Above, how I spent the hours between noon and 3pm: with friends at the legendary Friday lunch at Galatoire’s. That’s Prof. Patrick Deneen on the far right, and, between him and me, Pat’s friend Brad, who was in New Orleans for the first time. Our host, Ken Bickford (who blinked at just the wrong moment, alas), resolved to give Brad the true New Orleans experience, and boy, did he succeed.
I had never before been to Galatoire’s. We showed up at noon, and got what looked like the last table in the joint. It was startlingly loud in the place, with the sound of happy people drinking and eating and enjoying their lives. Immediately the tuxedoed waiter came to take our cocktail orders. It’s Friday in New Orleans — have a Sazerac. Or three.
I did not, but only because in my old age, I have developed a tragic allergy to bourbon. Well, that, and because I knew I’d have to drive later. But boy, was the room ever lively. Everybody knows Ken, and Ken knows everybody. An old New Orleans politician who was tight with Jim Garrison, Clay Shaw, and the whole mysterious JFK gang, was there with his girlfriend. He stopped by the table to greet Ken and the rest of us, and it was like someone stepped out of the pages of A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana. A couple of people (one of them being our host) stood to lead the entire restaurant in toasts. A bachelorette party swanned in, and half the restaurant applauded for them. People drifted from table to table; a woman of a certain age who might have had more than one Sazerac, clad in green (but not enough to cover her stunning gams — and yeah, she was the sort of dame who has gams), arrived at our table bearing goodwill and green-and-white carnations. She gave each of us one. Another woman, perhaps also a Sazerac aficionado, dropped by to tell one of us — I won’t say which one, to protect him from his wife — that “our friend over at our table needs a man, and you are that man.” He got up and walked over to say hello, and to comfort the needy.
So, yeah. New Orleans. Galatoire’s. Friday lunch.
At one point, Ken turned to our burly Irish waiter, whose existence answers the question, “What would a refrigerator look like in a tuxedo?”, and said, “Bring us a blow job.” The man nodded then returned a few minutes later bearing a fried potato dish that’s a house signature. So now you know what Galatoire’s insiders call it.
I am not a Galatoire’s insider, and did not realize that it’s perfectly normal to get to two o’clock without having ordered the meal. I picked the exactly wrong moment — when Ken was away from our table — to say to the waiter, “Could we see the menu?”
He looked at me sternly, and I knew I had just made a major faux pas. A minute later, out came the menus. When Ken returned to the table, he told me that you don’t ask for menus here. When you’re ready to eat, you ask the waiter what kind of fish they got today (I’m paraphrasing), and he tells you. Then you tell him what you want to order (it doesn’t have to be fish). This is how the Friday lunch liturgy goes.
The refrigerator returned. Said Ken to him, “What kind of fish you got today?” (or something to that effect).
The fridge rattled off five different kinds. And then we ordered. I’m not sure that anybody ordered fish. I know that nobody ordered off the menu.
That was the moment I fell in love with Galatoire’s: when the waiter gave me the stink-eye for asking for a menu after having sat there for two hours marinating in all the New Orleanishness of the place. I deserved that stink-eye, and upon learning why I had received it, was tickled by the eccentricity of this place.
At one point in this pageant, I leaned over to Prof. Deneen and said, “You’re not in America anymore.” I think he agreed, though who can say? It was loud in there.
I had to cut out at three, but my friends weren’t nearly finished. That lunch matched my personal record of a three-hour feast in Paris with PEG, though to be fair, in Paris, we were eating the entire time. Somebody asked Ken, “What’s the longest lunch you’ve ever had here?”
“That time we didn’t order food till seven o’clock,” he said. I’m pretty sure he was serious.
After a hot round of lightbulb jokes (“How many Kennedys does it take to change a lightbulb? Three: one to whole the bulb, and two to drink until the room is spinning”), I had to make my excuses and leave. Disappointingly undrunk, I found my car and drove it over to Magazine Street to meet Alan Cross, a faithful reader of this blog, for coffee. Alan and I have corresponded, but we have never met. I found a parking spot near the coffee shop, and tried to parallel park. I was driving my wife’s Ford SUV, which, I discovered, requires using the rear camera to parallel park. Ugh. I was trying to figure out how to make this work when I spotted a brown UPS truck barreling towards me from behind. I pulled backwards into the spot, listening to the whee-whee-whee of the parking sensor. I thought maybe it was for the car behind me, or for the branches of the crape myrtle tree swishing harmlessly against the top of the SUV.
Nope. I felt something a bit firmer than that on the sidewalk side of the SUV. When the UPS truck passed by, I pulled out and eased more slowly into the spot. When I got out and stepped to the sidewalk, I saw the awful truth: there was a sizable dent in the door, from where the crape myrtle attacked.
Oh, hell’s bells. My wife’s car. There is no way she will ever believe that I wasn’t blotto after a three-hour lunch with Ken Bickford. Fortunately, Alan Cross, an actual Southern Baptist pastor, can testify that I was not impaired. We had a great two-hour talk, and I wish it could have been longer. Toward the end, I got a text from Julie back home in the country, asking me where the keys to my Honda were. She needed it to drive her and the kids to church for the liturgy.
Did you check my jeans pocket? I texted. Yep. After a couple more texts, I stepped outside and phoned her.
We went through every place the keys could possibly be. Nothing. She finally said, “You couldn’t possibly have them in your pocket, could you?”
“No, that’s ridiculous,” I said, sticking my right hand into my jacket pocket on the off chance that the keys were there.
The keys were there.
I told her. And I told her about the nice dent in her SUV.
Shortly thereafter, I considered whether or not it would be worth going home, or whether I should instead drive on to Grand Isle, and sit there drinking beer until the police came to get me.
Believe it or not, I made it home, and did not get murdered, or even sent to the doghouse.
Still, it was a pretty great spring day here in Louisiana. You should come see us sometime.