Food for Life

For those of you who are faithful readers, you might remember an allusion I made to a place I use to frequent years ago in Boston that helped to cement my love for “Louisiana food.”  This is that story. 

Years before I’d ever tasted my first boudin ball, pulled off the Interstate just to get a bag of cracklin’ or learned how to make a proper roux, I was a student at Boston College, a small Jesuit school a few miles outside of Boston proper which was best known for the most unlikely completed pass in college football history.

I was a gangly mess of long hair and guitar strings, an aspiring writer/musician who had been cruelly paired with a walk-on offensive (and I really do mean that) lineman whose most redeeming quality as a roommate was the ability to walk upright (I will never forget his name, Johnny Damon, because years later that name again inflicted unspeakable horror on me by hitting a Grand Slam in the 2004 ALCS for the Boston Red Sox).

I was, in a word, miserable.

As fate would have it, halfway through the first semester, a room, along with a new roommate, became available down the hall.

I’ll never forget the first time I met Micah Evans.  He was from Omaha, Nebraska, Jewish, and probably the only person that felt more out of place at Boston College than I did.  He was exceeding friendly; it was almost off-putting.  He composed all his correspondence with antique fountain pens, spoke like a 19th century Victorian, and was a complete neat freak – in every way the Felix Unger to my Oscar Madison.

About a week into my new living arrangement, I was questioning whether or not I had made my situation better or worse, when there was a knock on our dormitory door.  I opened it to find Chris Ryan, with his gap-toothed grin, and jet black hair.

Chris was of mixed Vietnamese and Irish descent, and was always trying to convince people he was somehow involved with Boston’s Irish mob.  He had the least intimidating tattoo of a black panther I had ever seen on his shoulder, and insisted on wearing tank tops even in winter, despite having the build of a Kenyan marathoner.

“I am going to the Boahdah (Border) Café in Hahvahd (Harvard) Square.  You guys want to come?” he queried.

At the time I didn’t think much about the question.  I was hungry and bored, and desperate for something to do.  I also figured maybe Micah and I could “roommate bond,” although at the time it didn’t seem likely.  But we decided to go anyway, down the hill to the T, and across the Charles into Cambridge.

For those that don’t know what a T is, think streetcar that becomes subway when it get closer to the actual city of Boston.  The Boston in Boston College is somewhat of a misnomer, as it actually is located in Chestnut Hill, although I am not sure if it actually occupies said hill or just another hill (if you are a marathoner, you probably know it as “Heartbreak Hill,” and many hearts were broken there, although curiously few due to running).

When it comes to public transportation, what the T lacks in charm it, it makes up for in inefficiency and convolution.  It is often necessary to first go south to go west (or some variation of that), and you never really know which compass direction you are going, as the tubes are labeled Inbound and Outbound, relative to the location of Boston.  It was only later on that I found out there was a bus which went directly to Cambridge at half the cost and much more directly.

But that day, we took the T, the Green Line to the Red Line to Harvard Square.

Harvard Square, at the time, was a little like the “Cantina Scene” in Star Wars; street musicians, skateboarders, panhandlers, pot-smokers, and anything else you could imagine all huddled in a sunken area that surrounded the entrance/exit to the T.  It was both intimidating and exciting, and it felt more alive than anyplace I had ever been before.

Directly across from the Square sat the grand dame herself, Harvard University.  I felt smarter just being there, the imposing Ivy covered walls and red brick architecture, arcane wisdom enclosed within; it had an aura of gravity and possibility.

And just up from Harvard Square, around the corner, was the Border Café.

Commanding the corner of the cobblestone alley just off Church Street, with flickering gaslights that have long-since been removed, the Border Café looked like it belonged somewhere else, but I didn’t yet know where.  A line of people stretched out the door.

Through the windows you could see rough-hewn wooden tables and an iced-filled bathtub packed with beer, and music poured out the door — Hank Williams singing “Jambalaya.”

It smelled fantastic.

When we were finally seated, I ordered a Dixie beer.  I had never heard of it before, and was a little disappointed that they brought it to me without even asking to see my fake ID.

They also brought us chips and salsa, the corn tortilla chips freshly fried, and still hot, were a revelation to a kid who had grown up on Tostitos.

The menu was a mash-up of ersatz Tex-Mex and Louisiana-style dishes, with blackened, Creole, and Cajun among the adjectives abused.  But, it was tasty, fun and festive, and for the next three and a half years “shrimp en brochette” and “blackened chicken with jambalaya” would become my go-to meal every time Micah and I dropped in – which we did often – as we went from roommates to close friends, largely over dinners at “The Border.”

Chris Ryan, on the other hand, would go down as a footnote in my life.  I rarely saw him after sophomore year, and I’m not even sure if he ended up graduating with us.  Nevertheless, I will never forget him for two things:  Waiting with me outside of Tower Records on Mass Ave at midnight to be the first to buy “Use Your Illusion 1 & 2,” and introducing me to the Border Café.

It is impossible to recall how many good times in my life started with dinner at the Border Café.  How much blackened chicken & catfish, creole chicken, shrimp embrochet, or Sauza Gold Margaritas and Dixie beer were consumed.  Impossible to know whether or not I would have ever become friends with Micah, learned that his parents went to Tulane, read “All the King’s Men,” or become a Southern Literature major, my imagination inspired by a place called New Orleans.

All I know is that for those four years, I was being prepared for something, given the gift of friendship, and a taste for something that would years later define me…

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