A FESTIVE WATERSIDE COOKOUT WITH
THE BRENNANS AT THEIR HOME IN PASS CHRISTIAN, MS
Growing up in New Orleans, I ranked the Fourth of July at the bottom of the holiday totem pole. Big deal. We had Mardi Gras for goodness sake, and in July not having school was holiday enough. For me, the worst part was faking an interest in firecrackers, which I still despise. Not the pretty ones that illuminated the sky but the hostile ones. The ones that whistled, exploded, and landed kids in emergency rooms. No thanks. When I reached a sensible drinking age, however, my pecking order changed, and the Fourth began soaring to the top of my personal queue. I owe this, in part, to the charms of the Mississippi coast and a particular enclave called Pass Christian.
Understanding the town’s singularity begins with the local pronunciation—or rather the New Orleans pronunciation—“Passcristchanne.” Think one long word with equally weighted syllables. But, make no mistake: equality is not the first word that comes to mind. This is, after all, the land of city slickers who might use the word summer as a verb. Not unlike Bostonians retreating to Cape Cod or Charlestonians hammocking on Pawleys, “The Pass” is where New Orleanians have been escaping the breezeless heat of the city since the nineteenth century.
After Hurricanes Camille and Katrina flattened most of the grand wicker-filled homes along the open Gulf, the old guard wised up and began constructing raised houses, mostly along inland waterways. In no time, alligators and egrets were sharing bayous with kayaks and party barges. Even the outmoded “By Invitation Only” policy of the old house parties gave way to the newer social rhythm of “Friends Welcome.”
Standing on a double-decker pier, I watch three generations of suntanned friends approach Ralph and Susan Brennan’s house, mostly by water with tumblers in hand and pants as white as the sides of their boats. I know I’m not really in Mississippi when I hear the familiar, “Well, hawayoo dahlin.” Pure New Orleans. And, they’ve come for two reasons: to enjoy the Brennans’ traditional annual gathering and to eat good food. While no New Orleans family is more identified with fine Creole cuisine than the Brennans, their friends know better than to expect fancy food. They’re getting comfort food. Ralph’s comfort food.
The most striking feature of Ralph Brennan’s house is the “foyer.” I’m putting the word in quotes because it is actually one large happy kitchen. As I walk through the door, I find Susan Brennan and Chef Haley Bitterman chopping onions and slicing hanger steak. Ralph is lugging a bag of spice mixture the color of terra cotta while his two charming daughters, Kristen and Kathryn, effortlessly mix pitchers of Moscow Mules and Sazeracs. Either the Brennans are impervious to pre-party panic or they can fake “easy as pie” like no other. Not a bead of sweat on any of them.
Outside, the water reflects the peach-colored sunset while the breeze carries an aromatic combination of marsh and pine mixed with the distinctive odor of shrimp and garlic grilling over charcoal. We’re offered Bloody Mary shooters with raw oysters. I grab that shot glass and savor the ice-cold combination of spicy tomato, lemon, and ocean. The mini grilled cheese and crab sandwich offered to me on a large silver platter comforts my peppery throat. The mixture of lump crab, gooey cheese, and deep red tomato is a heavenly treat to the palate, but so is the redfish slider on brioche combining pillow-soft bread with crispy fish. After these sensations, I mistakenly discredit a basket overflowing with potato chips until I put one in my mouth. To date, I have never tasted better. Now I know where that guarded spice mixture ended up.
Across from the kitchen counter stand two long buffet and dining tables where Chef Haley places an assortment of summery delicacies. Typically, hosts have to beg at least one guest to approach the table and start eating—but not Susan and Ralph. The line forms as fast as a Southwest Airlines boarding announcement. There are so many choices that I don’t know where to begin, but I start with the cold salads, sampling perfectly sliced squares of tuna and watermelon with red onion, marinated Gulf shrimp, and my favorite of all, the grilled figs with Ryals goat cheese and satsuma gastrique. I’m tossing my manners into the bayou as I lick my fingers clean of the charred orange sauce and fig juice. I wonder which god on Mount Olympus inspired this kind of culinary creativity. In fact, I remind myself to check out the acclaimedRalph Brennan’s New Orleans Seafood Cookbook for the recipe.
Then come the main courses. I love how the noise level in a dining room reduces by half once guests sit down with fork and knife. And a wine glass. In no time, I empty my plate of shrimp and andouille sausage brochettes, jerk-rubbed shrimp and pineapple skewers coated with a New Orleans rum and brown sugar glaze, and mini Gulf shrimp po-boys with remoulade sauce. I usually exercise some willpower, but with seafood this good, it’s a nonstop food fest. And that’s before we’re given slices of Kristen Brennan’s American flag cake with strawberries and whipped cream. Why is it that I can stuff myself silly yet still find a little corner in my stomach for dessert? And this one does not disappoint. I feel bad destroying Kristen’s beautiful American flag, but I’m doing this for our country’s birthday. Honoring the USA with each nibble of white cake with red and blue icing.
I’m staying fifteen minutes away by car and only three minutes by water, so I gladly accept an invitation back by boat. I say my “Creole goodbyes” (the ones where you thank the host but twenty minutes later you’re still having one last conversation) and I’m off with the tugging sound of a boat motor. I almost feel guilty waving to families on back porches who ate overcooked hamburgers and canned beans while I sampled some of the greatest food on the coast. The only Brennan missing was Ralph’s son, Patrick, who is attending culinary school (the first Brennan to do so). I don’t envy Patrick’s position being in the shadow of the King of Creole, but the succession must be assured.
If you’re in New Orleans and you tell someone you had “dinner at Ralph’s,” it likely means Ralph Brennan’s eponymous restaurant overlooking City Park. But for me, dinner at Ralph’s means something entirely different. It signifies an appreciation for good food, close friends, and, more than anything, family. It is no wonder Ralph Brennan is the only New Orleanian named to the board of The Culinary Institute of America. Spend one evening with this staggeringly successful yet humble man and you will see why he deserves every accolade.
Cocktails + Hors D’oeuvres