Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Interviewed John and Lillie Mae Norbert about Norbert’s Restaurant - and Broussard Louisiana

John and Lillie Mae Norbert at Norbert's Restaurant

"...Which days do you serve home-made rice dressing? Sometimes on Wednesday, sometimes on Thursday..." (Virginia Billeaud Anderson - BoudinandBourbon.com talks to John and Lillie Mae Norbert about their lives, the history of Norbert's Restaurant, and the history of Broussard Louisiana.)

Interviewed John and Lillie Mae Norbert about Norbert’s Restaurant - and Broussard Louisiana

As my readers know, I rarely write about food and booze in the manner of a critic, preferring instead to focus on history, biography and personal stories, infinitely more interesting. I can’t, it seems, resist the intimate beguiling anecdotes.

Who could resist knowing that Tony Chachere (b. 1905) whose Creole Seasoning achieved world-wide fame, let out a battle cry whenever he cooked for his friends. “Tonight I’m gonna make um cry.” Or for that matter, that Henry C. Ramos concocted the Ramos Gin Fizz in 1888 while tending bar on Gravier Street in New Orleans, and that Governor Huey P. Long who was partial to the gin fizz’s he tossed back when in New Orleans figured one made elsewhere would be sorry indeed, inspiring ole Huey to travel to Manhattan with a Roosevelt Hotel bartender so he could get a decent cocktail.

With history and biography in mind, I visited John and Lillie Mae Norbert at Norbert’s Restaurant in Broussard, Louisiana. I went there knowing John and Lillie Mae’s 50 year old restaurant had a faithful following, that their daily plate lunch specials were highly regarded, that Lillie Mae’s meat pies were famous, and that the Norbert's were popular caterers. I didn’t know however that John was friendly with my grandfather who kicked the bucket in 1949, or that he found it immensely satisfying to discuss the town’s history.

For clarification, the town of Broussard, located 6 miles southeast of Lafayette Louisiana, was established in the 1800s to serve the needs of land-owning planters of cotton and sugar cane, with a post office, bank, merchandising establishments, hotel and rail depots. Inevitably their agricultural world bit the dust, and the town essentially morphed into a suburb of Lafayette. I lived there when I was a brat.

Lillie Mae Norbert in the kitchen
at Norbert's Restaurant
John Norbert in his kitchen with ribs

John Norbert's pork ribs

“If John smiles too much when he’s talking, he’s blowing smoke.” My brother David is warning me that John Norbert might embellish. Duly noted, I asked John about a sign that claimed Norbert’s Restaurant was the Original Home of Rice and Gravy. “A lot of people phrased it like that, so I made that sign.” John wasn’t taking credit for innovating daily plate lunches, Dwyers in Lafayette began doing that in 1927. He was claiming, on the other hand, that he took a more home-spun approach to plate lunches. “In Lafayette they served things like a pork chop and potatoes. Here on the Broussard side of the bayou, I was the first to serve the food they cooked in the houses, like seven steak and rice and gravy. In Lafayette you got liver and onions only at breakfast, I gave it to them at lunch. Ah gave the people everything that was good to eat.”

Original Home of Rice and Gravy

We chitchatted about their start. In 1970, John and Lillie Mae had an opportunity to buy a restaurant business located in an old building on Morgan Street, near the corner of Morgan and Main Street, a bustling intersection that had the town’s only stop light. There, they sold boudin, meat pies, and po-boy sandwiches such as ham and cheese, fried shrimp and roast beef. In 1972, after he discontinued working for slaughterhouses and meat markets, John joined Lillie Mae in the restaurant, and altered the business plan to include plate lunches. “More profitable.” In 1977 they snatched up a larger building, and moved it to their property north of the town near Highway 90, where Norbert’s Restaurant is today.

As a kid running past their restaurant's first location, the old building on Morgan Street, I was clueless about its age and origin, oblivious to the fact that the town had other 19th century structures, and that my own family had owned a building built in 1889. John knew the origin of his restaurant’s building. “That old store belonged to Madame Morvant. Her husband was Laodice. Laodice and Rosie Morvant had that store.”

Norbert's Restaurant's first building

Which days do you serve home-made rice dressing? “Sometimes on Wednesday, sometimes on Thursday.” In other words, the menu changes. John and Lillie Mae don’t make a lot of online fuss, don’t blast their menus across the internet. Nevertheless, regular customers seem to know the Norberts serve rabbit on Monday, and know which days John fires up his grill for bar-b-q pork ribs, and when to show-up for smoked sausage or fried chicken or meatball stew or shrimp étouffée or fried catfish. Regulars know the side dishes such as rice and gravy, potato salad, green beans, candied yams, coleslaw, red beans, as well as Lillie Mae’s desserts, pies and puddings. Be sure to call and order ahead of time if you want Lillie Mae’s meat pies.

Back in Houston, I poured myself a glass of bourbon and began to think about John and Lillie Mae’s rice dressing. Admittedly, I failed to appreciate that dish when I was a kid, had the nitwitted notion it was “country food.” Today I’m wiser, and can say unequivocally the dish rivals in refinement and complexity paella I ate in southern Spain, and pilaf with saffron and bits of lamb I gobbled down in southeastern Turkey on the Syrian border, and squid risotto with parsley, garlic, onion, wine and parmesan I plowed-through when Donnie got us an apartment on Hvar island off the Adriatic coast of Croatia. Home-made authentic rice dressing without pre-packaged ingredients is a marvelous mix of rice and vegetables such as onion, celery, garlic, parsley and green pepper, and multiple seasonings such as cayenne, cumin and oregano, and broth, oil and butter, and ground chicken liver and gizzards, and ground pork, or beef. When I recollect the old-timey hand-cranked meat grinding contraption that made it, I’m convinced rice dressing is sacred.

Where was John (b. 1933) born? In a house that was located where the highway in front of his restaurant is. “On daddy’s farm.” Where did you attend school? “I didn’t have any school. Well, I went long enough to learn how to say my prayers in English instead of French, to make my First Communion, just a few months. But I managed to educate my children.”

He began working on daddy’s farm at age six, he picked cotton, grew vegetables, raised and slaughtered hogs and cattle. He lassoed his first job off the farm at age 16. “I went to work on the Girouard Ranch.” Doing what? “I mended the fences, herded cattle, tended the horses.”

Lillie Mae Norbert was born in a Billeaud Planters Workers'
House. Image from Acadiana Village website

Lillie Mae Adams Norbert was born in Broussard in 1947. “I was born on Billeaud Plantation in one of the workers’ houses.” She’s referring to living quarters the family provided for employees who helped to harvest sugar cane, constructed in the 1920s or 1930s. Her father Whitney Adams worked as a field laborer for Billeaud Planters, and later operated sugar cane moving equipment at Billeaud Sugar Factory. The workers’ houses were demolished in the 1970s when the sugar mill closed. Except for one. It was donated to Acadiana Village, which displays historical structures in a museum style setting, and is a venue for swanky events and wedding receptions. “The house they donated was the exact house Lillie Mae lived in.”

Did John have a favorite race horse? He did. Her name was “Cover Me Good.” Her picture hangs in his restaurant. “I bought her cheap, and she made me a lot of money, racing at Evangeline Downs and at Delta Downs. I guess you know I trained your brother David’s race horses.”

How did you meet Lillie Mae? Another anecdote. “People called him Nonc Jack. He had the building that was the drug store and the post office, and a Greyhound bus stop, and a school bus stop.” John is referring to Thomas Lucien “Nonc” (Uncle) Jack Ducrest, who in 1924 leased a building built in 1903, and became the town’s first pharmacist, as well as the postmaster. John went to Nonc Jack’s place every day to fetch his calf-slaughtering employer’s mail. “Girls from the school waited for the bus there, and of course Lillie Mae was the prettiest out of the bunch. Every day I would look at her, and she started looking at me. Lillie Mae was younger, she lived with her sister. Her sister was my age.”

I never knew Nonc Jack, but I have fond memories of his son, Francis “Yen” Ducrest, who teased me unmercifully when I sashayed past his pharmacy door. While talking to John, it occurred to me that he and Lillie Mae brought considerable food experience into their restaurant business. On daddy’s farm, John killed or grew most of the food he ate. How many young food hotshots can say that? And, the preparation of sausage, boudin, cracklin, stuffed meats, was an important part of his role as a butcher. Lillie Mae sure as hell knew food. Before she opened Norbert’s Restaurant, she worked at Dwyers Café in Lafayette, and prior to that, at the Y-Café in Broussard. I fancied myself sophisticated when I hunkered down in the Y’s shabby booths to eat greasy French fries.

Where was Lillie Mae educated? It’s hardly a dumb question given the implausible fact that, at the time, only white people attended the town’s public school (opened 1884.) According to historical accounts, a Catholic nun named Katherine Drexel established “a mission school to serve the educational needs of blacks of Broussard.” The mission building called St. Joseph School was erected on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church, in proximity to the building with the pharmacy and post office where Lillie Mae waited for a bus, and where John fetched his employer’s mail. Where on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church, I asked John, was the St Joseph school? “Across from Lacaze Billeaud’s house, near where the Sacred Heart graveyard is.”

John Norbert (left) St. Joseph Church 2018. Image from St.
Joseph Church facebook

Until it was moved in 1953. To the newly created St. Joseph Church parish where the new priest Father Perry began overseeing construction of a rectory and church. John and Lillie Mae’s active involvement in St. Joseph’s congregation reaches practically to the beginning, their participation appears to be front and center. I was not yet born when the new church cranked up. So I choked on my bourbon when I read in the “History” section of the St Joseph Church website that my grandmother and her housekeeper Anne Lasseigne prepared meals for the newly arrived Father Perry during the time he lived in a small rented house near Sacred Heart Church, before the St. Joseph rectory existed. This historical tidbit was not unknown to John. “Then Father Perry moved to a small house near the track, next to Blaise Malagarie, then they started building the church and Berthe Washington cooked at the church.”

More on the St. Joseph school. In 1954, its funding shifted from Mother Katherine Drexel to Lafayette Parish School Board. In 1961, the school board built a brand-spanking new public school, Broussard Negro Elementary. It’s hard to know if ignorance or proud Southern rectitude accounts for the name of that new school. Thankfully, the school board soon after saw fit to change the name of Broussard Negro Elementary to Katherine Drexel Elementary.

John and Lillie Mae love to dance. We chatted about dance halls like Hamilton’s Place, and Jay’s Lounge. Who could forget the cockfights outside of Jay’s Lounge, or Clifton Chenier’s gold capped teeth shining in the spot lights, or the large foot stomping ass shaking crowds on the dance floor. Clifton hollered “et toi,” speaking the French John was told to shove under the mattress because it just wouldn’t do for children to say their prayers in French instead of English. What else do you do for fun? “Oh, I love to go rabbit hunting, love to hunt rabbits.” I told John I saw a picture of him decked out in a tuxedo. “Yes, that was a Mardi Gras party at the church hall.” I also saw on the internet that their daughter Jolene Norbert-Harrell recently completed her MBA.

My brother Billy says you’re 89 and like to shave a couple of years off your age. Billy’s wrong, he’s 87. Will he retire? Lillie Mae indicated she wouldn’t mind retiring. “We get offers to sell our land, because it’s on the highway. We own up to the Shop Rite convenience store. John isn’t ready.”

John and Lillie Mae Norbert 2014. Image from Jolene
Norbert-Harrell facebook

I’ll back off and let others finish the story:

David Billeaud: Om not gonna let John Norbert take the entire credit for training my race horses, I also trained my horses. I’ll admit I needed John listed as official trainer so my horses could practice on the track at Evangeline Downs. John and I used to go to the bush tracks, and he was paranoid about the competition injecting his horse to slow it down. Keep in mind, at the small tracks the Sport of Kings was unregulated, sleazy things went on. Ha! He didn’t dare leave that horse unattended.

John Norbert: I think I introduced David to his wife Paige. I can’t remember if it was when he helped me build my barn, or when I trained his horses. You’ll have to check with David on this, but I knew Paige’s family before he did. I butchered their calves.

Billy Billeaud: When I bought my store John helped me learn how to handle meat. I purchased the whole animal to save money, and John came every day to buy bags of ice for his restaurant, so I pulled him into my meat market and he taught me, and this went on for about a year and a half, until I could finally afford to hire a butcher. I’m going to the restaurant this morning, to borrow supplies for my lunch business, which happens when my managers mess up our orders. It’s a chance to enjoy a visit, to just stand in their kitchen and shoot the shit with Lillie Mae. Although I’m useless when their credit card machine breaks, I always send one of my cashiers over there. Did you know John had remarkable strength when he was young? He told me he slaughtered up to 25 animals a day, it takes incredible strength to slaughter and skin and butcher. He said that in the 1950s he had trouble finding work, so he hired on as a field laborer up north, with about 300 other Louisiana men, for 3 or 4 months at a time, they picked cherries in Wisconsin, paid by the bucket, arranged by middle men who lined-up agriculture workers. They traveled for 4 days on an old school bus. He also worked in Connecticut, harvested tobacco, shucked corn. John also worked as an auxiliary deputy for the town.

David Billeaud: John was in my restaurant a few days ago. We looked at photographs on my wall, and of course we disagreed about an old building, although, if that building was moved and the façade was changed, he might be correct. Retire? All the years he moonlighted, shoed peoples’ horses, and other jobs, the moonlighting was full time. And his sister Helen’s no different. Helen Norbert became an investment partner when I opened my restaurant. I thought she would slow down after she retired from her job with the school board, but she started working in my kitchen full time on salary, in 2003 I think, and we’re still together. Although I finally bought her out, can’t remember how many years ago. John thinks he introduced me to Paige, but he wasn’t there the day I met Paige. He knew her family though, he slaughtered calves for Paige’s grandfather. When we met we joined John and Lillie Mae on a trail ride, and there was a dance in the barn behind Hamilton’s Place. I spent many, many hours helping John, learning from him. We worked the festivals together, like the Boudin Festivals, sold boudin during the day and went back to his place at night, made more boudin for the next day. If John tells you he taught me catering, that’s the truth. John is my mentor.

John and Lillie Mae Norbert Mardi Gras party 2014
Image from Jolene Norbert-Harrell facebook

John Norbert in his kitchen at Norbert's Restaurant

Nonc Jack Ducrest's building built 1903, where John
 met Lillie Mae (was pharmacy, post office, bus stop)

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