“Using social media will make your customers feel appreciated!”
With my tent set up in the city’s Lincoln Park campground, I get in the car again to find WiFi to Google restaurants.
"Using social media will increase customer loyalty and your profits!"
I find the Morgan City Library in the shadow of the City Hall water tower, on a street that ends at the Atchafalaya River. The river is only 25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and the Morgonians hurry it on its way. A concrete floodwall, taller than some nearby buildings, imprisons the water. Stairs lead up to a walkway on top of the wall, where I expect to see armed guards. Later, I'll find that many of the historical photos on the city’s website show scenes of the area’s worst floods.
A third of the Mississippi River’s water flows down the Atchafalaya through Morgan City. The Old River Control Structure upstream forces two thirds of the water into the Mississippi’s channel. The structure sends it on a longer path through Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the Gulf. If the water had its way, it would escape down the Atchafalaya and take the shortest, steepest path to the ocean. Those who predicted that the Great Mississippi Flood of 2011 would breach the Old River Control Structure were wrong. The structure still stands, for now.
I turn away from the river and head to the library. The low brick building sags under bookshelves so close together I have to turn sideways to walk between them. Plastic grocery bags and boxes of paperback books wait in a corner and shelves along the back wall ooze stacks of newspapers. I move a wooden chair next to an outlet and plug in my laptop.
Rita Mae’s Kitchen has a simple page on morgancitymainstreet.com. They apologize for not serving alcohol and add that they “try to maintain a nice, cozy, and respectable environment for you, the customer.” A review on Urbanspoon says, “Home Cook'N At It's BEST !!!” I head home to Rita Mae’s.
I can almost see the restaurant from the library. Just kitty corner from me is Lawrence Park, which becomes the sound stage for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival each September. Kitty corner on the other side of the park is Rita Mae’s block. Just past that, U.S. Highway 90 thunders overhead. Travelers on their way to Lafayette or New Orleans can’t stop for slow food.
Rita Mae provides food and comfort in a porched house on Federal Street. The enclosed porch is lined with a counter and stools that look out on angle parking and a snippet of unruly tropical lawn. Just inside the front door, in what had been a living room, I pass the cash register. A note near it reminds, "Don't forget the customer on the porch."
Window air conditioners rattle cool, dry air into each of three rooms. Round and rectangular tables, attended by maroon dinette chairs, invite me to sit down. The TV is on and a newscaster talks quietly. Prayer candles on each table remain unlit, but two Bibles open on a ledge in the corner are well used. Someone has written "Look" in the margin of one and drawn an arrow to Psalm 37. The Psalm tells me not to fret myself because of evildoers.
I sit down at a round table. A young woman comes out of the kitchen and seems surprised to find me. I ask for the smothered okra special on the chalkboard. She disappears again without writing an order ticket.
People were eating at two or three of the other tables. Families talk about school or work and friends catch up since “way too long.” A procession of men and women come in to pick up food to go. A man I later learn is Rita Mae’s son, Harry, brings bags of crab burgers, po’ boys, breaded pork chops, catfish, and seafood gumbo out of the kitchen. He’s a good-sized walking advertisement for the food. Harry greets each person and catches up on their news before they take dinner home to their family
Eating okra reminds me of eating supakanja as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. The dish stopped me cold the first time I faced it in the communal bowl: slimy okra, lumpy-orange unrefined palm oil, fermented .tree seeds, and dried, smoked fish mashed together and served on top of an otherwise perfectly good bowl of rice. Supakanja and the tropical heat wore me down and I grew to love the strong flavors and distinctive texture.
Rita Mae’s smothered okra and shrimp over rice is supakanja for Americans. The potato salad and toast are packed with calories and love.
A woman in faded jeans and a sleeveless shirt with sweat stains arrives before her food is ready. She recognizes me as a new arrival and helps me understand the area. She tidies up my pronunciation of Ata-, Achl-, Afla-, At-cha-fa-la-ya. Her husband catches crawfish on the At-cha-fa-la-ya and she mows lawns in Morgan City.
Her husband and his helper took a swim when their crawfish boat flipped over that morning. No one was hurt and they saved their $900 catch of crawfish. Last year, 2010, was his best year ever. This year, he was making a fraction as much. "The water went down too fast and the crawfish hardened up too soon," she explains. Her food is ready before I can learn more about hardening crawfish.
Rita Mae serves bread pudding comfort for dessert. I have just enough room left for a serving, but no one asks if I'd like dessert or brings my check. I sit and watch TV while the tide of customers turns from incoming to outgoing.
Some time after it's dark, I realize that satisfied diners just get up and walk to the register, which makes Harry appear in the kitchen doorway. The floor bows in his honor each time he walks past me to ring someone up. I try this approach and Harry appears for me, too. He remembers what I ate and I pay for it; we don’t talk.
Smothered okra isn’t on the chalkboard when I return to Rita Mae’s two nights later. But Harry finds some in the kitchen for me, and adds an extra side of peas. When I thank him later, he says he heard me tell the woman who mowed lawns that I can’t seem to get enough vegetables when I travel. He had peas, so he gave me some.
Since it was my second meal at Rita Mae's, I was treated like family. After I added a good-sized helping of bread pudding to my smothered okra and peas, I topped the evening off with a long conversation with Harry at the register.
He said he tried driving truck Up North a time or two, but it wasn’t for him. The North, or the driving, I couldn’t tell, but it wasn't the work God gave him to do. He was a cook. He cooked on a barge that plied the Intercoastal Waterway. The 3,000 mile-long waterway gives safe passage to barges and private boats traveling between Brownsville, TX and New Jersey. Canals link bays, rivers, and sounds to allow boaters to avoid the dangers of ocean travel. He cooked on oilrigs, where his meals must have been high points in the lives of people with nothing to look at but water. Now, he’s back home in Morgan City, cooking at his family’s restaurant.
I doubt Rita Mae has listened to an audio book on social media. I don’t think she Tweets, blogs, or uses Groupon. She doesn’t need to. The social contract she and her family live is the mighty force that holds society together. This force binds people into groups that create culture, discover art and science, and try to control the waters of the Mississippi River. Rita Mae and her family don’t look for ways to increase their profits; they work to provide good food in a pleasant place. Rita Mae doesn’t make her customers “feel appreciated”; she shows her guests they’re loved. It’s a love powerful enough to endure the waters of the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi combined.