Feb 18, 2006

HOME OF THE MUFFY
"ALERT!!! Plastic Baby Baked in Cake," declares the warning sticker.

"Do you boil the babies first?" I ask a worker at Julie Anne's Bakery.

"They're clean," she points to a cup of fingernail-sized, naked pink dollies. She lobs one into a roll of sweet dough and begins twisting it into a king cake, the traditional sweet of Mardi Gras. Basically, it's a big circular cinnamon roll, sprinkled with gold, purple and emerald green sugar crystals.

Whoever scores the baked baby has to buy next year's cake. "No pagan fertility overtones?" I ask. The baker shakes his head. "It represents the infant Jesus. Some people think it's lucky."

Sugar-fueled denial: the best kind.

***

Tonight I'm attending the black-tie Krewe of Gemini ball. Nervous about sub-par grooming among the southern belles, I run to the drugstore. And freeze, confronted by acres of powder compacts.

Am I alabaster or ivory? Do I need to foundation goo, which I despise? Does the applicator puff come in the packet? I beg a clerk for help. "Honey, I don't know make-up, but she does."

She points to a colleague, whose black complexion is overwritten with garish blush and blue eyeshadow. Her hair rises to a woodpecker wedge, bleached blonde at the tips. All that glitters is gold – namely, a tooth.

It's a look, all right. Not exactly the one I was after, though.

But why not ask?

This vivid woman is, in fact, a licensed cosmetologist. She selects a suitably prissy, whiter-shade-of-pale powder and coaches me on its application. We laugh a lot.

I leave, much wiser in ways beyond make-up.

***

We lunch at Fertitta's, purveyor of a legendary mixed-meat and chopped-olive sandwich on muffaletta, a round Cajun-Sicilian bread.

"Dad couldn't afford to spell the whole word on the neon sign, so we're just the 'home of the muffy'," explains Agatha Fertitta McCall. Her delicatessen is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior retains a 1950s air with checked table cloths, faded travel posters, family snapshots and a crucifix on the pea-green walls. Patrons sip cokes and sweet tea.

"It would be a great place for a mafia movie," Agatha admits. "Once we hosted a divorce party. The cake was shaped like a pig and had the ex-wife's name on it."

Her husband Robert interjects: "Yeah and it was red, so it looked like the pig was bleeding when they cut slices."

Both shudder. Mob jokes aside – and we Italian-Americans all make 'em – the McCalls are gentle people, dedicated to family and tradition.

Fertitta's was once surrounded by the honky-tonks and shotgun houses of the Blue Goose District. "My dad looked at Elvis and said, 'that kid isn't going to amount to anything. He's a hoodlum.'"

Now the red-brick building stands isolated amid empty lots. "I don't know what will happen to the Home of the Muffy," Agatha says. She curls an arm around her son, a young man who dreams of real estate development, rather than mincing pickles into the olive spread.

"All I know is my father told me to hang onto Fertitta's, no matter what. The longer it lasts, the more valuable it becomes. You can't manufacture history and tradition."

2 comments:

  1. Spain has a similar bread loaf with baby Jesus baked in. Our friends brought us one before we left, we got the Jesus, and used it as our mascot on our travels (along with a Buddha from another friend and a wooden cat I bought in Marakkesh).

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  2. You're getting a whole sacred menagerie there, J!

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