By Jim Havlin and Stacy St. John
Co-owners Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans
The recent slowdown of the Obama express through Harford County had some direct benefits to one of our local restaurants, Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans.
The Edgewood Train Station is tucked in a corner of Harford County that many locals don’t even know about. This was one of the important reasons that the Secret Service and the Obama Inauguration Committee decided that it would be a safe area to slow down or even to stop on the historic Whistle Stop tour.
Here is what the Philadelphia Examiner reported: “The Edgewood Train Station is a hardscrabble place in a hardscrabble part of town. The only civilizing aspect of it…. is the presence of Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans. Good etouffee there.”
Days prior to the train’s arrival preparations were underway. Dozens of Secret Service, Inauguration and security personnel checked out the Edgewood Station and surrounding properties including Clarence’s. The Secret Service briefed the restaurant owners Clarence Hill, Stacy St. John and Jim Havlin to be prepared for a large crowd of up to 2,000. The owners were shocked since they had figured the train would just fly by at 90 mph and there wouldn’t be a viewing of the President-elect. Quickly they decided to open early at Noon and offer an abbreviated menu tailored to warm the masses inside the secured viewing area. Special beads were selected to be presented to Malia and Sasha should the train actually stop. Working closely with the Secret Service and Inauguration Committee, approval was given that should it become necessary snipers could be posted on Clarence’s roof.
Normally a quiet retreat on the weekends, Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans was rocking early on January 17th. In order to serve food inside the secure area, Clarence’s staff was required to set-up before 9:00am. This allowed the Secret Service several hours to insure all equipment was safe and secure. During the 2 hour security sweep from 9:30 to 11:30, Clarence’s was the headquarters for celebrities and crews from NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, regional newspapers, the AP and even a Japanese television crew. Sandwiches, chili, gumbo, hot chocolate and coffee were served inside Clarence’s to the crews that had been braving temperatures in the teens.
Once the station area was secured, Clarence’s staff was allowed to pass through security and to set-up to serve hot chocolate, coffee, gumbo, shrimp chowder and sandwiches. At 11:30 the first of the crowd started filtering in and a line immediately formed at Clarence’s table. Prices were purposely set to be affordable. Being in a hard to find location, Clarence’s encourages loyal local customers. Hot coffee for $1, hot chocolate for $2 and a hot cup of homemade Louisiana gumbo for $3 helped to keep the waiting crowd warm and happy. The staff worked tirelessly to serve hot drinks, sandwiches, soup and gumbo to the crowd of more that 2,000 that jammed the station and restaurant.
Quickly replacing provisions inside the secure area proved to be critical. Special security escort arrangements were made as every urn of coffee, chocolate and gumbo had to be inspected prior to transfer inside the secure area. Courteous yet conscientious officers allowed the efficient replenishment of the highly-prized hot drinks and gumbo.
Inside Clarence’s Dion Guthrie (District 1 Councilman), Harford for Obama supporters and many local regulars kept warm while watching the progress of the train on CNN. Outside Clarence’s supporters of Obama sold mementoes, buttons and pins.
Around 3:00 the Obama train rolled through Edgewood and the frigid yet excited crowd had a chance to glimpse the President-elect. Once past, the crowd quickly dispersed and many found their way to the closest warm spot…Clarence’s. For a period the restaurant approached capacity of 200 and the doors were briefly closed to insure safety. By 3:30pm business was almost back to normal with a bar crowd and a dining room full of customers looking to sample Clarence’s full menu.
Overall it was an exciting and productive day for Clarence’s. It is probably the closest thing to Mardi Gras experienced in Edgewood. The only thing lacking was for Joe Biden and Barack Obama to be throwing beads from the train.
To encourage new visitors to Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans, coupons were handed out during the Whistle Stop tour. Now you can also participate. Just print and bring this Inauguration Coupon. Buy one menu item and get a Second for Half Off (of equal or lesser value). Not valid 2/14 or 2/20-2/24. Limit 1 per table per visit. Not valid with any other offers or discounts. Sandwich Cellar Items Excluded. This offer is valid until March 31, 2009.
Inauguration 2009 Whistle Stop Tour, My Memories
By Stacy St. John, co-owner Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans January 23rd, 2009
The glasses hanging behind the bar rattle, first gently then more furiously, as the Amtrak Acela speeds by Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans restaurant in Edgewood, Maryland. The silver blur fades down the railroad tracks as the train rushes from Wilmington, Delaware, south to Baltimore, and then eventually to Washington, DC. As the glasses quiet once again, I wonder if the passengers aboard the train even notice my small restaurant tucked away at the Edgewood MARC train station.
When I first heard about the Barack Obama/Joe Biden Whistle-stop tour, I assumed that the only view that (then) President-elect Obama would have of the Edgewood MARC station would be the same one that Senator Biden had surveyed during all of his years of traveling as a passenger on the Acela – simply another old building in a struggling area east of the I-95 corridor.
As it turned out, the view was to be different for the whistle-stop tour’s passengers.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 13th (one week before inauguration day), I began to hear rumors that the Obama Express would slowdown for crowds to acknowledge the President-elect at the various MARC stations in Harford County. The rumor was soon confirmed as two officers with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office visited my business-partner Clarence Hill and me at around 1PM. The officers introduced themselves and stated that, yes, the Edgewood MARC platform was considered a potential viewing area for the whistle-stop tour. My initial reaction, frankly, was to close the restaurant on that Saturday and stay away from the crowds! My husband (Jim Havlin) and Clarence soon appealed to my better senses, however, and we decided to open the restaurant early for two purposes:
– to provide a community service (after all, we are the only restaurant and public building in the area for people to warm-up on a frigidly cold day)
– to make money by both selling food and drinks on that Saturday and providing coupons and a public image to get people to come back after the inauguration was over.
By Tuesday evening, we had decided to open at 2PM (we normally open at 4PM on Saturday) for service to people waiting to view the Obama Express… which we still expected to travel past our building at 30MPH or so.
Wednesday morning started off under the previous night’s assumptions – Jim, Clarence, and I would simply open our doors at 2PM, and the three of us would serve customers inside our building until our bartender and server arrived at 4PM for normal dinner service. Once again, our plans were soon to change drastically. Wednesday afternoon, Jim and Clarence were visited at the restaurant by a small group of men representing “the powers that be” – representatives of the Secret Service, the Inauguration committee, and the various other security and planning committees in charge of the immense logistics involved in coordinating the Whistle Stop Tour. Since I had a previous commitment at my horse-trainers facility on Wednesday, Jim briefed my of the envoys’ visit that evening. He told me of potential plans to place snipers on our roof, of securing a portion of the MARC parking lot with barricades and security check points, and of an estimated 2000 people expected to view the train. At this point, we realized that we would need to open earlier, and that we would need more help! I called my friend Beth Richards, who I knew to be both an Obama-supporter and a reliable person, to see if she would be interested in lending a hand. Luckily, she was. One of our bartenders, Deborah Padgett, volunteered to come in early and handle the bar, and her sister (another employee) Pam Prater told us that she would plan to stop by and be able to work if needed. Our other two employees (Paula Kelleher and Tracy Marx) hadn’t been scheduled to work that Saturday, and we decided to not to schedule them, hoping that 6 staff members would be enough. We also realized that our menu would have to be severely limited to soup, gumbo, sandwiches, and chips… and it seemed like as soon as these thoughts were going through my mind, Jim informed me that many bloggers were reporting a possible train-stop and Obama appearance in either Aberdeen or Edgewood!
Thus, in the blur that the Acela usually flies past Clarence’s, Wednesday became Thursday. A representative from the “powers that be” suggested that we would be wise to set up a vendor station inside the secure area. After all, not only could our business make money, but we would be helping to expedite the security process by offering food and drink to people who had completed the screening. Taking the estimated crowd size (2000), the estimated train-time (2:30PM), the cold temperature (a forecast high of 20 degrees F), and our limited staff into account, we set our menu – Coffee for $1; Hot Chocolate for $2; Bottled Water and Juicy Juice for $1; Gumbo, Chili, and Shrimp Chowder for $3; Italian Po’boys and Chicken Caesar Wraps for $5; and (we later added) Potato Chips and Brownies for $1. At noon on Thursday, I was frantically prepping food for the event as Clarence and Jim scrambled to get the necessary supplies.
Around 1PM on Thursday, I jumped in surprise as our day-time bartender Paula Kelleher led an ABC-2 news reporter into the Sandwich Cellar (our quick-service sandwich shop located downstairs from the main dining level). I quickly stopped slicing lunch meats, removed my apron, and washed my hands to greet Linda So. She asked if I was available for an interview. “Now?” I wondered, and followed her upstairs to the main level of the restaurant. As she introduced me to her cameraman, I realized that not only did she mean “now”, she also meant “on camera”! “Why hadn’t I put on a Clarence’s logo-shirt today?” I wondered as I worried whether I had bits of salami stuck to my face. After a nervous interview and camera-shot sequence (my 15 minutes of fame were later truncated to about a 60 second spot on the 5PM news), I was back in the sandwich Cellar slicing salami and reviewing my mental checklist for Saturday.
By Friday morning, the rumors of a Obama Express slow-down at the Edgewood MARC station morphed into rumors that the Edgewood platform would indeed be the site for an Obama/Biden appearance. As excitement built in the community, Clarence, Jim, and I were busy readying our restaurant… after all, this was the proverbial “calm before the storm”. We finished prepping the sandwiches, cleaning and stocking the bathrooms for a large crowd, arranging rental equipment for the coffee and hot chocolate, and debating what to say to the President-elect if he actually DID stop and maybe even sample a cup of gumbo! Yes, it is amazing how much day-dreaming a person can do while slicing provolone cheese.
Friday sped by with various pre-event “emergencies” – where is our power hook-up going to be? Can the Harford County Obama Supporters set up a stand at our building? Can we find a good space to hang a Clarence’s banner? – and the myriad of other items that surface when you’re trying to prepare for a monumental event and you also realize that you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself in to! Honestly, Friday was an intensely stressful day for me… I can hardly recall the details. After the day was over, and I knew that I had done everything I could to get ready, I fell into a very fit-full sleep trying to hope for the best (Barack Obama’s train stops, tastes Clarence’s gumbo, and says it’s the best gumbo north of Lake Pontchartrain) but worried about the worst.
And then it was Saturday morning.
Jim left home at around 7AM to make to the 35 minute drive south-east to pick up Clarence and start setting up. I cleaned stalls (it was 5 degrees F, so the horses stayed in their stalls), gave the dogs a brief walk, dressed in 7 layers of clothes, and drove to the restaurant. As I approached the Edgewood MARC station at 8:15AM, I was amazed at the lack of activity… no cars, no road-block, no police… did I miss something? WBAL radio had announced that morning that the only scheduled Obama Express slowdown between Wilmington and Baltimore would be at the Edgewood, but maybe our event had been cancelled, too? My concerns were soon laid-to-rest as I watched the CNN truck being towed in to the MARC parking lot and various other news crews and trucks arrived. Soon, the corner at Old Edgewood Road and Edgewood Road was blocked by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. At 9:00AM, flat-bed trailers were arranged for the media camera crews, and I was asked to set up my vending stand directly behind the cameras facing the security checkpoint… a perfect location.
At 10:00 AM, I was asked to clear the area with all of the other media and most of the security personnel. The Secret Service then began the thorough process of sweeping and securing the fenced-in area. Everyone seemed ecstatic to escape the cold and head into our heated restaurant, but, alas, we hadn’t planned on serving any food until noon! Clarence and Jim hurriedly prepared hot coffee, gumbo, and sandwiches. Chili, chicken caesar wraps, and shrimp chowder soon followed, and the crowd of approximately 60 media and security personnel were warm, fed, and ready to face the cold and gathering crowd.
At 11:30AM the members of the press were cleared to re-enter the secured area, and (after a few phone calls to the “powers that be”) I was allowed to join them. By noon the security checkpoints were opened to the public, and I was soon over-whelmed by people wanting anything HOT… coffee, hot chocolate, gumbo, and shrimp chowder. Luckily, Beth soon joined me at our stand and our scheduled evening server Pam Prater showed up early and volunteered to clock-in and help sell soup and sandwiches inside the restaurant, and we proceeded to sell our wares as fast as we could dish up the items and collect money. At one point I took a second to look up and find at least 50 people in line patiently waiting to warm their hands around a hot cup of anything. (A brief aside: as a community service, we made sure that our prices were fair and that our heated building was available to everyone, whether they bought food and drinks from us or not. I was happy to note one customer say, “Here are the real prices. Coffee’s only $1!”)
Business continued at a brisk pace. When Beth and I needed to be resupplied, all I had to do was telephone Jim (how did we function before cell phones?). Jim or Clarence would bring out a pot – usually filled with hot chocolate or gumbo – and an assigned escort would check the pot, escort Jim or Clarence to me, watch over the resupply efforts, and then escort them back to the restaurant. Often, I would take this opportunity to hand off wads of $20 bills to Jim – looking around at the security, I was certain that there was no safer place to handle large amounts of cash! I can’t say enough about the security efforts – efficient, effective, and considerate.
The hours between 11:30AM and 2:30PM were a whirlwind, and then we heard the first security helicopter approach and the first of the decoy trains passed by. The security checkpoint was closed, and I was finally able to believe that I might get a chance to serve everyone in line and still see the Obama Express. Two or three more decoy Amtrak trains passed to loud crowd cheers, and then finally at around 2:55PM we saw the security helicopters hover overhead and then saw an Amtrak train approach the station travelling at around 5MPH. While slow, it sure seemed to us that the train was moving faster than a “crawl” (though it did seem slower when we saw the CNN footage later), and our hopes that the President-elect would stop and try some gumbo soon faded.
As the train continued to pass by our vantage point, we were amused to watch the passengers on the train taking pictures and video of the crowd next to the platform as the crowd on the ground returned the photo-flashes. Then, the special blue car with the name “Georgia” written on it came into site, and even I was moved to wave back as Barack Obama and Joe Biden waved at the crowd. Beth, standing on a cooler to get a better view over the press corps, loudly cheered, waved, and kept repeating that it was definitely worth braving the cold and serving gallons of drinks and soup to be part of the roughly 1500 inside the secured area. Even the normally stoic Jim grinned and later remarked, “This is as close as Edgewood can get to Mardi Gras. The only thing missing was Barack and Joe throwing beads to the crowd!” Unfortunately (or fortunately as far as our bank account was concerned), we had been so busy that none of us had a camera ready… though I think that the cameramen standings in front of us had the photo opportunity handled.
The days of excitement and worry were over and the entire gathered crowd (1500 inside the secure area, 800 outside of security) tried to get into our restaurant to warm up. Luckily, Jim and Clarence were able to close the doors and monitor the crowd before we exceeded fire marshal capacity. Beth and I went back to serving gumbo, this time complimentary portions to the hard-working security personnel who were finally able to relax enough to eat and breathe a sigh of relief before regrouping and heading down to Washington, DC, for the inauguration on Tuesday.
And as we broke down or little stand, yet another Amtrak train passed, and the head Secret Service agent remarked, “There goes the real train. The other was a decoy.” Are secret service agents allowed to joke?
Also from the Edgewood whistle-stop:
Quoted inside the restaurant: “We waited 4 hours in the cold for THAT?”
Favorite side-line: Speaking to State Delegate and Edgewood resident Dan Riley after the event, we learned that his house next to Clarence’s Restaurant had been part of some excitement on the day of the event. As the Obama Express approached his house, Delegate Riley’s wife decided to go upstairs and open a window to take a picture. She soon heard a secret service voice informing her that she was in the sniper’s cross-hairs, and instructing her to close the window. She complied immediately. Luckily, Jim had denied a similar request from a member of the press to use our upstairs window!
Here’s More About Clarence’s in Case You Haven’t Heard
The idea for Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans was born years ago by the current owners Clarence Hill, Stacy St. John and Jim Havlin when they were all working in Singapore. They dreamed of offering an authentic New Orleans experience to people living outside Louisiana. When Jim and his wife Stacy settled in Street, they decided to make their dream a reality. Finding a tavern on the edge of the Edgewood Arsenal of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, with Clarence they began working to transform a former military watering hole into a Cajun-style restaurant.
Opening in 2005, the interior has been decorated with purple, green, gold, beads and feathers. The backbone of the restaurant is Clarence who grew up in the neighborhoods of southern Louisiana and New Orleans. When he was 15 he started as a dishwasher in a French Quarter restaurant called Coop’s Place. He worked his way up to chef and later landed jobs at other area restaurants including Remoulade’s. Cooking has taken him to Singapore, Brussels Belgium and Kingston Jamaica. His Cajun food and bayou roots set his restaurant apart from other local offerings.
Several reviews have been written about Clarence’s and here are just a few of their offerings:
From the Baltimore Sun on August 10, 2006
“Clarence’s Taste of New Orleans serves up exuberant Crescent City cuisine that practically pummels your taste buds with flavor….. this ramshackle little restaurant, tucked into an easy-to-miss corner of Edgewood, is a happy place. Jambalaya, one of the all-time great culinary concoctions, comes in two versions: regular a rich stew of rice, onions, tomatoes and garlicky andouille sausage, and supreme, which adds shrimp and tasso ham. We tried the supreme and found our tongues tingling from the spicy flavors, all working together to create an explosion of deliciousness in our mouths….. The off-the-beaten-path location, delicious food and great prices all add up to a culinary find that’s worth the drive.”
From a recent Chowhound review:
“I had a sampler platter, as did Mr. V. Mine had red beans and rice and jambalaya. The beans ‘n rice were lovely—the beans buttery and soft, the rice perfectly cooked. Bay leaves abounded, and it was very subtly spiced. You can get the jambalaya as-is or upgrade it with shrimp and Tasso ham. The Tasso ham is sent over from N’awlins and oh lordy is it lovely. Smoky, salty bits of goodness.
The other sampler had the shrimp creole, etoufee, red beans and rice, and a piece of Southern Fried chicken. The Shrimp Creole was tangy and spicy and damn good. I felt like the rice/sauce balance was off, however. Too much rice. I have had better etoufee, but I will take what I can get up in these here parts! The fried chicken—amazing. So much food….. Our dining companions each had catfish: one with a shrimp and a tangy black sauce (Catfish Meuniere) and the other with crab. The catfish was perfectly fried, and a lovely piece of fish. The Meuniere sauce was outstanding.
From the sides, the Angry Cajun Cole Slaw won us all over. I think it’s cabbage in remoulade sauce. What’s not to like?????? 🙂
Save room for dessert. There was one piece of pecan pie, which I got since everyone else opted for bread pudding (with or without whiskey sauce). I have never tried a bread pudding that I have liked. Clarence’s knocked my socks off. I kept sneaking bites of it off of Mr. V’s plate. I have never, ever had a second helping of bread pudding before. Ever. Yet I would order Clarence’s in a heartbeat: It was on the dryer side (which I prefer), it was buttery, wonderfully spiced, and fully of plump raisins. The filling of the pecan pie was spectacular—moist, rich, and gooey without being dry and sticky. Whole pecans on top, pecan pieces throughout. I’ve had better crust, but this a minor point.
They have a frequent dining card–if you go three times in three months, you’ll get a card for 10% off all subsequent meals.
The place has a very N’awlins during Mardi Gras feel: beads on the tables, masks on the cherub in the fountain….A second room with a bar for people who want bar fare, which is also on the menu.
Clarence makes his own french bread on the premises, which makes me think that the po’ boys on the menu would rock. I am certain that this is why his bread pudding is so damn good. It’s all about the bread. And lack of gloop.
Overall, we were extremely satisfied, and extremely full. While some of the dishes lacked that uber-rich, uber-polished, high-end New Orleans sauced amazingness (a la Commander’s Palace), this was honest-to-goodness, homemade Cajun food. In a most unlikely place!
Go. You will be glad you did!”