Category Archives: festivals

Going for the Gumbo

David Beriss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a massive two weekend celebration of the music and culture of the city and the surrounding region. I have been attending regularly for years. At its core, the festival provides an opportunity to see great performers playing wonderful music. The musicians range from headlining national pop stars to relatively unknown local artists who usually play at the club around the corner; from national acts to bands made up of students from local high schools and universities (a not insignificant number of the former evolved from the latter). In addition, the festival showcases the work of visual artists and craftspeople, as well as parading groups of Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, and much more. All of this makes for a dazzling attempt to crystallize the contours of the artistic culture of south Louisiana. It is a self-conscious attempt to put that culture on display, to celebrate, venerate, and preserve the things that make the region distinctive.

And then there is the food. For many people, Jazz Fest is as much a food festival as it is a music festival. Your ticket, of course, buys you entrance to the festival and with that you can hear as much music as you can fit into your day. The food, produced by a wide range of local vendors, costs extra. But the food is as carefully curated by the festival organizers as the music. The vendors are not the circuit-riding professionals of state and county fairs. They are local restaurateurs and caterers, along with a few talented prejeans sign jazzfestamateurs, who often produce special dishes specifically for Jazz Fest. The array of foods on offer—from classics of Cajun and Creole cooking, to Vietnamese, Latin American, and Middle-Eastern specialties—provides an idea of the region that may be more diverse than the music itself.

 

There are people who plan their approach to the music schedule weeks in advance. There are also people who approach the food with similar careful strategizing. Emphasizing this food-focused view of Jazz Fest, Ian McNulty, a food writer at the Advocate newspaper, created a guide for such people this year that mimics the layout of the music schedule.

A lot of us start our annual Jazz Fest observances with a specific dish. When I get to Jazz Fest, before even thinking about which bands are performing, I seek out the pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo from Prejean’s Restaurant. The dish is part of our family history. When my wife was pregnant with our now 18-year old daughter and fighting first-trimester nausea, she nevertheless insisted on only one Jazz Fest food: prejeans gumbo jazzfestPrejean’s gumbo. This is a dark and smoky gumbo, filled with chunks of meat, served with rice. Eating at Jazz Fest is best approached as a team activity, so I share the gumbo with whoever is with me (usually my wife), as we comment on the quality of the year’s batch. The strong flavors prepare us for a day of music, food, and fascinating sights.

Gumbo, of course, is one of the key Louisiana dishes. Prejean’s gumbo is Cajun. The use of a very dark roux is something people often associate with Cajun gumbos, although that seems less indicative in this case than the vendor. Prejean’s is based in Lafayette, about 140 miles west of New Orleans and represents itself as a Cajun restaurant. It is a big restaurant, full of taxidermy alligators and other memorabilia meant to evoke Cajun culture. The food is good and they have excellent gumbos on the menu. But the pheasant, andouille, and quail gumbo is not on the restaurant’s regular menu. For that, you have to come to Jazz Fest.

Prejean’s is not the only gumbo at Jazz Fest. There is also a lovely shrimp, sausage, and okra gumbo, from Fireman Mike’s Kitchen. Mike Gowland is a real retired fire fighter fireman mikes gumbo jazzfestwho has been at Jazz Fest for years and recently opened a restaurant. His gumbo is much lighter in color than Prejean’s and it is hard to miss the okra floating around in it, which adds some texture to the dish. There is also Creole filé gumbo, from Wayne Baquet’s Li’l Dizzy’s Café, the current outpost of a family with a storied restaurant history in New Orleans. They serve Creole food at their restaurants and their seafood-heavy gumbo is representative of that style (alas, I do not have a photo of Baquet’s gumbo).

If you set all three of the gumbos available at Jazz Fest side by side, you might find it hard to believe that they are all variations of one dish. There are a lot of great gumbos in local restaurants and, of course, many home cooks make their own. If there is not one right way to make gumbo, there are nevertheless a lot of people willing to argue about the dish itself. On gumbo’s origins, for instance: claims about the invention of the dish invoke, variously, African, Fireman Mike Gumbo signNative American, and European origins. The word “gumbo” derives from the Bantu term for okra. Some point to Choctaw soups and to the Native American introduction of ground sassafras leaves to Europeans, which is the source of the filé powder often used to thicken gumbos (and there are often filé making demonstrations at Jazz Fest). The Choctaw word for sassafras is, in fact, “kombo.” Some have argued that the soup has its origins in local variants on French bouillabaisse. We might add that the rice usually served with gumbo is a major south Louisiana crop that was originally brought to the Americas by Africans. These arguments about origins are part of a broader tendency in local popular literature to want to attribute different recipes or parts of recipes to specific ethnic groups, usually relying on broad generalizations about how and what people of various origins cook (“the French” brought roux, “the Spanish” brought ham, “the Africans” brought okra and rice, “the Germans” brought sausage, and so forth) and contributing to deeper debates about who can represent local culture. Some of the people in these stories were probably less eager to participate in the making of that culture than others, a fact that contributes to these ongoing debates.

The controversies do not end with debates about origins. Brett Anderson, a James Beard award winning local food writer, recently wrote an article in the New York Times focusing on a ‘new wave’  of gumbos available in New Orleans restaurants. The article featured the headline: “Gumbo, the Classic New Orleans Dish, Is Dead. Long Live Gumbo,” and discussed everything from a curried gumbo at Saffron NOLA to a seafood gumbo with flavors that point to Vietnamese and Chinese foods at Maypop, along with many others. The article—especially the headline—drove locals into a social media frenzy. Many erroneously assumed that Anderson was claiming gumbo was dead and indignantly denounced the New York Times for once again completely misunderstanding the city’s culture and traditions. It probably would not matter much what Anderson wrote. Fiercely defending and preserving the city’s and region’s cultural traditions—the “heritage” in the Jazz and Heritage Festival—is a mission that many locals take seriously. Outside authorities, or even local authorities working for outside media, raise questions at their own risk.

There have been other controversies in recent years around gumbo, including outrage over a recipe for gumbo promoted by Disney on social media. There have also been fights over what constitutes a proper roux, the addition of hard-boiled eggs to gumbo, and the use of potato salad in gumbo. This is a lot to take on board when you taste that cup of dark gumbo at Jazz Fest. If nothing else, the ongoing controversies about the origins, making, and representations of gumbo indicate that people care enough to keep the traditions alive. The variations and innovations in gumbo-making suggest that New Orleans is still a Creole city, constantly adapting to new ideas and innovations. At this year’s Jazz Fest (there is still one weekend left, as I write this), there will be an entire day of cooking demonstrations devoted to different kinds of gumbo. Tempting.

 

 

 

 

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CFP: Special Issue for Food, Culture, & Society on Food and World’s Fairs/Expositions

A call for papers that could be of particular interest to SAFN members and FoodAnthropology readers who study festivals, fairs, and other events. 

Call for Papers: Special Issue on Food at the Fair

Bonnie Miller

This special issue of Food, Culture & Society will examine how fairs and expositions – at local, regional, national, and international levels anytime from the nineteenth century to the present – reflect and shape perceptions of food production and consumption for mass audiences. It will consider the perspectives of fair organizers, publicists, exhibitors, concessionaires, restaurateurs, and consumers in constructing and experiencing the diversity of food cultures on the fairgrounds.  Articles might consider questions like: how did (or does) the exhibition of food reflect transformations in food manufacturing or production over time?  What impact did factors like audience, location, funding, or managerial oversight have on the exhibition of food?  What techniques did food exhibitors use to attract the attention of visitors and how did these techniques shape fairgoers’ experiences?  Were there any significant differences in the food experiences of local vs. international tourists or of visitors of different gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, etc.? How did food exhibits function to reinforce or challenge ideas about progress, technology, agriculture, industrialization, race, region, class, nationality, ethnicity, or gender? What was the relationship between corporate and government food messages at the fair? How did fair exhibits and concessions strive to shape perceptions of the palatability and edibility of foods from around the country or the world and were they successful? How did the concessions and amusement areas of fairs represent food in comparison to more formal exhibition halls?  How did physical space within exhibition halls or of the fairgrounds as a whole impact depictions of food at the fair and its potential appeal to consumers? How did expositions allow for a more diverse, multicultural food experience for fairgoers while also replicating stereotypical and ethnocentric conceptions of specific cuisines? In answering these questions, this special issue invites authors who might take a comparative approach to the study of fairs and expositions, crossing regional or national boundaries or considering fairs of varying audiences and historical periods.

This special issue welcomes papers that place the scholarship on food and on expositions in conversation in order to demonstrate the importance of these mass cultural events as sites where local, regional, national, and corporate food identities were simultaneously made and unmade.

Submitted articles are usually between 8000-9000 words (including all notes, references, etc.) and must not exceed 9000 words in total.

Special Issue Publication Schedule:

Essay abstracts due:  March 15, 2019

Notification of preliminary acceptance (pending peer review): April 1, 2019

Full drafts due: November 1, 2019

Peer review process (4-6 months to review, revise and review again): up through June 2020

Copyediting:  Early 2021

Published: Mid-2021 (April or June issue)

If you are interested in submitting a paper to the special issue, please send a 300-word abstract to guest editor, Bonnie M. Miller (bonnie.miller@umb.edu), by March 15, 2019.

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The NFL Occupation of New Orleans

SuperbowlDavid Beriss
University of New Orleans

The National Football League came to New Orleans a few weeks ago and while everyone else has probably moved on, I am still thinking about it. Part of this is because the big game was here in the middle of Carnival season. In fact, the parade schedule in New Orleans was re-arranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. New Orleans is a party town, but this was a long stretch of festivities, even for us. New Orleans is also a town that has long engaged in very self-conscious self-promotion. The NFL provided a key opportunity for that, allowing the city to put on a show for the entire world to see. I have been interested in the ways in which cities (especially New Orleans) work to create a sense of distinctiveness—for tourism, business, etc.—and this was clearly a great moment to see that happen. The NFL brought us a standardized segment of Americana and New Orleans responded with a cleaned up version of itself.

Perhaps a bigger city can absorb the NFL presence in a way that allows locals to get on with life as if nothing was going on. That would have been difficult here. In fact, city leaders worked hard to raise awareness of the arrival of NFL visitors. Locals were warned about the crowds and traffic to expect in the city center. New Orleans has a relatively concentrated core, with the Superdome very close to the neighborhoods where visitors like to gather. Those neighborhoods are easy to move around in, on foot, via bicycle (a temporary version of the bicycle share programs common in other cities was set up for the Super Bowl) or mass transit (an entirely new streetcar line serving the area near the Superdome was completed in time for the event). The NFL constructed a sort of independent town, with actual buildings and tents near the convention center and took over the vast convention center itself for a variety of events. The French Quarter was occupied by CBS, with banners and temporary structures creating backdrops for broadcasts. At one point people at CBS sparked indignant protests from locals when they decorated the iconic Andrew Jackson statue in the city’s central square with a sign from one of their shows. The sign came down, but the stage was still set. New Orleans was occupied by the NFL and the media. And, with a few exceptions, people were mostly pleased.

The Super Bowl seems to have become a secular holiday nearly on a par with Thanksgiving in the United States. Attending Super Bowl parties and preparing elaborate (if informal) feasts is now part of the regular ritual calendar for many Americans. Some claim that the Super Bowl provides the occasion for the second largest annual food consumption day in the U.S., surpassed only by Thanksgiving. It is clearly more than just a special football game. Spectacular sports events have been used in many countries as part of national holidays and sporting events can take on national significance that transcend the specific sport or game. This is certainly the case with the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the Tour de France, and other events. Each of these provides an opportunity to showcase sports and promote the event’s sponsors, while at the same time providing a stage on which the event’s location also receives public attention.

The Super Bowl is a huge commercial and cultural juggernaut. Although I had an abstract sense of the event that had occupied New Orleans, the real size and flavor became much clearer when Rebecca Turner, of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, invited me to visit the “NFL Experience” in the Morial Convention Center. This turned out to be something like 800,000 square feet of football mania, with displays of everything the NFL and NFL-affiliated sponsors thinks you should think about when you think about football. There were dozens of games, ranging from tests of physical strength and coordination, to football trivia. There were displays of football memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, helmets and uniforms. Performers sang and danced and football players stopped by to sign autographs. The Southeast Dairy Association was there to promote a diet and exercise program it has developed with the NFL. Food offerings were mostly generic American industrial products–there were concession stands selling national beer brands and the usual fast food, while sponsors like Pepsi handed out samples of soft drinks (the dairy folks were distributing cheese sticks and chocolate milk). I suspect that NFL experience, or something like it, appears in every city that hosts the Super Bowl.

cochon de lait po boy

Cochon de Lait Po’Boy

Fascinating as this was, entering the NFL experience felt like leaving New Orleans. Of course, the city also put on a huge show of its own culture for the Super Bowl. This included endless interviews with local officials, activists, artists, musicians and, of course, restaurateurs. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and local chef Poppy Tooker used gumbo to help people think about the nature of New Orleans on one CBS show. The city and the NFL also organized a music and food festival in Woldenberg Park, next to the Mississippi River. I rode my bike over to that festival the day after I visited the NFL experience. Enthusiastic crowds surrounded several stages where local bands played everything from funk to brass band music. Rows of stands sold the kind of food that has made New Orleans famous. The French Quarter was just a few steps away, providing access to even more of the things that attract people to New Orleans (and the Times-Picayune provided an interesting analysis and guide to one of those things).

Crawfish beignets

Crawfish beignets

The distinctive version of New Orleans presented for the Super Bowl was just distinct enough to add some flavor to the dominant American football festival. There are reasons to think that the contrasts between New Orleans and the rest of America run deeper than those on display a few weeks ago. Although the contrasts have attracted attention for a long time, efforts to assert them have become something of a local cottage industry in the last few years. Some of this—including most of what was presented during the Super Bowl—is meant to attract and please tourists. Some of it is meant to challenge dominant ideas about how economic life is organized in the U.S. today. Some evokes parts of American history that challenge how we think of ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we put some of that on display for visitors the next time a big event comes to town?

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