Happy Mardi Gras, Grandma Paula

When people die, they leave stories behind. I stumble over these stories unexpectedly as I go about my life, as if they are invisible cats that brush against my attention.

There’s a tiny bit of pain when I pause and let the story remember itself, but there’s richness as well. Today is Mardi Gras, and because of that, my husband made a big pot of red beans. His mama taught him to make these beans, and they are full of the flavor of her hometown, Baton Rouge. This morning I stole a bite, and Paula stepped into my mind.

When I was pregnant with Alba, Paula made me enormous meals once a week. She wasn’t feeding me so much as feeding her grandchild, but my appetite was up for finishing every bite. (There’s a reason Alba was 8 pounds 6 ounces when she was born, and it was due to D and P’s cooking.) Paula was battling cancer during the time that I was pregnant, but she still kept on cooking.

The night that I went into labor, I sat at the dinner table at Paula’s house, and she fed me an enormous plate of eggplant lasagne. “You look like you’re about ready to pop,” she said. Perhaps it was the eggplant, or perhaps Alba decided that it was time to step out into the world, but Paula was right. On the drive home, I felt a ripple in my stomach, and at 4 PM the next day, Alba was born.

A month later, we were all sitting at a brew pub in Athens. Paula sat next to her grandchild, of course, and at one point reached over and put some of the beer foam from her cup onto Alba’s little tongue. “Now you can remember that I gave you your first beer,” she joked. There’s not much more Baton Rouge than that.

Laissez le bon temps rouler, Paula! We’ll eat our red beans and rice and remember you, today.


Here’s Emeril’s recipe for red beans and rice.

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A long expected birthday

A long time (but less than a decade) ago, I had a child on Chinese New Year. She was born on the first day of the year of the rooster. I was so certain that she’d be born the day before that I decorated her room with monkeys (for year of the monkey), and her nickname stuck.

Thai people celebrate Chinese New Year. Actually, they have the happy luck of three: January 1st for Western New Year, Songkran in April, and Chinese (lunar) New Year between the two.

Monkey’s first birthday had a Chinese New Year theme. We had a bunch of tiny one-year-olds over to our small graduate school apartment, and Monkey dressed up in a set of little red Chinese pajamas. I remember that the party was noteworthy for the large plastic tablecloth that we spread on the floor. We stripped the children to their diapers and let them rip into the cupcakes.

There was frosting everywhere. I remember washing it from behind Monkey’s knees.

Monkey’s birthdays have since become more elaborate. Each year her birthday theme has been different. She’s been through princesses (of course), Mardi Gras, doughnuts, and other things. Chinese New Year moves around on the calendar depending upon the moon, and this is the first time in eight years that it’s been on her actual birthday again. This year will be the year of the snake.

When I mentioned to Monkey that her birthday fell on Chinese New Year again, she said, “I want to have a Year of the Snake party! And pie, I want pie.”

I like to keep her birthday as DIY as possible. We make our own invitations (last year’s invitations were also fun, a card with a doughnut on it), some of our own decorations, and a few games. My husband cooks. We do tend to buy the pastry though, because I wouldn’t make anybody eat what I’d bake.

I fretted a bit about decorations, but my local Party City came through. It totally had a Chinese New Year section, complete with snake banners and tiny dragon toys. This is what we’ve made for Monkey’s party so far. I’m crossing my fingers for good weather (and that mama has time for some strong coffee beforehand)!

Monkey got really into planning, and made little thank you notes to put into each treat bag. “Because you are going to forget to send thank you notes,” she said. She knows me well, I am not very good at sending cards for anything except Christmas.

I do know that as long as the kid has friends and dessert, it’ll be a successful party.