“C’est dans les vieux pots qu’on fait la bonne soupe.”
“It’s the old pots that make good soup.”
Les Vieux Pots
In New Orleans every newcomer is doomed to spending time as the Hand Grenade toting-fannypack wearing-“Do you know where Cafey doo Mondey is?” asking tourists. But, eventually, there’s room to blossom into a Saints ink donning-rescue dog walking-“I stopped drinking Hurricanes when I was 16” remarking local.
During time spent as an obvious out-of-towner, you strive to give directions but still haven’t ventured deep into the 7th or up toward AudubonPark. You’ve had your first red bean Monday but have yet to make it to a Boil. And you’ve found yourself ordering andouille when you were thinking etouffee.
By the end of my time in the city, I still tapped my breaks when I spotted a Leidenheimer bakery truck drive by but didn’t think twice before bringing a beer onto the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but get up and go outside when I heard music in the streets but I stopped getting on the wrong buses.
The adaptation to a city and a new lifestyle are unique in New Orleans, and go beyond trying to get from point a to point b, but they involve traditions that have been alive in the kitchens and on the front porches of people who have spent their whole lives within the city limits. These practices are saturated with stories, reasons and flavors that keep mothers and daughters side-by-side in the kitchen or grandfathers and grandsons perched on stoops. They involve moving through the city with certain people, at certain times to accomplish rituals and traditions that embody a style of community living that is rich with deep rooted relationships and experiences.
These pieces focus on four themes that connect experiences and traditions to be had in New Orleans. They define ways in which people approach eating and socializing in the south, two practices that are rarely separate. The themes explore the relationship that New Orleans residents and tourists have with dining and how it translates into memories and the preservation of living to eat- not eating to live.
Time: “It feels like… time is slower here. Like you’re moving through warm peanut butter.”
There’s something about walking in New Orleans spring heat that makes it seem as though the clocks run slower. Your feet become heavier and sunset and sunrise come out of the blue. There’s rarely the expectation of timeliness due to the fact that streetcars, porches and sidewalks are filled with friends and neighbors that warrant “quick” visits and chats. Locals and tourists are discerned by a New Yorker’s ability to walk an entire block before someone from the CrescentCity gets past one front door.
The concept of time in New Orleans has a fluid quality unique to the south. Most days are a long blur of drawn-out meals, lengthy conversations and entire morningafternoonevenings full of stoopin’ and lounging. Plans are made without regards for actual hours but rather times of day like “later” or “around evening time.” The regular markers of time creep up on you quietly: as the day goes on more and more streetcars begin to pass without stopping because they’re filled to capacity. The grocery store lines lengthen and seafood store parking lots fill.
In The Quarter hours are marked by the Jackson Square church’s bell tolling but beyond that, the way in which 24 hours passes is in some ways completely unique everyday but also eerily similar to the ones before. People are drunk at 10 am, eating breakfast for dinner and leave for the night at 1:00 a.m. only to return home around noon. Bars stay open “til” and restaurants lock their doors when they run out of fresh chicken legs.
But, one sure way to measure time in New Orleans is by the food on people’s plates. Without paying attention to where the hour hand falls or where the calendar is marked a Styrofoam box full of crawfish on a Friday or a bowl full of fresh red beans can signify a time of day, time of year, day of the week or even a specific holiday season.
The exploration of time in relation to food includes how to demarcate time by the food people are consuming. How Sundays are marked by a plate full of ham post-church services; Mondays mean bowls of red beans; Friday in the spring always smelling of boil seasoning. Also, the passing of time while cooking and during the consumption of meals- time passes uniquely in the New Orleans kitchen as slow-cooked food invites long conversations, and sucking chicken bones dry leaves little room for productivity.
Space: When I move somewhere I usually have a single priority from day one: to eat. I want to eat the best, the worst, the weirdest, the outliers that you have to crawl through a busted fence to get to and every place on Frommer’s and Zagat’s lists. New Orleans, naturally, is the best place for someone like me who wants to eat somewhere new for every single meal every single day.
But in New Orleans, with a monstrous influx of tourists coming in and out on a daily basis, restaurants popping up on every corner every day, locals seem to have an affinity for finding their place, taking a seat at the counter, and staying put for the next 20 years. Whether it’s the ma and pa po’ boy shop around the corner from your cousin’s house in the Treme, or the dessert window at Palace Café where they do Bananas Foster table side, people have their spots and they stick to them. In a city that’s as fluid as the river cradling it, New Orleanians have found comfort in the consistency of Mother’s smoked sausage, Arnaud’s shrimp remoulade or Manchu’s addictive wings.
This is not to say that the exploration of space will focus on restaurants and permanent places- rather it will encompass spaces indoors and outdoors, the kitchens and the porches, the streets we walk down to find a shack to buy chicken wings from or the parks we eat those chicken wings at. If there’s one place I’ve lived in America that’s had the atmosphere and space mean as much as the food you’re consuming within it, it’s New Orleans. Exploring these spaces and people’s attachment to them is crucial to understanding why people eat where they eat: why certain restaurants survive; how certain chef’s make a name for themselves because of their restaurant’s welcoming atmosphere; when it’s time to move outdoors and eat on back porches instead of around a kitchen table.
People: A pot of beans, a tray of collard greens, a pitcher of punch. In New Orleans the receptacles offered for preparing meals imply how regularly food is consumed in large groups. Boils, BBQs, large king cakes and red Beans- events and dishes that are made with the mindset of feeding many mouths around large tables. Warm summer nights would feel wasted or out of place without friends and family bumping elbows over a pile of crawfish, as men, women and children in the city of New Orleans are accustomed to huge helpings of food juxtaposed with huge groups of people to enjoy them with.
I found myself surrounded by friends daily for meals and drinks; as glasses empty but somehow begin to feel heavier there’s a helping hand to get you from the bar to your bed. As stomachs expand and chests burn with lingering hot sauce kick there’s someone to shoot the shit with while waiting for your pants to feel like they fit again. In New Orleans the only thing as important as the space or food involved with a meal is the people. Dining out is a regular occurrence leaving seats to be filled and friends to share plates with. And when dining in, the dim lights of a Mid-City apartment seem brighter when the room is filled with smiling faces and glistening beers.
The exploration of people will examine how relationships are fostered around tables, coolers, stoves, ovens and meals. When eating in the CrescentCity it’s hard to find a place and time where friends and family aren’t welcome. There’s always paper plates stored away in the back of someone’s cupboard for the strangers you invite in from the street. There’s always warm beers on a shelf for the randoms you call in off the sidewalk. People are essential for enjoying a quiet night in the city ringing with the low hum of cicadas, or streets filled with music playing you need a partner to dance to.
Memory: Having been out of New Orleans only one week before finishing this project, I realized the significance of memory related to eating in that city in a way I had yet to when within it’s limits. I spent the first few months of my internship at The Southern Food and Beverage Museum sifting through note cards left by visitors of the museum about memories they had related to food: favorite restaurants, recants of proposals over mussels or first dates over po’ boys; childhood stories about learning to cook from grandpa; tourists exclaiming that they now, truly, know what gumbo is.
During my time in the city I was making these memories for myself. Eating meals with best friends almost every night of the week; drinking liquor in the Marigny til 5 am then riding the streetcar home to leftover red beans; drenching a large Parasol’s BBQ beef in hot sauce and truly understanding for the first time the difference between a po’ boy and “just a sandwich,” whether or not I’ve found a concrete way to put it into words. I had food, friends, family, booze, music, entertainment, traditions- all at my fingertips every moment of everyday in a city that actually never sleeps (unless it’s drunk on the edge of the river as the sun comes up over The Quarter) And now, having packed up my things and left the city behind I’m recognizing the passion and truth behind people’s admission of never feeling home anywhere other than NOLA, or never eating as well as they did that week down in the Crescent.
Memory will examine the eperiences in this particular city that fill the gut, the mouth, the hands and the brain in a manner that keeps memories alive long beyond a bowl of beans is finished or a pile of crawfish are picked clean. They begin forming the minute the water’s turned on to boil and interject themselves into every future outing that involves talk of food-travel-adventures-indulgence.