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Tennessee in New Orleans

At the Tennessee Williams festival, a novelist learns to love Catfish on a Hot Tin Pan and Crawfish Kowalski.

I grew up enthralled by Tennessee Williams. My sister and I used to torment our Southern-belle mother by mocking her with lines from The Glass Menagerie; she was as imperious and ill-adapted to modern life as Amanda Wingfield, the mother in the play. Then, as a young gay man coming of age in the repressed 1950s, I picked up all the exciting signals Williams was sending: that men could be sex symbols and sex objects (Chance Wayne, the hustler in Sweet Bird of Youth); that the only sin was deliberate cruelty (Night of the Iguana); and that the only thing an old maid needs in order to find happiness is to get laid (Summer and Smoke). These were messages I took to my impressionable heart during the Eisenhower era.

So last spring, when I took part in the 13th-annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, it was a kind of homecoming. The festival means, as things always do in New Orleans, lots of parties, many well-turned phrases and spicy, sumptuous food. Food? Yes, because many of the leading restaurants in the French Quarter and the Garden District cook up special menus inspired by dialogue and scenes from Tennessee Williams's plays and even by his life.

The festival, held at the end of March, is a friendly gathering that attracts more and more people every year, from academics who teach the history of American theater to young and old fans of the plays and stories. Participants have included Rex Reed (who knew Williams) and Kim Hunter (who originated the role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire). Tennessee's brother Dakin, the only surviving member of his immediate family, is a constant presence, genial in a raspberry-colored designer jacket. If you let him collar you, he'll tell you his hair-raising theory that Tennessee's death was caused not by a swallowed bottle cap but by a dark plot. The festival's events run from seminars on obscure aspects of the playwright's genius to fully staged productions of his plays.

The culinary aspect of the festival is a bit of a surprise. Williams's mother wasn't much of a cook; she was too genteel to know her way around the kitchen. No wonder that when he was a young man living in the Quarter, having finally escaped from home, he wrote his mother back in St. Louis, "The cooking is the best I've encountered," and then added diplomatically, "away from home." Although it was the beginning of 1939 and he was as poor as everyone else in a city that had been especially hard hit by the Depression, he obviously couldn't help responding to New Orleans's unique Creole cuisine.

He lived in a boarding house at 722 Rue Toulouse for 10 dollars a month. Even that low rent was beyond his means, so he gladly accepted work as a waiter in a restaurant started by his landlady, a sharp-tongued termagant named Mrs. Anderson. She had Williams print up cards reading "Meals in the Quarter for a Quarter" and hand them out to passersby on the street. Years later, in one of his last plays, Vieux Carré, Williams recalled that difficult but magical period in his life, especially the night when Mrs. Anderson (renamed Mrs. Wire in the play) cooks up a big pot of aromatic gumbo and feeds her starving boarders, including the tubercular old painter, the two faded Southern belles who share a room and the penniless Writer (Tennessee Williams himself).

That play informed the dinner I had at Upperline Restaurant. To my mind, the Upperline was the best place I tried in New Orleans. A 20-minute streetcar ride out of the Quarter, it's filled with pretty lace curtains, bad art, low lights and the exuberant personality of its owner, JoAnn Clevenger. Despite her small-town Louisiana origins, Clevenger speaks with ringing precision because as a child, in order to overcome a stammer, she imitated the clarion tones and standard American English of Edward R. Murrow on the radio. What she kept that's all her own is her thrilling laugh and a party spirit that seems in tune with New Orleans at its best.

I dined there with Michael Carroll, a young Southern writer attending the conference; Kristina Ford, a New Orleans city planner and the wife of novelist Richard Ford; and Kenneth Holditch, who leads literary tours of the city and helped organize the Williams festival in the mid-1980s. Holditch had provided the Upperline menu with suitable quotations from the Master. The roast duck and andouille gumbo, for instance, came with a bit of dialogue from Mrs. Wire of Vieux Carré: "Why, I knew when I put this gumbo on the stove and lit the fire, it would smoke you ladies out of your locked room. What do you all do in that locked room so much?"

Of course what they do is quietly starve to death--when they're not foraging in the garbage for food. In the same play, when the two ladies, Mary Maude and Miss Carrie, come back from reconnoitering with a greasy paper bag in hand, Mrs. Wire quizzes them cruelly about what they're carrying. Miss Carrie proudly lies: "I had the steak 'Diane' and Mary Maude had the chicken 'bonne femme. 'But our eyes were a little bigger than our stomachs." The passage inspired the Upperline's main course, garlic chicken bonne femme with rosemary jus. For dessert, there was angel food cake, about the only thing Williams's mother knew how to prepare properly. (There's a lurid reference to it in the play Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton: "What would I do if you was angel food cake? Big white piece with lots of nice thick icin'? . . . Gobble, gobble, gobble!")

Another excellent gumbo can be had in a no-frills place called, not surprisingly, the Gumbo Shop, half a block from Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, where the Williams festival is held. I ate with two friends in the big, lively well- lit room decorated with giant murals of soldiers and civilians in 18th-century garb engaged in a military review in nearby Jackson Square. We had three slightly spicy gumbos--duck and oyster, chicken and andouille sausage and seafood-okra. One of my guests, the African-American writer Brian Keith Jackson, who's from the New Orleans region, said that the secret of a good gumbo lies in the roux, which in France may be just a thickener of flour lightly browned in melted butter but in Louisiana is flour thrown on hot lard and cooked until black (but not burned). The Williams menu featured Catfish on a Hot Tin Pan, Chicken Belle Reve and Crawfish Kowalski (Crawfish, Pasta and Polish Sausage in Crude Beer Sauce), named after the ultimate Polish-American working man, Stanley Kowalski, the leading male character in A Streetcar Named Desire. Kowalski figures prominently in the festival. The most popular event, the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest (or the "Stelloff," as it's called locally) is held in the street below the Pontalba Apartments on Jackson Square, near where Williams wrote his most famous play.

As boisterous as Stanley Kowalski but far more civilized, The Palace Café is the kind of raucous but elegant place where locals come for birthdays and anniversaries and one table or another is always bursting into song. It's housed in a turn-of-the-century music store, where people used to buy sheet music and instruments and now come for the award-winning Creole cuisine of Gus Martin. There are pictures of Martin before and after a diet, mammoth and thin; when he came out to chat with us we couldn't help noticing that he was creeping back up to his Before weight. No wonder--everything was so tempting. For his Tennessee Williams menu Martin came up with Oysters in a Glass Menagerie (served in a shot glass with Bloody Mary mix) and Etouffée Vieux Carré (crawfish stewed with peppers, onions, celery and garlic), finishing with Lady Baltimore cake topped with coconut icing and garnished with Southern Comfort truffles. Even the vegetables were exceptional, especially the fried green tomatoes, dredged in corn flour and served in a crawfish-and-ham sauce. The food was superb, but what I liked most (and what pleased the three starving writers I brought along from the festival) was the service, which managed to be both formal and friendly.

As Brian explained, in other American cities people ask "What do you do?" but in New Orleans they ask "What did you eat?" Kenneth Holditch had told me that an even more pressing question is "Who was your waiter?" He recounted the anecdote about the lady from the Quarter who was about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. A man caught her and pulled her back to safety, saying, "Don't you recognize me? I'm your waiter from Antoine's."

After he was rich and successful, Williams often stayed in the Maison de Ville, an elegant hotel on the Rue Toulouse. Today the Maison de Ville has a wonderful restaurant called The Bistro. The chef is Greg Picolo but the life of the place, in true New Orleans style, is the maître d'hôtel, a Belgian named Patrick Van Hoorebeek, who dashes about, joking and working hard, all with a wonderful insouciance. The room is typically French, with mirrors, red leather banquettes, wall sconces, polished floors and wood paneling, a simple setting for marvelous (and rather pricey) food. In the back garden there is outdoor seating near a splashing fountain, half a dozen tables under a tent in case of rain. For the Williams festival, the restaurant had prepared a plate of cold cuts, seafood and pickled vegetables in honor of Stanley Kowalski and a lamb stew with garlic mashed sweet potatoes that was supposed to be an allusion to Small Craft Warnings, the play Williams staged in New York in the early 1970s and even acted in for a while. (Sometimes the connections between dishes and Williams were a little hard to follow.)

At the festival's end, I reflected on how remarkable it was that Williams had inspired so many delightful meals, given his background. Besides being a lousy cook, his mother knew how to make a meal irritating to her poetic son. "Eat leisurely, son, and really enjoy it," Amanda Wingfield, her stand-in from A Glass Menagerie, says. "A well-cooked meal has lots of delicate flavors that have to be held in the mouth for appreciation. So chew your food and give your salivary glands a chance to function!"

Fortunately, oppressed kids and nagging mothers seem delightfully absent from the Quarter, where dour family values were long ago replaced by sybaritic pleasures, adolescent rowdiness and even the promise of old-fashioned French wickedness of the ooh-lah-lah variety. The oyster bars, the steak joints, the gumbo shops, the sultry cafés serving hot beignets and chicory-flavored coffee--at every corner there's another temptation straight out of the steamiest pages penned by Tennessee Williams. New Orleans may be the one city in the United States that is entirely devoted to pleasure, where the work ethic is blissfully missing and where locals prize a good waiter more than a stock market tip.

Edmund White included an essay on Williams in his collection The Burning Library (Vintage). His new novel, The Married Man, will be published by Knopf in June.

Published March 2000
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