The Battle For Modern New Orleans

Gary Krist is a New York Times best-selling author whose latest book, Empire of Sin, is a work of historical non-fiction chronicling New Orleans in the early 1900s.

It’s a fascinating story about the battle for the modern city, played out mostly in the notorious Storyville district where prostitution and other debauchery ran rife.

During a dinner interview at the Southern-themed Acadiana restaurant in Washington, DC, Gary told me how he first got the idea for the book and the extensive research that went into it. And he chronicled the tough task of bringing an impartial voice to tell both sides of the story in his book, which is an excellent read.

Click on Gary’s picture above or on this link to read the interview.

Happy New Year

Happy new year!

The first dining interview of 2015 is scheduled to take place later this month in Washington, DC, so look for that article early in February.

In the meantime, if you came here via a mention on the Today show of “dining with strangers” I’m sorry to say you’re looking for the wrong site. Their piece was not about my project interviewing strangers over dinner, but instead was about a pretty fun project called EatWith. They put groups of strangers together to share meals at someone’s house. You can check it out at EatWith’s Facebook page.

However, if you came here looking for Dining With Strangers and my interviews with randoms, then welcome back!

I realize I’m using a lot of exclamation marks in this post, so I could sum up quickly. I’ve recently updated my page of travel plans for this year, which includes stops in New York City, Florida, Italy, California and Mexico. If you live in any of those places and are interested in being interviewed about your life by a stranger (me) over dinner at a place of your choosing (I pay), click on this link.

Another Year Of Dining

As 2014 draws to a close, here’s a recap of the strangers I met during the year.

Early in the year I was interviewed by Perry Stein of the Washington City Paper for an article about Dining With Strangers. I had a fun time talking with the reporter, and it was unusual to be the one getting interrogated.

In addition to the publicity from the subsequent article, I’m also grateful to the piece because I said I was planning on doing at least one interview a month throughout the entire year. I’m happy to say that I’ve stuck to that minimum and in several months exceeded it by one or two, meaning I got to meet plenty of people.

From a zydeco dancer down in New Orleans to the manager of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and from a jazz musician to a two-part breakfast in Los Angeles with actor Stephen Tobolowsky, I had a blast with these 19 strangers:

  • Stranger #52 (January 30): The first interview of the year took place in Washington, DC, with local jazz musician Aaron L. Myers II. Getting serenaded at dinner was a great way to start off 2014.
  • Stranger #53 (February 19): Matt Abbruzzesse told me about his campaign for a slot on a local DC municipal board known as an Advisory Neighborhood Commission — a race that he eventually did not win.
  • Stranger #54 (March 6): Dinner in DC with Jeffrey Johnson, also known as Special Agent Galactica, his musical alter-ego who sings songs and tells stories about traveling through time and space.
  • Stranger #55 (April 21): Elizabeth Moore, a DC resident, told me during dinner about how she came to adopt a philosophy of saying “yes’ to as much as possible — and how it’s helped her life.
  • Stranger #56 (May 6): Costume technician Edwin Schiff told me about his career working backstage in theater.
  • Stranger #57 (May 8): Serenaded once again at dinner, this time by ukelele-playing singer-songwriter Louisa Hall from Washington, DC.
  • Stranger #58 (May 24): The first-ever two part interview on Dining With Strangers, and that’s because New Orleans resident Mary Burns had so much to say. In part one she talked about her experiences growing up in the Big Easy and working as a Catholic school teacher. In part two she detailed her experiences in Hurricane Katrina and her new love of zydeco dancing.
  • Stranger #59 (May 25): Another interview in the Big Easy, this time with Daniel Lelchuk, who is the assistant principal cello for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • Stranger #60 (June 30): Brendan Kelleher and I ate pizza and enjoyed several beers as he told me about his website, Behind The Craft, where he interviews the owners of craft breweries.
  • Stranger #61 (July 21): Off to New York City for a dinner interview with Matt Bauman, a man of many trades. He’s an actor, real estate agent, and owner of a website for theatrical coaches.
  • Stranger #62 (July 22): I spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the Jim Henson Creature Shop and learning the art of making puppets from the company’s Production Manager Melissa Creighton.
  • Stranger #63 (August 12): The first time I’ve interviewed the sibling of a prior stranger. I got fish and chips in Virginia with Louisa Hall’s sister Marlene Hall, who works with veterans organizations.
  • Stranger #64 (September 16): During a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, married couple Jesse and Sarah Smith told me about their discovery of omnist religious beliefs and how that changed their lives.
  • Stranger #65 (October 11): Actor Michael Hitchcock, recognizable from Glee, Best In Show and a million other films and television shows, reminisced about his work and talked about his future projects.
  • Stranger #66 (October 13): Another two-part interview, this time in Los Angeles with actor/writer Stephen Tobolowsky. In the first part, Stephen told me about how he got into acting and his experiences in that career. In part two of the interview, he explained how he got into writing and why he now considers that to be a greater passion than the thespian life.
  • Stranger #67 (October 31): Perhaps the most lavish meal with a stranger of 2014, I spent almost three raucous hours at Galatoire’s restaurant in New Orleans with long-time French Quarter resident Dr. Brobson Lutz.
  • Stranger #68 (November 28): Single mother Caecilia Kay told me about her struggles balancing her dreams of developing a career in social media and public relations with making sure her children have everything they need.
  • Stranger #69 (December 22): Lunch in Hull, a city in northern England, with Jean Bishop, also known in her town as the Bee Lady. For years she’s dressed up in a bumblebee costume as an eye-catching fundraising effort for Age UK, England’s largest charity offering support to older people.

The Bee Lady

For more than 30 years, Jean Bishop has dressed up in an eye-catching bumblebee costume as a way to gain attention for her fundraising efforts for Age UK, a British charity that offers a host of services to the country’s elderly.

Her sunny demeanor and energetic, award-winning fundraising efforts — she’s raised more than £100,000 ($155,000) for Age UK and received a Pride of Britain award — help explain why Jean is known in her area as “The Bee Lady.”

Last week, I sat down to lunch with Jean in her hometown of Hull, northeast England. She told me about the first time she stepped in to the costume, and her many experiences over the years — as well as why she’s so dedicated to Age UK.

Click here or on the picture above to read my interview with Jean, the Bee Lady.

The Stranger Before Christmas

Heading back to England tomorrow for a two-week trip to the home country. While there, I’m hoping to do one more interview before Christmas Day. That’ll help me hit my self-imposed goal of doing at least one interview a month in 2014.

That interview is meant to take place on Monday. So in the meantime, get in the festive mood by reading over my interview from 2011 with Ed Downey. For three decades he’s lived a double life as Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, whatever you prefer).

Ed explained how he got involved in dressing up as jolly old Saint Nick, and some of the experiences he’s had in what has apparently been an incredibly successful career.

Chatting With Caecilia

My 68th dinner is now online!

This is my meal with Caecilia Kay. She’s a single mother living in Maryland with a dream of one day being a communications and public relations professional. She’s on medical disability at the moment, so trying to find the right balance between coping with disability, motherhood, and her dreams on a part-time basis.

During dinner at the Carolina Kitchen in Washington, DC, she shared with me the highs and lows of her life. And she explained how the Catholic faith she’s had since she was a child is helping her focus on her future ambitions.

Click on Caecilia’s picture above or this link to read the interview.

National Lager Day

A little late in the evening for this, but today is apparently National Lager Day in the United States. If only it could be a public holiday, then I might be able to get fully behind it.

I discovered this fact while browsing the multiple daily updates that New Orleans food critic Tom Fitzmorris writes on his website, the New Orleans Menu. One of the features is a long list of random trivia about food and drink, including today’s lager celebration.

On a sidenote, read my interview with Tom by clicking here.

The fact it’s National Lager Day also allows me to shoehorn in a reference to another former dining stranger. Brenden Kelleher runs Behind The Craft, a great website where he interviews craft brewery owners about their libations. Brendan was great company when we had dinner in Washington, DC, and he gave me an introductory lesson in how to appreciate different styles of beer. His site is well worth repeat visits.

All Are Welcome

Michael Wilkinson is one of the founders of Washington, DC-based pizza restaurant company Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza.  Back in 2009, he let me into Pete’s Columbia Heights restaurant to learn all about how he got involved in the business — and I even got to try my hand a making one of their excellent pizzas.

Michael is also a keen photographer, and from time to time displays his work in the city.

His latest exhibit is called “All Are Welcome: Rowhouse & Storefront Churches,” and runs from December 11 through January 24, with an opening reception December 13.

Here’s a description of the upcoming exhibit from its Facebook page: “Architectural photographer Michael K. Wilkinson has been wandering the streets of Washington DC with a camera since he moved to the city from Brooklyn in 1993. From the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, using black & white film, he sought to document an oft-overlooked element of the streetscape: row house and storefront churches. Located mostly in underdeveloped neighborhoods, many of these small houses of worship have vanished since these photographs were taken, as real estate and commercial development have swept across the city in ever-expanding waves.”

Michael’s exhibit is located at the Anacostia Arts Center at 1231 Good Hope Road SE. The opening reception on December 13 will run from 11am to 6pm.

Brobson’s Big Easy

Brobson Lutz moved to New Orleans decades ago to study medicine at Tulane University, and has stayed ever since.

For years he’s lived in the French Quarter, enjoying the sights, sounds, and tastes of everything that the Big Easy has to offer. With a Southern drawl and an easygoing charm, he makes for great company over dinner.

We ate at Galatoire’s, one of the city’s old-school restaurants. It’s impossible to reserve a table in the raucous downstairs dining room — unless you’ve lived in the city as long as Dr. Lutz and been going to the restaurant as often as he has.

Click here or on the picture above to read about my highly enjoyable dinner with Brobson.

Black & Gold: Encore

New Orleans-based t-shirt company Storyville is taking entries through Nov. 23 for its latest monthly contest to design a tee. November’s theme is “Black & Gold: Encore” — a second chance to craft a t-shirt dedicated to the primary colors of the city’s football team the Saints.

I interviewed Storyville’s owners Josh and Natalie Harvey last year during a pleasant lunch at Coquette, just a few blocks from their flagship store on Magazine Street in New Orleans.

They’re an incredibly friendly couple, and had plenty to share about how they got into the t-shirt business. I like many of Storyville’s products, and enjoy their monthly contests in which anyone can submit a design to be chosen for production.

Check out the designs for Black & Gold, or submit your own!

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