I awakened a little while ago and brewed coffee and chicory and cut a couple slices of French bed for breakfast and had a memory flash: I was back in Buster Holmes' kitchen in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. I was sitting at the counter in his kitchen eating red beans and rice. On the side was two pieces of French bread spread with real butter. I had a small glass of iced tea. Mr. Buster was watching me eat. I had just paid him seventy five cents for the plate of food and the tea. If I had wanted just water, my tab would have been 45 cents. It was hot in there. Not every place in the Quarter had air condition in those days, and certainly there was none in the kitchen.
"He asked me, "Hey Lil' Blondie. Are you a runaway?"
"Naw," I told him. "My daddy is working for Mac McConnel down on Bourbon street." Buster sighed in relief. He was used to seeing teenage runaways in the Quarter and he had a big heart.
It was 1969 and I was 15 years old.
Buster had a towel over his shoulder and he was cutting up onions and bell peppers. He had a huge pile of them he was throwing into a large bowl. There were no food processors in those days. Cooking was laborious. I remember going there quite often to eat, not because it was good, nor because it was cheap. I went to watch Buster and his staff cook. I found it fascinating to watch him prepare fish and fry it. I guess, I learned how to fry fish by watching Buster. He had pork chops in a pan and GOD THEY SMELLED FABULOUS!
Through a screen door (my memory sees a screen door!) one could see the inside of the restaurant. It was not fancy, just clean and respectful. It had a nice comforting, homey feeling. There were photos on the walls of local musicians and celebrities. That is where you went to get the fancy, more complicated Creole fare that Buster could cook up. Oysters, fried Trout dinners, and all sorts of Creole delicacies were on the menu. Turnip greens, Pork chops, soul food, Buster cooked it all. Buster was famous for his cooking.
But, back in the kitchen was where the action was. I loved to sit at his counter and watch him cook.When some black street performers (tap dancers) came in to eat, he shooed them all the way over to the other end of the counter. I was surprised he did that. I guessed he was afraid that the tap dancers might get out of line and I would go back and tell daddy that I had to sit next to black street people. Buster had a great sense about running a business and making sure he was managing his customers. But, that is what was intriguing to me about Buster's. EVERYONE was welcome to eat in the kitchen. Sitting next to black tap dancers from the street had an appeal to me. It was exotic. It was not THE WHITE BREAD SIDE OF LIFE. So, to hang out in Buster's kitchen, the only qualification was, you had to be hungry and at least half the people in your group had enough money to pay.
I went back to Buster's kitchen counter many times. I wish I could go back there now. If I recall right, it was on the corner of Orleans and Burgundy street. My recollection is beans and rice was 45 cents. I have read articles that a say people paid 25 cents and a penny tax. Well, not in 1969, but maybe earlier in time that may have been true.
I am including a link to a wonderful blog that has a lot more info about Buster Holmes' and the characters that went there. It was close to Cosimo Matassa's recording studio (J and M Studios) and may famous people went there. It is a hundred more fascinating than my remembrances, but to me, these are dear memories of a man that could not let the little people of New Orleans go hungry, if only they had a quarter..............................
RIP Buster Holmes 1905 - 1995