Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

Food Brings People Together

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The social culture of food in New Orleans is seen through the familial passing of recipes. As I will discuss further on, gumbo is a family dish. The passing down of recipes is a way for families to create a lineage through something other than bloodlines. As a recipe passes from member to member, it creates a bond between the two and this bond can be seen when the food is made for others. The discussions between people about where the recipe originated lends to the rich history of the city. Many of the flavors that are common within New Orleans cuisine come from Spanish, French, Native American, and African influence. Many of the main dishes can be connected to the migration of people to the city.

The influence of food can be traced around the country as well. This is due to the forced migration after major disasters. After Hurricane Katrina, many chefs were displaced and their homes had been destroyed in the storm. So they set up shop wherever they settled. In Clarksburg, West Virginia, Chef LeRoy Crump Jr. owns the restaurant Bon Appetit. He sells cajun food and promises “Authentic New Orleans food and spirits” (Smith, 2007). Chef Crump owned a restaurant in New Orleans before he had to move to West Virginia and continue his cooking career. In contrast, Irving Harrell did not have professional experience when he was relocated to Las Vegas after the hurricane. Despite his inexperience in cooking, his family’s weekend barbecues gained a lot of attention. This lead Harrell to realize that the family had talent that could be shared. Both of these chefs maintained the social culture that is present in New Orleans in the face of disaster by bringing a piece of the city with them in the form of food. Despite their forced migration, they continued to nurture the city’s customs.

The restaurant industry was one of the things that was able to pull New Orleans back toward a habitable city. The chefs that were able to return had the ability to excel due to a lack of competition, and new chefs could break free of the New Orleans traditions to bring in new flavors. Many of the native New Orleanian chefs started their business again by giving the laborers that were helping to rebuild the city free food. Those that were rebuilding needed to be fed, so there was an immediate group of regulars for these chefs. The new chefs could establish themselves easily in the tourist centers of the city and have a booming business once New Orleans’ tourist industry thrived again.

A negative effect of Hurricane Katrina on the food industry was the drop in neighborhood restaurants. The influx of chefs from around the country pushed out the small restaurants and developed larger chain restaurants. The number of people that were displaced by the storm caused restaurants that weren’t tourist sites to take a hard hit. Some chefs blamed it on the new people coming in. Others placed the blame on bad governance. The prospects for neighborhood restaurants were rather bleak. Many have not returned even today.

The chefs that have moved to the city after Katrina, had engulfed themselves in the culture. An example of this is Chef Nina Compton. She opened a restaurant in the warehouse district that serves a blend of classic New Orleans flavors and others from St. Lucia. She states that her decision to move to the city was easy because people care about chefs and are welcoming to “the ambitious chef” (McCausland, 2015).

In the entirety of my research, I have found one thing that holds true in New Orleans, Mama’s gumbo is the best gumbo. Throughout the many interviews and articles I have read, it has been made clear that gumbo is an ancestral dish. Its importance lies not only in its ability to bring people together but also in the cultural influence of the dish. One thing that gumbo shows is the diversity of the city (Language and Culture). With the many variations of a dish, it is clear that there are many traditions that influence the city.  Arguments surround the origins of gumbo, but one thing can be agreed on: its name has African origins and translates to okra (Southern Gumbo Trail). There are so many different variations of gumbo that it is hard to track and distinguish the vast multitude. Some families believe that gumbo should only be made with a poultry roux; others insist that okra should only be added in the summer and fille in the winter. With all of these discrepancies, it is clear that there are many eclectic means to make gumbo, and that no one way is the right way.

Jambalaya is another dish that is influenced by many cultures. While researching, I have had to wade through the differing opinions on the creation of the dish, which ingredients it should include (it appears that New Orleans jambalaya includes tomatoes), and the type of rice that should be used. Another area of argument is where the name jambalaya came from. Some say that it has Spanish origins, while others will argue that it comes from the French word jambon – meaning ham. The Oxford Dictionary claims that the origin is the Provençal word Jambalaia, which means mishmash or rubble. The dish can include ingredients such as seafood, poultry, vegetables, and rice. One of the things that makes jambalaya popular is that it can be altered to feed large groups of people. This makes it an easy dish for social events while catering to a variety of tastes. I believe that, culturally, this is another dish that is not able to have a “correct” way to make it.

Yet another dish that was created and rose to fame in New Orleans is the Po-boy. This sandwich was created during the streetcar director strike in 1929 (Wei, 2016). A pair of brothers that owned a cafe near the strike decided that they would feed the directors for free. The po-boy earned its name as the chefs would yell “Here comes another poor boy” when a striker approached. This created a dish that held identity within the city as being created by Americans for Americans.

After Hurricane Katrina Parkway Bakery held true to the original creators by giving out free po-boys to those that had served the city. In December of 2005, the bakery reopened and welcomed guests with free po-boys and a sense of home (Anderson, 2017). The devastation of Katrina was also a bittersweet blessing for the bakery because it brought in a customer basis that has been holding strong. The reopening of the bakery allowed the citizens of New Orleans hold onto this tradition.

The sociality of cuisine is overlooked in many areas of the country, but in New Orleans, the people break that mold and meld their social events with their distinct cuisine. While there are copious amounts of dishes and flavors that come out of the city, I chose to stick with the three that embodied the culture and sociality of New Orleans. These dishes are iconic and the varied flavors described in the recipes make me want to travel to New Orleans just to try them, experience the rich culture that created them, and gain a better understanding about how a bowl of gumbo can make everything in the world alright. Through this research, I have a newfound interest in the culture of food, not only in New Orleans but around the world. I want to discover how food helps form cultural interaction and I believe that this was an encouraging way to begin.

 

Works cited

Dry, Stanley. “Jambalaya.” Louisiana Life, 2009, www.myneworleans.com/Louisiana-Life/Winter-2008/Jambalaya/.

“Jambalaya.” New Orleans Jambalaya Recipe, www.neworleans.com/restaurants/traditional-new-orleans-foods/jambalaya/.

“Jambalaya | Definition of Jambalaya in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/jambalaya.

“Language and Culture of New Orleans Embodied in One Food: Gumbo.” Public Radio International, PRI’s The World, 19 July 2013, 1:35pm CDT, www.pri.org/stories/2013-07-19/language-and-culture-new-orleans-embodied-one-food-gumbo.

McCausland, Phil. “How New Orleans’ Restaurant Industry Helped Revive the City After Katrina.” Munchies, 27 Aug. 2015, munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/kbxxga/how-new-orleans-restaurant-industry-helped-revive-the-city-after-katrina.

Schultz, Carol.

“Southern Gumbo Trail.” Southern Foodways Alliance, www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/southern-gumbo-trail/.

Wei, Clarissa. “An Illustrated History of New Orleans Food.” First We Feast, First We Feast, 20 Oct. 2016, firstwefeast.com/eat/2015/04/illustrated-history-of-new-orleans-food.

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