I brought the recipe for black bean
casserole back with me from New Orleans just three
months after my dog Noodles died and a couple of weeks
before Katrina smashed into the city. I had looked in my
journal and found that I hadn't visited my sister Sally
there in four years, and so I called and told her I was
Now, to me, New Orleans is a city of food as much as it
is a city of jazz. The young Louisianan in the plane
seat next to me said, "Ya'll lookin' forward to gettin'
back home?" He was speaking to the people across from us
as he and I had got odd, aft-facing seats and were
flying backwards with no choice but to stare at these
people as we flew and, of course, them at us.
They told him that they were.
"I just want to get some gumbo," he went on.
"Okra is what makes gumbo gumbo, isn't it?" I asked him,
for I'd heard that this was so but wasn't really sure
and felt I had been afforded here the opportunity find
out at last. I knew my niece loved the stuff.
"I don't know what's in it," he said with a smile. "I
just like it."
Sally lived in Lakeview, a fairly nice, middle class
neighborhood. She had a small house there, which she
loved, with a decent back yard, and she lived alone, two
of her kids being successfully employed and the other,
my niece, away at college.
Now, I was born in the south, and I feel even today that
my life really began when we moved west in 1958 to the
clean, unspoiled desert of Arizona. So I didn't used to
like the fact that my sister and my niece and nephews
lived in New Orleans. The city was rife with crime and
corruption and despite its culture and rusticity was
rather unattractive. The place seemed to have a dreary,
hosed-out appearance and what's more, there didn't
appear to be an easy escape from it. A fishing trip I
took once out on the nearby ocean convinced me that the
color "battleship gray" had been invented on the Gulf
Coast, and I found that dredging around with an
oversized hook in those shallow, oily waters for "reds"
was marginally fun as a one-time thing, but not much
more. And I wouldn't eat one of those icky fishes if you
I remember once watching a bunch of workmen trying to
direct traffic in New Orleans, and I said to my nephew,
"Those idiots are directing cars into each other.
Someone's gonna crash. You ought to call the cops."
"They wouldn't come," he told me.
My other nephew, a jazz guitarist, came home late one
night from a gig, and a drunk ran a red light and
totaled the family car. By the time the cops arrived on
the scene, the driver was cold sober.
But it is not just the establishment that has a lawless
quality; it is the mindset of the people as well. A high
school graduation ceremonies note sent home to my sister
read, "A limited amount of beer will be served to the
There's truly a different culture in New Orleans from
anywhere else I've been in America, and as I said, I
didn't used to like the idea of their living there. I
began to change my mind, however, when I saw the
convenience of my sister's neighborhood. The
veterinarian was two houses down, next to which was an
Irish pub named Parlay's, which was next to a coffee
house, which was next to the bank, which was next to the
hair cutter's. The supermarket was right across the
street. She had endless little pubs within easy striking
distance and there was live music in them half of the
time. The beer you get in a local saloon in Arizona is
what my irreverent sister refers to as "panther piss,"
but New Orleans has its own signature brew called Abita,
and it comes in several styles, one of which is a
wonderfully hoppy concoction that is a joy to drink.
Such local flavor is missing where I live. There are
good brew houses in places like Phoenix, but their
offerings are not available in every single pub and
restaurant in the city, and po'boy sandwiches stuffed
full of shrimp or oysters are not standard fare either,
so despite their Mexican restaurants, cities like
Phoenix still seem to lack a culinary identity.
Sally didn't go into Parlay's because the joint seemed
too rough for her, and in fact about a week before I
flew down, somebody stabbed a fellow patron in there and
the poor man crawled out and died on "the neutral
ground," which is what New Orleaneans call the grassy
area that separates the two lanes of any divided
roadway. I went in and had a beer, but the pub was no
good at all to Sally; I didn't say her neighborhood was
perfect -- just convenient.
As for my nieces and nephews, it didn't do them any harm
to have grown up playing music in the funky coffee
houses and bars that one finds everywhere in New
Orleans, and the awful Louisianan public schools were a
blessing in disguise: it was a foregone conclusion that
they would be sent instead to excellent private ones,
where all three of them turned into rocket scientists,
one going on to Yale, one to the prestigious North Texas
University, and one to Oberlin with a nice scholarship
just because they liked the way she sang.
On this visit, I went down to the French Quarter to
watch my nephew, Davy, play one of his last gigs in the
popular band "the Hot Club of New Orleans." Davy had
just got married to a Brazilian girl named Angela, and
they lived in his house with their little dog, Linda. I
was given the dog to hold in the bar because Angela had
to work, and they didn't like to leave the dog in the
Linda yapped nearly constantly through the show, and I
got some sideways glances from the tourists and locals
at the bar. I kept saying, "It's the guitar player's
dog!" But I don't think anyone heard. Linda, however,
wasn't the only distraction. Her barking was drowned out
by a Dixieland jazz band that stormed into the bar, bass
drum pounding in the lead and trombones and trumpets
blaring out "When the Saints Come Marching In" at the
decibel level of a major earthquake. Davy and the other
"Hot Club" musicians just kept playing, and when the
marching band left, someone said, "Take it home, babe,"
and they closed their song as if nothing had happened.
John Coleman, the fiftyish clarinet player, got the
microphone and said, "We'll be taking a ten-minute
break, ladies and gentlemen. In the meantime, I suggest
you sample some of the top shelf liquor in this fine
establishment. Crystal will be your bartender. She has
the heaviest pour on Frenchman Street, and I know you'll
appreciate that when she makes one of those top dollar
call drinks taste positively affordable."
Coleman would know. He was a notorious lush. But that
wasn't going to get him fired. These jazz bands never
work the crowd. Showmanship would be considered gauche
in such a venue, and so the rummy clarinet player could
sit in his chair completely toasted and sleep while the
rest of the band played. When it was time for him to
solo, he'd stir, come awake, pick up that licorice
stick, and blow it like nothing you ever heard. Drunk or
sober, he was simply fabulous.
Now for a year or so, I had been watching Rachel Ray's
show "Forty Dollars a Day" in which she is given 40
bucks and visits an interesting city to see how well she
can eat on that much money. Well, it just so happened
that one of the shows was filmed in New Orleans, and I
watched it and had my sister take me to the place where
Rachel had eaten something called a muffeletta. A
muffeletta is a very large, round salami sandwich with
home baked bread and an oil and vinegar, chopped olive
dressing. The thing is huge and, therefore, somewhat
pricy, and while Rachel had been able to cut a deal with
them for the sake of the show and get them to serve her
a half a muffeletta at half the price, they insisted
that I purchase a whole one. I asked them if I was
getting the same sandwich that Rachel Ray bought, and
they said rather proudly, "Yes, sir you are."
I bought a beer and was advised by the restaurant that
if I wanted to drink it on the street, I had to put it
in a brown paper bag, this in order to pull the wool
over the eyes of the naive New Orleans police, I
supposed. I went out and chomped on the sandwich and
drank the beer on the same cement steps by the
Mississippi where Rachel had eaten on the TV show. I
couldn't finish the muffeletta and winded up lugging it
around with me for a few days before it was all gone,
and in the end I must admit that I was rather glad to
have finally finished it.
One night Sally showed me how to make a roux. She was
getting things ready for dinner guests and the roux was
in preparation for the crawdad dish she was going to
serve. That seemed to be another example of the
different culture in the city. I remember once when I
was invited to a friend's house for dinner, his mom was
quick to say, "Oh, we're having waffles." (You know,
just in case I didn't like them.) In New Orleans,
however, you don't even think to tell the guests they'll
be eating mudbugs on a bed of rice. You just invite them
over and don't say a thing. They'll eat the crawdads all
right – and cry for more!
The next night she showed me how to make black bean
casserole. I liked it, so I had her write up the recipe.
BLACK BEAN CASSEROLE 2 cloves garlic 2 tbs olive oil 1 pound ground turkey 1 16-ounce can tomato sauce 2 heaping teaspoons chili powder 2 heaping teaspoons cumin 1 small can corn drained 1 can black beans drained 1 can green chiles 8 ounces of shredded longhorn cheddar Cook garlic in oil. Add the ground turkey and brown it up. Add tomato sauce. Mix in chili powder and cumin Mix in the corn, black beans and green
chiles Cook together fifteen minutes. Now lay flour tortillas in a casserole
dish and then layer in the mixture of
meat and then cheese and then tortillas and
mixture and tortillas and cheese, until the
dish is full. Bake at 350 covered until bubbly and
Sally's friend Katherine was kind enough to take both
of us to the airport. Sally had decided to visit
Arizona, and she and I flew there together and toured
the state for a week or so. Then I drove her to Sky
Harbor Airport for the flight back to Louisiana.
On August 27, 2005 she called to wish me happy birthday,
and I said, "Hey, there's a huge hurricane headed at
"I know," she said. "I'm leaving now for Baton Rouge. I
I watched the news reports and watched the storm smash
into the city.
It was a national disaster, and though the country was
"at war" even the president of the United States was
forced to curtail his five-week vacation to get right to
work on it, pausing only to cut a cake and play a guitar
so there would be time enough to rush the first bottle
of water to the scene in four days flat.
The family got word that Sally had made it to Baton
Rouge and Davy had escaped to Mississippi with his
guitar, his dog, and his new bride. We couldn't contact
them for a couple of weeks because communications were
down. Katherine stayed in town because she didn't want
to leave all of her cats, and there was no word at all
from her for some time. Sally finally learned that
gunmen were walking down Katherine's street blowing the
locks off the doors, and just when they reached her
place, a coast guard helicopter sent down a spotlight
and plucked her off of the balcony of her three-story
Sally's house was under 16 feet of water for two weeks;
Davy's had no water damage.
When the town dried out, I flew back to walk through the
ruins of what had once been Sally's house, and she and I
drove through the endless miles of ghostly neighborhoods
with the unmown lawns, the dead trees, the abandoned
cars, and the ever present yellow water lines on the
walls of every house.
Afterwards, back in Arizona, I remembered the black bean
casserole and started to make it nearly every week. I
remembered how my dog Noodles had loved to eat any spicy
dish, and so I let another dog, Honey, have some. Honey
is my brother's cocker spaniel and when construction
started on his new swimming pool, it was decided that
Honey would live with me. She liked the black bean
casserole and soon refused to eat her dog food, choosing
instead to wait me out until I finally gave in and she
got the people food. Because of the dog, I had to have
the casserole handy every day of the week. She would eat
fully half of every batch I made.
Honey was Noodles' nemesis. I once brought Noodles over
to my brother's and Honey attacked her. Noodles was a
Chihuahua/terrier mix and no match for the much larger
and stronger cocker. Noodles withstood the attack pretty
well, but did not survive her three-year fight against
Cushing's disease and died on April 21, 2005 at the age
Before Honey came to live with me, she had always been
relegated to my brother's back yard summer and winter.
Now, with Noodles gone and the summer blazing hot, Honey
could squeeze in and out of my house at will through the
undersized doggy door and sleep in the house in
The black bean casserole called for flour tortillas, but
I am fond of corn tortillas. I have heard that the
mixture of corn and beans produces a very strong
protein, and this is perhaps the reason why tamale pie
and other bean dishes taste so good with cornbread and
why succotash is a popular dish. Sometimes the taste
buds automatically recognize the taste of nutrition. I
remember studying the Hopi Indians and learning how they
put ashes in their cornmeal before cooking it. The
alkali ashes allow the body to absorb vitamin B and
prevent pellagra, but the Hopis who invented this recipe
didn't know that -- they just knew that it tasted better
that way. When my brother mentioned that Honey liked
corn chips, I had still another reason to replace the
flour tortillas with corn ones. I also doubled the
amount of canned corn and used ground beef because I
felt the flavor of turkey didn't stand up to the cumin
and chili very well.
It began to become a hassle to prepare the casserole so
often, and so I tried to wean Honey back to dog food. I
would take pupperoni dog treats and stick them into the
dog food like sweet waffle cones in some doggy parfait.
It didn't work very well. She ate the pupperoni but held
out for the casserole.
I worried a little that Honey's diet was getting
unhealthy. I knew that once I had taken to feeding
Noodles jerky treats every day and one night she
couldn't urinate because a bladder stone was lodged in
her urethra -- a stone I later learned might have been
formed by the high ash content of the treats. It was a
Sunday night and the vet down the road wasn't available
and Noodles suffered all night at the brink of getting
toxic peritonitis until I brought her into the vet's and
she passed the stone on the floor in a pool of urine and
The vet said that Noodles would have to eat Science Diet
for the rest of her life. I tried that for a while, and
Noodles didn't like it much, so it wasn't long before I
put her back on regular dog food -- but with no treats
I took other liberties with Sally's recipe. I began to
tire of baking the casserole when all I really had to do
was put it in the dish hot, and the cheese that I
layered in would melt just as well as it would in the
oven. I also gave up layering the tortillas. It was
easier to cut the torts into triangles and stir them in.
As the dish sat, the tortillas would float in the
mixture to find a kind of horizontal equilibrium on
their own, and when you cut a slice of the casserole,
the cross section revealed a neat stratification.
There were two other changes. The cumin and chili powder
obliterated the taste of even the garlic, so I left both
the garlic and the green chiles out of the recipe. I
told Sally, and she said that if only for the extra
nutrition I should leave those things in, but I was
skeptical. In addition, I didn't want to bother to brown
up the ground beef. I wanted a time-saving alternative
to having to cook the beef, and I knew of an easy
solution: I could get a can of pre-cooked Brazilian
parboiled beef and use that. The Brazilian beef,
however, presented a problem that was very real to
A little more than a year before, I took Noodles in for
a check-up, and the vet noticed that she had gained
weight. I had switched to Mighty Dog, which Noodles
liked better than other brands of dog food. The vet told
me to put her on Science Diet and she would live longer.
Reluctantly I did, and Noodles hated it. In a couple of
weeks she wouldn't eat at all, so I brought her her
favorite food: Brazilian parboiled beef. She wouldn't
touch it. Noodles was having kidney failure brought on
by Cushing's disease and lack of appetite was its
The vet embarked on a treatment of dialysis that
involved a saline drip that was designed to cleanse the
blood through the kidneys by the sheer attrition of
constant, unremitting hydration. Noodles stayed in a
cage at the vet's with an IV for three terrible days,
and on the third, I was directed to bring Noodles'
favorite food to see if she was better and would eat it.
When I arrived, I found her in an absolutely ghastly
condition and knew that she would never eat again. After
we put her to sleep, I buried her in the back yard and
threw the can of beef in the trash.
It took more than a year for me to finally use Brazilian
beef again, but I finally added it to the recipe. Honey
loved it, and I found that I was able to eat it too, but
still not without a pang brought on by the memory of how
On the morning after I added the Brazilian beef to the
casserole, I went out into the desert back yard and got
the pooper scooper. There in the yard, I saw Honey's
stool stuffed fat with the extra corn I had put in the
recipe, and it brought to mind the time I had seen
Noodles' stool similarly filled with the milo maize
which I had left out on the lawn for the Inca doves back
before the desert landscaping when the yard was cool and
green with grass. And I couldn't help but remember how I
had thought the milo might do her harm and how for years
afterwards I had given up feeding the birds.