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The Saint Comes Marching In 

Poppy Z. Brite sends up -- and pays tribute to -- New Orleans' ragtag restaurant community in her latest work, Liquor.

I got a tattoo of him," Poppy Z. Brite reveals, and pushes her chair back from a mug of milky coffee and chicory. In one fluid motion the redheaded author stands, turns, crosses her forearms to grab at the white T-shirt fit snug to her waist and pulls the cotton fabric up over her shoulders. Inked onto her opaque white skin, and spanning most of her back, is St. Joseph holding the infant Jesus. A fleur de lis hovers behind the saint's head, and a dark frame of ink arced at the top and squared off at the bottom contains the icon like the lead casting of a stained-glass church window. "I'm going to fill it in with color eventually," she says.

Brite's latest novel, Liquor, was a leap of faith. Two years ago, when agents and publicists didn't support her unplanned departure from the horror fiction genre, she promised St. Joseph she would brand him to her skin if Liquor sold to a publisher. It did, to Three Rivers Press, and she did. Brite is not Catholic, but she attends Mass occasionally and relishes some of the church's teachings and traditions.

St. Joseph may seem an unlikely supporter of a novel called Liquor, but he is somewhat qualified for the job. Sicilians credit him for once having saved their country from famine, and on every St. Joseph's Day in New Orleans, church communities and devotees -- particularly those of Sicilian heritage -- prepare truckloads of pasta Milanese, stuffed artichokes and fig cakes. Liquor is Brite's second published novel about New Orleans' restaurant culture and food traditions; appropriately, a St. Joseph's altar turns up in chapter 13.

"I also like that he's working class," she says of the carpenter saint. Liquor's sympathetic main characters, John Rickey (called Rickey) and Gary Stubbs (G-man), are also working class. The 27-year-old, hard-hustling, harder-drinking line cooks grew up in the blue collar Lower Ninth Ward, where they shared a first job as dishwashers in a greasy spoon. The cooks moved Uptown at 18, and the opening of Liquor finds them recently fired from Tequilatown, drinking warm orange juice and vodka in Audubon Park, and devising a plan for their own restaurant, Liquor. The rest of the story details with humor, satire and precision the process of opening this restaurant in New Orleans -- from their partnership with Lenny Duveteaux, the star chef funding the project, to developing the liquor-spiked menu, to furnishing the Broad Street establishment in the image of Brite's own fantasy restaurant.

"Rickey was deeply affected by the main dining rooms at Commander's Palace and the original Ruth's Chris," she says of Liquor's design. She has been eating at Commander's Palace since age 3.

Brite's transition from writing about the city's goth culture to its down-and-dirty restaurant kitchens began when Rickey and G-man "turned up one day" in 2000. The scrubby line cooks present more than a casual break from horror: "I feel like I'm writing more honestly about New Orleans than I ever have before." Food and restaurants, she says, "are more about real life, what people are thinking and talking about when they're walking down the street here." The Big D, her third novel starring the duo, is due out next March.

Like many characters in her previous works, Rickey and G-man, once childhood buddies, are gay. They are also largely autobiographical. Brite's husband, Chris DeBarr, has cooked professionally for a quarter century and is currently the sous-chef at La Louisiane in the French Quarter. His war stories, food-crusted footwear and weary limbs provide continuous inspiration, and his disposition is like that of G-man -- a "peaceful soul." Brite shares Rickey's anxious, alpha-dog, shit-disturbing spirit, and his dislike for Sazeracs, which remind them both of divorce.

Brite is also obsessed with food, she adores Rickey's favorite cookbook, Simple French Food by Richard Olney, and she drank like a kitchen soldier while writing Liquor. "I put away a lot of Wild Turkey," she admits. "Mostly at Marisol," the Faubourg Marigny restaurant about which she once wrote a darkly humorous short story included in the collection The Devil You Know.

While restaurants like Tequilatown and characters like the outrageous Lenny Duveteaux are fictional (mostly -- it's impossible not to think about Margaritaville and Emeril), the backdrop for Liquor is real-life New Orleans. Radio announcer Buddy Dilberto and Hansen's Sno-Bliz make appearances. "I mostly take the things I love the best and keep them real," explains Brite. A faction of her old horror fans don't relate to this new world of fiction. "It's not transgressive, it's not gory, there are no hot boy scenes," the author mimics in a whiny voice. But much of the local working-class restaurant community, which could use its own patron saint, has embraced her unglamorous, true-to-life spin on the scene, she says. "Absolutely my favorite reaction is when a chef tells me I got it right." And plenty have.

click to enlarge "I mostly take the things I love the best and keep them real," author Poppy Z. Brite says of her work.
  • "I mostly take the things I love the best and keep them real," author Poppy Z. Brite says of her work.
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