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FROM THIS EPISODE

The Sandwich Makers

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

They pay me an enormous amount of money here at KCRW to do these four-minute commentaries. Well, I exaggerate. They're not exactly four minutes. But you get my point. I'm paid to talk about my life here in Hollywood, but today, I'd like to digress, just a bit, and tell you what I did on my summer vacation.

It took me nine long months to lose fifteen pounds, but I pretty much gained it all back in a single weekend spent in New Orleans, on the annual field trip of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Of course, anyone who belongs to something called the Southern Foodways Alliance is pretty much doomed, obesity-wise. It's an organization based out of the University of Mississippi dedicated to the preservation and continuation of southern food culture. That's the long version. The short version is, we're about biscuits and grits and heirloom peaches and all of the rest of the delicious things that southerners eat that allows them to suffer snobbish Yankee condescension with a gracious, satisfied smile.

We're a loose collection of gluttons from all over the country, and we gather twice a year: once for a serious-ish symposium in Oxford, Mississippi on the campus of the university, and once, in various towns throughout the south, for what we call a -field trip.- It's a field trip only in the sense that locusts or gypsy moths make a field trip. Honestly, what we do is pick a town in the south, descend on it, devour everything that is now or ever was considered food.

Part of the mission of the organization -- aside from ushering its membership to a collective, massive coronary occlusion -- is to document, through film and oral history, the food and folkways of the American South. That's the long version. The short version is, I spent a sultry New Orleans afternoon sitting in the cool of the bar at the Rib Room, one of New Orleans' most venerable drinking spots, listening to Martin Sawyer, the 84-year old master barman reminisce about his half-century serving -- and inventing -- drinks for his grateful customers. As the red light on the video camera blinked, he talked about his craft, his style, and his art.

Later that day, about two hundred of us assembled at Restaurant August, a smashing place run by the immensely talented John Besh. It was our final dinner of the trip, and time to fulfill the second part of the Southern Foodways mission: to honor and commemorate the people and products that make the south and southern food so exceptional.

I was sitting at a table with Anthony and Gail Uglesich, owners of the late, lamented lunch spot, Uglesich's, on Baronne Street, just steps away from the Central Business District. I had enjoyed many, many delicious lunches at Uglesich's over the years -- oyster po'boys and bowls of gumbo -- and so for me, even after years of Hollywood award shows and celebrity-infested restaurants, it was a big, big deal. It was, to put it simply, an -A- table.

The Uglesichs decided to retire and close the restaurant last spring, suddenly, with little fanfare, and so this was the first time they had appeared to meet their happy, though wistful, public. As they stood to thunderous applause, tears welled up in Anthony Uglesich's eyes. His wife held his trembling hands in hers, and the two of them, both in their late sixties, acknowledged for the first time the love and devotion they had inspired by forty years of serving delicious lunches to the hungriest city in the world. We were all a little misty-eyed, to tell you the truth.

-That's what we're all about,- the enthusiastic, evangelizing leader of the Southern Foodways Alliance, John T. Edge, whispered in my ear as the applause roared on. -Nobody ever thanks the sandwich makers and the fry cooks and the guys who get up at four in the morning to make sure everybody gets a hot, delicious lunch. Except us.-

I nodded, wiped my eyes with my napkin, and then tucked into Chef Besh's demonically wonderful dessert.

I'm not sure what the status is, exactly, of John Besh's restaurant. Or Susan Spicer's wonderful Bayona. Or, for that matter, how Martin Sawyer is doing right now. But I know that they'll all be out of work for a time. And I guess I just wanted to tell you about them. Next week, back on topic. I promise.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

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