The moment I walked in the front door yesterday afternoon, my father informed me of the passing last Thursday of Chef Paul Prudhomme, the rotund, effervescent champion of Cajun cooking at K-Paul’s restaurant in New Orleans. My mouth dropped open in shock; I had just had dinner at K-Paul’s on Monday night the 5th, and the front-of the-house man, my former student, Boris Palacios, had not said anything about his condition, although we both knew Chef Paul had been in poor health for some time.
For those who might be interested, I link to Prudhomme’s obituary in The New York Times and to a great piece by Brett Anderson in the The Times-Picayune from a decade ago that will give you a real sense of just how hard it is to found a restaurant, to sustain it through its formative years, and to maintain its excellence over several generations. Chef Paul did all of those things and more. I have been fed by his cooking and charmed by his niece, Brenda Prudhomme Miller, more times than I can count. Boris and Brenda and the staff there know I love them all, and I’ll keep coming back for the gumbo, the panneed veal, and the red beans and rice for as long as my legs can carry me there.
How sweet it was to sit in City Park last Wednesday on the bench near the tree dedicated to the memory of Belinda Christine Lazaro, another former student of mine, who died of uterine cancer four years ago, and commune with the woman whose spirit still lives inside all of those who loved her. It’s a beautiful spot, especially in early October, as a man can feel the cool breeze rustling through the leaves above him and sense that there is in that place a movement more refreshing than the air he breathes and more lasting than the grass under his feet. Belinda loved that tree; she could see it from the porch of her house across the street on Hennesey St. where she lived. It was natural then, that Belinda’s parents, lovely people with whom I dined at Commander’s Palace last Wednesday night, would place a plaque in her honor at the foot of the bench:
“In the midst of absence a presence is made known / We honor you, Belinda, with this tree of eternal life.”
It is natural, also, that Glen and Sylvia wish their daughter’s name to live forever. I can assure them that it will, just as long as there remains anyone alive who remembers Belinda’s vivaciousness, her talent as both a writer and an artist, and her absolute grace as a human being. She was loved by her family and friends; she was loved by the doctors who fought valiantly to save her life; she was loved by every single person who knew her in the neighborhood where she lived. All of us have dedicated a portion of our own lives to preserving some physical and spiritual trace of her existence for as long as we can, and we are happy to do so. Belinda was the kind of woman who made those around her want to be better people, and it is through preserving who and what she was that we are becoming, slowly but surely, those better people.