Play about La.’s favorite subject inspires book

Todd and Christina McClendon had to go back.

Never mind that they were already traveling south on Interstate 10, they knew they had to return for the books.

Perhaps it was the question that intrigued them, a question that isn’t exactly asked but answered at the beginning of each chapter.

Mayor-President Kip Holden said if he were a food, he’d be a peach, “because it’s warm and fuzzy.”

Raising Cane’s founder and CEO Todd Graves said he’d be a chicken finger, “because that is my One Love!”

Gen. Russell Honore said, “I would be gumbo, because it’s a little bit of everything, and you can’t go wrong.”

And singer and trumpeter Jeremy Davenport would be a creme donut, “because I’m sweet and tasty.”

These are introductions to just four of the 67 stories in Peggy Sweeney-McDonald’s Meanwhile, Back at the Cafe Du Monde, a book inspired by her live productions of the same title.

Pelican Publishing released the book in September, and Sweeney-McDonald was signing copies at the Royal Standard near the Perkins Road overpass on this particular day.

This was where the McClendons spotted her, then returned.

OK, so they weren’t exactly contemplating which foods would best represent their personalities; they were more interested in buying a few copies for Christmas gifts.

Because the stories were by people with which they are familiar, and they talk about one of Louisiana’s favorite subjects — food.

“You know, I started with an idea,” Sweeney-McDonald said. “I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t know if it could ever work. But we started doing the shows, and the shows started growing. And now we have the book.”

And coming in March is a return to the café when Sweeney-McDonald lines up another cast of storytellers to stand before a live audience to tell what kind of food they would be, followed by their personal food stories.

This is why Sweeney-McDonald’s idea has been so well received — it’s a live performance.

People are naturally drawn to good stories, and when directly relayed by the storyteller, it’s the best.

And Sweeney-McDonald knew this when developing the production.

“My husband says the Café Du Monde is a metaphor,” Sweeney-McDonald said in a previous interview.

“I have a Café Du Monde in every city I go to. Everyone does.”

The places may have different names, but they’re all connected by a single word: meanwhile.

Because the conversations never really end, picking up where they left off over beignets and café au lait.

The live version of Meanwhile, Back at the Cafe Du Monde debuted in May 2010 at The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, then moved to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It has since traveled to Shreveport, Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Calif.

The latter two locations were only natural, since Sweeney-McDonald and her husband James are residents of Los Angeles.

As for Sweeney-McDonald, herself, she’s president of Superstar Events-LA. She grew up in Baton Rouge, is an LSU graduate and has worked as an actress in film, theater and commercials for more than 35 years.

She now is developing Southern film projects, including a television pilot of Meanwhile.

Sweeney-McDonald developed the idea for the live production in 2009, when meeting up with her friend Lisa Annitti the day after Thanksgiving.

Annitti was supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving in Shreveport with a group of people who had no other place to go. It was her boss’ idea, and she’d prepared a pumpkin pie for the event.

But dinner wouldn’t take place until 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and Annitti had 27 hours to kill between getting off work and dinner time.

What was she do to?

Well, as her monologue goes, she began drinking and ended up eating half her pie.

“She was originally invited to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Baton Rouge,” Sweeney-McDonald said.

“When she came the next day, she told us this story. The more she told it, the funnier it became. Lisa’s story is the first one in the book after the chapter about the history of the Café Du Monde.”

Let’s see, that’s on page 16, where Annitti said if she were a food, she would be a chocolate Ding Dong, “Hard on the outside and oh so soft and sweet in the middle. I’m from Jersey ... what do you want?”

Annitti also contributed a recipe not for pumpkin but coconut cream pie, and there are several photos of her accompanying the story.

The photos were taken by Troy Kleinpeter. His work fills the book.

Kleinpeter is a partner in Kleinpeter Photography in Baton Rouge, but you can call him the official photographer for Meanwhile, Back at The Café Du Monde.

He also was at the book signing the day the McClendons returned for signed books.

“He has been with me since the beginning,” Sweeney-McDonald said. “He was the photographer for my wedding, and I got back in touch with him when I started doing the show. He’s taken pictures of all of the presenters at our Louisiana shows.”

“I’m hoping I can go to some of the Los Angeles shows,” Kleinpeter said.

This may happen once the show resumes in 2013, a show inspired by Annitti’s funny story about pie, prompting Sweeney-McDonald to think about how everyone has a food-related story to tell.

Especially in Louisiana.

Now those live stories are spelled out in this coffee-table book, and reading it is enough to make anyone hungry.

Which means one shouldn’t open it on an empty stomach.

Now, going to the show, itself, is a different matter, because the productions always play out in restaurants. And the star of this show, the Café Du Monde, has been happy with these shows, so much that its owner, Karen Benrud, penned the book’s foreword.

She also provided the café’s history, along with vintage photographs, for the book. And this is significant, because T

he book was released during the café’s 150th anniversary year.

“There are so many different components to this story,” Sweeney-McDonald said.

She finished signing the McClendons’ last copy. They told her how they would have regretted not exiting the interstate and heading back toward the shop.

Then they drove off with books in arms, perhaps contemplating if they were a food, what would they be?