Category Archives: New Orleans

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

Street, Neighborhood, City in the New New Orleans

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Brocato sign

Old and new, Brocato’s and El Rinconcito.

When Angelo Brocato’s gelato and pastry shop reopened in September, 2006, it seemed like a beacon of hope in a neighborhood that was still very much on the mend. I don’t think there were very many other businesses open yet on that stretch of N. Carrolton Avenue. I do remember the large crowds that gathered to get some gelato or cannoli, the band that played as we waited on line, and the sense of happiness at having Brocato’s century old shop back in business. Located in a diverse Mid-City neighborhood, Brocato’s is the kind of place frequented by people who live here and its rebirth suggested that maybe the city would return to some semblance of what it had been.

Within a few years of the 2005 floods, however, the debate began to shift away from recovery to the future. The city’s demographics were changing. Many people could not return to the city, public housing was being destroyed, and the cost of living in New Orleans started to rise. Many Latino workers, having arrived to help rebuild, decided to stay and make lives for themselves here. Young college educated people—often white—were moving to New Orleans and moving into neighborhoods that had previously been mostly black. Now the concern was whether or not the neighborhoods of New Orleans, the site of vibrant cultural life, would survive these changes. New Orleans leading thinkers have developed a cottage industry explaining this situation, either decrying the threats to local culture, celebrating the “resilience” of any surviving parts of it, or arguing that everyone has misunderstood the central issues.

Starting in the summer of 2010, I gathered a group of UNO students to study the restaurants clustered around the intersection of N. Carrolton Avenue and Canal Street, in New Orleans. This area is a kind of microcosm of the transformations that have marked the city since 2005. For a long time, most of the restaurants were local businesses, with very few national chains, although that has changed significantly in the past 2 years. Some of restaurants rebuilt after the floods, while others were replaced by new businesses. There are even a few upscale restaurants in the neighborhood. The changes seem to reflect deeper trends in New Orleans business and consumption patterns.

A number of commercial districts in the city have had remarkable rebirths since 2005. Historian Rien Fertel has written about rediscovering Broad Street, making an interesting case for why that road represents some of the city’s demographic and culinary trends. Freret Street, a commercial strip in uptown New Orleans, has an interesting pre-Katrina history and, in the years since, has become a kind of hipster mecca, but one that some think represents a good side of gentrification. Oak Street, home of the Po’Boy Festival, has also been the site of significant redevelopment in recent years. St. Claude Avenue, at the center of historically black communities, has become a center for controversy about gentrification and redevelopment, but is also home to a lively new array of eating and drinking opportunities. Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, in Central City, has become the site of a distinct combination of restaurants and cultural institutions, including the new home of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Williams Boulevard, in the relatively distant suburb of Kenner might be the best index of the city’s future, with an array of restaurants representing the diversity of the populations in New Orleans today.

empty block

Scars of disaster, 2010, the site is now home to a shiny set of national chains.

My students tried to trace out the commercial history of the Carrollton/Canal area, interviewing owners, workers, and customers. In 2010, the scars of the 2005 floods were still visible, with at least one former strip mall still standing in ruins. The BP oil spill was an ongoing problem and the local seafood purveyors expressed deep concerns for their future. What was particularly striking, however, was the dominance of local businesses. We found interesting stories—how Doson Noodle House, a Vietnamese restaurant, evolved from Oak Street’s wonderfully named Chinese’s Chinese, for instance, or the sad story of Chef Michel Foucqueteau, whose last New Orleans restaurant, Chateaubriand, did not survive the floods. We heard about the changes in the kinds of businesses in the area, as beauty salons, hardware stores, car dealers, and pool halls, gave way to more and more restaurants.

doson

Doson Noodle House

I have been especially happy to see my students enthusiastically embrace this research. I regularly teach a course in applied anthropology that has a methodological focus. By picking one area, I can treat the class as an applied research team, giving them an opportunity to produce a series of reports that can resemble a real applied project. The students tend to take this project personally, because they live or work in or near the area, have family history there, or frequent the restaurants themselves. The project allows students to learn about a wide range of methods, starting from developing a sense of how to observe the organization of the street, to conducting interviews, oral history techniques, archival research, and more. They also learn about teamwork and about how to put together both written reports and visually interesting presentations.

This is an ongoing project. We will start updating the blog again this spring, when a fresh group of students will return to document changes in the area. There are some important questions we need to answer. The empty lots that marked the area in 2010 have been replaced by a shiny cluster of national chain restaurants. What impact will these new places have on the local businesses? The Lafitte Greenway, merely a dream for activists and planners in 2010, is now open, providing a bike path directly from the neighborhood to the French Quarter. How will this new amenity impact the community? Will the enormous new medical complex—not far from our area of study—change the neighborhood and the businesses in it?

There are also some deeper issues that our research can explore. Why have food (and drink) businesses become so central to reviving (or gentrifying) urban neighborhoods? What does the particular mix of restaurants and people in the Carrollton/Canal area tell us about the future of New Orleans distinctive culinary culture?

The neighborhood itself never stops changing. We have seen a few restaurants come and go, including an outpost of the local pizza chain Italian Pie (replaced by Milkfish, a Filipino restaurant), as well as Juicy Lucy’s, a stuffed hamburger joint that had itself replaced Fiesta Latina, a Central American restaurant (still open in Kenner!). The former Kjean’s Seafood, maker of po’boys, boiler of crawfish, and seafood retailer will soon be replaced with Bevi Seafood, a slightly more chef-driven version of the traditional New Orleans seafood joint (that makes po’boys, boils crawfish, and retails seafood). The announcement that “legendary barman” Chris McMillian will be opening a new restaurant in the Carrollton/Canal area could be a sign that hipster dining is arriving in the neighborhood. According to nola.com, the menu will include “pretzel brioche sticks, bulgogi wraps and chicken chimichurri kebabs” and, in the same article, McMillian states that “Mid-City is ready for craft cocktails.” Maybe. Julia Yocom, longtime neighborhood resident and one of the original members of our research team in 2010, told me that the area is more of a “High Life and a shot” sort of place. Whichever it is, our students will be there to document it.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Food Studies, New Orleans, SAFN Member Research

Katrina Fridges, 10 Years After

Photo by Donna Bonner

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

It would be hard to not notice that the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina is upon us here in New Orleans. I have been trying to think of ways that this blog might be used as a platform for thinking about the last decade. What is it that anthropology—specifically, the anthropology of food—might have to say about how things have turned out here? I am going to try to write a few short blog postings that can help answer that question. These are mostly personal reflections, but there is also some actual research behind some of my observations. I will try to indicate when that is the case.

Mostly, I want to evoke some of the scenes that have shaped the experience of the last decade in terms of food in New Orleans. I could start, for example, with the sublime meatball sandwich I had at the Italian Pie (a local chain) at the corner of Magazine and Joseph streets in mid-October 2005. Sublime largely because it was there and available in a city in which most of the restaurants were still closed. Or the stunningly good shrimp po’boy I ate at Crabby Jack’s soon after I returned, possibly in the company of my colleague Martha Ward. To this day, that post-exile shrimp po’boy stands out in my mind as the best po’boy ever. Eating in restaurants then was an opportunity to reconnect with friends and with strangers while getting a sense that the city was really coming back to life. But there was also a practical reason why people, even people who did not live in flooded neighborhoods, had to eat out in the beginning. There simply was not a lot of food available in stores (if the stores were open).

And whether or not your house flooded, in all likelihood, you did not have a refrigerator. In 2006, in an online discussion, someone posted a very theoretical query about refrigeration and technology. I was inspired to write a very short (not very theoretical) response that summed up our refrigeration issues. In thinking about the “Katrinaversary” (a word I did not make up), I remembered that note and dug it up. Given the importance of technology like refrigerators for making our contemporary food system possible, I think it is worth recalling what the failure of that technology meant back in 2005. Here is the note, more or less as originally posted, with a few additional thoughts:

Photo by Donna Bonner

Photo by Donna Bonner

Here in New Orleans, refrigerators became, after Katrina, the site for many reflections on identity, decay and waste.  They stank and were teeming with maggots.  Several weeks without power, it turns out, reveals that your refrigerator is not actually well sealed against bugs.  It also reveals that things like meat eventually turn to liquid if left to their own devices, without refrigeration.  Actually, many other things concerning the place of refrigeration in our lives were revealed that most of us would have been happier not knowing.

Anyhow, most people (and many restaurants) found it impossible to fully clean the refrigerators, so that even in the unflooded parts of the city, all last fall the streets were lined with hundreds of thousands of discarded refrigerators (I am not exaggerating — scale is important to this story), most of them duct-taped closed, in order to prevent the putrid contents from walking off.  The mostly white exteriors proved to be an irresistible canvas for commentary about everything from FEMA and President Bush, to Saints owner Tom Benson (who had threatened to take the team from the city permanently), the mayor, and, of course, the general funkiness (not the good kind) of the fridges themselves.  If you search on Google, you will find many collections of photos of these fridges available on the web.  Here are a few links to some collections of pictures:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Fridges_damaged_by_Hurricane_Katrina

http://www.flickr.com/photos/84995794@N00/sets/1733550/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/unapologetic/sets/1092465/

One thing that is hard to express in writing is the overwhelming smell that hung over the city during most of the fall of 2005.  We call it the Katrina smell and, if you were here, you recognize it immediately.  I guess it is the smell of death and decay on a large scale.  It is not a nice smell.  It was accompanied by large numbers of what I am told are called “corpse flies” buzzing about the city and even inside your house (if you had one).

Those of us who have houses mostly have new refrigerators by now.  Our relationship to those beautiful new machines has been transformed, I think.  At least mine has.  But that is another story.

Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo by David Beriss

Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo by David Beriss

Let me conclude with a sense of how that relationship has changed. Before 2005, I suspect I was like a lot of other Americans, using the fridge and freezer to store a lot of food, some of which we might not get around to using for quite a while. No more. In the last decade, we have become very much of a “just in time” family, keeping only enough food around for the week. There is too much danger of having to toss the entire contents of the fridge (and waste both food and money) to keep much more than that around. What we do have in terms of surplus, we are quick to share with our neighbors when the power goes out. The last time we had an extended power outage here (Hurricane Isaac, 2012, I believe), we had a series of dinners and parties with our neighbors over a few days in which we all tried to exhaust the contents of our refrigerators. Then we threw the rest out, unplugged the machines, and left the doors open. When the power eventually returned, the refrigerators mostly worked. And they were maggot free. Which is priceless.

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