Louisiana…One thing I noticed about Louisiana perhaps feeds into the other thing. One, it’s burgeoning with life from every humid orifice. And for some reason, that makes me want to eat, and languish. New Orleans has been my ‘week off’ and it’s been like Eat Pray Love all rolled into one: I’ve had southern food, the boy and the soul of an incredible city to furnish an intense time. The lovely Annie mentioned that I’ve not really talked about the food I’ve eaten so this will be a blog about that, mostly.
I could write much about the social geography of a city like New Orleans, whose successive settler nations, slaves and freed men helped to urbanise the swamp, delta and waterways that in turn shaped the city. This ain’t no grid pattern- Nawlins curves around the Mississippi’s bends and is hemmed in at the top by the massive Lake Pontchartrain. The early history of the city is one of fires that destroyed 80% of buildings, plagues (following the initial expedition parties whose bugs decimated the indigenous population), storms and floods. It’s close to the water, and steamy. Human life has returned from the brink here many times, never far from mama nature (one local artist denoted Hurricane Katrina’s 10 year anniversary with ‘Katrina, you old witch’…I couldn’t really dig into the fear, respect and ridicule people express towards the threat of storms). But other life here recycles itself ferociously too. I passed an abandoned building against whose glass doors one could see thick vines pressing from the inside. Pretty weeds spurt out of every crack. Wispy grey moss drapes the branches of swamp forest like shadow. In the evening the sidewalks scuttle with roaches, cats and the occasional pig. Slugs, giant swamp rats with big orange teeth, and so many birds. In the early morning Garden District the birdsong and floral scents are fabulous. The mostly wooden houses have verandas whose balustrades and filigree railings are sometimes hidden by vines, prickly pear and flowering shrubs out of which birds weave and soar.Oh, and the architecture. We stayed in a ‘shotgun’ style house in the Bywater, whose three rooms stretch back from the street, often in narrow ‘double’ apartments. The lack of corridors makes for interesting sociality (ours also had curtains for doors- but a real sense of privacy comes from having so little of the house exposed to the street). They’re painted in rainbow (a real contrast to the peach ‘n tan of Albuquerque): sugar pink with turquoise and baby blue or Mardi Gras-themed purple, green and orange or pale brick with mint green and orange. And in the posher French Quarter or Garden District, grand turret windows and lush front gardens (the gentility gave me the slight creeps in the way that Leonardo DiCaprio does in Django Unchained). Streets that change name from Burgundy Street to Roosevelt Way to O’Keefe Avenue given their relation to the neighbourhood-dissecting thoroughfares of Canal St (the canal was never built) and Common St. (Burgundy’s pronunciation as ‘Bur-GUN-dy’ is fiercely defended as we learned when a Californian band playing in the street announced their Burgundy gig to the protestations of their audiences for erroneous pronunciation- “it’s BurGUNdy, doofus”). Rattling streetcars from the 1920s driven by burly ladies in visors. Complex ethnic and linguistic mixtures abound (the term Cajun is a derivation of the Arcadian settlers to Lafayette in the west, expelled from Nova Scotia by the British). Apparently the French’s more lenient treatment of their slaves lent itself to greater cultural hybridization- I suspect that’s a gross generalisation but the city is one of living at close quarters.
GET TO THE FOOD. Ok, so perhaps the steamy weather and sensual sounds of the birthplace of jazz conspire to align one to the bacchanalian pleasures of life and body. I decided to exercise even greater lassitude with my usually-rather-hypocritical vegetarianism while in Louisiana. I’d been pretty stingy in San Francisco, nervous about making my budget stretch for 2 months if I ate out too much so treating myself to a night of izakaya-style Japanese and some tasty tacos but otherwise buying ingredients for Tupperware lunches- good rainbow chard, eggs and rice. In New Mexico I ate great stonebaked pizza, soup kitchen lunches and as much New Mexican food as I could- posole, tamales, red beans, run through with red, green and smoked chile. And lovely speedy breakfasts with Marie and Sean before heading out for busy days- fruit from a shared plate, mugs of creamy coffee, bits of fruit pie from the fridge. But Louisiana. I ate. Henry was somewhat taken aback, he of the pescatarian slimline knows-what-he-likes. I was reminded here of the trip to Ghana that ended my 10 years of strict vegetarianism (and anxious-teen self-denial)- meat served as a treat, but one to be accepted graciously as such. I sidelined somewhat the welfare and environmental implications of what I was eating, the story behind it, and focussed on indulgent here and nows (Louisiana is a bit of a cosmopolitan environmentalist’s nightmare- virtually no recycling or municipal composting nor emissions testing, but probably a large number of people who never fly, the people for whom Barbara Kingsolver wrote ‘Flight Behaviour’.) SO, what did we eat? Always good to have a companion for half-and-half sharing (wanting to eat half of Henry’s is always a good incentive to avoid the meat). We ate…Haitan tofu, zingy relish , fried plantain and stewed greens at St Roch Market (a beautiful building whose centrality as a grocery was destroyed by Katrina and subsequently let down by a funding grant to renovate the place as a provider of food in a food desert/swamp (too few groceries, too many takeouts/liquor stores) and that boasts a mean shelf of produce while the rest is premium priced ‘street food’ stalls).
Breakfast and brunches were a big thing. Variations of the eggs benedict, with poached eggs and hollandaise crowning fried green tomatoes (to wander…), artichoke hearts, roasted squash and courgettes. With fried potatoes and grits instead of muffins (grits are a revelation- I has some seriously creamy, cheesy editions). Make-your-own mimosas and big plastic cups of Bloody Mary with olives and pickled green beans (I know what I’m doing with any future gluts), my heart-teasing ‘French toast burrito’ of scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon wrapped in a tortilla and fried in French toast batter, drenched in syrup and doused with hot sauce. Praline bacon- oh dear, as it sounds- definitely bordering on too much, that one (the waiters rush about in ‘pig bacon’ cartoon t-shirts.
We ate at a wonderful and clearly-loved bar where you buy a bottle of wine from the cavern downstairs (and optional cheese and meat to be transformed into a platter piled high with bread to be brought to your table) and take it to your table in the garden or upstairs bar to glut while listening to live music from the stage. Over our two visits we drank a white and a red from California, ate grilled sardine and ceviche and bucatini with ‘confit’ tomato and garlic and mussels. Chocolate ‘bark’, a massive pile of chocolate shards drizzled with olive oil and black salt. Bread with truffle butter. At the Sneaky Pickle, also nestled in the Bywater, we ate purple sweet potato gnocchi in the most delicious umami sauce with roast squash, pak choi swimming in soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and chilli, Thai chickpea curry and smoky beans.
Closer to earth, we ate shrimp and sweet corn swimming in grits (grits: how can something that sounds so bad be so good- delicious polyfilla for the tum). I had jambalaya at Jazzfest and was reminded of big vats at jollof rice cooked by my Sierra Leonean extended family. With added meat- it was a bit groan-inducing on the sausage front. What we forgot to, or chose not to eat: alligator pie, po boy or powder. Beignets (darn). Gumbo. We didn’t go for the crawfish boil- apparently this is the first year since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that the critters have got big enough not to be a massive disappointment after cutting your fingers to get into them).
While I didn’t organise any formal food bank visits here, I spent a great day with ‘commie kitsch’- or the Community Kitchen Collective, a Food Not Bombs-sequel collective loosely organised by the lovely Nico- here’s an interview with him- http://www.antigravitymagazine.com/2013/10/guerrilla-gourmet-an-interview-with-nico-from-new-orleans-community-kitchen/ . I trucked about with Lauren in a rattle van over the myriad pot holes of NOLA’s underfunded, climatically-challenged roads, collecting leftover produce from a couple of wholesalers. Lauren cooked them a meal, telling me they’d been donating for all those years asking nothing in return, and working unsociable hours lifting heavy loads in refrigeration units, and we delivered their lunch to them- I got a big hug. The day consisted of chopping on the big outside table and trying to maintain a semblance of organisation in the space- roots in one box, leaves left till last etc. Susan presided over the roasting of a big box of green chill is and blitzing them with vinegar and salt to make a hot sauce. Some people clearly had stronger coordination capabilities and would avoid the chats over chopping about travels to hippy enclaves in Tennessee woods to instead lift heavy pans, drain huge vats of potatoes and ensure the balance of seasonings. Cornell (who was simply channelling Warrior) spent the whole morning meditatively frying ripe plantain with cassettes of women’s war cries from old times playing in the kitchen (which got seriously hot). We crouched in the back of the van with the huge pans (that covered bare sweaty legs with soot) to drive to the park next to central library where the food is served at the same time every Tuesday afternoon. A long trestle table was soon laden with rice, bean stews, greens, mashed potato with spinach, roast fennel, green salad, plantain, hot sauce blended with avocado, fruit salad, juice and water. A long line soon formed and the experience of serving that food is always something that I find hard to write about. Not knowing quite how to respond to profuse thanks at food that you’ve barely helped prepare (conjured into tasty beauty from the supply chain’s waste) or to a man who’s overfilled his cardboard plate to the point that it threatens to spill everywhere and wondering whether it’s out of a sense that rarely does he get to fill his own plate and know that he can come back for seconds if he wishes. How to stop assuming things. But it was a diverse crowd of gender, age, ethnicity, accent. I noticed how many of the CKC cooks chose to sit and eat with those who gathered for the meal. While chats back at the Treme base suggested many were incomers to New Orleans with university educations and capacities to travel, perhaps the anarchistic stance towards the mainstream food and charity welfare systems lent them a sense of shared precarity or an understanding of the broader conditions that lead food to be wasted and people to be hungry and surviving on the streets. Eating together. I spent the next 3 hours chatting about the origins of slavery, America’s nuclear history and experiences of veterans in Vietnam and Korea with a Scottish-Cherokee unemployed artist, a grandfather who lives on the streets here in winter and heads back north for the sweltering summer and a gold-toothed hip hop boy. All three knew life on the streets here and all three spend significant amounts of time reading, perhaps a because the library is one of the few public places where you’re allowed to sit, and participate in learning. Eating followed by talking, until they felt it was getting too dark and dangerous for me to be in the park and plopped me back in the French Quarter. As they warned me against walking alone in certain areas, I lamented the latent vulnerability of being a woman. Paddy, the old gentleman with big white beard who’d just told me about the idea of olfactory memory in Jitterbug Perfume, frowned at me. “I’m vulnerable too”, he said.