immediately dredged a few bits of raw meat in some flour and began frying them, saying he wanted me to be his taste tester before the big show.
He plated four little meat/things, drizzled some sauce on them and presented them to me with a flourish. I popped one in my mouth and he giggled. I ignored this. The meat/things were good—tender, melty, buttery. I ate all of them, chewed thoughtfully, thanked him for the private snack.
“What was it?” I asked him.
Mr. Lagasse erupted into laughter, bent down until his face was level with mine, and said in that celebrated New England accent of his, and loud enough for even my manager upstairs to hear, “LIITLE GOIL! YOU JUST ATE BAAWWLS!!!”
Balls. I had eaten balls. Testicles. But you know, I didn’t really want to give him or the customers who had stopped to watch any satisfaction. So I just stared at him and shrugged. It threw him quite a bit. His placed his hand on my shoulder.
“BAWLS. You ATE dem. Jus now. BAWLZZZ.”
I didn’t flinch. This was fun. “But they tasted good, man. Who cares if they came from scrotums?”
He studied my indifferent face for a minute while his own fell in disappointment. I felt a little bad for him. I wished I could be more easily grossed out, as squeamish as a real fifteen-year-old girl. But I couldn’t.
His crestfallen expression soon transformed into a smile of mild respect, however. He liked me. He invited me to be his sous chef for the day, working alongside him and the deli case at our paper-covered table.
As we were getting everything ready to begin our cooking for the public, I whispered to him, “Are you gonna tell everybody what they’re eating before they eat it?”
And he stage-whispered back to me, “Yeah dawl. I’mona tell ’em dey eatin’ shrimp etouffee, cause dat’s what we cookin’. We ain’t feeding dese people no bawlz!”
And as we set to work, him cooking and me handing plates of etoufee to rich fucks and trying our best to ignore each random, apropos-of-nothing “Kick it up a notch,” I found myself strangely flattered that Emeril Lagasse had cooked bawlz for me and me only. Gee.
Feel da love,