Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Aunt Alice's Oyster Dressing

A coffee table book entitled Christmas in New Orleans is able to take me back to the city of my childhood. I made the purchase in 2009, and each year the book does what I had hoped it would. Turning the pages, I enjoy photographs of the December shop windows on Canal Street and the lights outlining the front porches of homes on St Charles Avenue.

If my parents were still alive, they would enjoy the book just as much. They would see holiday images from the 1920s and 1930s. They would recognize the names of streetcars and bakeries. Reproductions of advertisements that New Orleans department stores ran in the morning and evening newspapers would remind them how much gifts used to cost.

I like to recall the look of Christmas in the 1950s and 1960s. My brother in New Orleans made sure I received some of the now yellowed Christmas cards that my grandparents used to send my mother and father over the years. Family photo albums show the aluminum tree that Aunt Thelma displayed in front of floor-to-ceiling drapes in her living room. In another photo I am sitting with my Aunt Alice on the sofa an hour before Christmas dinner; her oyster dressing, made with three meats, was a yearly favorite.

Today I tried to use Google Maps to get a peek at the neighborhood where my brother and his partner had lived when I was in my twenties and thirties. What two men did to their home to reflect a more urban Christmas had fascinated me. I was taking lessons in how much of family Christmas I might want to maintain (my brother had secured the recipe for the oyster dressing) and how free I could be to cultivate something distinctively my own.

What Google Maps showed me was a neighborhood with one old New Orleans house after another, each freshly painted, each tiny yard neatly landscaped. Back in the 1970s my urban pioneer brother and companion had had to create a spot of racy Christmas cheer alongside neighbors who could not all afford that look. What showed up today on Google Maps, though, was post-Katrina New Orleans.

It was not a New Orleans I would have immediately recognized from the 1970s and 1980s. What my brother and his partner were doing each Christmas that I visited during those years, however, was not anything that Katrina could destroy. What I was doing each of those Christmases was just as lasting, just as important. We all of us had taken the New Orleans of our younger years and braved a future for which there was no blueprint.

Each Christmas like that is breathtaking; each deep pot of oyster dressing, a treat.

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