University of New Orleans
I recently asked my food and culture students to write short essays about foods that remind them of places. The objective was to get them to think about the relationship between the two, about how foods evoke particular places, but also about how place can determine how people experience food. This is one of several short informal essays the students write in the class, all of which are meant to get them to personalize particular issues raised by their readings. The students seem to enjoy writing these essays and I certainly enjoy reading them. Most of the students are from New Orleans or from nearby south Louisiana, and the foods they draw on definitely reflect the local cuisine. These little vignettes give me a chance to learn new things too and never fail to spark a lively class discussion.
Sometimes the foods evoke local stereotypes, but in unexpected ways. One student wrote that in her family “we would always boil seafood more than we would barbecue because who wants barbecue when you can have crawfish,” providing some potential insight into why south Louisiana is less invested in smoked meats than other parts of the South. That particular insight was a preface to a story about the experience of buying crawfish at a neighborhood shop on those occasions when the family did not want to boil their own. Another student wrote lovingly of the ambiance at the local grocery store, which is linked to the sublime shrimp po’boys she buys there. Students linked their food experiences with festivals, of which there are many in the area, all of which feature food, even when food is not the theme of the festival. One student evoked his annual pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in pursuit of crawfish bread, an experience so transcendent that “eating this Louisiana delicacy, is like seeing God in my food.” If the food in south Louisiana is divinely inspired, perdition may lie outside the region. One student recalled her visit to Grapevine, Texas, through the deeply disappointing New Orleans-style food she ordered at a restaurant, an experience that resulted in tears and anger. Lesson learned: the foods of south Louisiana are best when produced and consumed in the region.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, kin relations are often linked to food and place. “Mawmaw’s shrimp stew,” only available at one grandmother’s house, for instance, recalled fondly by one student. Another asserted that there is a special terroir for the only cornbread she tolerates, which is made by her grandmother in North Carolina, during family Christmas visits. Efforts to reproduce the recipe out of season in New Orleans have been dismal failures. Consuming sacks of oysters, both raw and cooked, accompanied by beer and duck gumbo, is linked to an uncle’s driveway. Another student wrote about eating seafood of all sorts at a hunting and fishing club in New Orleans east, where her uncle lived with his family and worked as the club’s keeper. The club, it turns out, is nearly 200 years old, linking my student’s family to very interesting parts of American history.
One of the most evocative ethnographic vignettes to come out of this exercise this year was written by a student from a small town in Livingston Parish, not far from Baton Rouge. Summer time, she wrote, was jambalaya season. And not just any jambalaya. This summer dish was “fundraiser jambalaya,” “prepared on the side of the road, under a white pop up tent, in huge pots heated by propane burners, and always accompanied by Hawaiian Rolls and the chatter of eager volunteers.” She notes the faint whiff of roadside emissions or propane in the food, the mix of overcooked rice, the heaps of jambalaya that was somehow always mushy in the middle, maybe an effect of the Styrofoam clam shells in which it is often served. Eating the jambalaya was part of doing good, the tickets sold by kids, to support the local baseball team or some other cause. And eating it was a social occasion, an opportunity to stand around and chat with the neighbors.
At their best, these essays are not generally about praising the wonderful foods of south Louisiana. Instead, they evoke the atmosphere of place and the social relations the students think about when they describe certain foods. “Fundraiser jambalaya” is unlikely to turn up in any of the guide books or cookbooks published every year for people who want to learn to cook the foods of Louisiana. But its existence tells us a lot about the way of life of people who live in the region. I suspect there are other dishes performing similar roles all over the place. Ask your students.