On a rare and coveted Saturdays when - between errands and work later in the evening - there is time for only one meal in a day that might end sometime within minutes of the next morning I like to scoot for breakfast at the Savoy on Franklin a few blocks from home.
Tangerine Formica-topped tables of various shapes, 6 or 7 types of chair, random groups of photographs showing a more architecturally wealthy Saginaw before old buildings became illogically undesirable, sideboards, coffee urns, massive columns half buried in the wall leading up to an olivey-brown tin ceiling. This is the kind of place that always smells of enough to eat and demands either a chatty table mate or a good book; this morning, I chose the latter.
I ordered my favorite breakfast of solid biscuits (a lot like Aunt Lil’s) napping under thick, peppery sausage gravy, and a couple of eggs on a bed of crisp hash browns all washed down with hot coffee and settled into my current favorite book, “Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place At The New Orleans Table” by Sara Roahen.
Her stories reminded me of frequent-as-we-could-manage trips down to Galveston with my mother – just the two of us – with their packed lunches, bumming along the seawall ducking into shops built on pilings jutting into the Gulf and offering everything from lunch to the shells it might have come from. I remember hours of beachcombing at beaches that have lost most of their tidal pools and personality in the storms since 2005. As siblings and responsibilities made such trips more challenging we were left to remember and grin more than pack and run.
Mostly, though, I think I value the apparent hiding from time these trips represented. Everything about them from the food we packed to the random pebbles we chose to carry with us as we stumbled into the next photo opportunity seemed peppered with a sort of reckless, lucky-to-have-made-it refugee joy.
With my mother there were always photo opportunities that I think might have sprung from few of them in her own childhood combined with a passion to only remember what is good whenever possible. Despite times when that damn camera seemed such an irritation, I have to admit that I now love the pictures and videos and I am aware in myself of a near-genetic need to record everything wonderful before something else crowds in and a bit of happy history – a look, a particular moment of sunlight and leaves, a random thought – is gone forever. My mother chose a camera; I just happen to favor words.
On one our family trips to the coast in 1993 we discovered shrimp Po-Boys at Pier 19 in Galveston; they were a lower-case epiphany. Such simple food with their tiny, melt-in-your-mouth fried shrimp that likely came out of the Gulf that morning, citrusy tartar sauce and a long toasted bun resting in a nest of hand cut fries. That first sandwich satisfied and at the same time spoke of more, always more, because the Gulf would never fail to feed us on one hand while it terrified us on the other.
I realize sometime after that Po-Boy I tended to remember family trips and personal excursions as a series of smells and sounds punctuated with food. Food became the tethering point of memories; start with remembering the meal, and the entire trip could be brought back and loved all over again.
All of this came back as I sat over my plate at the Savoy reading Ms. Roahan’s stories of family cafès, local personalities and the foods that pulled them back into existence in her memories. I found a kindred spirit and a new loved author.
This was a wonderful find since I live in a place far enough north that the storms of 2005 had very little impact and even the recent oil spill in the Gulf is just another news item over which to rail at corporate and governmental failings because it does not involve General Motors and its local impact is not as immediate.
Having grown up much farther south, such news items are so much more personal to me. The storms of 2005 were the beginning of the end of so many things that seemed as though they would go on forever. That year levees broke, whole neighborhoods vanished, casual meeting places like coffee shops and cafès and Galveston’s Strand were drowned and a world was interrupted.
Much like a stroke or heart attack, the longer the interruption lasted, the less life would return afterward. In many cases the interruption has become permanent; things and places and people have died and I still have a catch in my throat for things I remember that will never be the same.
After 2005 and the record storm seasons since many things are gone irrevocably only to be temporarily revived through photographs taken and sentences written. The last item of note I came across regarding Galveston’s Strand was in an architectural preservation journal: Due to the repeated storm waters seeping into the masonry and corroding the cast iron facades of its buildings the Strand is on a short list of immediately endangered districts.
Sometimes – in the present - when I need to go back I cook dishes like gumbo that includes okra and file powder because I love them both, but with no seafood because it scares my neighbors. I cook, and I read and remember over quiet breakfasts.