Po' Boy

by Cynthia Guidry
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boubon-st-sign-lr.jpgI was lunching with a friend when some woman leaned over and said, “Do you realize you’ve been talking about food for an hour straight?” “I can’t help it,” I replied. “I’m from New Orleans. We’re all like this.”

Honestly, where I come from, it’s perfectly normal to plot lunch while eating breakfast, to discuss past and future meals while having lunch, to treat every supper as if it were the last, to call friends and ask: What’d ya eat today?

Back in ’05, my dad was hospitalized – a routine procedure for a stomach hernia. Unfortunately, this resulted in post-operative ileus: his intestines refused to return to work after the anesthesia wore off. And while I too have been tempted to not return to work after a little R&R…come on, you’re intestines, you have to go back to work. Otherwise, nothing that goes in can come out.

One week passed. Two weeks passed. Slackers. I flew home to New Orleans. 

andouille.jpgI entered my father’s hospital room; tubes ran in and out of his body. We exchanged hellos, and then I panicked, no idea where to go next. If I hadn’t eaten in weeks, didn’t know when I might eat again, I sure wouldn’t want anyone talking about food around me. But that’s all my dad and I ever talked about, it was our only common ground, the longest conversation we’d had in forty years revolved around andouille! Sure, in the past he’d tried to tell me about his hunting trips, often accompanied by photos of disemboweled boar, but now that I was willing to listen, the fact that he had a tube down his throat clearly made him the listener.

So I talked. About what, I couldn’t say. Mostly I just remember sneaking off for meals, brushing my teeth in restaurant bathrooms, checking my clothes for food stains and sucking on mints before returning to his side. No, I didn’t talk about food, and he didn’t talk about food, but it was there all the time, hanging between us like a hundred andouille sausages strung up in a barn on Airline Highway that my dad insists is the best, second only to the stuff some guy Don makes.     

I returned to Los Angeles. One week passed. Two weeks passed. I flew back to New Orleans. 

My father had been given the last rites. My mother claims he requested ‘em and that it was completely ridiculous, but still. He hadn’t eaten for over a month and all the doctors were doing was scratching their heads. Who knows? Maybe he was hoping those anointing oils would trickle down to his lips so he could finally taste something other than plastic. All I know for sure is that what wasn’t completely ridiculous, what was instead absolutely terrifying, was the spooky upper floor that I toured with my dad, the place they send people who aren’t in need of constant medical attention but who can’t leave the hospital either, which looked like a sanitarium in an old black & white horror film, complete with groaning patients dragging IVs through the halls and mooning anyone who dared enter. Maybe my mother needed to believe the last rites were ridiculous because it was better than the alternative. But this, this Purgatory floor, it was worse than the other side.

po-boy.jpgSoon after the tour, I went for a stroll. And since I was out, I figured I should probably have a shrimp po-boy – a real shrimp po-boy, the likes of which you cannot find once you leave the Gulf coast and shrimp cease to grow on trees, a mountain of giant shrimp that have never even seen a freezer, fried by people who believe in their gut that if it ain’t fried, it ain’t food, heaped atop a hunk of airy French bread with a nice crackly crust. Ah, shrimp po-boys. My mother is convinced they’re the only reason I visit, and once confided in me that it isn’t easy knowing she’s second to a crustacean in the heart of her only daughter. But it’s not true. I love them equally.

When I returned, my dad was watching something biblical featuring Charlton Heston. “What’d ya eat, Tidbit?” he asked. I stared back, a deer caught in his crosshair. What did I eat? Why are you breaking our silent pact? OK, I thought, relax. Just downplay the truth. “Gumbo,” I replied, with a yawn. (I had that, too.) “That’s it!?” he exclaimed. What the… Why was he testing me this way? Did he know I’d had a shrimp po-boy, too? I knew my mom had eyes in the back of her head, but did my dad really have eyes at corner groceries throughout the city? “Oh yeah, and a shrimp po-boy. But it wasn’t that good.” My dad nodded. “You bring a menu back?” My purse, naturally, was stuffed with menus.

bontonmenu.jpgFrom that point forth, the days were spent with me, beside my father, reading menus. He’d talk to me like I was his waitress too, asking if I could add bacon to his burger and what the fried catfish came with. If he seemed disappointed with the sides on offer, I’d just go off-menu, make stuff up. And I don’t know if it was his morphine drip or all my previous restaurant experience, but half the time I’d swear he actually believed I was going to scamper off and return with his order. 

A month later, magic happened: my dad farted. His intestines had returned to work; he was a free man. One month passed. Two months passed. Then Katrina hit, sending my parents on an evacuation route that eventually ended in Memphis.

One of the worst disasters to ever befall America, but my father wasn’t the least bit ruffled. He was just happy to be alive and tube-free. He told me he’d shoot himself before ever going back to the hospital. “And Tidbit,” he said, “There’s some good BBQ up here in Memphis.”


Cynthia Guidry is the author of "The Last Single Woman in America", which comes out in paperback this month.



#2 stephanie Romanov 2009-01-15 03:01
This story talked about my 2 favorite things. Food and family!! It wet my eyes and my appetite!
#1 laura grace 2009-01-14 04:44
I think it's so cute that even his nickname for you is practically a food group "tidbit"!
what's his favorite barbecue place in Memphis?

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