It seems that I spend too much time lately writing obituaries for good friends who have left too soon.
Yesterday I got the bad news about Vince Saltaformaggio. He died suddenly of a heart attack early Tuesday morning. Most people reading this blog won’t know Vince, but anyone who has encountered him for just a minute will never forget him. He was the big guy with the big smile and the New Orleans accent, trying to feed anyone who walked within 50 feet of his Airstream motorhome. He was always there, the organizer of parties and rallies, the leader of festivities, and the Head Chef at all times.
I first met Vince and his longtime companion Lonnie Carver when I was working on an article for the Spring 2006 issue of Airstream Life (see excerpt). I was looking for people who had escaped Hurricane Katrina in their Airstreams, and they had a doozy of a story to tell. Vince suffered the loss of his home, and after the hurricane, he and Lonnie moved into an Airstream Class A motorhome on the Irish Bayou near New Orleans, and lived there ever since.
At one point I described Vince as “the quintessential New Orleanian,” for his jovial attitude toward life, his ability to make friends almost instantly, and his amazing talent for cooking. He liked that, and it stuck. Almost every time I saw him after that, he reminded me of the moniker I’d given him — and then he offered me something to eat.
At every rally, Vince and Lonnie were the center of the party. There’d be a giant cast-iron double burner running day and night, heavy with stew pots and fry pans, and no matter when you came by there would be something terrific to eat. There was usually a glass of something near Vince’s right hand, and his beloved pug dog would be nearby as well. I learned to seek out Vince at every rally, because I knew I’d be welcomed with a giant bear hug and the smile of someone who is genuinely glad to see you.
It seems to sell him short by remembering Vince primarily for his cooking, because he was such a generous and amiable person. But his cooking was so wonderful and honest that it was an emblem of his entire personality. Eating Vince’s food was like being invited to Paul Prudhomme’s home kitchen. It was spectacular. Although professionally he was a photographer, I (and doubtless many others) told him he should really start a second career. But he cooked just for fun. Vince knew how to speak to people through his cooking. Every dish was great warm hug, a taste of comfort from The Big Easy, and a reminder that even amidst strife life is worth living.
Certainly Vince lived well. He and Lonnie were on the road often, attending rallies all over the southeast with their massive outdoor kitchen setup. They were always happy when I saw them, just enjoying life and their many friends. Two years ago we met Vince, Lonnie, and a group of their friends who go by the names “Dixie Camperz” in Ft Morgan, AL. They literally spent day and night cooking and feeding the group in what seemed at time to just be one continuous meal. No matter what was going on, there was Vince in the background, sometimes wearing chef’s whites and a coonskin cap, cooking, cooking, cooking.
I did something foolish at that event. Despite the incredible meals we were being served, I let slip that I was surprised there hadn’t been any crawfish boil. After all, I reasoned, we’re in the south and that’s a traditional meal — and I hadn’t had it in years. Vince said, “Oh, so you like crawfish eh?” The next day $200 worth of crawfish arrived for a massive boil-up.
I was simultaneously flattered and mortified. That was far too much money to spend on my whim, and neither Vince nor Lonnie would accept any contribution to the food budget. But oh, was it good. Emma had her first taste of crawfish there, and that night we were inducted into the Dixie Camperz in a hilarious ceremony featuring nose glasses. I still have the embroidered t-shirt in my collection of momentos from our years on the road.
In the Airstream community, Vince is also remembered for his love of vintage trailers. He owned a 1959 Airstream Tradewind that he had lovingly restored and polished. He also owned various other Airstreams, and had started a new restoration project recently. But as much as he polished his ’59, the trailer was always outshined by his extraordinary personality. Vince Saltaformaggio was one of those rare ambassadors of Airstreaming who exemplify exactly why we go to rallies, why we travel, why it’s so much fun. We need more guys like him, but they aren’t made every day. To say Vince will be missed is barely enough.