By Doc Lawrence
NEW ORLEANS-“Just had the best damn collard greens in my life,” he told me while getting a sidewalk shoeshine in front of the Cabildo beside New Orleans famous landmark, Jackson Square. Bill Owens, a sports broadcaster for FSU, knew his way around restaurants and never one to ignore a recommendation, I revisited Buster Holmes Restaurant on Burgundy, a street close enough to walk over for lunch. Red beans and rice, corn bread, a beer and high-energy juke box music.
While Buster Holmes Restaurant closed its door many years ago, delicious memories remain. My personal loss was lessened after learning later that there was a cookbook produced by Buster. The first, in 1980, was followed by three editions; the most recent, The Buster Holmes Restaurant Cookbook-New Orleans Handmade Cookin’ (Jackson Square Press, Gretna, La. 2016) includes an introduction by Poppy Tooker.
My memories are as rich as Buster’s roux. The first venture was before racial segregation ended. I came to town with an R.O.T.C drill team to march in a Mardi Gras parade and had a free place to stay at Tulane and a little spending cash. My first strip shows, walking into bars that sold me booze at age 17 and actually meeting girls from other countries thrilled an innocent kid from Atlanta, but the fun was yet to come.
My first visit to Buster Holmes Restaurant introduced me to red beans and rice and Jax beer. Like Louis Armstrong, Woody Allen, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Irma Thomas, Ray Charles, Harry Connick, Jr., Pete Fountain and a legion of regular diners, you learned this was food that couldn’t be easily duplicated at home. .
Food writing and cookbooks have deep roots in this country and African-Americans for too long have been shortchanged. Their cooking contributions are bedrock. I am overjoyed to find Buster’s cookbook, an affirmation of all that his diners loved.
If you are fascinated by unfiltered core recipes with names like roast suckling pig, egg jambalaya, bull head gravy, Manny’s spoon bread and perfect country fried chicken, and if you find that food and cooking origins enrich your own cooking and eating experience, you need this book.
Much like the no-frills restaurant, Buster Holmes is a modest publication, devoid of color, heavy enameled paper or a fancy cover. Like so many culinary treasures (church fundraiser cookbooks come to mind), the pages sparkle with authenticity. And, because I’ve not only enjoyed some of these dishes at Buster’s but also tried them at home, I’m overjoyed to say that the thrill is there in every bite.
The Buster Holmes Restaurant Cookbook is an American original, an heirloom. Like jazz and the blues, here’s an essential part of our heritage. What a wonderful holiday gift for a cook.