Each day as I walk out my front door, my gaze is forced upon a small painting that proclaims "NO MONEY, NO EGGS." Between the words is an amoebic blob of white paint, holding a round yellow center: a perfect egg, sunny-side up. The artist, seventy-one-year-old Alfred "Big Al" Taplet, is a native of New Orleans. Or was. The wrath that Hurricane Katrina wrought on the Crescent City has left behind so much heartbreak; I can only hope that Big Al is not among the many human casualties left in Katrina's wake. What’s certain, though, is while we mourn the lives of so many, we are also beginning to realize the cultural casualties washed away by the storm. For me, this one painting is a symbol of so much—so much that we are only beginning to let ourselves acknowledge.
As a documentarian, it is my job to seek people out and listen to their stories. As a documentarian of the foodways of the American South, it is my job to visit with the people of this region who grow, cook, and serve food and drink. Big Al's painting is a reminder of how food is so relevant to the culture of New Orleans—in art, in music, in daily life—and of the continued heartbreak the world will experience as these losses are laid bare. Of course, as the citizens of New Orleans try to find shelter across this great country, they are seeking shelter for their culture as well, bringing New Orleans to all of us. In this we can certainly celebrate. But for now, we are forced to consider the losses.
There is never any time like the present in the life of a documentarian; stories are everywhere, and they are always relevant, no matter what the time or place or circumstance. But how was I to know that the ten days I spent in New Orleans four months ago would ring with such consequence today. I went in search of beverages and bartenders, hot on the trail of the city's long history with the cocktail. But now, what has become of the man who made the best Sazerac in town? Or the woman who put everyone else’s Ramos Gin Fizz to shame (a drink which happens to be made using the white of an egg)? Right now, there is a displaced population of survivors without homes, without jobs, with no money and no eggs.
In honor of some of the people and places of New Orleans, The Food Section is featuring profiles of the bartenders and bar owners who were interviewed for the Southern Foodways Alliance's Bartenders of New Orleans Oral History Project.
MARTIN SAWYER, bartender
The Rib Room, Omni Royal Orleans Hotel
New Orleans, LA
With almost fifty years of bartending under his belt and thirty-four years working at the Rib Room alone, eighty-four-year-old Martin Sawyer has seen it all. He got his first job as a barback at the infamous 500 Club. A bartender friend recruited him for the job so Martin could help him make out drink orders, as Martin was one of the few young men in his circle of friends who could read. With the nickname "Professor," Martin studied up on cocktails and quickly became a fixture on the French Quarter bar scene. He had his picture taken with Louis Armstrong and served champagne to General De Gaul. With all that time tending bar, it is easy to believe that he would have had a few brushes with celebrity. What's hard to believe, though, is the number of cocktails this man has mixed over the years. With time, care, and a painstaking attention to detail, he has made mixing drinks a high art. All of these years later, Martin still makes his famous Mint Julep with the care and attention he did when he first mixed the drink almost five decades ago.
Each fall, the Southern Foodways Alliance (with support from the Fertel Foundation) honors an unsung hero or heroine, a foodways tradition bearer of note, with the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. The SFA pays homage in two ways: we commission a documentary film and we make a monetary contribution. Months before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Martin Sawyer knew he was this year's recipient, and the documentary film about his life and work is now in post-production. While we are not aware of Mr. Sawyer's fate at present, our thoughts and prayers are with him and the countless others who are part of the service industry in New Orleans.
Find out how the Southern Foodways Alliance and other organizations are reaching out to service industry workers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Many thanks to Josh Friedland for the invitation to contribute to The Food Section.
Amy Evans, email@example.com
Oral Historian, Southern Foodways Alliance