In a town that thrives on old traditions, there’s one tradition at the Maple Leaf Bar that is somewhat unorthodox, yet brings the community together in multiple ways: “milk and cookies.” Every Thursday, during the Trio’s break time, drummer Johnny Vidacovich’s wife, Deborah, files through the crowd and hands each person a homemade cookie. Aside from Vidacovich’s status as a drummer, he and his wife have gained a reputation for something that stretches beyond music: care.
“It’s time for milk and cookies” has been part of Vidacovich’s vernacular since he was a young man playing tuxedo gigs in the late ‘60s. “I can’t remember the bandleader’s name who first said it, but he was an older gent,” Vidacovich tells. “He’d turn around and say, ‘It’s time for milk and cookies, boys!’ Then he’d tell the audience that we were going to take an intermission, and all these old guys would go to the bar.”
For years “milk and cookies” was merely another of Vidacovich’s quirky phrases, but it wasn’t until Deborah actually baked and brought a batch of cookies to one of his gigs that it came to life: “The first time I did it, it was sort of a joke,” she says, “but then I realized what would happen was [that as] I would be taking this box of cookies and walking from person to person in the audience, I would be making eye contact with them and handing them food. It makes a connection with them. We’re like friends now, because I give them cookies.”
Mom’s Magic Touch
But the credit doesn’t completely go to Deborah alone. After the first year, her mother, Helen, took over the baking duties, working diligently to crank out batches of cookies for every one of Johnny’s Maple Leaf gigs. “I bake six dozen at least, and we never take any home. But I’ll bake cookies all day long; I don’t care,” she says with a laugh. “And I always make sure to bring two different kinds.”
Cookie variations range from typical chocolate chip, to everyone’s favorite: brownie cookies mixed with hershey’s chocolate. “One time, she [Helen] brought homemade biscotti,” recalls Deborah, closing her eyes as if the taste suddenly returned to her tongue.
“Oh yeah,” Johnny says, smiling. “That was cool. I made sure to take a few of those home.”
Since the Milk and Cookies tradition began, Vidacovich can count on one hand the times he hasn’t had homemade cookies to bring to a gig. A night without cookies, though, usually spells disaster.
“Oreos, I found out very quickly, nobody likes,” says Vidacovich, dismissing the notion. “They expect homemade cookies, now. The one time I had to bring Oreos, I got these looks from people like, ‘You expect me to eat this packaged shit? Hell no, man!'”
“Oh, complaints. I had nothing but complaints,” Deborah jokes. “They’re spoiled now.”
The Secret Ingredient
Yet, the Vidacoviches are aware of the bond they have forged with New Orleans locals and tourists, and that the cookies, in a way, have become an expression of their gratitude and appreciation. “It’s actually not one act; it’s a chain of events,” says Johnny. “It’s gratitude moving forward. It’s not from one to another, but from one to one to one to a bunch.”
His mother-in-law bakes the cookies, his wife connects with the audience, the audience reacts, creating an even closer connection, which makes everything possible for the Trio. And for Johnny, it’s an equation that he finds important in keeping that audience.
“I think it runs in parallel, or in addition, to what’s happening on the bandstand,” Vidacovich observes. “The Trio is constantly changing from week to week, and the Trio is definitely not rehearsed. That’s one of the rules. Another rule: [You] don’t talk about the music [you] just get up there and play. You need interaction to pull off this process of improvised music. So, I think the cookies for me, make the audience more a part of the music. You can’t have music without the audience.
“I firmly believe that in this process, with a live audience, it’s not the musicians making the music really, it’s the musicians plus the audience that equals the music. Because if the audience is not grooving, I know for a fact, and out of experience, that it’s hard to play. The cookies are very much a part of that equation.”
When the Vidacoviches are at the Maple Leaf Bar, its the “milk and cookies” that give it its homey atmosphere It has become a comfortable place for people to come together and build tight bonds, all because of a simple, innocent act of gratitude.
“There’s something about breaking bread and eating together,” said Deborah. “When you put something in people’s mouths, they love you. When you give them food, they love that.”
Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti
3/4 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter room temp
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup shelled pistachios
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Soak the dried cranberries in hot water. Use mixer to cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt. Mix until just blended (do not overbeat). Drain cranberries. Stir cranberries and pistachios into dough by hand. Divide dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, knead dough a few times, then shape into two long rolls, roughly two inches wide and twelve inches long. Place on non-stick baking sheet. Bake 25 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes. Slice on diagonal every half-inch. Return slices to oven and bake again for 20 min. Turn at 10 minute mark. Remove and let cool.
Biscotti will last for several weeks in airtight container