Chooch turned 50 the day she met Nonie. Within a few months, they co-owned a tamale cart.
“It was the best darn tamale cart in the whole world and we knew it,” says Chooch.
Chooch and Nonie’s Hot Tamales, as the cart was called, was parked across the street from the 140-year-old Caretaker’s Cabin, then vacant. “We’d look across the street,” remembers Chooch, “Nonie’d say, ‘That’s our house.’ I’d say, ‘That’s our house.’”
After some determined finagling, and with the help of a few angels, they managed to secure a lease on it.
“We kind of kissed the dice and rolled ’em,” says Chooch.
They rolled more than just the dice. The feisty duo rolled up their sleeves and transformed the dusty cabin into a polished little space, with a stainless steel commercial kitchen in back and a fire-lit dining room in front that’s homey and intimate.
They opened on December 17, 2006, offering a fixed-price, five-course meal that changes weekly, BYOB.
“Some people are like ‘What? You don’t have a menu?’” says Nonie. “But part of the deal is you have to trust us. This is real slow food. Once you sit down, all you have to worry about is opening your bottle of wine.”
Slow food this may be, but by all accounts you start eating pretty much the minute you sit down: home-baked rolls (rosemary parmesan, on this day) and hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, like gorgonzola pear toasted pecan palmiers. One week the entrée might be a beef brisket cooked 11 hours and served in horseradish sauce, Chooch says. Then one of them will literally dream up something, like grouper with lemon caper sauce on a bed of hashbrowned parsnips and toasted almonds, and that’s next week’s main course.
Nonie describes her childhood vividly. “You’d better be home by 5:30, and you better have a gallon of milk in your hand,” she recalls. “Oxtail soup on the stove. Dad was making gnocchi. You could read a newspaper through my grandmother’s strudel dough. Ours was the house to go for food.”
When I showed up at Chooch and Nonie’s backdoor the other night, the last of 22 guests were making their way to a limo out front.
Chooch set a hot pan of tequila lime chicken on the cutting board at the center of their tiny kitchen. Next to it, she placed a tray of French Quarter coconut shrimp with bourbon dipping sauce.
I could taste the love in those shrimp, and in the perfect interaction between the shrimp and the sweet coconut coating and the sauce. I was transported to a place of great mojo.
“Wild shrimp, not farmed,” says Chooch, when she sees that I’m into it. After denying my request for the recipe, she offers, “It’s not breaded, it’s not deep fried. You want to taste shrimp like these. Don’t worry, it’s going to be in our new cookbook.”
“Oh? When is your cookbook coming out?”
“Oh, when we write it.”
“This is my dream come true,” says Nonie. “I would work many jobs to support this. I believe it with all my heart.” She points to the window. “Most restaurant kitchens, if there’s a window at all it looks out on a dumpster. We look out on the cutest backyard in the world.”
Across the cutest backyard in the world, much of Helena’s Reeder’s Alley neighborhood, a historic treasure, is visible. “All the whorehouses are over there,” says Chooch, waving out the window. It’s fitting that Helena’s oldest neighborhood once thrived on the world’s oldest profession. And while the lights are no longer red, body heat remains on the menu, especially this time of year. “It’s a romantic place,” admits Nonie. “We want people to fall in love here. And the weddings” she motions toward the window, “are in the backyard.” Bordered by an old stone wall and full of trees, gardens, deer, and presumably other attractions currently under the snow, it’s a very nice place for a celebration.
In fact, Chooch’s big brother George got married back there earlier that very day—after attempting for more than 25 years to marry his sweetheart Polly! She relented when she saw the Caretaker’s Cabin backyard and thought, “Wow. I want to get married here.”
Ask Ari: Stealing is wrong, so don’t get caught
Q: Dear artist formerly known as Chef Boy Ari,
I have an ethical dilemma. I live next to a very large lettuce field. We’re talking acres. I love lettuce. Is it wrong for me to snatch a couple heads? They’re corporate, so who cares?
—Salivating As (I) Look At De Salad
A: Dear SALADS,
Well, as you remind readers in your greeting, I’m no longer Chef Boy Ari. And I must say, this ethical advice that your question nudges me toward is interesting, especially to an out of nickname columnist like me. Could be this the start of Mr. Demeanor? Of course, if I were a chick I could call myself Miss Demeanor—scandalous!
Meanwhile, Mr. Demeanor’s apparent inability to answer your question—evidenced by the previous 73 words of sausage filler—seems nothing sort of fraudulent.
Right. Okay. Hmm. Is it wrong to steal lettuce from a corporate field?
Well, given the information you’ve given me, I’d say the fact that you really like lettuce is not enough to make stealing a few heads okay even if, presumably, nobody is directly hurt by the crime. (I mean, what do you expect me to say, SALAD?)
Yeah, it’s a little wrong. Just a little. Of course, premeditation makes it worse. And now you’ve dragged me into it, in public, no less. Conspiracy. We might as well be discussing this in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, Skype-ing from adjacent stalls.
Obviously, what’s most important is that nobody gets busted, especially me. And then, for you anyway, it’s important to figure out what kind of chemical crap they dump on their corporate lettuce.
Anyway, you won’t see me telling you to strike quickly in the dark when the lettuce is cool, and then wash it very carefully. You just won’t.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.