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Wants and Needs 

FAY'S TAKE-OUT AND HONEY WHIP DONUTS -- if you thought that was a mouthful, then try the king cake doughnut. Now that's filling.

During harmless dinner conversation recently, I learned that a friend who moved here two years ago has "never felt the need" to try a king cake. I wanted to bulldoze her rationale, to make her see in upper-case letters that EVERYONE NEEDS KING CAKE, but because I can still remember a life before king cakes, I knew she needed edible proof. "Need" and "king cake" are words that never turn up in the same conversation in most parts of the world, but together they reveal the general mood around Louisiana right now. Whereas Lent is (theoretically) 40 days of need-based eating, the Carnival season is all about want. It's even about some things you don't really want -- Moon Pies, warm beers, another plastic cup -- but want to want. I believe I could have converted her, and anyone else, over dessert if I had thought to bring a strawberry-filled Honey Whip king cake.

A king cake ennui descended upon much of the city when McKenzie's Bakeries closed forever in July 2001. Sure, we're still consuming more king cakes per capita during Carnival than Rex has doubloons, but nostalgia has a way of imparting untouchable deliciousness to the memory of everything we'll never eat again. For many Orleanians, Mardi Gras has always tasted like McKenzie's king cakes; even while admitting there was nothing extraordinary about them, they flounder around for an adequate replacement. To these lost revelers I also suggest the strawberry-filled Honey Whip king cake. It will fill the void without obliterating your memory. For, you see, the Honey Whip king cake is a doughnut.

You get these king cake doughnuts in Gretna at Fay's Take-Out, a to-go soul food and doughnut shop that's caddy-corner from The Real Pie Man, a to-go soul food and pie shop. What a wicked, wicked intersection. Honey Whip refers to the faintly honey-tasting glaze that Reyna Antoine, Fay's husband, uses on all of his doughnuts. Imagine a moist, cinnamon-veined king cake that's been fried like a doughnut, a gully of jelly carved into its surface -- or not; they come unfilled, too. People who have never felt the need to try a king cake can imagine a giant, hole-less jelly doughnut with its jelly exposed, cinnamon in its dough and enough glaze, icing and granulated sugar on top to bypass your teeth and cut right up into your nerves. People who have never felt the need to try a jelly doughnut hereby have an assignment.

The non-seasonal doughnuts at Fay's include apple fritters, jelly doughnuts dusted with sugar, light-brown, pillowy chocolate doughnuts and sweet potato-filled fried doughnut "pies" big as a size-6 woman's shoe. You may try an individual pie or slice of cake, but only if there's absolutely no time to cross the street.

Fay is the savory cook and often works the register during lunch. If you can get there on a Friday before 1 p.m., there's a good chance you'll snag an order of her lovely file gumbo. Though I have no proof, I suspect it's the source of yet another rivalry at this take-out intersection. Fay's gumbo is similar to the Real Pie Man's in that both are more green than brown; they're thinner and soupier than most restaurant gumbos but thick as swamp mud with flavor. Each portion of Fay's contains crab parts, a shrimp or two, smoked sausage, softer, pink hot sausage and stray bay leaves. Her crew packs white rice into baggies for adding at the last minute. If Friday's seasonal crawfish special is a creamy pasta made with thick spaghetti noodles, shrimp, parsley and crawfish tails, order one of those, too. The plump, sweet crawfish tasted like springtime two weeks ago.

To be safe, get there even earlier on Thursday and Saturday for barbecue ribs covered with a sticky, molasses-colored sauce that's cooked to candy around the edges. The ribs have more and smaller bones than most ribs I've met and a fleshier meat flavor. Thursday's meatloaf is dense and shot through with green herbs; supple chitterlings taste milder than they smell and come in a blond gravy with rice on the side. I didn't love Friday's hard-to-chew pork chop, but I didn't stop eating it, either.

For side dishes, choose white rice with salty gravy, whole, soupy red beans or mustard greens with pieces of pickled pork big enough to pick up and eat like ribs. Mashed potatoes are smooth but otherwise flavorless. Every plate special comes with the best kind of cornbread: sweet and crumbly. Finally, there's Big Shot root beer and other sodas, and milk to drink with the doughnuts.

You're meant to take your food and go, but nobody minds if you spread out at one of the two-seater tables. Heck, neighbors walk to Fay's in their slippers. Parents conduct business on cellular telephones while their toddlers scream for doughnuts. Other customers make you order the meatloaf instead of the fried drummettes you came for. Fay's is the kind of community-supported corner shop where you'll find plenty of things you want and perhaps a few that you need.

click to enlarge FAY'S owner Fay Antoine works the register at her namesake Gretna restaurant, while husband Reyna is the man behind the doughnuts. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • FAY'S owner Fay Antoine works the register at her namesake Gretna restaurant, while husband Reyna is the man behind the doughnuts.
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