Mr. Price’s Dinner Table
D. A. Ratliff
As those of you who have followed me know, I am a Southerner and quite proud of my roots. Growing up in South Carolina, I was fortunate to have parents who saw no color differences in their fellow man. People from all levels of society and cultures were visitors to our home.
My memories of my childhood remain clear today. The mimosa tree that I played under in our yard. Houses where all openings were trimmed in blue to ward off evil spirits. The dime bags of boiled peanuts sold on the street. The ‘air-conditioned tree’ at the Herlong Orchard peach stand where the temperature was twenty degrees cooler in the shade and the water stored in a metal canteen was ice cold. While there was a horrible undercurrent of fear and anger in this place I love so much, there was also a goodness of soul. Family, friends, food, and good times existed as well.
My father worked at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina, a manufacturer of hydrogen bombs. With workers from all over the world employed there, I met people from everywhere as a child. One of my father’s best friends was a bear of a man, a Navaho by the name of Jess Brown. His wife Athea, a small, plump woman who might have been a better cook than my grandmothers, was like an aunt to me. I am about one-sixteenth Cherokee and Jess, and Athea gave me a sense of what being Native American meant. Good, kind, hard-working, gentle people.
Yet, one friend of my parents impacted my life more than I realized. Mr. Price. Honestly, I am not certain what his first name was. My parents never called him anything but Mr. Price. He was older, a slight man but regal in bearing, with snow-white hair and a deep Southern accent that held a lilt of his mother’s heritage. She was a Cajun from southwest Louisiana. His reminisces about his mother’s upbringing fueled my love of the Cajun culture.
In those days in the South, people referred to Mr. Price, an unmarried man of means and patron of the arts, as a ‘bachelor.’ Anyone who has read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt will recognize who Mr. Price was. Polite society did not mention the word homosexual as that wouldn’t be gracious and respectful.
We often had Sunday dinner at Mr. Price’s home, a large two-story house near downtown Aiken. I remember the opulent crimson flocked wallpaper in the parlor, the deep green walls in the dining room. If the weather cooperated, we would often eat on the back terrace surrounded by a lush garden.
But dinner? Not what you might expect for a South Carolina gentleman. While on occasion we might have shrimp and grits or barbequed chicken, we often feasted on shrimp etouffee or jambalaya, dishes Mr. Price’s mother made when he was small. I had my first taste of chicory coffee at his dinner table when I was ten.
I sat mesmerized as he told us of his mother’s home in Lake Charles and his grandparents’ home in the country nearby. He would spin tales of fun in the bayou that hooked me for life. While I loved South Carolina, my heart drifted toward Cajun Louisiana. His memories stirred emotions in me that I have kept to this day.
When I began to write fiction again a few years ago, I knew I would set my stories in the South. While I have never sugarcoated the area’s problems, which are no different from any other part of the United States, there is an ambiance and tone about the South, the southern coast especially, that is alluring. Yet, when I began to write, it was in Louisiana, New Orleans, to be specific, where I set my first novel.
Having visited New Orleans a few times as an adult, I discovered that my writing muse was evidently a resident of the French Quarter. New Orleans, the bayou, the jazz, the beignets, the sultry weather, all characters in themselves and ones I find creeping into my writing.
On a recent Sunday, I watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s final “Parts Unknown” episodes. We lost a unique individual with Bourdain’s death. A notable essayist on life and culture and how food is intrinsic to our existence, not only for sustenance but for the soul. This show centered on Cajun Mardi Gras as celebrated in Southwest Louisiana.
We know of Mardi Gras as a glitzy party of drunken revelry, resplendent with cheap shiny beads, elaborate and gaudy costumes, and over-the-top parades, as well as – well – fun. Bourdain showed us a Mardi Gras celebrated away from the French Quarter that few outsiders know occurs. Equally as gaudy and drunken but steeped in tradition and meaning.
Despite the commercial decadence of the more popular party in the French Quarter or the more traditional decadence of Cajun Mardi Gras, the spirit of the Cajun people, their passion for life, food, and even voodoo fuel the imagination and the soul.
I wrote a short story for a romance anthology. As I developed the story, I struggled with the setting until my muse dragged me into a jazz bar in the Quarter and reminded me that I was a mystery writer and knew where my story belonged. My story is now a romance between a TV reporter and a detective brought together by a murder. The location, you ask. The French Quarter.
There is something about the tenor and vibe of that city that touches me—a mysterious city in a mysterious state unlike any other part of our country. A place steeped in tradition and, like its chronicler, Anthony Bourdain, unique.
As I get closer to publishing my first novel, Crescent City Lies, a mystery set in New Orleans, I realize that the Cajun culture remains embedded within me, sparked so many years ago at Mr. Price’s dinner table.
Please visit Deborah on her new blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com/
If you are traveling South, please stop by Aiken, South Carolina—a beautiful town with the best bar-b-que you will find anywhere! https://www.visitaikensc.com/