Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Monday, October 23, 2006

Food Porn

My good buddy Steve Bagnell dropped a comment here recently suggesting that I write about food, and since I’m sitting here in my office at Tulane, hungry, waiting for my wife to come pick me up for dinner, now seems like a good time to get to it. Nothing like writing about food while your stomach growls.

Most people, when they think about New Orleans, think about food right after they think about jazz. They might know the names and reputations of some of the premiere spots, like Antoine’s, or Galatoire’s, or the recently re-opened Commander’s Palace. If they’re hard core foodies they might even be familiar with some of the more esoteric, offbeat places like Gautreau’s or Marasol’s. Or maybe they just know about the high profile tourist joints like Emeril’s or K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.

Every one of these places serves killer food, and has it’s own distinctive culinary groove going. The old school establishments like Antoine’s (which only recently broke with tradition by printing a menu in English) serve classic Creole food, with a heavy French influence reflected in buttery cooking treatments and creamy, wine-heavy sauces. Lots of fresh sea-food, as one would expect in a Gulf Coast city. The Marisol crowd tends more towards exotic, fusion fare, with arty presentations and small portions (which pretty much guarantees you’ll never see customers from south of a $50,000 a year income). K-Paul’s serves up all the famous “Cajun” food (which is really a rural Louisiana thing and has squat to do with New Orleans), the jambalayas and the gumbos. His blackened redfish is actually his own invention, and never caught on out in the Acadian parishes. Real Cajuns don’t burn they food, cher.

This is all first rate grub, and, the fusion stuff aside, prominently features the artery clogging ingredients and deep, rich, complex tastes that are the signatures of Louisiana cuisine, both rural and urban. But this doesn’t really explain the special place food holds in New Orleans culture. Lots of cities have good restaurants, but they tend to service a fairly narrow demographic of either hard core food-trendies or wealthy big-shots looking to be seen in prestigious places, or, in the case of places like New York City, both. In New Orleans everybody, and I do mean everybody, talks about food. Argues about it, compares specific dishes at specific restaurants, insists they know an obscure bakery that makes the best King Cakes ( a cake baked specifically during carnival season, and worthy of a column all it’s own) and debates whether French (butter) or Cajun (animal fat) roux’s are superior. It’s a cliché but it’s also true; here, people really do sit at lunch discussing where they’re going to have dinner.

Like New Orleans culture in general, New Orleans cuisine does not exist in isolation. If, as Ezra Pound tells us, “music begins to atrophy once it departs too far from dance,” then in New Orleans dance begins to atrophy when it departs too far from food.Snug Harbor, the city’s premier straight-ahead jazz room has it’s own restaurant (reached through a connecting door) not because of some arcane liquor law restriction (Vancouver suffers terribly with this kind of nonsense) but because people like to eat when they dance. And, as I’ve said here before, people in New Orleans will dance to anything, including be-bop. Snug does not boast a dance floor, but when Nicholas Peyton gets that Sonic Trance grooving, people have been known to cut a rug in the aisles.

The ritualistic nature of food here is embodied in the numerous calendar-based traditions, both old and new, for serving local dishes. Two hundred years ago, people ate rice and beans on Mondays because fishermen took Sundays off ( fish continues to be popular on Fridays, no surprise in a town with a large Catholic populace) and Monday was washday. Rice and beans (with a hunk of smoked sausage or ham hock thrown in) was a convenient, fish-less dish that could be left simmering on the stove while the washing was attended to. Today, Thurdays is observed by some as Barbecue night, because that’s the night trumpeter Kermit Ruffins holds forth at Vaughn’s Lounge down in the Upper Ninth. It has been Kermit’s longstanding practice, when the spirit moves him, to load his barbecue rig onto the back of his pickup truck and cook up a mess of sausage links, or baby back ribs, for the patrons at his gigs.

It’s these kinds of obscure, neighborhood based rituals that animate the grass roots (as opposed to the International Gourmet) food scene in New Orleans. The big names make great food, but eating there regularly will be tough on your BR. The small Mom and Pop joints back up in the neighborhoods are affordable alternatives to cooking at home.

It would take forever to list all the little places I’ve eaten at since moving here that serve excellent food at fire sale prices. Some didn’t survive the storm and subsequent flood. Sid-Mar’s up by the lake (if you’ve seen the film The Big Easy, the Cajun dance scene at Dennis Quad’s character’s mother’s house takes place in Sid-Mar’s yard) looks to be gone for good. I’ll never forget going there for crab a few years ago with my wife Darlene and our friends Dan and Maryanne Fuselier. As we rolled up, Maryanne (who’s a bit of a pistol) yelled out “Ya got crabs?” and when the owner replied that she did, shouted “well, keep it to yourself!”

Dunbar’s old location on Freret appears to be kaput, but I hear Patti Dunbar and company are re-opening in Loyola University’s Broadway campus. Good news, but I’ll miss the old joint. Ghetto food tastes best in a ghetto neighborhood. Patti used to refer to me as “the stomach that walks like a man” because I routinely polished off two orders of rice and beans with sausage. As often as not, she wouldn’t charge me for the second order (which was only $5.99 anyway). I came up with what I thought was a brilliant scheme to have her run for president, with Mother-In-Law Lounge owner and widow of R&B great Ernie K.Do , Antoinette Kador, in the VP slot (Dunbar and Kador in 04). Neither of them were up for it, but just think how much better shape the country would be in (not physically of course. We’d all be fat as hogs) with these fine ladies in office.

Mandina’s on Canal is still closed, but they’re clearly busy in there, working away, and a large banner out front proclaims that they’re “Re-opening Soon.” Luizza’s in mid-city took 8 feet of water and one of their staff drowned, but they’ve been re-opened since May. The new menu has a picture of the place when it was flooded, and the brand new juke box has replaced all the old vinyl 45s with CDs. Still the same selection though. Lots of Sinatra, Meters, B.B. King, Perry Como, Louis Armstrong, Neville Brothers, Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime,” Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief,” Louie Prima, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson…in other words, a typical New Orleans neighborhood joint jukebox.

There’s actually two Liuzza’s. The one I’ve just described, on Telemachus at Bienville, and “Liuzza’s By The Track” out near the racetrack and fairgrounds. I haven’t been to the Track location since Katrina, but Darlene and I hit the one on Telemachus about every two weeks (on alternate weeks, we go to Rocky’s Pizza on Magazine). I’d recommend the pan-fried catfish with coleslaw, and a wop salad (New Orleans is absolutely not ‘politically correct’). Throw in a frosty schooner of beer and a side of garlic bread, and you’ll still get change back from your twenty.

Lately, when Darlene and I hit Rocky’s for their beautiful, thin-crust pizza ( I like the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Hot sausage, green chilies, lots of extra cheese) we’ve been finishing off with desert at Sophie’s Ice Cream Parlor, further down Magazine (I think the cross street is St. Andrew, but don’t hold me to it). There’s a lot more sno-ball places (like Hansen’s on Tchuopitoulas, in business since 1939) in New Orleans than ice cream parlors. Sno-balls are like slushies, only instead of crushed ice the ice is shaved in special machines so it actually is the consistency of snow. Then they pour different flavored syrups on it.

Sophie’s is one of the few ice cream places in town, along with the recently re-opened Brocata’s, on Carrollton. Brocata’s also does cakes and Italian cookies, and Italian Cream Sodas. Not the crap “cream soda” that’s sold as soda pop, but real Italian Cream Soda, made with Seltzer, cream, and flavored syrups of various kinds (my favorite is hazelnut). The re-opening of Brocata’s was such a big deal that there was a street festival to mark the occasion, complete with a band. It was local hero Benny Grunch (and the Bunch). When we got there, he was working through the Eddie Bo classic “Tell It Like It Is.” Not the Aaron Neville hit. This is a different tune:

“Don’t try to shuck me, I’m not the shuckin kind,

Just tell me baby, what is on your mind,

Aw, tell it like it is, now….”

When we left, he was doing his own composition, “Santa And His Reindeer Used To Live Right Here.”

It’s sort of a “Christmas Rap.” You really have to hear it.

There’s tons of these little places all over town, each with a fiercely loyal clientele. There are no ‘star chefs’ in these places, no ‘kitchen staff.’ They are just little Mom and Pop joints that, in any other town, would probably serve food that is mediocre at best. Not here though. It’s a point of pride here to make food that tastes good; I don’t think a New Orleanian would even understand the concept of fueling up on blah, doughy, greasy food so you can just stuff your pie-hole and get on with your day. I’m convinced that is one of the reasons why, even though people here eat a lot of fat, there are surprisingly few fat people. Certainly compared to the rest of the south, where it’s not unusual to see dozens of people every day who could pass for circus freaks, or children of nine or ten who can’t climb four flights of stairs. I think New Orleans is kind of like Europe in this way. Europeans eat all kinds of fats and creams, yet they are rarely fat. I think it’s the fresh ingredients, and the quality of the food, that leads people to eat more slowly and stuff themselves less, the better to appreciate it.

The true mid-city (our new neighborhood) troika will not be complete, though, until Willie Mae’s Scotch House is open again. Then we can do Willie Mae’s for lunch, Liuzza’s for dinner, and Brocata’s for desert, all within a mile of each other.

Up until about six months before Katrina, Willie Mae’s was known to very few people outside the predominantly African American Treme neighborhood. It was a tiny little six table place, a block from the Lafitte Housing Projects, that looked more like a corner store than a restaurant. Willie Mae herself, at age eighty-eight, still did all the cooking, and her great grand-daughter waited tables. When, about two years ago, the Times-Picayune did an article on the place, Willie Mae consented on the condition that they print neither the address nor the phone number of her establishment.

Then, in the winter of ’05, some blabbermouth let the cat out of the bag, and Willie Mae was flown to New York to receive the prestigious James Beard Award. Suddenly the place was added to the Out Of Town Food Hipster Must Visit list, and it became increasingly difficult for us regular Joes to get a table.(It still cracks me up to think of a bunch of New York Foodies climbing out of a taxi in Willie Mae’s ghetto neighborhood, like visitors from mars). Katrina flooded the place to the rafters.

But I drive by there almost every day on my way to Tulane, and it looks like they’re getting close to finished on the reno and repair. If you come to visit, I’ll take you there for fried chicken that will absolutely knock your socks off.

But I’m not giving you the address.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

When the Levee Broke...

If you have an opportunity to see this Spike Lee documentary, I strongly urge you to do so. It is, by far, the only thing I've seen so far that gives a real, comprehensive over-view of what has happened here, and at least a partial sense of what it was like for those of us who lived through it and continue to deal with it, every day.

This, on the other hand, is a good example of why I avoid television news.

People get shot in New Orleans all the time, but the only shootings the media gives a damn about involve tourists.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

But Beautiful...

It occurred to me the other day that this column must come across as a real bummer sometimes. I rattle on about death and destruction and loss and what a sackful of bastards the Bush administration are, and people must wonder why I stay in this horrible place. It was like that even pre-Katrina. I remember talking to a guy up in Vancouver a couple of years ago, and describing the crime and violence and corruption and heat and humidity and the broken school system (the only things they consistently taught to excellence were sports and band) and he said something to the effect that it sounded like hell on earth. I said no man, it’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful place to live. And he gave me one of those looks, like I needed medicating or something.

People who love New Orleans tend to really, really love it. Few cities inspire this kind of devotion, New York, Paris, Rome…the list isn’t much longer than that. I’ve lived in a few different places, some by choice, others for more mundane or utilitarian reasons. I even thought I ‘loved’ living in one or two of them. But that wasn’t real love, not the irrational, obsessive, dysfunctional, sometimes even destructive love I feel for this place. This is some kind of municipal-level erotomania here, with a heaping side-helping of sentimentality. New Orleanians are hard core. No drearily sane human being would have put up with this place even the way it was before. But if all you want is clean streets and good government, there’s always Kansas. This is the kind of place that inspires people to emotional excess. I did a phoner interview on August 29th (the Katrina anniversary) for CBC Radio Canada and actually choked up on-air. It was embarrassing.

The history and culture here are not abstract things in books, but a living reality lived by us all, everyday. The summed total of many small things, oblique encounters, experiences and events, make it a place I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave.

Here are some of them, in no particular order:


No, I’m not talking about prim little Dana Carvey church ladies. I’m talking substantial, African-American church ladies in their best Sunday dress and hat. I’m talking Sister Big Bone, bruh. When we lived in the 13th ward they used to gather every Sunday around the corner from our house at the Springhill Missionary Baptist Church, an unassuming little cinder block place that would have been easy to mistake for an auto parts warehouse if not for the sign, and the crowd of sharp-dressed black folks going in and out.

In our new 6th ward ‘hood the nearest church is St. Peter Clavier a few blocks down St. Anne. Black Catholics in New Orleans can be just as flamboyant as Ebenezer Baptists or African Methodist Episcopalians or even some of the Holiness churches, but St. Peter is far enough away so I haven’t had occasion to pass by on a Sunday morning yet. But a couple of Sundays ago, Darlene and I were driving on South Claiborne when we noticed a young black woman in a Nissan Sentra pulled up next to us at a stop light. Her windows were up so we could barely hear the music, but she must have had the WYLD Sunday morning gospel show on, because she was clapping her hands and grooving, making the whole car shake. When she saw us looking she waved and smiled, and drove off throwing her hand up in the air, index finger forward, the sign to “move on up a little higher.”


A lot has been written about the barbershop’s role as unifier and community conduit and I’m not going to go over that again here, except to point out what may not be obvious to white folks, which is that black people cut their hair a lot. Once a week is about average. It just would not do to hit the street with one’s fade looking ratty. Katrina flooded out many barbershops and I remember last winter a lot of barbers setting up under tents on the berms of abandoned or ruined gas stations up and down South Claiborne Avenue. But lately I’ve been seeing crowds in front of actual four-walls-and-a-roof barbershops again, including the other Saturday morning at an establishment in Gert-town called the New Directions. Four chairs, and there must have been at least eight customers waiting on each one, including many fathers with their sons. I have a soft spot for this last because I remember my own father taking me to the barber shop when I was little. It was my introduction to the world of men, and I responded, as did the little wigglers at the New Directions, by behaving as the men did, speaking gravely of manly concerns and engaging in teasing banter. This sort of bonding with adults seems to be disappearing in the world, where young people often seem to exist in a world devoid of adults, a kind of Planet Teen where anyone even a few years older is regarded as hopelessly out of it and not worthy of respect. In New Orleans, where pre-Katrina it sometimes seemed we were losing a whole generation of young black men to drugs and the street, seeing young boys and their fathers at the barbershop seems like grounds for cautious optimism.


New Orleans is justifiably famous for grand architecture, and rightly so. The stuff you’re likely to see here as a tourist falls into roughly two categories; French Quarter Eclectic and Garden District Victorian. The French Quarter stuff dates from the 18th century and is actually Spanish (the original French settlement having burned to the ground), the Garden District was developed after the Louisiana purchase of 1803, and reflects wealthy Americans obsession with creating their own versions of English manor houses. The French Quarter looks remarkably European, with the dormer windows, gallery-covered sidewalks and ornate ironwork that most people associate with New Orleans. The Garden District is where you find the antebellum mansions, the “old south” stuff. The streetcar ride up St. Charles Avenue gets pretty Gone With The Wind. If you were to get off the streetcar and walk towards the lake though, you’d see the Potemkin Village aspect of New Orleans, with grand mansions facing the tourist boulevard and desperate slums a few blocks back. Even those slums have magnificent architecture though. Because they were built before the advent of air conditioning, the houses have high ceilings, and generous porches and galleries. Because houses were taxed by the amount of street frontage, you’ll often encounter modest, narrow facades that expand back and back in all kinds of innovative and weird ways, with extra rooms and camel-back additions added on higgledy piggledy. Because there’s not a lot of money around, over the years people tend to add on to existing structures rather than demolish them and build bigger. It’s been said here that ‘poverty is the best architectural preservative.’


There is nothing, I mean nothing, like going about your day and suddenly hearing the spangle of a trumpet, the thud of a drum, and you realize it’s a parade and you run out of your house or park your car and follow it for, you know…a long ways, and then suddenly realize you were supposed to be somewhere twenty minutes ago, and you go to your appointment and explain you got held up by a parade or a funeral, and they totally understand.


The prevailing vibe in New Orleans is always Thank You. Thank you for this blessed day. Thank you for waking me up this morning.. Thank you for my friends and family. I’ve had people who own nothing, not even a car, and who work like dogs at the most menial, low jobs, tell me they are blessed. And they say that if you give a blessing, you will receive one in return. So here, in no particular order, are some people I’d like to thank, some of whom don’t even know me, or know me only as a face on the street. Thank you and bless you all.

The wino I see everyday outside the jail at Tulane and Broad, who yesterday started dancing and singing along to Al Green’s version of “Never Found Me A Girl” as it played on my car radio.

Melvin, Spug and Zelda for starting up the domino game on Palmyra street again. Welcome back, boo.

Second Chief Rob, of the Golden Arrows Mardi Gras Indian gang.

Harry “SwampThing” Cook of the Hot Eight brass band.

My old neighbors in the 13th ward, Miss Louise, Mister Parker, and the Poplion family (Therron, Elenore, Christina, and Little T).

My new neighbors in the 6th ward. I look forward to getting to know all of you.

My wife Darlene, most of all. I love you today, and every day.

Tulane University, for letting me run with it.

Frederick Sanders, John Dobry, Jim Markway and Kevin O’Day, for being great players and even greater friends.

God bless us and keep us all, through another hurricane season.