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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.”

Willie Mae Seaton is determined, too. She had been cooking great soul food in relative obscurity until last year, when she was recognized at the James Beard Foundation Awards as one of America’s Classics. The audience, moved by the slow resolve of her 88-year-old gait and the sincere sparseness of her acceptance speech, cheered and cried. She promised them that whenever they made their way to the Crescent City, she would be there.

She is 89 now. The shotgun double house that is both home and restaurant was flooded. The furniture, the fixtures, all lost. But she had a plan. Her son Charlie serves as sous-chef, purveyor, and handyman. He would get the place ready. It didn’t seem to occur to her that, at 71, Charlie might not be the ideal candidate. She still hopes to open, but where will she find the money and manpower to do so? The owners of Gau­­treau’s, Dooky Chase, Gabrielle, and Commander’s Palace would also like to return soon, but they, too, face costly repairs.

All true new orleanians, born or transplanted, have a Creole spirit. Our joie de vivre, we have long joked, marks us as redheaded stepchildren in the vanilla American mainstream. But what was once humor is now a dreadful cloud. We worry that our nation will not help us rebuild our homes and levees. We live and we cook now with an intensity that reminds the world and ourselves of what will be lost if New Orleans is lost. The day Restaurant August reopened, red beans and rice were on the menu. And the Friday lunch menu boasts a down-home seafood and sausage gumbo among John Besh’s decidedly nontraditionalist offerings. “I’ve got something I’ve got to get off my chest, and here it is,” he said. “I don’t want to serve a damn thing here unless it has roots that stem from all those crazy bloodlines that built New Orleans.”

To understand us now, you must learn the most popular phrase of our new lexicon. We speak of “pre-K.” It has nothing to do with early childhood education and everything to do with that long-ago period before the hurricane. This reference point precedes the answers to such questions as “Do they have valet parking?” Post-Katrina, the storm is invariably the main topic of our conversations. But, as in pre-K days, breakfast talk is spiced with anticipatory statements about where one will go for lunch or dinner. No restaurant is more talked about than Donald Link’s Herbsaint. Meatloaf remains on his lunch menu as a vestige of those days im­mediately after his October opening, when he sought to serve comfort food. But it is his chile-glazed pork belly with beluga lentils and fresh mint and his banana brown-butter tart that now dominate discussions of his restaurant.

Fears were raised a year and a half ago when chef Thomas Wolfe bought Peristyle from the popular Anne Kearney. Would the hearty fare from his self-named restaurant across town run roughshod over her meticulous, classic creations? The answer is that, both pre-K and post-K, Wolfe has proved adept at serving dishes as elegant as those Peristyle diners had come to expect.

Two restaurants that were scheduled to open around the time of the hurricane simply altered their debut dates and moved forward. Uptown, Alberta serves elegant bistro food. An hour’s drive across Lake Pontchartrain in Abita Springs, Slade Rushing and Alison Vines-Rushing have transplanted the award-winning food they created at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in Manhattan to an environment closer to their Mississippi and Louisiana roots. At the Longbranch, their bacon-topped reinvention of Oysters Rockefeller may be the most exciting new dish I’ve tasted, though the smoked lamb rib served alongside the rack of lamb with wilted romaine and tomato jam has had my taste buds dreaming.

These days, you feel more a part of the restaurant family than before. You know that some of the cooks may well be doubling as dishwashers and that dress codes have been relaxed. Cuvée still requests attire befitting the opulence of its gold-leaf ceiling and its wine list. Chef Bob Iacovone is aiming for lushness, as is evidenced by his opening salvo of foie gras crème brûlée. But post-K fine dining means jeans are acceptable, though not encouraged. Of course, the waiter will still swap the standard white napkin for a black one that won’t get light lint on your dark pants.

Once you leave the restaurants, you are often confronted with stark reality. Many neighborhoods are still empty; many streets unlit. This is already a long letter. I didn’t intend it to be. But it has taken me this many words to explain to myself what I want you to understand about my hometown. Despite the pronouncements that our beloved city is too dangerous, too hurricane-prone for human habitation, we fully intend to rebuild. Put simply, this place, above all others, is where we wish to live.

Red beans and ricely yours,