Reflections on Thanksgiving -

Cajun style

 

           Slidell, La. - I slid into Slidell about
           dark and rushed to the aptly-named
           Shrimp Box. The restaurant is an unpre-
           tentious box-shaped building with
           seafood painted on its muddy blocks.

           Mine was the only vehicle in the entire
           parking lot, and anywhere alse that fact
           might have given me pause. Usually you
           can judge a restaurant by the number of
           pickups outside. Here in Louisiana, an
           empty lot didn't slow me down one whit.

           These people have so many choices for
           excellent fare, they can't possibly patron-
           ize them all. Not every night.

           You've heard of starving artists; this is
           the land of starving chefs. If this restau-
           rant were in Buckhead, the line would
           be around the block.

           The shrimp was cooked just right. The
           bread was to die for I stared at the poster
           with an alligator on it and a wall of empty
           highchairs and chewed my French loaf.

           I finished that sandwich in record time.
           There's just something about the first meal
           this side of the state line.

           What better place to visit around
           Thanksgiving than Louisiana, home of
           fried turkey and Tums? Many tour the
           Holy Land at Christmas. Why not a
           Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the birth state
           of Justin Wilson?

           Besides, there's a boat in the bayou with
           my name on it. I conveniently cooked up a
           few column ideas in this direction. My plan
           was to make this Thanksgiving a movable
           feast.

           I have cooked my own Thanksgiving
           dinners in the past. Well, OK, have
           helped. I chopped things.

           But the year's most complicated meal is
           really far out of my range; it's like asking
           Boxcar Willie to sing opera.

           A few years back I wised up and decid-
           ed to leave all preparations to the big lea-
           guers. One Thanksgiving I spent in
           Mandeville, the little town across the big
           lake from New Orleans.

           There's not a prettier town on the face
           of the earth. It's also home to the asylum
           where they sent Earl Long when he
           seemed even crazier than usual. Only Earl,
           as governor, fired those in charge and went
           on back to the capital to create a lot more
           mischief.

           Mandeville is a great place to observe
           New Orleans - from a distance. I sat on a
           porch of a restaurant that used to be an
           old house and looked across Lake
           Pontchartrain at the bright lights. I am too
           old for most French Quarter nonsense, but
           New Orleans sure looks good from a porch
           across big water.

           Last year I went one better. For a few
           nights I slept on a shantyboat in the
           Atchafalaya Swamp, enjoying the total
           dark.

           You hear sounds in the swamp and
           never know their source. You really don't
           want to know.

           For Thanksiving dinner I ate an oyster
           po'boy. With cranberry sauce. The next
           night some friends cooked a duck, Cajun-
           style. That means it involved a lot of
           onions, garlic and thyme. It was the best
           thing I've ever tasted. Either that, or I was
           so hungry fried shoe leather would have
           been good.

           Louisiana is smarter than most states
           about self-promotion. This place knows
           what makes it different, and knows that's
           what makes it good.

           I used to get aggravated with Memphis,
           for instance, for billing itself as a trans-
           portation hub. Who cares? It was a won-
           derful city with the blues, barbecue,
           Graceland and the mother of all rivers. So
           how did it advertise itself? As the home of
           Fed Ex. Go figure.

           Louisiana, on the other hand, has fig-
           ured out that people come here to eat.
           Sometimes on major holidays. 


           Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a columnist for the
           Atlanta Journal Constitution and King Features
           Syndicate