Of all the Bohemians and barflies to leave their mark on New Orleans literary landscape surely the most indelible belongs to the poet who scratched “Hank was here — 1955” in wet concrete outside a corner bar in Marigny.
“Hank” is short for “Henry,” as in Charles Henry Bukowski (1920-1994), America’s laureate of lowlife. It was a name he went by in person and one he also used in print, as in “Hank” Chinaski, the alcoholic anti-hero of Bukowski’s novels and prose works like Notes of a Dirty Old Man.
So what was Hank doing in New Orleans in the mid-1950s? Oh, the usual if you believe everything Bukowski wrote about himself— getting drunk, getting into fights, getting laid. The rundown port city of that era was ideal for all three pursuits. But it was here too that Bukowski found a publisher for some of the earliest collections of his poetry, such as It catches my heart in its hands (1963) lavishly printed in an edition of 777 copies by Loujon Press.
Bukowski’s first visit to New Orleans was in 1942. Possibly on the lam from the World War II draft (he would later be classed 4-F, “psychologically unfit”), the young drifter lived in squalid rooming houses, worked for 40 cents an hour as an errand boy for the old New Orleans Item newspaper, and subsisted on “five cent candy bars.”
Fifty years later, and two years before his death from leukemia at age 74, Bukowski remembered that time in one of his most celebrated poems, “Young in New Orleans.” For him…
New Orleans was a place to
I could piss away my life,
except for the rats.
the rats in my dark small room
very much resented sharing it
But why quote, when you can listen to the poet in his own whiskey-roughened voice?
The most asked food and restaurant question I hear from guests is "Where can I get good gumbo?" Besides your momma's kitchen, I always say, really good gumbo is surprisingly hard to find around New Orleans. As a general guide to your search, it is wise to avoid any establishment with the words Gumbo, Creole, or Cajun in the name -- except for this place, Today's Cajun Seafood, in the can't-miss turquoise shack on St. Claude Avenue on the fringe of both the French Quarter and Marigny.
The gumbo at Today's Cajun Seafood is a rich medley of crab, shrimp, chicken and sausage. They don't skimp on any of these protein elements and you are sure to get nice chunk of one or the other with every spoonful. The liquids are exceptional too, perfectly seasoned with a soupy texture and mottled-camo color. This indicates a light roux as the base which, in my book anyway, is a lot closer to homemade than the thick, dark brown, flour-saturated mixture that passes for gumbo elsewhere.
The "dining room" here is dim and depressing, so you'll probably want your gumbo to go. It comes in pints (a decent meal) or quarts (enough for two, or save half for later). With a side of their delicious corn bread and a drink, your tab will come to about $11 or $12.
If you need more encouragement to try Today's Cajun Seafood, check out the parking area out front. Packed, as always, a sign of good gumbo inside.