The book's title suggested an attitude of gratitude that the author was eager to share. It was only a suggestion. Instead, the author insisted I use a multi-pronged attack to smother the public with My Brand. I was to launch aural and visual assaults in order to ‘increase customer loyalty and my profits!’
While my ears ring, I'm holding my tent bag and searching for the driest mud at Lake End Park Campground in Morgan City, Louisiana. A tree and picnic table preserve the deepest mud beneath them; I unfurl my tent in the least unappealing spot.
I’m disgusted with myself for wasting a day on the unrelentingly unhelpful audio book and I don't want to spend the evening as a performance artist. I cancel my Basmati Rice and Alu Mattar Show for the evening. I flee the zoo for dinner out.
The Morgan City Library has free wifi for Googling restaurants. The low brick building crouches in the shadow of the City Hall water tower on a street that makes a full stop at the Atchafalaya River.
I find Rita Mae’s Kitchen on a straight forward page at morgancitymain- street.com. The restaurant apologizes for not serving alcohol and offers a "nice, cozy, and respectable environment for you, the customer." A review on Urbanspoon says, “Home Cook'N At It's BEST !!!” I head to a home without mud or an audience.
The restaurant is on the far side of Lawrence Park, the sound stage for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival each September. U.S. Highway 90 thunders overhead at the end of Rita Mae’s block. Travelers on their way to Lafayette or New Orleans can’t stop for slow food. They’ll get off their cell phones long enough to stop at golden arches or a big red B for meals with no surprises or love.
Rita Mae welcomes hungry diners in a yellow house on Federal Street. The enclosed porch is lined with a counter and stools overlooking angle parking and a snippet of thick tropical lawn. Inside, in what had been the living room, a note near the cash register reminds, "Don't forget the customer on the porch."
I select a round table. A young woman appears at the kitchen door and is surprised to see me. I ask for the smothered okra and shrimp over rice special on the chalkboard and she disappears without writing a ticket.
People are eating at two or three of the other tables. Families talk about school and work; friends catch up. A procession of men and women pick up food to go. A man I learn later is Rita Mae’s son, Harry, lugs 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 everyone and catches up with them before they take dinner home.
Rita Mae's okra and shrimp reminds me of supakanja in my Senegalese Peace Corps village. The concoction stopped me cold the first time I faced it in the communal bowl: slimy okra, lumpy-orange industrial-tasting unrefined palm oil, fermented tree seeds, and dried, smoked fish mashed together and served on top of an otherwise perfectly good bowl of rice. But supakanja and the tropical heat wore me down and I grew to love the strong flavors and distinctive textures of the dish.
A woman in honestly worn jeans and a sleeveless shirt that proves women sweat has a few minutes before Harry brings her food out. She identifies me as a new arrival and appoints herself my guide. First, 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 this morning. No one was lost, including the $900 of catch. Last year, 2010, was her husband’s best crawfish year ever. This year, he's making a fraction as much. "The water went down too fast and the crawfish hardened up too soon," she explains. She leaves with her food before I can ask about hardening crawfish.
I have room for bread pudding, but no one asks if I want anything more. No one brings a check. I watch TV as the tide of customers turns from incoming to outgoing.
Sometime after dark, I realize that satisfied diners get up and walk to the register, which makes Harry appear. The floor bows in his honor each time he passes my table. I try it and Harry appears for me, too. He remembers what I ate and I pay for it.
Smothered okra isn’t on the chalkboard when I return to Rita Mae’s two nights later. But Harry finds some in the kitchen and customizes it with an extra side of peas. It’s my second meal at Rita Mae's and I’m family.
After my okra and peas, I consume a bowl of bread pudding that would have fed my Senegalese host family of 13 and top off the evening with a long conversation with Harry at the register. He says he heard me tell the woman who mows lawns that I can’t seem to get enough vegetables when I travel.
Harry tried driving truck Up North a time or two, but it wasn’t for him. The North, or the driving, I can’t tell, but it wasn't the work God gave him to do. He is a cook. Harry cooked on a barge that plied the Intercoastal Waterway, which provides safe passage between Texas and New Jersey. Harry cooked on oilrigs, where his meals must have been the high point of a duty station 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 spent a day listening to an audio book on social media. I don’t think she Tweets, blogs, or uses Groupon. She doesn’t need social media; she lives her social contract. Rita Mae and her family don’t look for ways to increase their profits; they provide good food in a pleasant place. Rita Mae doesn’t make her customers “feel appreciated”; she shows her guests they’re loved.