Tag Archives: Louisiana

Going for the Gumbo

David Beriss

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, festivals, Food Studies, 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

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