Hurricane, Café Ventana
On our way out the door the other afternoon, we spied a squirrel taking a nap, sprawled on a low, fat tree branch in the backyard. Arms and legs hanging, belly stuffed with black walnuts, he was suspended directly above a woefully underused hammock. We felt a sharp pang of jealousy. Drink of the Week has a bad case of the late summer lazies. Normally an assiduous to-do list checker-offer, we haven't flipped the page of our notepad in more than a week.
The breaking of the seemingly interminable heat spell brought relief but also some end-of-summer melancholy. This has manifested as profound listlessness, squirrel envy and a fascination with southern culture. These days about the only thing we can work up much interest in doing is sitting down with a big ol' plate of fried fish, black-eyed peas and stewed okra with a few thick tomato slices on the side, then retiring to the back porch with an iced tea and a copy of Garden and Gun to listen to the cicadas.
St. Louis displays a little of its own southern charm, like sweet-smelling magnolia trees with dinner plate-sized white blossoms and shiny dark green leaves, but the soul of this town is as solidly Midwestern as a soybean. We have the sense that time actually slows down as you move south. The Deep South of our imagination is full of decorum, languid drawls that roll softly off tongues, evening strolls and dripping moss.
Café Ventana (3919 West Pine Boulevard; 314-531-7500) is the ideal backdrop for a Southern Gothic fantasy. The tall, heavy wooden doors and wrought iron chandelier evoke the French Quarter, as do its beignets and café au lait. The sofas and cozy corner banquettes encourage lingering, though the patio is the place to be on a warm, breezy night. We are dining at one of a handful of tables scattered in the cobblestone walkway between the main building and the annex, a string of lights providing barely more glow than lightening bug tails.
In this case, the fantasy might even be better than the reality. In real New Orleans, it's hurricane season. (Not the rum-based kind -- the city-leveling kind.) The bar where the Hurricane cocktail originated in the 1940s, Pat O'Brien's, has become a tourist trap and now serves a bright red, syrupy sweet, frozen concoction made from a powdered mix.
Café Ventana combines orange and pineapple juices with three kinds of rum -- Bacardi 151 and Flor de Caña light and dark -- then floats a splash of grenadine on top. It is sweet but not off-puttingly so. Although not especially strong (the ratio of juice to booze is 2:1), it is dangerously easy to drink. Young women are encouraged to sip delicately from a straw, lest the rum go to your head and cause you to do something unladylike, such as forgetting to cross your legs at the ankles.
After dinner we catch the last show of The Help at the Moolah Theatre & Lounge. The plot is concerned with the ugly reality of life in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, but the veneer is awfully pretty. We are enamored of the accents and architecture, the tea-length gloves and tiny waists of the ladies' dresses, and most of all, the glorious food: fried chicken, collard greens, biscuits, glazed carrots, deviled eggs, ambrosia salad and pies, oh, the pies! Mercy.
For the rest of the summer, you can find us rocking in the hammock, channeling Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire: "I don't want realism. I want magic!" If you're going to be stopping by, fetch us a strawberry sarsaparilla, won't you? We'll read aloud from the works of notable southerner William Faulkner, especially this passage, spoken father to son as he passes on his father's watch,
"...I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it." --The Sound and the Fury