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THE CREOLE GIRL, RAGIN’ CAJUN’S TRACIE ORSI GODIER, GETS HER WINGS

How do you say goodbye to a friend that’s dying? I wasn’t able to bid adieu in person to the great Tracie Orsi Godier, so from one writer to another, I’ll let my written words do the talking.

The world lost one of the greats during the early morning hours of February 1st, 2015. The great ones always seem to go before their time. Tracie Orsi, 52, was the owner of Ragin Cajun’ in Belmar. She was a chef, a writer, a pioneer, a wife and a fierce woman who took shit from absolutely no one! Tracie also played guest columnist on a few occasions for the Anchor affiliated triCityNews and was featured in the paper many times over the years.

During a recent phone conversation I had with Tracie, we spoke at length about the cancer that had taken hold of her body. She told me about how someone had said to her, “don’t let cancer define you.” She said to me with that iconic Tracie bemusement, “what does that even mean? Why would cancer define me?”

If you could write a definition for Tracie Orsi, it would go something like this – beautiful, strong, confident, funny, independent, loving, generous, determined, defiant, genius. Even in the face of death, Tracie fought like a tiger. Because that’s who Tracie was. She was a fighter in the truest sense of the word. She fought to maintain a restaurant, as a female in a male dominated profession, in the best and worst of times, and won. She fought death and won. Tracie didn’t lose her battle with cancer. True, Tracie is no longer with us in the physical sense. But in life and in death she showed us what it means to work hard, dedicate yourself to the cause and succeed! She inspired all of us who knew her and for that she will forever be remembered as a winner.

tracie5The door is always open at Ragin’ Cajun

Of course I’m overwhelmingly saddened that I will never see my friend again except for in my dreams and on the other side. Our late night talks at the Cajun, while drinking wine and bullshitting about this screwed up world until the sun came up, will never happen again. I’ll never see Tracie’s infectious smile or hear her belly aching laughter except for in my head. But the memory of Tracie and all those good times we all shared together in and outside of Ragin Cajun’ will live on forever. You can take a body but you can never take a soul. And if there was ever a person in this world with soul, with swagger and with attitude, it was Tracie.

Over the course of 20 plus years, Tracie gave us this very special place called Ragin’ Cajun which opened in its original location on Main Street in Belmar in 1992. The Cajun will forever be her legacy. It still blows my mind when I talk to someone who’s never been there. Oh how they’ve missed out all these years. This place is an absolute gem. To me and to so many others, the Cajun is home, the irony being that it’s located in an old, salty haunted house just across from Shark River.

I’ll never forget walking into the Cajun for the first time when I was 16 years old back in 1996 to visit my best friend Wayne Ryder, a brother to Tracie and longtime Cajun employee. It was one of my earliest introductions to live music. And over the years I developed a bond with Tracie like so many others have. The Cajun will live on so don’t think this is an obituary for the restaurant because its not. It will be back open for business on Friday, February 6th, the day after Tracie’s memorial service – exactly how she would want it.

tracie2Stringbean on a Sunday

Whenever we’re home at the Cajun, we treat it like such. I often call it a DIY restaurant. Need more water? Get up and get it yourself. Need a fork or napkin? Get up and get it yourself. Hell, I’ve even set my own table before. And some people just don’t get it. They see us going in to the open-air kitchen and grabbing glassware or silverware or simply just hanging out with a beer in hand talking with Tracie or whoever else is in the kitchen, much like you would if you were in your own home. If the customers are new to the Cajun they often think “what is this place? Who are these hooligans hanging around like they own the place?” We would always get a laugh about that with Tracie. If you complained or had a problem with how things operated you were in serious trouble. There’s a reason you see a sticker on the front door that says “No Complaining!”

The Cajun is ANYTHING but perfect. Let’s be honest. The chandelier on the porch hanging from the wires (that’s since been fixed). The broken screen door as you enter (that too has been fixed). A few holes in the ceiling. The air conditioning never quite working right. The bleach stains on that obnoxiously huge picture of Tracie that hangs above one of the tables (this happened when an employee accidentally sprayed it with cleaner). We always laugh that it looks like someone shot up Tracie’s picture with a paintball gun.

tracie3Tracie talking to a table with Stringbean playing in the background

Most people would see these as flaws. But for me this is what makes the Cajun so special. It’s lived in, just like any real home should be. It’s like an old pair of boots. Worn and weathered but cooler than anything you’d find on a store shelf. A place where the ghosts of those prior still haunt the grounds. Tracie would always talk about the Civil War drummer boy who roamed the Cajun. According to Tracie, the Cajun served as a field hospital during the war. I have no clue if that is true or not but I love believing it. One night I even brought in an EMF detector to try and track down some spirits and the thing went off like crazy. Tracie freaked out! Of course we all laughed about it like we always did.

Ah, if people only knew the stuff that went on after the last customer walked out the door.

There were the times when we slept on the floor of the Cajun because it was too late to get a cab home or just because we wanted to. There were the times we’d go drinking after the Cajun closed and would come back at 2AM, fire up the stoves and cook some Ragin’ Cajun classics. There were the late night impromptu jam sessions, or perhaps the most memorable Cajun moment for me when the entire restaurant was on their feet, dancing to Stringbean on a Sunday night. How many restaurants have you ever been to where EVERY SINGLE CUSTOMER is dancing instead of eating? It was absolutely insane and amazing all at once.

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Oh the music! Tracie was not only a pioneer of Cajun cuisine in a restaurant scene dominated by Italian food, she was also a cultivator of original, live music. In a space the size of your living room nonetheless. The Cajun is the most intimate space for watching live music you’ll ever see. You practically sit right on top of the band. Billy Hector and his dear wife Susan on Thursdays, The Booglerizers on Fridays and Stringbean and the Stalkers, for all these years and counting, on Sundays. Sunday night at the Cajun is essentially church for so many people. You can’t count on many things in life, but you can always count on Stringbean on Sunday at the Cajun and having a blast. Guaranteed!

I was there a few Sunday’s ago. I hadn’t been to the restaurant in months. The news about Tracie took a turn for the worse. Wayne called me from Texas (where he currently resides) and told me he was booking a ticket to come home to pay his final respects to Tracie before she passed.

tracie6Some of the Ragin’ Cajun crew over the years (L to R: Lara Leventhal, Allison Warner, Liz Scanlon, Wayne Ryder, Tracie Orsi, Matt Costas)

There was something strange knowing that this was probably going to be the last time we’d be at the Cajun before the creole girl got her wings. I choked up on a few occasions as I walked around the restaurant taking it all in, remembering the good times with Tracie. But moments later we’d be laughing and having a great time again as always with Stringbean as our soundtrack. Tracie wasn’t there this evening, but she WAS!

At one point I walked back by the bathrooms where Tracie has all of her triCity articles hanging on the walls and saw the first article she wrote for the paper. I stood there reading, the tears welling up, in awe at how appropriate her words were in this very moment. Read below and see for yourself.

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A FAIRY TALE FOR TRACIE

BY TRACIE ORSI

(originally appearing as a guest columnist for Carpe Eatem in the 01.17.02 issue of triCityNews)

Once upon a time in a little beach community called “Belmar” (which derives itself from a French word meaning “the good sea”), there lived a beautiful, young, independent, self-confident chef who also happened to be a girl. On her way to the beach one day (for she loved the ocean which is why she lived in a little beach community), she passed a lake. 

She decided to walk along the shore of the lake, quack-quacking at the ducks and geese, thankful she left her yellow lab Sadie at home. It was while giggling at the little white tails wagging and waddling that she encountered upon a frog. 

She stooped down to get a better view of the frog when the frog surprised her and stood up on his hind legs to greet the girl.

“Elegant Lady, ” the frog said extending his hand (or whatever you would call his front legs but which were now inviting her hand to be brought to his lips gentleman style), “I was once a handsome young man, a beautiful beach bum like yourself and with exquisite taste for life and adventure. I know you might find this hard to believe, but in December 1992 a Nor’easter blew in. During this great storm (during which I was trying to catch killer waves), an evil witch cast a spell upon me.”

The young chef remembered this storm for it delayed the opening of her restaurant by one week. 

The frog went on with his unfortunate story. “You see, I am cursed to a life on this lake as a frog instead of one on the ocean as a handsome young man who would love and adore you forever. One kiss from you, and I will turn once again back into that handsome man I once was.”

“And then, my sweet angel, ” he continued, “we can get married and live in your house. You could cook your delicious meals for me, of which I have heard many passerby comment on and for which you have a splendid reputation.”

“You could do all of my laundry while I surf or hang out at Kelly’s in the afternoons drinking beer with my buddies. You can have children if you want, 8 of them no sweat, and forever feel indebted to the love with which I shall shower you daily.”

That night, the beautiful, young, independent chef mused as she twirled her fine white Bordeaux. She congratulated herself on her incredible talent with seasonings. She finished off the last piece of French bread sopping up the last of the lightly sautéed frog legs seasoned in a nice white wine, garlic basil sauce.

With the last sip of wine she chuckled to herself and thought, “I don’t think so.”

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If that isn’t the embodiment of Tracie Orsi in print, then I don’t know what is.

Photo at top by Steve Lacko Photography

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