Dean Baquet is executive editor of The New York Times, a position he assumed in May 2014. Mr. Baquet serves in the highest ranked position in The Times’s newsroom and oversees The New York Times news report in all its various forms.
“Our first restaurant was in the ’40s. It was called Paul Gross Chicken Coop, on the corner of Bienville and Roman in the 6th Ward, right around here, not that far. Twenty-four-hour restaurant. My dad Eddie was a mail carrier who always wanted to operate his own restaurant, so he went to work with his aunt, who ran the place. Her name was Ada Baquet Gross.”
Baquet brought his son, Wayne Jr., to the breakfast interview to help him sort through his memories. There are a lot of them.
Ada was the first Baquet to go into the restaurant business. Along with her husband, Paul, she opened the Chicken Coop in the mid-’40s, just a few years after Dooky Chase, and both Wayne, 57, and his son, 36, figure it was among the first African-American-owned restaurants in the city. It planted the seed for a string of others, all of them owned and operated by the Baquets, most of them by Wayne and his wife, Janet.
Mr. Baquet’s religious zeal, which fellow parishioners had known about for years, received wide attention on Jan. 6, 2009 – the feast of the Epiphany – when police escorted him out of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church as he clutched his rosary. Mr. Baquet had been part of a group that had occupied the Louisiana Avenue church in defiance of Archbishop Alfred Hughes’ plan to close it and other churches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina-related population declines and a shortage of priests.
And Jourdain’s descendants still abound, Ross said. “I was also contacted by a woman named Isabel Baquet, who lives in Atlanta. She had being doing genealogical research and discovered that her husband, Edward, was a descendant of Detective Jourdain.
“Through our conversations, I learned that Detective Jourdain was a forebear of the famous Baquet family of New Orleans that includes the restaurateurs Wayne and Janet Baquet, the New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, and the photographer Harold Baquet. “
“Harold had already agreed to take photographs for the book,” he said. “When we decided to work together, neither Harold nor I knew he was linked by blood to the story and that his photographs would also document an important part of his own family’s history.”
Isabel led me to other Jourdain descendants, including her uncle Wayne Baquet, owner with his wife Janet of the renowned Creole restaurant Lil Dizzy’s on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. Wayne and Janet are part of a storied branch of the Baquet clan. Wayne’s father and mother were also famous New Orleans restaurateurs. Other forbears were musicians who helped invent Jazz. Wayne’s brother is the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet. It is a complicated story, but both Wayne and Janet are Jourdain descendants, and they hold the title to the family tomb in New Orleans’s famous St. Louis Cemetery #1. Their restaurant is filled with memorabilia that commemorates the achievements of their family and other members of the city’s proud Afro-Creole community. On the center of the back wall is an enlarged copy of the petition the the Afro-Creoles of New Orleans presented to President Lincoln during the Civil War, urging him to grant black men the right to vote. At the bottom, amongst the petition’s signatories, are Detective Jourdain and his father J. B. V.
The real Creole people of New Orleans is a mixture of the French, Spanish, American Indian, and African, because these are the people that inhabited New Orleans back in the day. And they had to intermingle to survive, and that’s what happened. That’s why when you come to New Orleans, you see black folks with all these different colors. Some of them you can’t even tell what they are. Some of them look Oriental, some of them look white, some of them look black, you know, all mixtures of colors because of this total mixture, this melding pot mixture, this gumbo of people that we have including—and then as time went on, we even had the Italian input, you know. So all of that mixed together—these are the people in New Orleans, and that’s what I am—me and my family result—that’s what the Creole people are.
Creole food is the food, the product of Creole people. And that’s—that’s exactly how you define it. It—it evolved. It’s taking food and having a passion for food, and that’s what we do. We do things here that you can’t do and can’t find anyplace else. We make our own sausages, we make our own stews, gumbos and jambalaya and stuffed peppers, and if you travel anywhere else outside of New Orleans you can’t find it. You can go to Baton Rouge and you can’t even find our French bread the way we do it here. Leidenheimer’s French bread—you see because we’re below sea-level, we’re able to bake the best bread. You can go to France and you can’t find bread like we have here in New Orleans. So, and—and you do know that gumbo is an African word. It means okra. So you know gumbo is one of our main dishes. You know we—we don’t open up one of our restaurants without having gumbo.
The fourth of five brothers, Mr. Baquet grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New Orleans. His family lived in the back of a Creole restaurant that his father — a former postal worker with only a grade-school education — owned and operated. He became addicted to newspapers at an early age, he said, largely because it was the best way to follow his favorite football team, the New Orleans Saints.
When Mr. Baquet went north to college at Columbia University, it was the first time he had left Louisiana. He never graduated. After his sophomore year, he had a summer internship at a local newspaper and had such a good time that he decided to stay in New Orleans and become a full-time reporter, focusing his energy on uncovering local corruption. One of his articles led to a boycott of his father’s restaurant.
I hate to turn every discussion of “The Moviegoer” into a discussion about New Orleans. It minimizes Walker Percy to perceive him as purely a Southern writer, or someone who just happened to write the greatest book about the city. But I can’t resist pointing out in this final posting just how much of a love poem this book is to New Orleans, which could use one just about right now. “The streetlights make golden spaces inside the wet leaves of the live oaks,” he writes, describing a parade night Uptown. “A south wind carries the smell of coffee from the Tchoupitoulas docks.” Here’s Percy on nightfall in Gentilly: “The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight.”
In interviews Percy mostly resisted being labeled a New Orleans writer, but he sure did love the city. In his essay, “New Orleans Mon Amour,” he goes as far as to speculate that New Orleans, with its oddball mix of natives and outsiders who get seduced by them, just might stumble onto some way of saving American cities. What would he think of New Orleans today, a city that was already struggling hard even before Katrina hit?