summertime and the livin was easy

28 may 2015

Push the envelope, but don’t forget to mail the letter. Demand will always be there, but supply must always be nurtured.

It is hard to be honest in New Orleans. And it is even harder to speak to a full belly about hunger. But New Orleans is at the pivotal point in its history; at a time when this City is embracing, not eschewing, change America’s food capital is becoming a food desert. We have no where to buy fresh food, as public or as wholesale. We have more Taco Bells in New Orleans than organic farms in Louisiana. Dining options are incessantly popping-up but food is not staying put. Chain stores and city-sanctioned food courts are being built, subsidized, and buoyed by local government. But where is our culinary affirmative action? Where is the municipal support for healthy food for an unhealthy city? Our farmers markets are waltzing ever closer to an extenuated finale; corporate stores are opening with great frequency; and we citizens are receiving more of what we don’t want and less of what we need.

New Orleans cuisine—nonpareil at its worst, life-changing at its best—was created by proximity and precedence. The intersection of cultures designed an architecture of singular exceptionality. It was as if the Tower of Babel had a restaurant on its ground floor. Everything was predicated on what was local, that is, on hand. Ingredients, equipment, recipes, and artisans annealed an identity exceptional, and isolated. This spleen of America was the confluence of culture, and that is nowhere more apparent than in our food.

Today, it is not the past which is threatened, but the future. We are dedicated to the preservation of the past, because we are unprepared for the future. Nowhere is that fear more manifest than on our plates. While the availability of prepared food (dining) is at a glut, real food, the kind we eat everyday, is in a ditch. We have nothing to eat at home, so we go out. We are hypnotized by the trends, the names, the choices—drunk with the democracy of it all. The helium in the bubble is making us all dizzy, and gravity will hurt.

The truth is, healthy and sustainable food is not being created in New Orleans. All our sugar and rice and flour are still lily white; our eggs and meat and dairy are made, packaged, and shipped out-of-state; too much shrimp is mangrove prawns from Southeast Asia; Chinese crawfish lurk in too many restaurant freezers. Frozen ingredients are unpackaged and warmed; transported from factories to distributors, to back doors of restaurants; incessant xmas, the plastic is torn and the food is warmed. We have spent so much time clutching our forks and waiting for our plates that we have disregarded the menu’s menu. We don’t ask where or how, only what and when, because not enough chefs, grocers, bakers, etc, do. We know the trivial hiccups of every white-tooth celebrity chef, but we don’t know any farmers. We are eating the sizzle, not the steak.

In the words of a mentor, what geographical bedrock is absent below New Orleans is present above. Our emotional, human grit is rich, deep—a long, winding corollary which teathers us to this City, and through this City to each other. That umbilical cord is nourishment—cultural, social, political, musical—but it literally transports the health of food. And if we do not earnestly nurture those calories, we will be lost. We must be stewards of the City; of its soil, its people, its crops, its agency—and we cannot do that until we take seriously the erosion of access to fresh, local food. Like our wetlands, our desire for something that we possessed all along is destroying our way of life. We have the infrastructure, we have the appetite, and most importantly, we have the precedent.

The pyramid must be inverted, and policy must be shifted. We cannot favor corporations, developers, or entrepreneurs who have no relationship or experience with Food to run our markets or groceries. The bottom line is food, not finance. Biodiversity, integrity, and long-term vision mist be incentivized and encouraged; we must embrace substance over form; subsidize policy and people, not property; invest rather than extract; teach the beauty of straights lines, not the search for angles. We have to understand that tradition is predicated on the viability of the future, not on longing for the past. Let us acknowledge the smoke, before we see the fire. Let us eat, let us demand a healthy supply.