“Because, as I say again, [when you make a drink,] if you don’t put the love and tenderness in there with that, it’s not going to taste good.” – Floria Woodard
Originally from Mississippi, Floria Woodard headed to New Orleans seeking opportunity. She found it as server at The Court of Two Sisters (the first African-American server at that), but she eventually set her sights on the bar. Thirty-eight years later, Miss Flo is still behind that bar, serving cocktails to the locals and returning tourists who seek her out at this well-known French Quarter restaurant.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Miss Flo’s story resonates. Hers is the story of an African-American woman from Mississippi, who set out on her own to find a job and make a new life for herself. She ended up in New Orleans, and the service industry answered her call. The state she left—the state of Mississippi—is where I live today. It might also be the state that Miss Flo returned to in order to escape New Orleans and Katrina. We can only hope.
In honor of Miss Flo and the thousands like her, her own words are offered here. Let them remind us all about the lives of the people we interact with, standing just on the other side of the bar.
Floria Woodard, bartender
The Court of Two Sisters
New Orleans, LA
[This is an edited version of an interview that was conducted by Amy Evans for the Southern Foodways Alliance on March 31, 2005. Read the entire transcript.]
My name is Floria Woodard, and I’m old as dirt. [Laughs] My birthday is June 6, 1938.
I understand you’ve been working here at The Court of Two Sisters for forty years or some such thing.
It’s close to forty. It’s thirty-eight years this February seventh, two thousand five…And I’ve enjoyed it ever since I’ve been here. I’ve been—I started out here as a bus person and a server for so many years. And then I moved up to seating captain, from seating captain to receiving at the front door, and then one day they decided they [were] going to give me a bartender’s job. [Short laugh]
[Y]ou were the first black server here at The Court of Two Sisters?
In the evening, yes…And that was starting back in sixty-eight. And even though it was integrated—they was integrated like in the daytime—at nighttime it wasn’t. Or they couldn’t get [black] servers, I’m not sure what the cause was. But I had no problem getting acceptance. They accepted me with open arms. And I came in, and I liked the place, and I decided to stay for a little while.
Just to back up a little bit, you said [that] you’re from Mississippi, originally.
Yes, born and raised in Tylertown, Mississippi. Uh, I come from a large family. Uh, from eleven siblings that’s alive, that I’m the youngest of all.
And what brought you to New Orleans?
Survival. [Laughs] You know, survival? That’s what it was. It was nothing in Mississippi to do as far as work-wise, and if you couldn’t farm you couldn’t—you wasn’t making anything. It was really tough for the people of color in Mississippi. Mm-hmm. It’s tough.
Was the job here the first job you had in New Orleans, or did you work other places?
No, it wasn’t. I did other jobs. I worked, um, as a home keeper for children for a while, and then I did hotel maid service for a while, and I did healthcare for a little while. But then I decided none of those was for me.
Did they just throw you into the fire?
Yeah, they just threw me into the fire. Into the—into the lake and said swim! No—no paddle either! [W]hen they put me in over here they hadn’t [had] anyone at all to train me. I really had to train myself. I had to learn everything back here, and I had a lot of reading to do. I had a lot bar-guide books. And there—they have a recipe book themselves [The Court of two Sisters], so I don’t make the drinks the way I want to drink—to make them. I make them the way they want them made…So that means I follow their recipe. So if you have a drink from me today that you’d enjoy, tomorrow or next month or two years from now, when you return, it will be the same because you use the same recipe.
[A]nd so what is it about your job that keeps you here?
I think it’s the stress. [Laughing] That’s a joke. Well, I enjoy it, sweetie. I don’t think it’s no one thing, but I always feel like what keep[s] me going, I’m not a lazy person. I like to work. As long as I’m working, I’m happy. Because I know I’m gonna get paid. And as I tell all the young people that come through here, you know, you’re looking at thirty-eight years, and I can’t remember one payday [that] I didn’t get a check. You know? And that’s what work is all about. It’s a shame to say it, but we’re working until we get paid, because we can’t survive without it…So that’s—that’s what it is again. I stay here for survival! [Laughs]
What do you think it takes to make a good bartender?
Well, you have to like people, you have to have a cool personality, and you have to be patient. You cannot be [short pause] a chip on your shoulder that you have, you leave it at home. You can’t bring it in because [if] someone make[s] a statement to you that you don’t like, you can’t be touchy about things. See I’ve had people sit here at the bar and speak up [about] different things that’s going on, and black people are involved—it doesn’t affect me. Because that’s news. But you’ll find some people—people of color would get offended. You’ll find the gay part of the industry. You’re speaking of the gay people, they’ll get affected. But no, you can’t—you can’t do that. You’ve got to be open when you [are] tending bar. The only thing that I don’t do is—like I say earlier—I don’t have stories to tell. I tell stories, but they’re the truth[.]