Wednesday, December 21: The Brennans eat like birds. At least the younger women do. (It’s a big, complicated family.) I’m lunching at Café Adelaide with Lally Brennan, her cousin Ti Martin and their new marketing director Trevor Wisdom, who went to grade school with Ti, along with Lolis Elie. (It’s a small, small town.) Barbequed shrimp on shortcake, harvest salad, Creole-marinated shrimp salad, oyster chowder, gumbo ya ya, honey-grilled pork, Tabasco-soy yellow fin, Creole cream-cheese cake, eggnog crème brulée and pecan tart make their rounds on the table. The Brennans take two bites of each and put their forks down. I’m trying not to get drunk on a Sazerac. The place is filling up. “We never get to sit down and eat. . .pardon me,” Lally pops up to kiss another customer.
This side of the Brennan family owns nine New Orleans restaurants: Lally and Ti’s Café Adelaide (open) and Commander’s Palace (closed), Lally’s brother Ralph’s Bacco, Redfish Grill and Ralph’s on the Park (all open), and cousin Dickie’s Mr. B’s (closed), Bourbon House (open), Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse (closed) and Palace Cafe (open this week). Then there’s Brennan’s on Royal Street. That side of the family -- well let’s just say, this side doesn’t keep up with them. “How y’all doin’? Good to see you. . .” Ti and Lally confer, “That’s so-and-so. He’s with so-and-so. So-and-so’s coming in at one.”
Café Adelaide is Downtown in the Lowe’s Hotel. It used to be for out-of-towners, but now the Coast Guard has docked at the Lowe’s. Commander’s regulars are eating Adelaide. “They try to seat ’em at the bar, and I say, ‘Nuh-uh’.” Ti is hellbent on keeping her loyal base, which seems to include every New Orleanian in a certain income bracket. It’s a group that makes a show of it, particularly now. “After the storm, my friend said to me, ‘People who I know talk about me behind my back are hugging me’,” laughs Lally.
The Brennans evacuated to Houston. It did not suit them. “We were really starting to drink some cheap wine.” When they returned, the Lowe’s and Café Adelaide were “filled with boys with guns.” “They were asking me, ‘Who are you?’” says Ti. “‘Adelaide! I’m Adelaide!’” The boys with guns were not impressed. It had rained inside the restaurant. Trevor Wiston “got a big old palm tree on her house.” She had to buy a new house sight-unseen on the Internet.
Lately, “people are easing back into the city.” The school semester is over; folks can take their kids out of Houston for the holidays. “I hope we get all the weirdos back,” says Ti. And restaurants like Adelaide have become “like little town halls. It’s where you find out what’s going on.” Trevor’s even seeing dogs in restaurants. “I’m gonna adopt me a Katrina dog,” says Ti. New Orleans needs to eat nowadays. “I lost 16 pounds,” Trevor says. She perks up. “My favorite MRE? The penne with spicy tomato sauce!” “Y’all ready to advertise?” Ti’s been asking Lally. “You stick signs in the ground. It’s tacky. But that’s what you do now. And I read ’em.” Not that they need more business; Adelaide’s so short-staffed, they can’t handle the volume.
Commander’s Palace’s, on the other hand, is kaput until Easter. The 1850 plantation house will have to be gutted and vapor sealed. “People think we’re a bunch of yahoos down here,” says Ti. “But no one understands what living in a hurricane zone is like. Before this, we’d put all the food in one fridge, pack it with dry ice, close the door and come back in three days,” says Ti. “What are we supposed to do, every time there’s a hurricane? Throw it all away? Who knew steak turns to liquid and dissolves down your walls?”
Seriously, “no country has ever forgotten a city like this. We caused our own problems, too, but we need some help.” If the levees get fixed, if the schools get fixed, “New Orleans could be a model for rebuilding. We understand what a well-lived life is. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured, and food is a big part of that.” “Everybody,” Lally says waving at someone across the room, “is getting a new refrigerator for Christmas.”