In years past, Holy Thursday meant lunching on gumbo z'herbes, a rarely served green variation of the Louisiana staple, at Dookey Chase restaurant in New Orleans with my good friend Charles, a professionally-trained cook.
It was one of those special traditions - thick with history and culture - that only New Orleans seems to have. The dish, which is really a stew of greens and herbs rather than a roux-based gumbo, originated with African slaves.
Charles always had a table for the occasion at the restaurant run by his friend Leah Chase, as did others who knew the famed New Orleans chef. It was a social event as much as a dining experience. By noon, the room was filled with politicians, socialites, foodies, regular customers and a few tourists lucky enough to hear about the tradition and land a seat in the restaurant, located across the street from one of the city's big public housing projects on Orleans Avenue.
The restaurant was badly flooded after Hurricane Katrina, and Chase hasn't reopened it.
I spent this Holy Thursday in San Diego, my new home, eating at Souplantation, an all-you-can-eat soup and salad chain. The food was as good as one might expect in a high-traffic, strip-mall shopping environment.
Back in New Orleans, Chase was serving gumbo z'herbes in a French Quarter restaurant as part of a fund raiser to help reopen her business. Tickets for the lunch ranged from $75 to $500.
The event was covered by National Public Radio during the network's "All Things Considered" broadcast. The NPR report includes Chase's recipe for the dish.
Times-Picayune writer and Dookey Chase Holy Thursday regular John Pope covered the fundraiser for the New Orleans newspaper. See his story here.
My friend Charles, now living in Dallas while he decides what to do with his flooded and all-but-destroyed Lakeview home, also was missing Chase's gumbo z'herbes on Thursday. But when I talked to him later in the evening, he glibly noted that he fixed couscous for lunch.