Mueller’s Texas BBQ in the French Quarter
By JOHN DeMERS
This weekend I went on the road to eat some Roadfood. And the fact that this road, like John Denver’s “country roads” of long ago, took me home only served to make the travel more delicious.
The New Orleans Roadfood Festival (a clever and, I gather, profitable production of the mini-empire built around Jane and Michael Stern) ended up being a compelling argument for what most of us who love food and drink today already know. Three decades ago, however, when Jane and Michael published their seminal book Roadfood, the Great American Foodie in Major or Minor City USA was still someone who distrusted any restaurant that didn’t require a coat and tie, wasn’t dreadfully expensive and/or insulting, and whose name didn’t start with the French word “Chez.”
For these two people to wax eloquent (well OK, orgasmic describes their prose better) about cafes and diners and dives in towns without even one stoplight, about foods battered and fried and covered in cream gravy or bright orange cheese, was a revelation even more than it was a revolution. The Sterns are still in the game, 30 years later, doing bits from the road regularly on NPR with that lady with three names. And since their road took them to New Orleans for the Roadfood Festival, it was great to re-meet a lively couple I’d interviewed at the very beginning of their hyper-caloric reign.
The biggest change in their work lives, it would seem, is the biggest change in all of our work lives – the Internet. Some years back, an impossibly young, cleancut (as my father would have said) young man named Stephen Rushmore stepped right out of the Wes Anderson film that shares his surname and convinced the Sterns to take their road onto the World Wide Web. It was the perfect fit.
Believe it or not, this is a cake…
Not only could www.roadfood.com tell us immediately about a great new find in the middle of nowhere, where we might be going in Texas the day after tomorrow, but it opened the door to a community of eaters well-seminaried in the Gospel of Roadfood. These public reviews are edited a bit, thank goodness – which means something a bit fairer than the typical blogosphere rant – but they are interesting, heartfelt and, best of all, never-ending. The theme song of this dot-com clone of Jane and Michael might be “I Hear America Eating.”
The Roadfood Festival, held mostly in the French Quarter, had several highlights – the first and possibly best being Jane and Michael’s awarding of their Blue Plate award to Anthony and Gail Uglesich of the now-departed New Orleans restaurant Uglesich’s. Contrary to what people kept assuming, Uglesich’s is not gone because of Hurricane Katrina but, if I recall the details, because it was time for them to retire and no one seemed ready to run the place exactly the way they wanted. Their desire to “go out on top” after decades of great, soulful and most of all, real food in a tumbledown building in a terrible neighborhood meant that Uglesich’s would be no more. And now it is.
Receiving the Blue Plate award, Anthony teared up like Sally Field at the Oscars, and for the same reason. When you’ve worked at one single business so hard and so long, to realize how much the people out there love you is, rightly, an overwhelming emotional experience. Jane and Michael, seemingly more accustomed to cooks grinning for the cameras, did their best at a kind of impromptu group hug. I’ll never remember this moment without being touched.
Happily, in addition to a host of Louisiana food vendors – my favorites included Lasyone’s Meat Pies from Natchitoches, Antoine’s Café (a new casual sibling of the 1840 dining palace, with a new po-boy based on my only favorite Antoine’s dish, oysters Foch!), and Vaucresson Sausage – there were vendors from different parts of America as far away as the Bush family’s corner of Maine. Yes, of course they brought chowder. Happiest of all, there were two exemplary vendors from the Gret Stet of Texas: Louie Mueller’s BBQ from Taylor and Royer’s bearing pies from their tiny café in Round Top.
For my Delicious Mischief radio show, both Wayne Mueller and Bud Royer submitted to recorded interviews, as did Stephen Rushmore and, of course, Jane and Michael themselves. Hanging out with Texans was proof, I think, that even in the French Quarter of New Orleans I know how to find the best stuff to eat.