The Brennan family enjoys an annual celebration steeped in tradition.

By Julia Dowling Rutland
September 30, 2005
Jean Allsopp

Tall hardwoods, evergreen azalea foliage, and a winding waterway surround Brenwood, second home to New Orleans' restaurant icon Richard Brennan, known affectionately as Mr. Dick. Set on 40 acres in Mississippi bayou country, the Brennan compound appears part retreat, part summer camp.

"We found the property by accident 10 years ago," says Miss Lynne, Mr. Dick's wife and matriarch of this branch of the Brennan clan. After buying it from the owner of famed Pat O'Brien's restaurant, the Brennans moved five cabins from another property they were selling at the time. "The cabins were a good idea," says Miss Lynne. "The family keeps growing and the kids want to bring their friends. We love it. It's just another world―fishing, canoeing. It's work, though."

And hard work is something everyone seems to enjoy. Chopping wood and hauling it away with tractors becomes more than just a means to an end. Miss Lynne adds, "It's a great excuse for [some of the younger ones] to practice driving." Earlier in the day, she took the grandkids four-wheeling.

Mr. Dick and Miss Lynne's son Dickie―owner of Palace Café, Bourbon House, and Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse―describes the family retreat: "On the map, the home sits in an area of Mississippi called Rotten Bayou, which eventually heads into the Mississippi Sound." In a nod to the family's rich culinary heritage, his father playfully renamed Rotten Bayou "Au Gratin Bayou."

"I love this place," Dickie says. "It's downtime. I work at the restaurants―[my wife] Leslie and the kids are already here―then unwind on the drive down. You pull in and all stress and tension leave."

On Thanksgiving weekend, the close-knit family's holiday meal begins with a couple of sacks of raw Louisiana Gulf oysters. They are shucked on demand, with the youngest generation taking turns wrestling them open. Duck and venison sausages provided by Palace Café chef Darin Nesbit heat on the grill for snacking while dinner prep continues. Miss Lynne oversees the turkey, stuffed with Uncle Nick Trist's oyster dressing. Uncle Nick makes extra, Dickie says, but everyone clamors for the more flavorful version from the turkey.

"The food is cumulative," says Leslie. "The same dishes are expected each year, but once a new one is added, it sticks." Leslie's contribution to the family meal, Cornbread Dressing, has resulted in a phenomenon nicknamed "the dueling dressings." "Uncle Nick makes the best oyster stuffing," she says. "That's great as a side dish, but you've got to have Cornbread Dressing."

Another dish, Sweet Potatoes Richard, "is in the style my dad had growing up," Dickie says. "He wanted something traditional in the restaurant. On Thanksgiving Day, the restaurant opens as usual, but patrons get a classic dinner."

The meal traditionally ends with Honey's Carrot Cake, Dickie's grandmother's recipe. "It's so incredibly moist," says Leslie. "Here's the secret―the carrots and pecans are very fine, not chunky." And the entire cake is frosted―not just between the layers, as some recipes call for. "With this family, you've got to have icing on every bite," Leslie says.

The evening culminates with an enormous bonfire. "We have to have at least two days over here so the kids can collect enough wood," says Dickie's sister, Lauren. Then she asks the group, "Are you ready to light the fire?" The first flame rises fast and hot. Minutes later, when the whole pile catches fire, the entire group moves back 20 feet simultaneously.

The boys―Trist, Brennan, and Richard―brave the heat and search for a safe place to cook s'mores. Stabbing marshmallows and wielding their sticks like jousting poles, they find a point of entry and charge ahead. Truffle, the chocolate-brown standard poodle, happily trots by with a marshmallow mustache.

Sparks like fireflies float up with the smoke, and an amber glow appears on everyone's face as they tilt their heads skyward. For the Brennans, this holiday is all about family.