Cultural Survival

The jazz, the food, the essence of New Orleans -- they're part of the post-Katrina rescue effort too

September 12, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

It may not be grammatically correct to call a city the "most unique" in the country, but that didn't stop New Orleans from doing so - and not too many disputed it.

From its food to its music, from the parties it threw to the literature it spawned, New Orleans culture was so distinct, and so influential, that Hurricane Katrina and the Pompeii-like flooding that followed - deadly as they were - couldn't erase it.

The city's rich culture is safe, having washed over the rest of America long before its evacuees began doing so.

Its cultural institutions are another matter. Many were demolished or damaged. Some history eroded. Its symphony players are spread out across the country. Its football team has no usable home. Its strippers, restaurant workers and club musicians have left town. Mardi Gras? Nobody knows.

But in a city that brought America everything from jazz to muffalettas to A Streetcar Named Desire, that cultural cachet could help make the case for rebuilding it: Shouldn't the nation return to New Orleans, it might be argued, some of what New Orleans gave it?

The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that ... off of you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crawfish bisque and jambalaya ... grillades for breakfast, a po-boy with chow-chow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. - Tom Robbins, "Jitterbug Perfume"

As with so much of its culture - its music, its art, its literature - New Orleans didn't just produce cuisine. It oozed it.

Whether it was blackened redfish, boiled crawfish, jambalaya or beignets - fried hunks of dough sprinkled with powdered sugar that left more than a few people in love at first bite - the city was famous for its distinctive food.

It was the base of celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse; the cradle of Cajun cooking; the home of famous restaurants like Antoine's, Commander's Palace, K-Paul's, Nola and Galatoire's.

For now, though, the city's culinary delights exist only in a place you can't taste them - on menus posted on the Internet: Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's, Flaming Bananas Foster at Brennan's; Beef Brisket with Creole Sauce at Tujagues.

All are now wet, boarded-up, damaged, vandalized or looted, and a long way from reopening.

"We had some roof damage. No looting. But God knows what the place smells like," said Steve Latter, long-time owner of Tujagues, a 143-year-old restaurant.

He has accounted for 30 of his 33 employees, and he plans to reopen. Since last week, he has been deluged with e-mails of support from across the world. "I can't wait to get my staff back together. We're going to put the e-mails up over the walls," he said.

At the Restaurant Cuvee at the St. James Hotel, the business was intact, said executive chef Bob Iacovone, who had fled to his in-laws' house in Colorado. "Not even a wine glass broken, I hear," said Iacovone, 34. "I'm just waiting for the green light to get back into the city."

Like many restaurateurs, he's worried about the supply of Gulf seafood, given the hurricane's destruction of boats, docks, icehouses and processing plants. The region's oyster beds - which produce an estimated 42 percent of the nation's oysters - were disturbed by the churning of the ocean, and the flooding altered salinity levels in the seawaters.

While some landmark restaurants survived mostly unharmed, including Cafe Du Monde, known for its beignets, and Central Grocery, home of the muffaletta, others were heavily damaged, such as Commander's Palace, where half of its facade was gone.

"We're kind of assuming that even in places like the French Quarter, even if they don't have water damage, they're not going to have customers for a long time," said Don Luria, president of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, which is helping to find jobs for thousands of workers. "A lot of these people are not going to be returning to New Orleans for a long time, if ever."

The Louisiana Restaurant Association was among several groups trying to set up a job bank to provide employment for displaced food industry workers. In New Orleans, almost 10 percent of the labor force, 55,000 people, worked in the city's estimated 3,400 restaurants.

"New Orleans gave us a sense that there could be a regional American food style," said restaurant industry expert Clark Wolf. "It gave us the notion that food was about celebration, and taught Americans that a little spice never hurt."

There is no way to explain to someone who has never lived here why every day seemed like parole.

- Rick Bragg, author

Just as embedded as food in New Orleans culture is liquor, maybe - this being a city that lays claim to being the birthplace of the cocktail - even more so.

Together, said bartender Chris McMillian, known for his Mint Julep at the Library Bar in the Ritz-Carlton, they form "the heart and soul of the city. ... There's nothing more central than food and drink."

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