Keife & Co.
Posted on February 28, 2013
When I was growing up, I watched Little House on the Prairie. Of course, I wanted to be Laura, and I hated Nellie Oleson (didn’t we all). I was also fascinated by Nellie’s father’s store. Oleson’s was a one-stop shop in Walnut Grove for provisions of all kinds, both necessary and frivolous, an inventory full of possibility.Whenever Laura accompanied Pa on a visit to the store, you could feel her excitement, as she anticipated purchasing a bite of penny candy or a length of calico for a new dress.
In addition to providing the town with flour and fabric, Mr Oleson’s store also served as a community center where gossip was exchanged, families were inquired after, and news, political or otherwise, was spread. I now realize that one item was glaringly absent from Mr. Oleson’s stock: booze. Perhaps Walnut Grove was dry, but otherwise this choice by the producers was an oversight, because 19th century dry goods stores often doubled as liquor stores.
Check out this sweeping mid-1800s inventory of Pierre Petitjean’s store, located at the corner of Royal and Toulouse streets in the French Quarter:
Boxes of canned preserves (meaning peas, mushrooms, asparagus, livers, pickled capers), over forty boxes of truffles and eighty boxes of sardines, jellies, mustard, orange flower water, raisins, prunes, dried apples, lard, vinegar, a keg of herring, sugar-cured ham, Limbourg and Gruyere cheese,
All of these goods were nestled with Curacao, Cassis, Kirschwasser, absinthe, port, Madeira, cherry wine, Scotch ale, Bourbon, Cognac, Champagne, American brandy, fruits preserved in brandy, tonic and bitters.
Recently, New Orleans got its own version of a 19th century dry goods store: Keife and Company. Its booze-heavy inventory echoes that of Pettijean more than Oleson, but it offers delicious provisions, as well. Just as Laura looked forward to choosing from Oleson’s fare, when I visit Keife and Company, I also anticipate selecting one delectable treat from their stock. Sometimes I think that salivating over my choices is as pleasurable as tucking into them when I get home. They offer a wide selection of Spanish chorizo, cheese, pate, French mustards, sardines and chocolate. Of course, I often skip the provisions and head straight to the groaning shelves of wine and spirits. A recent trip there yielded a bottles of Punt y Mes vermouth, Delirium Tremens beer and some awesome stinky cheese. And everytime I visit, John Keife remembers me, not only asking what I’m looking for, but also inquiring about the Cocktail Tour and the rest of my life. I’ve seen his staff do this with other customers as well and appreciated their efforts to make their establishment less of a place of commerce and more of a place to visit.
So when I received an invitation to a wine tasting there last week, I went with delight. Free wine in my new favorite store? Count me in. The room was full of happy people, made happier not only by some delicious pours from Daryl Wines but also from the generous platters of Gouda and smoky chorizo that merited my circling back to sample several times. While spearing yet another chunk of cheese, I started chatting with the folks next to me.
It was a typical New Orleans moment of zero degrees of separation when Noah, a writer for the Gambit, and I discovered we had several friends in common. When he introduced me to his girlfriend, Nicole, who repairs historic textiles, the conversation took off. I asked her about a textile exhibit I’d read about recently at Plimoth Plantation. She talked about the hazards of her job, from working on rare objects to leaving work with stiff hands and an aching back. Because her working life is so far removed from how I fill my days, I continued to pepper her with questions and soon we were so caught up in visiting that we forgot to drink the free wine and eat the free cheese. We were no longer at a store. We were at a party. Soon, Noah gently reminded her they had dinner waiting at home, so we exchanged cards, and they promised to come take my tour soon. I hope they do.
Even though I live in a city with several hundred thousand folks, most of my free time is spent in the company of a few good friends. I was reminded how nice it is to meet someone new and interesting, to hear about a job so different from mine. And I thought how appropriate it was that we met in a store, as folks did on the prairie. I’ll think about that next time I’m in Keife and Co, buying my own pantry “staples” of vermouth, chorizo and sardines.