This gorgeous woman is my great-aunt Valentina Wilkinson Sanford Duckworth--or as we like to call her, Aunt Rudy. She's 99 and a half, and has spent most of her life in New Orleans. She's pictured here with her boyfriend Joe Minacapelli of Slidell. My grandmother, Frances, was Rudy's youngest sister; they had another sister, Florence, who passed away a number of years ago. Rudy is the oldest and the last surviving, and she recently moved back to the New Orleans area after a long stint in Cleveland, Oklahoma, where she moved to open a needlework business with Frances.
The needlework business was sort of a "retirement project" for the sisters, and they did well with it for about 10 years, but I don't mean to imply that once Rudy left New Orleans for a small town in Oklahoma, her life somehow quieted down. In fact, once she joined up with Frances, Rudy started to travel the world. My grandmother had taught foreign languages in high school, and had become the kind of French teacher who took a group of seniors to Europe each summer. She'd caught an insatiable travel bug, and when the needlework store started taking off, she and Rudy booked passage to Europe, Scandinavia, the U.S.S.R. (it still was, then), China, Australia, Israel, and places in between, with the dual itineraries of heavy-duty sightseeing and textile purchasing. But let me not forget eating--they loved to try the local specialties, no matter how unusual. So when Rudy talks about restaurants, she's speaking with a wealth of experience, from cooking during the Depression to 13-course meals in Moscow--but you can tell that her favorite memories are from times she had in the grand restaurants of New Orleans.
[Rudy and I are hard at work.]
Rudy speaks very fondly of a few times when her sisters, who had both left New Orleans in their early twenties, brought their husbands down to visit and all six of them would go on progressive dinners in the Quarter; they'd start with shrimp remoulade at Arnaud's, then have the main course at Galatoire's, and finish with dessert at Antoine's. Or sometimes Antoine's would come before Galatoire's, but Arnaud's was strictly reserved for the shrimp remoulade. I can't imagine anything more wonderful than that. But Rudy had many complete celebratory meals at Galatoire's, and she goes into great, joyous detail describing the green salad: "They used the perfect amount of dressing...each leaf was lightly coated, and there was never an extra drop of dressing when you got to the bottom of the plate. It was perfect. I don't know how they did it!" Paul and I have been loving the story of the Galatoire's salad for years now--she loves to tell it. So recently, Paul had a birthday, and for his present, he decided he wanted to take Rudy and Joe (and me!) out to lunch at Galatoire's--the kind of gift where giving something to someone else is the best part. And that's what we did.
We had a wonderful time. Galatoire's is one of the great New Orleans restaurants: its menu is classic Creole: everything is a la carte, including sauces; the dress code dictates jackets for men on evenings and Sundays; and none of the waiters are students--they're lifelong professionals. We tried the twice-fried souffleed potatoes that are completely air-filled, just like little blimps, and everyone got the green salad for an appetizer. It was understood that we would all eat the "Rudy" salad for the experience of it, or at least, it was understood in my mind. The dressing had changed since she'd last visited Galatoire's (over 30 years ago), but maybe it'd changed for the better--it was a spunky, extra-garlicky vinaigrette laced with black pepper and Creole mustard. And all there was to the salad was a simple, elegant composition of chilled plate, chilled mixed lettuces, and that garlicky dressing. The waiter topped us each off with a little extra black pepper, and we settled in.
Eating that salad was a meditative experience. We were all silent, which was a welcome reprieve from trying to talk and listen over the clatter of a busy restaurant. The dressing, which seemed so simple at first, kept giving up secrets with each bite: is that tarragon? a little lemon? I know that I, for one, was most intent on getting to the bottom of my salad plate so I could check for "extra dressing"--a kind of salad-eater's white glove test. And you know what? There wasn't any, just as she said; they had coated each leaf perfectly, and no extra dressing remained at the bottom of the plate, save a few stray mustard seeds. When we finished, we all sat back in silence, letting our plates be cleared. The salad was a hit! And I know that Paul and I will talk about it always, just like Rudy.