Forged in hard times, post-Katrina food memories resonate in New Orleans now
Food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind around Hurricane Katrina anniversaries. And yet, for me, the story of how New Orleans people fought their way back after Katrina is entwined with tales of our food, and that stretches on after the anniversaries have come and gone.
Now though, watching our neighbors cope with Hurricane Laura, it all feels sharper, closer.
The stories come back through sense memories, anchored somewhere latent and deep, involuntarily evoked now by everyday life in this city.
The crinkly sound of a foil sheet pan being peeled back, and the meaty gush of jambalaya within, still carries the generosity of Louisiana people cooking big batches of our shared regional comfort food to feed others in the evacuations, when comfort was desperately needed.
The smell of burgers outside the French Quarter restaurant Port of Call never fails to conjure that surreal early fall of 2005, when we were trying to compute incalculable tragedies, but finding a restaurant back open was somehow a signal that all was not lost.
It can be a taco truck, where between lukewarm Mexican Coke and blazing hot green salsa there’s gratitude from when handmade meals like this meant a break from dusty work days cleaning up the mess.
Just let me catch a whiff of onion rings through the kitchen door at Liuzza’s Restaurant, and I’m back on the dark Mid-City street watching its vintage neon flicker back on.
The spice of a good crawfish boil can revive that post-Katrina spring, when new green started pushing through gray dead grass and gardens, and when having friends over might for once mean peeling seafood instead of gutting walls.
Then there’s a certain type of barbecue — sweet, thick, red, New Orleans street party barbecue — and how it can summon the jubilation of homecoming gatherings as barren neighborhoods pulsed back to life, the way strangers might drag you in to join the party, simply out of fellowship for being back home.
Lift the lid on red beans and maybe in the steam there’s the quiet relief of finally cooking in your own home once again, despite it all.
These are happy memories, hard-wired through hard times. In these times we have now, they remind me what it means to make it through, of what waits on the other side, all brought home with the immediacy of the next New Orleans meal.