Yeasts of the Southern Wild

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

Dwight Henry at his Buttermilk Drop Bakery in New Orleans. (Paul Costello)
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If Mr. Henry’s gets well-branded, Notar says, it could go global. Skeptics may well wonder whether Henry himself, who so recently lived and worked among fillers pretty exclusively, can spread himself that thin. Well, he has shown a capacity to contract, as well as to expand. The Buttermilk Drop man on his ceiling is juggling a dozen different dishes. A sign outside claims, “We specialize in Stuffed Bell Peppers, Macaroni and Cheese, Gumbo Potato Salad, Smothered Chops, Chicken and Turkey, Red/White Beans and Rice and Much More.” Since other vistas have opened up for Henry, the Drop has retreated to high-profit-margin items: pastries and, in the morning, scrambled eggs and grits and bacon or sausage or, sometimes, liver or pork chops.

One reason Henry holds his own so well in Beasts, no doubt, is that he represents another New Orleans tradition. He says he survived his first hurricane as an infant—in 1965 he rode Betsy out on a roof. As Katrina approached 40 years later, he refused to evacuate. “I’m always going to be one of the holdouts—some people got to stay back,” he says. “I don’t put my tail between my legs, walk away from my business, let vandals come in and destroy everything I worked so hard for.”

He set up in a friend’s house in the Gentilly area, not far from Lake Pontchartrain. “We were used to the storm coming, the storm going. We never expected the levees to break and the water to stay. If I’d known....” When he and his friend woke up, water was already in the house. And rising. Fast. “I panicked! We got to get away from this lake.” They plunged into neck-high water and walked to a strip mall, “a little island where a hundred families” had gathered. “Stood there a week and a half. Slept up in a place that did taxes. We vandalized—we didn’t vandalize, and I don’t want to use the word ‘break-in.’ We got into some stores. For dry clothes, barbecue grills, meat, plates—got everybody eating. Seniors needed medicine from the drugstore. But if I’d known, I would’ve put my tail between my legs.”

When it comes to not getting carried away, then, Henry has a sense of options. The last time I saw him in his place, he would soon fly off to Luxembourg, to shoot Marvin Gaye. Maybe someday he’ll be remembered globally, for his repertoire of rough-daddy roles. Locally, he’ll still be the man who revived the buttermilk drop. When I shook his hand, it had flour on it.


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