Category Archives: New Orleans

Thesis Review and Interview: Tacos, Gumbo, and Work

Edited Copy FalconPhotograph: Fernando Lopez

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Tacos, Gumbo, and Work: The Politics of Food and the Valorization of Labor. Sarah Fouts. Ph.D. Thesis in Latin American Studies, Tulane University, New Orleans. 2017.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter)

Tacos, Gumbos and Work interrogates the economic and social interplays between migrant food vendors and construction workers – both commonly undocumented – in post-Katrina New Orleans, and situates this synergism within a broader political framework of regulation, law and migration policy. Fouts argues that taco trucks and loncheras provide migrant workers with ‘familiar and sustaining foods’ (p.4) and, as such, she examines the cultural work food vendors perform in the creation of their own economic and political spaces. The cultural work of food is a prevailing theme, but the key contribution of this rich ethnographic discussion lies in Fouts’s illumination of the ways that vendors look to navigate an intrinsically unhelpful and constraining bureaucratic system laden with structural inequities. The thesis highlights the multiple barriers food vendors face in terms of language, their status as undocumented, their access to social networks, and a licensing system entrenched in semantics that does not reflect the needs of the community. It thereby demonstrates how vendors’ economic and cultural capital, in association with their legal status, shapes their capacity for both social and physical mobility: this occurs not only in the sense that those who are documented can be more visible, but is also shaped by the extent vendors have access to knowledge and actors that can facilitate their navigation of ‘the system’. The theme of (in)visibility thus emerges in myriad ways and Fouts teases out the tensions that stem from vendors working in public spaces, whilst remaining in the shadows.

In capturing and comparing the voices and personal biographies of vendors with a range of economic and cultural capital, Tacos, Gumbo and Work successfully shifts its gaze between individual motivations and practices and the broader political and economic dynamics informing vendor actions and decisions. Many of Fouts’s participants are clearly vulnerable and structurally marginalized, yet they are not devoid of agency and Fouts’s sensitive representation stresses vendors’ creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, and their capacity to affect change within the constraints of living and working. This is particularly well illustrated by the manner that some vendors have rejected work in the formal economy in favor of the informal sector – an observation that also offers, as the thesis does more broadly, a seething critique of neoliberal policies and its resultant conditions.

Tacos, Gumbo and Work also raises questions regarding applied research, gender dynamics and social divisions within migrant communities. Below, I put these questions directly to the author, Sarah Fouts, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Lehigh University.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (EJA): Your ethical sensitivity and integrity are clearly evident throughout your discussion, not least in your methodology and in the volunteer work you undertook for your participants and the Congress of Day Laborers. How did you go about balancing your engagement with the community and applied practice with the academic analysis required when writing a PhD? What value does an activist approach bring?

Sarah Fouts (SF): Prior to my academic career, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and worked for a non-profit, so much of my worldview is in applied practice. As an academic I have done my best to extend this commitment to service. While it may seem that an unbiased analysis precludes close involvement, I’ve found that the two can work in concert, and I think it’s important not to take from the communities with whom I work without offering support or service. I was also fortunate to study in my field site, so logistically it was easier to balance the research and community engagement. With the community-engaged work, I had to learn when to say no to volunteer assignments, for instance during intense phases of writing or teaching, and I had a good enough relationship with those folks that they understood. Like I mention in the thesis, I never realized the degree to which my community-engaged work would impact my actual thesis. Once I realized that I could use it as the thread to connect my research, it was obvious that that was the organizing principle all along. An activist approach allows for more collaboration, particularly for people to be a part of telling their own story. For the researcher, accompaniment brings a first hand glimpse into how people navigate systems. But it does more than just understanding the barriers people face, it also helps them get through these barriers by interpreting for them, helping them access other resources, etc. As long as researchers are transparent about their involvement with communities, I think engagement can lend more valuable insight based on first-hand experience than just bird’s eye observation.

EJA: You mention that a possible direction for further investigation is the gendered dynamics at play in this context and, although your argument and analysis takes you in a different direction, there are certainly some interesting ethnographic observations on gender in your thesis. Given the ongoing critical debates about the feminization of food work, can I ask you to reflect upon how your own findings, as well as further scholarship on informal food vending more widely, could enhance our understanding of reproductive labor, especially its interplays with productive labor?

SF: The first five years after Katrina, it was mostly men that came to New Orleans. Women and children started to arrive after 2010, to reunite with their families and as a result of political instability across Central America. Oftentimes, it was the women who recognized the dearth of food options and the market for mobile food vending services. Women also continue to understand the flexibility of the street vending industry and the potential profitability. In many of these cases, reproductive labor directly intersected with productive labor in that women are able to prepare food for sale, while taking care of their children and completing other domestic work. In some of the more clandestine economies, women produce and sell food from their own homes; people would pick up foods directly from the home or someone, oftentimes men, would deliver the foods to construction sites. So in those cases, the women never had to leave home. Your question makes me realize a key part I left out in the case of the two dueling tamale vendors in Chapter Two. I fail to mention that there is free childcare at the Congreso meetings where the women sell food. So, the women could set up their booth and sell foods while their children played inside. This is so important. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2007) addresses this to some degree in her work, as does Lorena Muñoz (2013). The feminization of food work comes up throughout my thesis and as I continue on with the book project I plan to engage this concept more explicitly.

EJA: There are points in your ethnography where there are evident tensions between vendors, particularly in relation to battles over turf. In what ways do these dynamics reflect and intersect with hierarchies of economic and cultural capital within the community?

SF: The root of these tensions and turf battles between vendors reflect hierarchies that manifest in terms of access. Oftentimes, this access is connected to documentation status, because there is so much power or perceived power linked to having papers. Like in the case of Clara and Leonora, Leonora can access more spaces as a tamale vendor because she has legal status through her English-speaking husband. She was able to get licensing—albeit a catering license—when Clara was not. But based on the other cases, it is likely Clara could have gotten a license as well (if she called the right person), she just assumed that she could not due to being undocumented. Other examples of turf wars include brick and mortar establishments versus the food truck vendors, which isn’t exclusive to New Orleans. These types of battles usually depend on institutional support as part of the hierarchies of capital. Brick and mortar places received support from the Louisiana/National Restaurant Association to fight for policies limiting the mobility of food trucks. But as food truck popularity grew nationwide, New Orleans City Council increasingly backed more liberal food truck ordinances, yet even those policies had limitations as shown in Chapter Three. One argument I maintain is that many of these policies, even though they may attempt to be liberal, fail to take into account what is happening on the ground locally.

As I continue onto the book project, I draw in a more cross-racial analysis, which reflects integration of Latinx communities in a predominantly Black city and within a New Orleans food culture that is quite homogenous. So, I consider questions like how have Latinx foods been creolized into New Orleans food culture. Here, these hierarchies of economic and cultural capital definitely come into play, especially within a Bourdieusian theoretical framework. But my argument links back to my first statement, drawing in questions of access—documentation status, class, and race. Those issues are inherently linked to these hierarchical tensions.

References

Muñoz, Lorena, “From Street Child Care to Drive-throughs: Latinas Reconfigure and Negotiate Street Vending Spaces in Los Angeles,” in Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 2013, 133-143.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierette, Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: UC Press. 2007.

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, labor, Latinx foodways, migration, New Orleans, reviews, United States, urban, work

Recovery Workers, Latinx Foodways, and Small-Business Development in New Orleans

Blog Editor’s note: This is the first installment in FoodAnthropology’s new series on Latinx foodways in North America. We welcome contributions from researchers in this area. More details about the series are here

Sarah Fouts
Lehigh University

Gorditas Zacatecanas

Gorditas Zacatecanas is a family-run booth that opened up in 2011 in the Algiers market, Dix Jazz Market. Photo by Fernando Lopez.

Within the current context of post-disaster response comes the prolonged challenge of recovery and rebuilding. As families return to devastated homes and businesses after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, multiple links passed around on social media recommend where (and where not) to donate funds. Headlines ask who will rebuild each region and warn against the exploitation of past recovery workers. Photos of Beyonce feeding lines of Hurricane victims offer a scintilla of silver lining in a world of increasing human-exacerbated disasters. Little attention, though, is given to the question of how the reconstruction workers that arrive to these devastated regions to help rebuild will sustain themselves—quite literally, who will feed them.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, Latinx food vendors equipped with mobile food vending systems emerged on the scene, playing a key, yet unnoticed role, in recovery efforts. These enterprises paved the way for growth in Latinx-owned economies in New Orleans over a decade later. My research commenced on this subject in 2011—six years after the storm—working with food vendors and observing the development of these informal food businesses in the New Orleans Metro area as part of my dissertation (and now book) project.

Immediately after Katrina in 2005, with eighty percent of the city underwater, housing options were limited, and places to eat were even harder to come by. Workers were often forced to live onsite in putrid conditions in the homes they gutted. Grocery stores and restaurants remained closed due to water and power outages. For most people, FEMA-issued Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were the most available option. But beyond just being unsavory, these MREs had limitations—they were served predominantly to the victims of the disaster, leaving many of the one hundred thousand recently arrived Latinx reconstruction workers to fend for themselves.

Responding to this dearth of food options, itinerant Latinx food vendors arrived soon after the storm, from places like New York and Texas, to feed these workers. Fleets of taco trucks came from Houston, strategically setting up at day laborer corners to serve workers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In some instances, construction workers moonlighted as tamale vendors, maximizing on connections through co-workers to satisfy alimentary demands.

In other cases, Latinx contractors and clean up crew leaders called in pedidos (orders) from food vendors who prepared foods in kitchens in the few parts of New Orleans undamaged by the storm. The cooks spent the mornings preparing foods—often carne asada or chuletas with a side of rice, cabbage salad, and tortillas served in foam hinged take-out containers—for lunchtime deliveries, providing outreach to hard hit areas.

In more complex systems, vendors arrived onsite to sell food to workers using makeshift kitchens built into the backs of minivans or hatchback cars. Stainless steel counters mounted in the backs of these vehicles provided versatile prep spaces with cutting boards, griddles, and crockpots to serve up plates of tacos to hungry day laborers in front of hardware stores and at worksites.

Taqueria

This Mexican-owned taco truck is located on Claiborne Avenue, a main corridor in New Orleans, and features Honduran and Mexican foods. Photo courtesy of Fernando Lopez.

For Mateo, who arrived to New Orleans from Mexico after Katrina, leaving the construction industry to join his family in their burgeoning tamale business was a clear choice. After observing the successes of his wife and sister, Mateo signed on to their venture, delivering hundreds of tamales to the sites where he previously worked. He made more profit selling food than he had in the construction industry. Having settled in New Orleans since Katrina, Mateo and his family converted their tamale business into a larger enterprise, which now consists of two taco trucks and a brick and mortar restaurant.

Likewise, Mirta, originally from Honduras, arrived to New Orleans from Houston to help with clean up, initially gutting schools and businesses. She, too, saw the need for food vendors to feed the predominantly Latinx workers and sent for her three daughters to come to New Orleans. Together, they created an ad hoc restaurant in the back of their rented house, handing out business cards with their address and advertising typical Honduran dishes like pollo con tajadas, baleadas, and sopa de caracol. After a long day at the job site, workers showed up at their residence to pick up food or eat at picnic tables set up in the small patio. But, as their business grew, so did attention from law enforcement. After threats of citations, Mirta and her family used money they had saved to open up a brick and mortar restaurant. Since Katrina, the restaurant has faced some challenges—having moved locations three times—yet it still provides typical Honduran fare for Latinx workers and, increasingly, to non-Latinx clientele.

Pescado Frito

These women sell food at the Westbank Flea Market. Many vendors value the low overhead of these markets to get their businesses underway. Photo courtesy of Fernando Lopez.

Similarly, individuals like Leticia formalized their enterprises by setting up shop in local markets like the Algiers Pulga and the Westbank Flea Market, two open-air establishments located just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter and New Orleans Central Business District. Capitalizing on the low overhead and high popularity of the market, Leticia shifted her venture from the streets to the stall, selling Honduran foods in the flea market alongside a booth specializing in Oaxacan foods and a Vietnamese farm stand. The flea markets serve as a sort of incubator space for these small-business ventures, assuming little risk, offering steady clientele, and providing basic infrastructure for these budding economies.

After Katrina, the Latinx population in the New Orleans metropolitan area doubled from around 4% to almost 9%. The Guardian reports that in New Orleans, Latinx businesses grew by 47%, compared to 14.5% by non-Latinx businesses. For places like Houston and South Florida, where the Latinx populations were already high, it is hard to predict whether disaster recovery efforts will catalyze a surge in Latinx entrepreneurship the way it did in New Orleans. Nevertheless, anthropologists interested in foodways can use New Orleans as an example to understand how rebuilding work begets these spin-off economies, drawing attention to the ways people forge new businesses by building on old traditions—outdoor markets and street vendors—as well as introducing new methods of selling foods in order to satisfy demands and make ends meet.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Latinx foodways, New Orleans, North America

Fear, Fire, and Solidarity in New Orleans

David Beriss

Someone tried to burn down the Flaming Torch restaurant last week. The restaurant, flaming-torch-menu-signlocated in my neighborhood in New Orleans, is a French bistro that has been in business since 2004. It is small and friendly, with good French food, a little bit fancy (they have tablecloths), but very much part of the neighborhood. It is a reliable place for locals seeking classic French dishes (they make a great coq au vin), not a tourist destination. I have eaten there many times, but I especially remember eating there soon after Hurricane Katrina. The Flaming Torch was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to reopen and although they were desperately short-staffed, their presence was deeply appreciated by those of us who had come back to the city, because they provided a much-needed place to reunite with neighbors around good food and wine.

The fire, according to news reports, was deliberately set. The owner, Zohreh Khalegi, says she was upstairs, doing inventory, when someone broke into the dining room, doused the place with gasoline, and set it on fire. At least some of this was recorded by a security camera. She escaped to the roof and was rescued by the fire department. The interior damage is apparently quite extensive, so the restaurant’s future is uncertain.

flaming-torch-doorThe arsonist’s motives are unclear, but suspicions have been raised that this may have been a hate crime. Zohreh Khalegi, who started the restaurant with her late husband Hassan Khalegi, is an American citizen who immigrated decades ago from Iran. Although their origins were no secret, until recently there was very little in the restaurant that might have indicated the owners had any ties to Iran. In the last few years, the restaurant had begun to feature occasional special menus with Persian food. Certainly, for many people, this only made the restaurant more attractive, since there are not many other places to eat Persian food in the area. But the current American political context seems to have encouraged and given legitimacy to prejudice against people from countries like Iran (one of the countries subject to President Trump’s immigration ban). Could such prejudice have motivated someone to act against the restaurant? As far as I know, nobody has claimed responsibility for this act. But there have been threats and incidents of violence against immigrants and minorities all over the country since the presidential election. All of this is of grave concern and if the fire at the Flaming Torch is any indication, such things must be taken very seriously.

We do not know if this crime was related to anti-immigrant prejudice. But the fact that people are ready to believe that it is suggests that the political climate in the United States has reached a point (not, of course, for the first time) of critical danger. From fine dining to neighborhood diners, immigrants from many countries play a major role in the American restaurant industry. In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the United States, there are many restaurants owned and operated by people from predominantly Muslim countries, serving food from those regions. There are also many immigrants (perhaps most) who prepare and sell foods that have nothing to do with their origins, so they may not be visible as sellers of foods associated with immigrants. All of them may be targets for people who want to advance the nationalist agenda that has accompanied the rise of President Trump.

flaming-torch-thank-you

There has been an outpouring of support for Zohreh Khalegi and for the restaurant. People have posted testimonials and statements of support on the restaurant’s doors. Money has been raised to help with expenses. There are many people here in New Orleans who are eager to show their solidarity. The stakes involved are very high. By choosing to stand by owners of restaurants and other businesses that are targeted by racists and nationalists, we make a statement about what kind of community and nation we want to live in. We must all consider where we stand at this moment and what we will do to make sure that heated political rhetoric is not turned into more violence.

So why document this on an anthropology blog? There is a lot that anthropologists and other social scientists can do—and are doing—to help us understand the rise of nationalism and fear around the world in recent years. For anthropologists, this sort of incident can be an opportunity to think about how institutions like restaurants tie communities together, as well as about the ways violence, fear, and terror, can work to tear communities apart. We can call attention to the way such acts are named and discussed. President Trump recently claimed that many acts of terror are not adequately covered by the media and that, as a consequence, people do not take the threat of terror seriously enough. This act of arson, if it turns out to have been motivated by politics or hate, is an act of terror, but one that Mr. Trump will probably not define as terror, either because it is too small or because it had the wrong sort of victims. Yet acts of mass violence, including attacks on restaurants, schools, or religious communities, create exactly the kind of fear that terrorists try to achieve. We need to document the impact of these events and examine why they are interpreted by people as acts of terror. And, in this case, we can also show people coming together to resist and to show solidarity. In doing all of this, anthropology can help increase understanding and help resist those who would sow fear among us.

flaming-torch-rebuild

Resistance.

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Filed under anthropology, food activism, Food Studies, New Orleans, restaurants

How To Make A Place

David Beriss

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of food in turning a place into a cultural landmark. This is the mirror opposite of the process through which foods acquire their reputation through a linkage to a place. That, of course, is what we refer to these days as terroir. The implication is that the place, through soil, climate, or traditions, is reflected in the food. The process in either direction seems to require that people be self-conscious about making the link work. This is the work of culture and history, not nature.

This is particularly true when the place in question is a store or restaurant, rather than a farm. In the spirit of such things, I want to call attention to a tale of a New Orleans wine shop and its relatively successful efforts to use wine to make a place. I think this is a particularly interesting process because, in a society in which many things are mostly sold in large big box chain stores, success for small-scale local retailers often draws on place-making strategies. This is true for bookstores, hardware stores, bike shops, and, of course, wine stores and other food-related businesses.

The wine shop in this instance is Bacchanal Wine, which is located in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward, also known as Bywater. It was started in 2002 by Chris Rudge in what was then a slowly (perhaps even very slowly) gentrifying neighborhood in a ramshackle building. I visited a few times back then, mostly because it was near the original location of The Joint, which was a similarly ramshackle barbecue joint just up the street. I visited more often after the 2005 hurricane and floods, when Bacchanal became a bit more than a wine store. There was music in their courtyard, chefs cooking creative foods in an outdoor “kitchen” of sorts, sometimes food trucks. It was a lively and, it turns out, somewhat illegal scene and a sure sign that the neighborhood was changing much more rapidly. Having sorted out their legal issues a few years ago, the shop had to deal more recently with the death of the founding owner.

The wine store remains a lively scene. There is, of course, retail wine for sale in the store. And like a number of other New Orleans wine shops, Bacchanal also serves drinks at its own bar. There is also food, some of which is quite ambitious. And there is live music in their courtyard nearly every evening. There are other wine shops in New Orleans that engage in similar strategies (Swirl and Pearl, for instance), although Bacchanal’s full program may be a bit more ambitious than most (Do wine shops do this in other cities? Tell us about it in the comments.).

In just the last week, the store has added another element in what seems like a distinct effort to create what might be their very own terroir, if such a thing can exist in this sort of setting. They released their own wine, which Rudge and his partners had blended on a trip to California. They have also made a short documentary celebrating both Rudge and the history of the shop. The whole story has been told in interesting detail by Brett Anderson, on the nola.com website.

All of this comes together, then, to make a distinct place. Terroir is really not the right word, but it is perhaps the right spirit. Clearly, much of this is self-conscious place-making by the owners of the shop. Given their success, it seems like they have hit upon a strategy that resonates with people in New Orleans and beyond, as this article and video makes clear. This success also raises questions about what this signifies for the neighborhood and the city in general, since there are no doubt those who would prefer a different kind of place making. Yet the process of self-conscious place making itself is fascinating. How else can a small retail store succeed when the very thing they sell is easily available in big grocery stores? By selling place, rather than just wine.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, New Orleans, wine

Slow Fish

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

After the festivities of Carnival, we have Lent. Here in New Orleans, even if you are not Catholic, you are surrounded by information about restaurants with Lenten specials, Friday night church fish fries, and other fishy pleasures. Church leaders are called upon to clarify if things like alligator are approved for consumption during Lent (it is). There is some interesting history behind this, of course. But the fact is, this is a great time for seafood lovers in Louisiana. There is a lot of fresh and local seafood around most of the time, but at this time of year we are encouraged to eat it more than usual.

All of which is really just a preface to call your attention to an upcoming event that both celebrates and raises questions about the consumption of seafood today. Slow Fish 2016, organized by the New Orleans Slow Food chapter, will take place from March 10-13. This is the first time the Slow Fish event will be held in the Americas, after being organized every two years in Genoa. The event will bring together scholars, activists, fishers, chefs, and many others to discuss the challenges confronting the world of seafood today. And the challenges are many, from questions about sustainability, or the environmental challenges of fish farming, to how fishers can make a living and even thrive.

Having the event in New Orleans provides a setting in which local seafood ways and culture can be promoted. Restaurants are putting on special menus, there will be music, a fish fry, and a big seafood boil event on the last day. Check out the web site for more information.

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Filed under anthropology, conferences, New Orleans, seafood

King Cake!

whole king cake UNO

King cake, New Orleans style

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

I ate three pieces of cake on Wednesday. All in the name of research, of course. I took pictures, just to prove how hard I was working. Three pieces of cake is somewhat more cake than I eat on an average day. But Wednesday was Epiphany or Kings Day and in New Orleans that signals the start of Carnival season. And that means we eat king cake.

Piece of cake, CC's coffeehouse, New Orleans

Piece of cake, CC’s coffeehouse, New Orleans

Mardi Gras is, of course, a day (Fat Tuesday is February 9, this year). But at least in New Orleans, Carnival is a season that starts with Kings Day and ends in ashes, on Ash Wednesday. The opening day of the season is marked by a few parades, including the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc in the French Quarter and the Phunny Phorty Phellows riding the St. Charles streetcar line. We also have an abundance of local and seasonal foods at this time of year. Crawfish are already available all over town, for instance and strawberry season kicked into gear a few weeks ago, so there are plenty of those to be had in the markets. There is great Louisiana citrus around as well. It may seem a little odd, but I would like to suggest that king cake should also be considered a local and seasonal food in New Orleans.

Local and seasonal usually refers to plants that are grown by local farmers and gardeners, especially those plant varieties that are native to the region. Or to species of animals traditionally raised in a region or that are native to the region, including, for instance, heritage cattle or those crawfish I mentioned. Of course, as with many cultural categories, when you look closely, such things can become hard to define. This is true about heritage pigs in North Carolina or about traveling plants like okra or potatoes. The thing, in the end, that makes a food local is that it is important to local foodways. I would subscribe to the idea that if people say something is local, then it is. I realize that this logic can lead to thinking about things like McDonald’s French fries as a local food in Moscow. But why not? As Melissa Caldwell so aptly demonstrates, it is the way in which people lay claim to the food that is interesting.

Piece of cake, faculty reception, UNO

Piece of cake, faculty reception, UNO

The same sort of thinking certainly applies to king cakes in New Orleans. The king cake tradition here is clearly related to practices in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Long before I lived here, I was introduced to the French galette des rois. The French version I am most familiar with is a puff pastry cake with an almond paste filling and a little figurine hidden inside, most often consumed exclusively on Epiphany (although bakeries make them available for a few weeks before and after that day). The person (usually a child) who ended up with the figurine also got a paper crown. There are several varieties of cake found in different parts of Europe, as well as in Central and South America. Like other globalized foods and traditions, each place makes the practice their own.

French king cake piece

Piece of French style king cake

King cakes in New Orleans can be found in some stores starting a week or so before Epiphany, but I suspect that most people wait for the official start of the season to get one. They are most prominently featured in a kind of ritual exchange tradition in work places. One person brings a cake to the office to start off the cycle. Cakes are supposed to come with a plastic baby hidden in them (or a bean, or another figure, but a plastic baby is the most common item). The person who gets a piece with the bean is then supposed to bring the next cake to the office. And this exchange goes on until Mardi Gras, after which the cakes disappear for another year. King cake consumption is not, however, limited to the workplace. People bring them to parties, for instance, and the number and variety of cakes on display at even small gatherings seems to increase geometrically as we approach Mardi Gras itself. Sometimes it seems like the entire repertoire of New Orleans cuisine is reduced to king cake and beer during Mardi Gras season, especially for any event involving float decorating, costume making, and parade preparation (for many, Popeye’s fried chicken often adds much needed variety to the typical New Orleans Carnival season diet). And of course, king cake and beer is probably the breakfast of choice for many on Mardi Gras day (one may replace the beer with a Bloody Mary if it is breakfast). King cake consumption really comes to stand for the entire Carnival season, as this advertisement from one local bakery (which I am not endorsing, but they do make very pretty cakes) illustrates with an impressive array of iconic Mardi Gras types.

When I moved to New Orleans, the first king cakes I ate came from McKenzie’s, a now defunct chain of local bakeries that might best be described as a chain grocery store bakery, without the rest of the store. Natives of New Orleans of a certain age can be deeply emotional about the loss of McKenzie’s, which they see as a sign of the passing of those things that made the city unique. The store’s king cake, which I remember as a dry brioche with a modest amount of sweet icing in Mardi Gras colors, was relatively austere (my wife, who remembers these cakes fondly, tells me I am being too harsh). King cakes in this style are still to be found around town and many of my native friends and colleagues claim to prefer them to the over-the-top garish cakes that have come to dominate the market in recent years. Despite the annual protests by nostalgic natives, cakes filled with everything from cream cheese to bananas and peanut butter are everywhere and very popular. The amount of decorative sugar involved is rivaled only by the amount of glitter people in New Orleans use each year on their costumes. These cakes are a long way from the French galette des rois. And they make people very happy.

Galette des rois, from La Boulangerie, in New Orleans

Galette des rois, from La Boulangerie, in New Orleans

People here are very self-conscious about the king cake tradition. There are annual evaluations of the best king cakes by our leading food writers. There are stories about the evolution of the cakes, about the entry of different ethnic groups into the tradition, or about the ways in which particular pastry chefs innovate to create cakes that are always more dazzling. There are strange variations on the king cake theme, including king cake vodka (I really don’t think this is a good idea, but maybe you will like it) and the king cake smoothie (from Smoothie King, of course). You can get the French style king cakes around town too – the one pictured here comes from a local bakery that also makes cakes in the New Orleans style. You can now order one to be delivered by Uber, in case you don’t want to leave your house or office. If you don’t live here, bakeries will be happy to FedEx one to you. And there is even king cake satire, including a series of advertisements from the fake Ragusa Brothers Bakery, done in perfect working class New Orleans “Yat” accents, that skewer king cakes and a whole lot more. You can watch the first one, from 2011, below. You have until Ash Wednesday to eat some cake. After that, you should wait until next year.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, New Orleans

Fundraiser Jambalaya

David Beriss
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 IMG_4520evoked 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 jambalaya potsmall 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.

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Filed under anthropology of food, louisiana, New Orleans, pedagogy