Tag Archives: Louisiana

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

Connecting Students with Real Food and Real Farmers

By Kellen GilbertDavid Burley, Bonnie May, Timothy McCarthy, Sole Sanchez, Erica Dickerson, Danate Moses and Benny Milligan (Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, Louisiana)

Part One

Last fall, the students in a graduate class in Applied Environmental Sociology at our university took on a food-based project that has outlasted the one semester class.   The instructor, David Burley, an environmental sociologist interested in sustainability issues, and his students saw this class as an excellent opportunity to put applied sociological (and anthropological) concepts and methods to work on a very local issue: the campus cafeteria food.

One of the graduate students in the class, Bonnie May, was the president of Reconnect, a campus organization for students interested in environmental and sustainability issues. Reconnect had been a part of the national program, The Real Food Challenge (RFC) since the previous semester. The RFC’s goal is to have local, sustainably and justly produced food in campus cafeterias instead of industrial agricultural products.  RFC is a student created and run organization that engages students on their own campuses to organize “real food campaigns” and other activities on campus to educate and implement change.

At the time, Reconnect was a small and dedicated group but limited in terms of time and energy its members could spend.  Finding time for extracurricular activities is an ongoing challenge for many of our students in part because so many commute to campus and work full time or, at the very least, part-time jobs.  So a student-led project to change the campus cafeteria food was perfect for our applied graduate class.

The graduate students prepared by reading articles about urban agriculture and food justice, ecological identity, and seminal works like Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan’s (2002) article on locating weaknesses in the global food system and yes, of course, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Then, the class employed information from the readings, consultation from RFC coordinators via Bonnie May, and advice from independent market consultant Darlene Wolnik, to develop a university community outreach plan. Students took on individual tasks such as designing attractive educational pamphlets and information cards. Others put together a presentation on local, sustainably produced food and spoke to over 30 undergraduate classes and student organizations.  The students also gathered over 1000 signatures on campus in support of the “real food” project with over 600 email addresses of students who wanted to stay informed and over 100 who said they would volunteer in some capacity.

But the biggest part of the class’s project was planning a farmers market to raise awareness and build support in coordination with National Food Day on Oct. 24th.  This would become not only the first ever farmers market on our campus but, at least according to our research, the first on any Louisiana college campus.

Southeastern Students at market

Students purchasing greens at the Southeastern Farmers Market.

To be continued…

Next:  The Farmers Market—farmers cooperatives versus corporate intruders.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, culture, economics, farming, Food Studies, markets, sustainability

Seafood Solidarity

Even before I wrote up the restaurant guide for the upcoming AAA meeting in New Orleans, people were asking me about what they can eat here.  My advice has been to eat local (no chains!).  Many New Orleans restaurants—and not just the high end ones—work hard to source their products locally.  You can get food from regional farmers all over town.  New Orleans is one of the last places in the United States where you can eat local seafood.  If you eat locally here, you are very likely to eat well.

However, the BP oil spew from last summer has people concerned about the safety of our seafood.  The government has tried hard to certify that safety and assure people that they can eat the food.  This is problematic: decades of pathetically bad government oversight in nearly every industry has led many of us to be skeptical of their judgment.  After all, it seems that lax government oversight was partially responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.

So what should you do?

I know what I will do: I will continue to eat Gulf seafood.  Despite my misgivings about food regulation in the U.S., Gulf seafood is under more scrutiny now than most of the rest of the food—including, no doubt, imported seafood—that you will find at your local grocery store.  I also believe that we need to make a commitment to local seafood (and to local food in general) if our food system is going to be sustainable over the long term.  We need to make it possible for people to make a living in the seafood industry in this region.  Frankly, I also trust the fishers, shrimpers, oystermen, seafood retailers and chefs who provide these products locally.  I hope you will eat Gulf seafood while you are here.  You also need to be an active voice for strong regulation of the industries that bring us these disasters and for real regulation of our food system.  We need to work to insure the safety of our food.  We also need to make sure that the people who provide us with that food can make a good living.

Meanwhile, here are a few links to thought provoking material on the web that may help you think about these issues.

One place to start is this fascinating article from the Times-Picayune about how the oldest oyster processing business in the U.S., the 135 year old P&J Oyster Company, is adapting to the situation.  Brett Anderson, the paper’s restaurant critic, has produced a number of thoughtful and moving pieces on the topic.  Here is another one, this time on the impact of the spew on the crab market as far away as Maryland.

This article on the problems involved in restoring the oyster industry while simultaneously trying to save the wetlands is fascinating.  Our problems are deeper than just this oil spill.

If you are interested in the latest reports on the status of fisheries, take a look at the USFDA web site on the topic or at the latest news from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  Here is a press release from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab about research showing that the oil was consumed by bacteria and may, as a consequence, have entered the food chain in the Gulf.  How far it goes—and what the consequences might be—is still unclear.  The Times-Picayune has reported on this as well.  Here is a link to a group that is very skeptical about the safety of our seafood and about claims that the Gulf has been cleaned up.

Our chefs think you should eat the seafood.  I know they are interested parties, but they also eat the seafood themselves.  Here is a moving piece from Chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon and Cochon Butcher.

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology, disaster, economics, food policy, food security, gulf of mexico, seafood, sustainability

New Orleans Restaurant Guide for AAA

Shrimp Po-Boy. Eat gulf seafood while you are here!

 

The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans is less than 3 weeks away.  The wise folks at the AAA asked me to put together a list of recommended restaurants, which they have now posted on their web site.  Check it out and start thinking of all the great things you will eat.  If you need reservations, it can’t hurt to make them soon.  Eat local while you are here, avoid chains and you should be rewarded with some great meals.  The restaurateurs in New Orleans say that people come here for the music and leave talking about dinner.  They are right.

I should add that there are now approximately 1,117 restaurants in the New Orleans area, according to veteran New Orleans food writer Tom Fitzmorris’ daily count (this is as of November 3, 2010).  His count, by the way, does not include fast food chains or gas stations that serve convenience food, pharmacies, or anything other than what he calls “restaurants that matter.”  He does include neighborhood sandwich shops and some grocery stores, because, in New Orleans, they matter.  My list is, in any case, shorter and only includes restaurants that you can reasonably get to on foot, streetcar or cheap cab ride from the conference hotel.  Also, I only included restaurants I know enough about to recommend.  There are many others and they may be good too.

There is one other thing that I think might be of use to those attending the conference: a bar guide.  New Orleans is famous for drinking—some even claim that the cocktail was invented here (a claim that I have heard is demonstrably false, but they go on claiming it anyhow, probably because it seems reasonable when you are in a French Quarter bar).  There are many wonderful bars in the vicinity of the conference hotel.  You can get your drink to-go (in what we call a “go cup”) in most bars in the French Quarter, so feel free to stroll around with it (the Sheraton is next to, but not in the Quarter).  Note, however, that if you get one of those big colorful drinks in a boot or other odd looking contraption, we will know you are from out of town.  Rather than put together my own list of bars, here are links to two guides that I think are trustworthy, one from Gambit, a local weekly, the other from the Times-Picayune.  We have wonderful local beers, great classic cocktails (the Sazerac, the Ramos Gin Fizz, which really were invented here) and a bunch of very creative bartenders making new drinks all the time.  And you can walk to all of this…and stumble back, if necessary.

Welcome to New Orleans!

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology

City of Gastronomy

Louisiana bumper sticker

The BP Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico (named, it seems, for the fictitious town invented by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”) has been capped, top-killed, sealed and may be bottom-killed as well. Last we checked, the government and BP were looking into adding a new blowout preventer to the well. We have a whole new vocabulary that we can try to work into class lectures, articles and blog entries. However, this new set of oil spill words should not distract us from a simple fact: the Gulf Coast remains in danger.

Gulf Coast seafood producers find themselves in a paradoxical situation. On one hand, the end of the spew and the reopening of many commercial and sport fishing areas means that seafood from the Gulf will once again be widely available. The seafood producers, including the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, have worked hard to build the local brand, trying to assure people that food from the Gulf is not only safe, but extraordinarily good. Obviously, the BP spill tarnished that brand, so their priority now is to resurrect it. The government has been testing the seafood extensively to show that it is safe to consume. The future of the seafood industry on the Gulf Coast—the way of life for thousands of people—is at stake.

At the same time, residents of the Gulf Coast want to remind you that the end of the oil spill is not the end of the problem. There is still oil on the beaches, in the wetlands, maybe under the sea. Seafood producers, processors, restaurant owners and workers and others involved in the Gulf Coast tourist industries have all lost income in the last few months. Cleaning up the damage and making people whole will take time and money. They do not want to be forgotten. Of course, calling attention to this also calls attention to the damage the oil and dispersants may have done to the environment and to the seafood. Which, of course, raises further questions about safety.

Another bumper sticker

A paradox, indeed.

Food activists are using ideas about food culture and heritage in one of the more interesting efforts to address this paradox. A group led by the food activist Gary Nabhan has recently published a collection outlining reasons why we should look at the Gulf of Mexico as both a biological resource and as a key part of America’s cultural heritage. The pamphlet has short articles by food activists in the New Orleans area—people you should read if you are planning on visiting the city for the AAA meetings in November—who explain clearly what is at stake in cultural terms in restoring the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

The problems go far beyond the immediate oil spill. They are biological, of course, but also social and cultural. The articles show what kinds of species are endangered, not just by the recent oil spill, but by other longer term problems. These include the destruction of the Louisiana coast due to oil canals, pipelines and the efforts to control the Mississippi river, all of which have rendered the region vulnerable to salt water intrusion, eroded wetlands and increased the area’s susceptibility to hurricane storm surges. It also includes the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is created every year by farm runoff from America’s heartland spewing out from the Mississippi. And it is not just seafood that is at stake. The Gulf Coast is home to plants such as mirlitons (known also as chayote squash) and many other vegetables, to heritage cattle breeds and other kinds of livestock, all of which are in danger of vanishing as the coast disappears and as the pressures of the American food industry and of culinary homogenization press in.

One group is working to have UNESCO designate New Orleans as a “City of Gastronomy.” This includes several of the authors from the Nabhan’s collection, other New Orleans food activists, representatives of the city government and the author of this post. The City of Gastronomy designation is currently held by only three cities (Popayan, Colombia, Chengdu, PRC and Östersund, Sweden). It is part of a broader “creative cities network” that UNESCO has created to promote social, economic and cultural development in cities around the world. This meshes with the emphasis in Louisiana on the “cultural economy” and is understood by our group as a means toward legitimizing the city’s claim that it is home to a distinct culinary heritage. This is not merely an historical artifact: the foodways of New Orleans and the surrounding region, from the waters of the Gulf and the people who work them, to farmers, gardeners, home cooks and restaurant chefs, is indeed a living creative culture. Insuring the health of the Gulf Coast is a key part of making sure that that culture can be sustained. We want to remind you that buying and eating the products of the Gulf is not just good eats. It is also a key part of keeping a way of life alive.

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology, culture, disaster, economics, food policy, heritage, media, sustainability

Call for Wild Artists

CALL FOR WILD ARTISTS
The Multispecies Salon 3: SWARM
New Orleans, November 2010

http://www.wix.com/multispecies/multispecies

I saw this on a science and technology list serve, and thought that artistically inclined SAFN readers might find it interesting. The opening of the event/exhibit will be happening in New Orleans the week before the AAAs and conference goers are invited to be “embedded art critics.” Submissions should be sent to multispecies.salon@gmail.com

“The Multispecies Salon 3 will use art to address a series of interrelated questions about nature: Which species flourish, and which fail, when natural and cultural worlds intermingle and collide? What happens when the bodies of organisms, and even entire ecosystems, are brought into schemes of biotechnology and dreams of biocapitalism? And finally, with particular relevance to New Orleans: In the aftermath of disaster–in a blasted landscape that has been transformed by multiple catastrophes–what are the possibilities of biocultural hope?”

From the link, steer yourself toward their theme for “Edible Companions.”

“Edible Companions will be on the table as artists, anthropologists, and significant others will come together to break bread in a series of multispecies meals. We will eat creatures that Donna Haraway calls companion species.  Companion comes from the Latin cum panis, with bread, Haraway writes.  Companion species include such organic beings as rice, bees, tulips, and intestinal flora, all of whom make life for humans what it isand vice versa. With paintings of People Paella gracing the walls, we will personify creatures that are not just good to think (as Lévi-Strauss had it), or more instrumentally, good to eat (as Marvin Harris countered), but also entities, and agents, that are good to live with (as Donna Haraway maintains).  We will serve locally wildcrafted mulberry and elderberry mead, edible insects, creatures from an invasive species garden, among other delectables.”

Posted by Emily Yates-Doerr

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology

Shrimps and Earl

Shrimps in earl, photo by David Beriss

Watching the BP Oil Spew slowly unfold, I started to wonder about our relationship to food and oil (“earl” if you tawk rite) here in south Louisiana.  Food activists have observed that Americans are increasingly detached from the sources of their food.  The people who produce seafood, meat and vegetables are invisible in the supermarket and the packaged products show no trace of work or human hands. Of course, this is largely true here too.

Except for seafood.  As I mentioned in my last note, our seafood is usually from around here, fresh, affordable and recognizable.  People in south Louisiana often fish for themselves or, if they don’t, they get fish from neighbors and friends who do.  And it is damn good.  Sometimes we buy our shrimp at the grocery store, but we also get it from the shrimper directly, parked on the side of the road, with an ice chest in the back of a pickup truck.  Or at the shrimp lot in Westwego, a town on the West Bank of the Mississippi, in the suburbs of New Orleans where shrimpers gather with their trucks.  This is also true of crabs and other fish.  We know the people who catch our seafood personally.  When my students read Paul Durrenberger’s excellent book “Gulf Coast Soundings,” about shrimpers, they add their own insights, because many of them have family in the business.

I thought about this as I was driving to work this morning.  I thought that maybe this was why we felt violated by the oil industry and its apparent disregard for safety and the environment.  Or why we are angry at the government for giving up on regulating industries.

But then I thought something else.  For most Americans, oil is also a mysterious product that appears, out of nowhere, in the form of gasoline, conveniently available for their cars.  It comes from foreigners.  Which is true, but not the whole truth.  Oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico.  It is explored and extracted by people…who are our neighbors and friends.  We all know people who work offshore, on the rigs like the one that exploded, as well as geologists, engineers and others who work in the industry.  Full disclosure: a couple years ago, my wife worked briefly as a computer consultant at Shell, which maintains a very large presence in New Orleans.  Shell sponsors our famous Jazz and Heritage Festival (“presented by Shell”).  The oil industry employs thousands of people here, probably just as many as the seafood industry.  Some people work in both industries.  It is one of the main sources of tax revenue for the state of Louisiana, a fact that makes those of us working in public higher education depressingly dependent on the price of oil for our budgets.

One of the more amazing festivals in Louisiana is the annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, in Morgan City.  This appetizingly named event has been going on for the last 75 years and, as the web site states, “The festival also emphasizes the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally in this area of the ‘Cajun Coast.'”

An observation that ought to make you think about some of the oppositions we have been using to frame this spill.

The oil industry is clearly responsible for a great deal of the environmental destruction we face along the Gulf Coast.  At a distance, it may seem simple to criticize this giant industry for its destruction of our otherwise wonderful way of life…except that we are them.  We don’t just buy their products.  We work at making them.  Even those of us who don’t work in the oil industry directly are dependent on their revenues.  We have chosen to build our economy around the kind of industry that can and has destroyed our environment and culture.   We have given the industry an enormous amount of support.  Maybe we have allowed ourselves to be sold a bill of goods by our (suddenly very pro-environment) leaders.  But we should not forget that we picked these people to lead us.  Their way is not the only way, a fact that we have not yet learned here in Louisiana.

Oil and shrimp.  Louisiana—and the whole Gulf Coast—needs to look in the mirror.  This disaster is personal in a lot of ways that may make us uncomfortable.  Getting BP to pay for this is a great idea.  But untangling oil and seafood in our economy and in our culture will be a far greater challenge.  And the subject of another blog posting.

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under disaster, economics, sustainability, Uncategorized