2000s Archive

A Letter from New Orleans

Originally Published February 2006
Food has long served as both sustenance and emblem for New Orleanians. And as they return home, their city—with help from some local chefs—is coming back to life through people’s appetites.

I am writing to you from my usual desk, only now there is plywood to my right, covering the broken window. The ceiling above me is dry, though there is a stain where rainwater dripped through my 170-year-old roof. Behind me is a small patch of moldy Sheetrock. I must preserve it as evidence to show the insurance adjuster, if he ever comes. . . . As you have gathered, I’m lucky. My fence is horizontal, my car is drowned, but in New Orleans as it exists since Hurricane Katrina, I am one of the fortunate ones. I know that you are hungry for news of your favorite people and places. Much of the news is good. The French Quarter, the Garden District, and many of the other places you have visited escaped with relatively little damage. Mardi Gras will still take place, at the end of February, though the planned eight-day celebration will be four days shy of the usual duration. Jazz Fest will take place at the end of April. But with its fairgrounds so badly damaged, no one knows exactly what it will look like. The most devastating images you have seen were primarily from newer residential areas of the city, far from our historic architecture and legendary restaurants. If you confine your movements to these places, life can have that elusive quality we so long for these days: normalcy.

Right after the storm, our chefs were among the first responders. John Besh, the former Marine who commands the four-year-old kitchen at Restaurant August, was cooking red beans and rice for emergency personnel in Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from the city. Paul Prudhomme, unable to cook at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, in the French Quarter, set up his kitchen equipment in a tent outside his suburban spice factory. Nearly 30,000 relief workers got their own relief from army-issue meals-ready-to-eat in the form of fresh salads, chicken Creole, and made-from-scratch desserts. “We’re not firemen. We’re not policemen. The only thing we could do is feed people,” Prudhomme said.

Food is identity. We New Orleanians eat our share of typical American fare, but we are not fully ourselves unless we are serving and eating the food that defines us. Louis Armstrong often played “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” but he always signed his letters “Red beans and ricely yours.” Emergency measures may have dictated a limited menu, but we were determined that such measures would not endure for long. By early October, very few New Orleanians had returned to the city, but chefs had more options. “We didn’t want to just open and serve the easy stuff like hamburgers and chicken fingers. We wanted to bring back the cuisine of New Orleans,” said Dickie Brennan, the owner of Bourbon House, Palace Café, and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse. The opening-day menu at Bourbon House was dressed to impress: Soft Shell Crab Po’ Boys, Shrimp Chippewa, Gulf Fish Pecan, and Bread Pudding.

Our food, which has long served as both our sustenance and our emblem, is the bedrock on which we are building our recovery. It has been the local restaurants, not the national chains or even the deep-pocketed fast-food places, that have bounced back first. Even three months after the storm, it was a lot easier to find a po’ boy than it was to find a Whopper or a Chicken McNugget.

JoAnn Clevenger, owner of the Upperline, in the Garden District, understands her expanded mission. She is the philosopher queen of our restaurateurs. “I think that just one restaurant opening gives people hope. Optimism can be contagious.” Clevenger believes our population will return. And she and other restaurateurs got an unexpected boost from another phenomenon. When people returned, they didn’t dare open their reeking refrigerators. They just taped the doors shut and placed the appliances on the curb with the trash. Lacking functioning home kitchens, people went out in search of food and fellowship. “My restaurant is now a gathering place,” Clevenger said. “It might sound Pollyannaish, but it is cheerful. I watch the people in here night after night run to another table to see each other. They run!”

I started dining at the Upperline in the 1980s. As I enter this night, I’m immediately struck by the contrasts of old and new. These layers tell their own Katrina story. The warm hug of Clevenger’s greeting is timeless, but the carpet smelled of storm decay, she tells me. It was discarded in favor of the terrazzo floor it covered. Her eclectic art collection still crowds the walls, but familiar pieces, moved in advance of the storm, have been rearranged in unfamiliar places.

In the kitchen, chef Ken Smith aims for a balance of home and haute. The arrival of a signature dish—roast duck with ginger peach sauce and sweet-potato french fries—makes me feel at home and at ease. The bacon-blessed richness of the Cane River country shrimp is cut by a crisp grit cake. As I taste it, I am anchored in a moment of prehurricane bliss.

Clevenger gives you the determination to make it all work, and so does Jay Nix. A contractor by trade, he bought the Parkway Bakery in 1996 because it was next to his house and he feared that a liquor store might replace the business that had baked bread and served po’ boys since the 1930s. Inspired by that history, Nix renovated the place and taught himself the restaurant business. He had been serving nostalgia on French bread for less than two years when Katrina hit. In December, he was still cleaning up. But he was also plotting his return. “I tell you what. New Orleans is coming back through people’s stomachs and their appetites. If you’ve been following it, it’s the restaurants that are getting people excited.”

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