Around dinnertime, when the sun sits low in the sky, lined up with the drooping branches of oaks, porches begin to fill with people. New Orleanians move outdoors as the moon rises and streetlamps light. Screen doors swing open and slam shut as people wait for cornbread to bake and collard greens to boil.
Driving through Central City your eyes catch the gleam of High Life bottles balanced on an old man’s knee, and glittery hula hoops that girls wind around their hips. To the left: a young father battles his five year old with a 2 x 4 sword. To the right: a middle-aged widow taps her toes off beat to the soft sound of a scratchy Ellington record playing inside. They wait for timers to ring, microwaves to chime, pots to bubble over. When the entire day is spent at a desk- on the couch- over the stove, the porch offers a sanctuary away from any work or obligations.
The dinner table, piled with bills, dishes, beads and books seems less appealing than the stoop out front, where the clutter is often minimal or at least made up of meaningful triggers to remind you of previous nights spent on a terrace. The function of the dinner table, a place once meant for eating-gathering-conversing, is lost in it’s clutter and position next to a heated oven on broil and a stove with four burners going.
I grew up eating a lot of donuts. The hub of commerce in my family’s suburban neighborhood hosted a number of shops and stores: Stater Bros. grocery, Mexican fruit stands, a rarely open post office, a nail salon owned by a young Vietnamese couple- and “DONUTS” our neighborhood pastry stop. From any location in the shopping center my sister and I could find an excuse to visit the shop that was within walking distance of wherever our parents took us for errands. Church services were concluded with a folding table full of bright pink boxes and fluttering napkins. Early morning basketball games at the YMCA trailed by a team mother’s contribution of holes and bars.
As significant as the donut was to my childhood, the baguette to Paris or Baklava to Turkey, New Orleans boasts it’s own pastry that draws people from all over the the world. Despite the array of toppings and stuffings available elsewhere, New Orleans beignets are a simple, traditional variation that is at times cloying yet perfectly paired with lukewarm café au lait. The memories attached to the simplicity of a small ceramic plate piled with three beignets arranged in a tower of sweet perfection embody a social experience that people rarely leave New Orleans without.
As the temperature rises in New Orleans the seasons shift and locals are signaled of impending spring. Warm breezes tickle the sweaty lower backs of women bending over coolers to pick through cans of PBR and Heineken. Young, uniformed kids race to the bus stop after school to crowd buses headed toward their favorite sno ball shack that’s finally opened for the season. And the thick, humid air that hangs over our heads is saturated with the scent of Zatarain’s Crab Boil.
Balmy evenings welcome entire neighborhoods onto the streets to chug malt liquor from sweating 40 bottles, lounge lazily on porches of their neighbor’s shotguns and trade work clothes for unbuttoned booty shorts and stained tank tops. People move through the city in packs sharing sweat soaked handkerchiefs, scratching each others bug bites that are out of reach and recognizing Lent on “meat-free” Friday nights crowded around folding tables covered in empty crawfish shells.
“Wait, do you guys have relish?”
“Yes, I just bought some.”
“Okay, perfect. I’ll see you tonight.”
I didn’t grow up eating hot dogs on the regular, but relish was a staple in my family’s fridge. A dollop of Daisy was a dollop of Heinz at our dinner table, and the only thing more key than ketchup on french fries was a full bottle of dill pickle relish for the red beans and rice.
A silver stockpot would sit on my parent’s gas range all day simmering, after an entire night of the beans soaking. Filling the house with the scent of slow-cooked ham hocks and broth, the deep pot of thick, red soup would plant the seed of anticipation for dinner the minute we got home from school. Once we were at the dinner table, whether the label on the hot sauce bottle changed; the ham hocks were large or small; or the weather was warm of cool; that relish jar was a constant. The stout bottle sat at the middle of our table for every round of red beans and rice and for all my sister and I knew it was the only way people ate the dish. Beans didn’t come without rice and neither of those came without relish.
I didn’t expect to be thrown into it all that quickly. We were coming across the state line toward Shreveport and it hit me at a gas station. We stopped to fill up, knowing that no matter how fast we flew down the highway, how many corners I cut in the directions to get into New Orleans as fast as possible… we’d never make it on the little bit of fuel left in the tank.
I ran into the convenience store of the station and heard the accent as soon as the attendant opened her mouth to greet a late employee. Apparently, “Miss” “Mister” and “Misses” go as hand in hand with a greeting as beans do with rice down here, and although she was unaware of it, this woman’s salutation coupled with her accent was the best “Welcome to Louisiana” I could have received.
Eric, Barbara and her husband Alan discuss life in New Orleans in the early 1950’s
Me: How old were you when you guys left?
Barbara: I was… I had gone to my first year of college, so I was…
Alan: 18? 19?
Barbara: Yeah 18 or 19. Something like that. And when we came out [to LA] Eric was a baby and he was a little baby.
Eric: I was six.
Alan: To them you’re still a baby. Continue reading
Eric: When I was little Alica, and I didn’t realize it back then it wasn’t til later. It was a segregated society. When you went to the movie theater there were two entrances to the theater. There was a white entrance and there was a black entrance. Continue reading