New Orleans' Food Culture Takes a Hit

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Two months after Hurricane Katrina, commentator Siddhartha Mitter believes the floods following in the wake of the storm could have a long-term effect on New Orleans' unique food culture. Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.


New Orleans cuisine, rich in Cajun and Creole cooking, made the Big Easy a culinary beacon but more than two months after Hurricane Katrina led to massive flooding in the city, some restaurants there are still struggling with damaged kitchens and short staffs. Commentator Siddhartha Mitter believes the floods could have a long-term effect on New Orleans' unique food culture.


The French Quarter is once again open for business. But one popular establishment barely closed, a strip club, and not long ago it was the subject of a column in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. How, the columnist wondered, did a contingent of exotic dancers get smuggled into a city that was on lockdown at the time? For an answer, look at the customers. All of them, according to the article, had very short hair, a delicate way of saying they were military and rescue workers.

This is not to begrudge those who were doing the backbreaking work of rebuilding the city's infrastructure their choice of entertainment. But it's a reminder that the cultural life of New Orleans will rebuild only as fast as customers return and in a manner that reflects the new clientele's tastes and desires. After the water receded, attention turned to the cultural damage, to the city's musical tradition and also to its Creole cuisine, a national treasure. Famous restaurants, like Commander's Palace and Galatoire's, will reopen. Tradition and pride demand it. More to the point, there will be customers to serve. The flood mainly spared the well-to-do areas where the old money regulars dwell.

No such luxury for the African-American restaurants, the po'boy shops, the constellation of working-class dive bars that make New Orleans, well, New Orleans. At Dooky Chase, where generations of politicians and civil rights workers dined amid a collection of beautiful black art, photographs show that the viscous gray-green water rose to halfway up the door. Can 83-year-old Leah Chase reopen as she says she will? Even if she does, will the business survive? What about her peers who lack name recognition and a nationwide network of friends?

The damage is worse for the farmers, shrimpers and oystermen who produced the local ingredients that give the food its true taste. Unlike bartenders and maitre d', they can't just pack up and find new jobs in Houston, Nashville or New York. On a message board for the Crescent City Farmers Market, an update on vendors reads like a litany of devastation, which, in fact, it is. Crops and livestock were lost, houses flooded, structures town down.

Yet amid the bad news, relief and resilience pierce through. The restauranteurs of New Orleans, a city of habits and generations, are vowing to rebuild. The tradition that gave us crawfish etouffe, gumbo zam(ph), oyster po'boys and turtle soup is too strong, too alive for a mere hurricane to destroy. But whether it can withstand the onslaught of malls, casinos, chain restaurants and, yes, strip clubs, that some visions of reconstruction entail, is another matter entirely.

CHIDEYA: Siddhartha Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

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