Ask G&G

Smoke Signals

Cigar gripes, oyster strife, and Mardi Gras tips

Photo: Britt Spencer

Q: The hosts of my favorite March Madness party always put a cigar bar on the porch. What the hell? Hate cigars.

Kudos to your hosts. Purely from the law of averages these days, my guess is that they, themselves, don’t smoke. Either way, their full kitting out of an inviting spot for those who do still indulge is a boon addition to the modern lexicon of manners, and should be promoted to wide practice. By every tenet of decorum and democracy, those who smoke should be welcomed and should not, ever, by any host, anywhere, be made to feel as if they should be frog-marched to the county jail. After all, isn’t their stogie love a matter between them and their cardio and pulmonary specialists? None of your business, correct?

Disclosure: A friend of mine in New Orleans grows tobacco on some lots he owns. With him, and other select companions elsewhere, I do enjoy a fine cigar a few times a year. Now back to the party etiquette: Your animus mystifies me. Across the South, ladies and gentlemen remain free to maintain displeasure with any who engage in any presumably noxious and heavily taxed “sin.” Including drinking. Which is why it seems you should applaud your hosts, since they practice such a gracious version of what I’ll call tobacco-user incarceration. Bluntly put, the body of the party is inside with you, and you don’t have to be out there on the veranda, do you? Since it’s March Madness, I’m left with a whiff of something else going on. Just asking: Are the cigar aficionados you encounter having such a rollicking time with their crafted Nicaraguan heaters perhaps Tar Heel fans? Back in the day, did you maybe go to Duke?

Q: My South Carolina cousins swear by Caper’s Blade oysters; a Gulf native, I love Vermilion Bays. Verdict?

Nobody, not a single lost soul, on the beloved Southern coasts from Galveston to the Chesapeake is “right” about their oysters. Put another way, we’re all always right, and each of us is, to the outsider, dead wrong. Here’s why: Along the Gulf and the Atlantic Seaboard, the many variants of Crassostrea virginica form an immense coastal daisy chain of hyperlocal food. Because: God, right? The humble bivalve is responsive to the tiniest changes in the temperature and salinity of its water, not to mention the composition of the silt it sifts or the plankton that nourishes it. Eons before “local” became the baneful adjective in today’s overwritten menus, oysters were objects of homegrown patriotism, down to the very estuary. Their age-old locality—now called “merroir” (la mer, get it?)—causes passions to rise, and a culinary war between the thousands of bed waters ignites. Vermilion Bay alone cradles a dozen or more oyster wars. Point is, oysters bring out that extra drop of fightin’ blood in their advocates, so by all means, keep inviting your cousins down to the Gulf, but do absolve yourself, and them, of laying down arms. Transposed to South Carolina, would you believe a word they say about seafood? No. And why? The oysters taste different over there.

Q. We are from the boondocks and are joining a bunch of neighbors also from the boonies at Mardi Gras. Help!

Any migration toward the South’s big city of madness at its most mad is to be saluted. May I reassure you? Coming from a small town (population 4,000 at my birth in the Pleistocene), I can say that you’ll find New Orleans to be a collection of small towns—the Marigny, the Quarter, Uptown, Tremé—each ferociously quirky and proud. Basically, then, you’re headed to a series of parties to watch some villages (that happen to compose a charming city) compete with each other. Parades this year will roll from the beginning of January to the Fat pre-Lenten Tuesday. The renowned superkrewes—Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus, and Zulu—will bring their spectacular shows over the last four ferocious days and nights. But as a fellow hayseed, I’ll add that it pays to dig into the smaller, more neighborhood-driven krewes. The gloriously intricate costumes of the century-plus-old Indian tribes of Tremé and Uptown are literally nineteenth-century New Orleans, via Trinidad, large and live. Go anytime they are anywhere. Krewedelusion spoofs all at its hot-ticket Bedlam Ball, including the “monarchs” of Mardi Gras themselves. We get the story from the satirical group’s “innerkrewes”: Tap Dat (a unit of female tap dancers); Krewe of King James (devoted to the legacy of James Brown); the Camel Toe Lady Steppers (all things cabaret and burlesque); and the Merry Antoinettes (who do throw cake) are but a few. Put the Bedlam Ball on your list. If you dare.