By Holly A. Phillips
Peggy Sweeney-McDonald was sipping on an iced-latte, recalling her first food memories: visiting her grandmother in New Orleans, taking trips to the lakefront fountain, indulging in watermelon by the slice, or eating nectar sno-balls.
“I remember being five years old in Baker, and my mom driving me to dance class. On the way, we’d stop at Krispy Kreme and I would get a chocolate-covered donut,” McDonald said.
At such a young age, it was impossible to predict the journey ahead. Today, McDonald is a published author — an actress-turned-event-planner-turned-author, that is — telling the stories she was meant to tell.
The stories, or “food monologues” as she calls them, are written by Louisiana chefs, foodies, politicians, columnists, and students, and are all compiled into McDonald’s Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde.
The title phrase, coined by McDonald, is a quick explanation of her love for the famous coffee house, their fried dough (known to McDonald as “pillows of decadence”), and most importantly that no matter where she lives or what’s happening in her life, she always ends up back at Cafe Du Monde.
While Cafe Du Monde served as a consistent perk for McDonald, it’s not where her journey began. Instead, it started with a coconut pie from Strawn’s Eat Shop in Shreveport.
It was Thanksgiving 2009, and McDonald was at her parents’ home in Baton Rouge, her native home away from Los Angeles. After being laid off from her job as an event planner, she’d created her own company, but had no events to plan due to the down economy.
“My friend Lisa saw on Facebook that I was in town and wanted to come down from Shreveport to visit me,” McDonald said.
Lisa was in Shreveport working on a film, and was feeling down about spending the holiday away from her own family. She cooked herself dinner and drank some red wine alone in her corporate apartment before devouring an entire Strawn’s coconut pie that was supposed to be for her boss’ turkey dinner the following day. During her visit with McDonald, she shared the story, which is now in print in McDonald’s book.
“The way she told the story was so funny,” McDonald said. “It was like one of those monologues, only about food, and everyone in Louisiana has a food story. Everyone everywhere has a food story.”
That night, McDonald stayed up thinking more about these life stories focused on food. She knew she had to create her own event at a restaurant, where more of these stories could be shared.
“I had a wish list of all the people I thought could share their stories,” she said. “Then, I had to ask Cafe Du Monde if I could use their name.”
Cafe Du Monde quickly gave McDonald the green light and Teeta Moss, owner of the Myrtles Plantation, offered to host a storyteller’s show, the first of many to come.
The typical Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde event begins with a dinner party followed by a cast of chefs, restaurant owners, musicians, actors, and other foodies wanting to contribute, sharing their food-related stories.
“I had to call all of the people on my wish list, tell them my idea, and ask them to be on the show,” she said. “None of these people knew how it was going to go.”
But as the show went on, McDonald said, the group agreed they were on to something. Before 2012, Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde was performed 32 times in Louisiana and Mississippi, which included 230 people sharing their food monologues.
The idea for a coffee table book came to McDonald the first night of the show, after seeing a collection of similar books at the Myrtles backstage. She took note of the publisher, Pelican Publishing, on the back of one of the books, and invited them to the first performance in New Orleans in 2010.
“They didn’t come to the show,” she said. “But I sent them a quote later that someone told me after the show about how it was the best oral history of Louisiana they’d heard.”
Five minutes later, the editor called McDonald and asked how many people they could bring to the show.
“I told them I’d reserve a table for 10 and they brought their whole team,” McDonald said.
The day after the show, McDonald got another call from Pelican Publishing. They thought it was a great idea for a book and wanted an outline.
“All of a sudden I felt inspired and hopeful again,” she said. “Maybe this is what I was supposed to do. These stories are funny, touching, and some will make you cry.”
It took about a year to get the contract, but once it was signed, McDonald had 90 days to pull together the material, including stories, recipes, and pictures from 67 people.
“There were many times when I asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ My fears paralyzed me,” she said. “I’ve learned so much; one big lesson is when you’re inspired to step out of your comfort zone, your fears are going to come up, but you just have to move forward.”
McDonald made her deadline, and now her book is published, debuting in September at No. 1 on Amazon’s list of Hot New Releases. Famed Louisiana chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh have also endorsed it.
“People have stepped up and allowed me to use their stories. The love I’ve found in Louisiana you don’t find anywhere else,” McDonald said. “Louisiana people shine in this book and I’m proud to be a southern belle.”
Before coming to the South to attend dozens of book events, McDonald’s friends in Los Angeles wanted to send her off with a kickoff party. They met at the corner of Fairfax and 3rd street, Los Angeles’ Original Farmer’s Market, for a meal at The Gumbo Pot.
“Everyone has their own ‘Cafe Du Monde.’ That place when you go home, you know you just have to eat there,” she said. “Restaurants in Los Angeles aren’t like they are in Baton Rouge, but I’m with good friends.”
McDonald plans to spend the next four months promoting her book, and said the performances will pickup afterward. She also plans to write her own book about her journey, and perhaps additional coffee table books about food stories in other cities, such as Los Angeles.
“I’ve gotten signs along the way that I’m on the right path, and this is just the beginning,” she said. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”
McDonald is confident in the book and what it says about her home state. Holding up the book to reveal its cover photo of an order of Cafe Du Monde beignets, she said, “They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but this one you can.”
Originally, McDonald wasn’t going to write in the book at all, but her journey is forever changing, and she decided to tell the title monologue:
“No matter what happens in my life, no matter where I live, I always end up at Cafe Du Monde. You know what to expect, you know what we are ordering — those little pillows of decadence, we know how it will taste — delish. We know we can afford it — cheapest food in New Orleans. We know it’s open, and we know we are having a great time with good friends or family, life is wonderful for a brief hour, we are totally in the moment … yes, we are living life one beignet at a time.”
Find out more information about the book, events, and performances at www.MeanwhileBackAtCafeDuMonde.com or follow McDonald on Twitter @BackatCafeDuMonde.
Join Peggy Sweeney-McDonald, along with Jim Urdiales, chef and owner of Mestizo, and other food storytellers, at Mestizo on Oct. 9, for a book signing party from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Jim Urdiales, chef and owner of Mestizo, shared his food monologue in “Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde…,” along with his family recipe for guacamole.
Ingredients: 10 Haas avocados, ripe; 2 whole onions; 2 vine ripened tomatoes, chopped; ½ cup of Italian Dressing; salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.
Directions: blend all ingredients in a food processor or mash.