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Dwight Henry at his Buttermilk Drop Bakery in New Orleans. (Paul Costello)

Yeasts of the Southern Wild

Maker of the “world famous buttermilk drop,” New Orleans actor Dwight Henry is expanding his baking empire

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Buttermilk drops were a specialty of McKenzie’s, a late, sorely missed chain of bakeries. Dwight Henry worked there, and also at Tastee Donuts, Dorignac’s Food Center, Alois J. Binder, Southern Hospitality Catering, Southshore Donuts and Whole Foods Market. Along the way he acquired influences—not to say recipes. When after 15 years or so of wide-ranging apprenticeship he undertook to start his own line of goods, “I just tasted, and tried various things, and tasted.” As for the buttermilk drop, “there’s some buttermilk in it. Some...other things. Ancient Chinese secret.” A local online reviewer of his goods noted the obvious McKenzie’s touch in both buttermilk drops and glazed doughnuts. The reviewer deemed the raisin and cinnamon squares to be “a straight-up homage” to the old Woolworth’s. Along with other pastry buffs, he engaged in “guessing games about the origins of Henry’s recipes for figure-eight braids and crusty apple fritters....The king cake, however, is pure Henry’s: delicious, exuberantly decorated, an excellent value, redolent of old New Orleans traditions.”

Learning the baking is one thing. Lining up backing was another. “After McKenzie closed down, 60 stores in one day, it left a huge void in the industry,” Henry says. “But when I tried to get financing, every friend, every family member, every bank, every finance company, they all turned me down. No one believed in me but me.” He kept applying. “People made fun of me: ‘Where you going with the briefcase, man?’ I worked two jobs, one paycheck for my family, one to put away for my own place. I bought used equipment, a piece at a time. Stored it in my grandmother’s garage. Took me three years to open up. And the rest”—beginning at the baking, mark you, not the movies—“is history.”

That first Buttermilk Drop was in an emerging neighborhood, the Marigny/Bywater, which attracted artists, including a collective out of the Northeast called Court 13. They were in New Orleans planning Beasts of the Southern Wild when Katrina hit in 2005. After the storm, there were hardly any eating places open in the neighborhood, but soon Henry had single-handedly gutted and restored the Buttermilk Drop, so, says Benh Zeitlin, the movie’s director, “We ate breakfast and lunch there nearly every day.” The 13ers valued Henry for his pastries “and also,” Zeitlin says, pausing for an unspoken mmm, “his smothered pork chops.”

They had found their female lead—Hushpuppy, the character is called—in the irresistible moppet Quvenzhané Wallis, whose staunch lower lip, wind-swept Afro and surreal unflappability made up for her complete lack of acting experience. But none of the untrained locals they tested were tough enough to play her father, Wink. “That was the one role that required an experienced actor, we thought,” Zeitlin says. But the more they got to know Henry, the more he and the character began to overlap. “We saw him as part of the template for what Wink could be like,” Zeitlin says. “So we said, ‘Let’s bring in Dwight to see if he can act at all.’” They taped him just talking about his life. Acting, schmacting; the character had already begun to become “very much a collaboration” between the filmmakers and the baker. But when they came to urge him to take the part, the Buttermilk Drop was gone.

Without informing the filmmakers, Henry had moved to his current location, where there is more parking. The corner of St. Bernard and Dorgenois is in a down-market neighborhood only partly recovered from the devastation of 2005. A few blocks away a sign proclaims “Tony’s Historical Parakeet Restaurant Bar and Lounge, 1966 Hope St., Chocolate City LA, ‘We Survived Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike—We’re Back.’” But nearby, Vaucresson’s Sausage Company, “A New Orleans Tradition Since 1899,” is still boarded up from Katrina, so all you can see of the big painting of the late Robert “Sonny” Levinsky Vaucresson, son and successor of the founder, is the top of his big white hat. When at length the filmmakers tracked Henry down, he was loath to enter into any artistic enterprise that might cause the Buttermilk Drop man’s toque to be so obscured. Henry has five kids. “I can see me being in the bakery business for 30 years, and my children, and grandchildren, holding it down for 100 years. When the movie people walked in, wanted me to be in the movie, that I’m going to be a star, I said, ‘No No No No, I’m not going to sacrifice my children’s future for a possible movie career.’”

At length he agreed to do Beasts of the Southern Wild—but only on the condition that his rehearsing would be during baker’s hours. So Zeitlin would show up after midnight, and as Henry, in his apron, rolled and cut dough and put things into the oven for the next morning, they would run lines, sometimes reworking them so they were the way Henry would say them. “And he wanted to know me as a person,” Henry says. “We’d talk about every little thing.” Wink has to teach his motherless daughter, Hushpuppy, to survive, independently, on their tempest-tossed bayou because Wink is dying. In the bakery at night, Henry told Zeitlin about raising his own daughter, and about finding his own father dead. In Wink’s death scene, says Henry, “as I was lying there, Benh is right behind me, off-camera, saying, ‘Dwight, remember the time we talked about your father, that emotion, when you found your father on the sofa.’”

In that scene both Wink and Hushpuppy shed credible tears, but before that, Wink drunkenly constrains Hushpuppy to rip a crab apart with her hands and shows her how to catch a catfish barehanded. After she resentfully burns down the hovel in which she lives, he slaps her sprawling. “I’m your daddy,” he says, “and it’s my job to take care of you, OK?”

This would seem an extreme form of tough love, but Hushpuppy handles it. You know how you’d like to see Shrek go one-on-one with King Kong, or Russell Crowe with Robert Mitchum? In those cases I think the old guys win, but in a bout of spunky adorability, Quvenzhané Wallis would mop up the floor with Shirley Temple. Many an actor whose first film role required him to belt that luminous child (did I mention that she has signed to play the title role in an African-American movie version of Annie?) would have had a hard time finding public absolution, much less a second role. But Henry (not to mention the dazzling visual aspects of the film) carries enough conviction to hold judgments of correctness at bay. He’s not like Wink, he says. “I’m a well-dressed person, and Wink doesn’t dress too well.” (Usually in dirty overalls or a hospital gown.) “Wink drinks, I don’t drink. Wink is loud. I’m real calm. But I’m loving like Wink.” (His 10-year-old daughter, he has said, “is my only little girl, and I can’t even fix my mouth to tell her no for anything.”)

Sudden fame can run somebody ragged, but Henry, at 47, seems to be taking it in stride. “I wanted him to come see me, see how I do things, drink the Kool-Aid,” says Notar, his New York partner. “He said, ‘Rich, I’d love to, but the first lady has invited me to the White House to meet the kids, make some beignets.’ I said, ‘I’ve been given a lot of excuses, but how can I compete with that?’ True to life, this guy left the White House early, got on a train and came here” to catch the opening-night party for Notar’s swank restaurant, Harlow. The space is said to have been built originally by William Randolph Hearst for Marion Davies to entertain in. Prominent in its entryway is an Andy Warhol painting of a red stiletto-heel shoe. Among the guests mentioned in the social notes the next day were Martha Stewart, Naomi Campbell, various men known in Gotham social notes as “corporate whales” and “the improbably renowned baker, Dwight Henry.”

The average Harlow check, according to Notar, is $95 to $110. At the Buttermilk Drop, you can get a hearty breakfast, rounded off by a glazed chocolate jelly doughnut that will stay with you the rest of the day, for $5.19. The menu and prices are as yet undetermined for Mr. Henry’s, the eatery Notar and Henry plan to establish. It will be next door to the café and club Notar plans to open this August on the original site of the legendary jazz venue the Lenox Lounge. Notar doesn’t want it to lack a common touch. “Whenever I do a restaurant—Hong Kong, Vegas, Milan—first thing I think about is the local people. Because they’re going to be with you day to day. People I call fillers. Because you know the fabulous crowd is very fickle. Your food tastes better when you’re seated next to Bruce Willis—I don’t agree with it, but this is the power of celebrity. But at the end of the day, on a Monday, February, 6 o’clock, you need those people, you don’t want them to know they’ve been boxed out.”

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