… desire to put flesh to the bone. To return texture to the fabric. Reconnect the dots. Weave the roots back into the soil….Because New Orleans is losing its stomach. A subtle implosion is simmering when it comes to our dinner.
New Orleans: what was once, arguably, the superlative pantry of America—not only its cuisine, but its ingredients—is now an absolute nadir. We have more Walmarts in New Orleans than organic farms in Louisiana. We have a surfeit of programs—laundered with soiled public money—that pander to training “help and skills” in the larger, ever so corporate New Orleans restaurants. But what is the actual value of teaching a teenager to cut a carrot that was grown 2000 miles away? We should teach substance before technique, and we cannot scaffold the same paradigm with new materials. The structure itself must change. Jazz was not gestated by ingredients grown far away, but by the Diapora’s traditions close at hand. Why should our gumbo taste any different?
The trending model of food consumption in New Orleans begins in restaurant kitchens. That means, unfortunately, that fads and cliches trickle down to the bottom rung like sap in March: slowly, and reluctantly. So, if restaurants are using catfish from Thailand, crawfish from Vietnam (both of which were in the freezer at the St. Roch Market on their opening day, the peak of Louisiana crawfish season), wheat grown in Texas and milled in North Carolina, processed sugar from New York factories, cornmeal from Iowa, steak from Oklahoma, fig and tomatoes from California, peaches from China, then we bottom-rungers will use that too. Not only because we dine at these places, but because stores stock shelves according to demand. Whole Foods’ nascence was grounded in an affluent, niche market 30 years ago. Now it genuflects to the ubiquitous desire (however unrequited and opaque) to eat better food precisely because there’s a large market for it. The food industry, much like the church, is not here for philanthropy. The bottom line is a yellow brick road that patent leather Tom’s can traipse across.
Right now, popular-buzz restaurants and their diners have fetishized eating. It’s become an indulgent self-branding, an exclusivity. This demographic has removed the content of food, of eating, and annealed it to form—Baroque opulence, Gothic lighting, East Village junkie-chic, exposed gluten-free bricks. Diners are fed the experience but not dinner. And they eat it: the scene, the buzz, the wax, but not the flame. There’s not much food in the food anymore—it’s the chef, their tickling fame, the santoku bevel of their ego: a successful leader never thanks the audience. He thanks his band. But due to the paucity of producers in/around New Orleans and indeed the entire state, there is no one to thank. We place laurels on the temples of conductors who, without the rhythm of music from an orchestra of producers, look like Rex without a Mardi Gras. Food, like anything in this life, is the sum of its parts. Content dictates quality, ingredients determine the dish. Everything else is finesse, compassion. And the stories of those values, not their subject.
Manifest destiny. We rush to consume an abundance of product and are thence lacerated with its harvest: indigestion, diabetes, obesity, learning disabilities, sleeplessness, anxiety, violence, depression. The mania of America is its appetite: both literal and figurative. Instead of realizing the origin of gun violence, we diagnose the symptom. Instead of supporting producers (fisherman, oysterwomen, organic farmers) we subsidize the prostitution of our last publicly owned market and the state’s Dow chemical soybean and corn farmers. Look at the shape we’re in: a food desert below sea level. How many people from the 9th ward have to travel to Mid-City to make groceries? How many from Holy Cross, from Gentilly? Imagine if, on the urge to hear music, you had to travel to Beau Rivage Casino to see John Clearly instead of Frenchman Street? It’s the same challenge with food. Like local music, local food should be consumed live and raw.
The subtext is latent when you grasp the new Whole Foods on Broad St. Up to $1,000,000 in forgivable public grants to build that store and its adjacent businesses. (There is nothing wrong with that per se, and I’m not criticizing Whole Foods). But for our city government to financially ballast a transnational, multi-billion dollar corporation’s grocery store…someone, somewhere nearby, is doing something very wrong. Why don’t we have the local infrastructure—both neighborhood by neighborhood and city-wide—to feed ourselves? Supermarkets are, to an extent, becoming anachronistic in locations with strong local food economies—first world or third world. Furthermore, the fact that the St. Roch Market, Jack & Jake’s, and ArtWorks buildings were brokered away to groups not familiar with providing actual food, but curating the experience of its consumption, is not encouraging. New Orleans doesn’t need to be curtained in any more “experience”: we’re dripping in king-cake glitter and schlocky adult drinks. The Upper Quarter, past 6pm, has become Disney Land with tits. Because under the crucible of DEVELOPMENT we are, Gallier Hall-sanctioned, commodifying our sacred culture, our self-defining culture: our music, our cuisine, our melancholy, our architecture, our narratives. These have been materialized, and made transactional. And we’re all implicit in its sowing, transplants and natives alike. Our honesty and passion is our hubris. It’s our damn vulnerability. We will let you in, even if you didn’t knock. The problem is, where do we go when the sale is over? When the soil’s bankrupt, displaced, gentrified? The neo-colonialists brought us civilization, until we realized we already had some.
Food was the first casualty of this appropriation. Generational rice farmers in the state’s west now mow soybeans for ethanol production from the cockpit of a gigantic PlayStation a la John Deere. The rotational balance, extant with Europeans for centuries and Native Americans for millennia, of substituting crops, fallow fields, and pasturing animals, has been usurped by a chemical monoculture smug in its arrogance and bloated from its federal checks. (Imagine if Snooks Eaglin played nothing but “Muskrat Ramble” eight months of the year on Royal Street). The same demographic that denounces the skeletal urban welfare system is biggest recipient of federal milk money: farmers who grow beans for gastanks, an overwhelming percentage of Louisiana farmers, get paid to do so by Democrats and Republicans alike. Arsenic from those same “farmers” and their pomades of poison (fertilizes, fungicides, pesticides, herbicides) is suffocating the few rice farmers left—and the response from the State Agriculture Department is to add more chemicals. Generational fisherman from Lafitte now work in pipe-fitting yards; citrus farmers in Braithwaite work at oil refineries; the local fabric of food production and consumption has been manipulated away from cultivation and tradition. Oh yeah, and that whole dead zone trifle, saltwater intrusion, wetland loss, and the BP spill. The more you itch, the more you scratch.
The French Market is America’s oldest public market, founded in 1791 by the Spanish. Unless you need giraffe earrings or another daiquiri, there’s not much there. But in fact that was, up until the 1960s, the pulse of New Orleans. Food is the blood of any social system, and the French market was its oxygen. Hence its name, its architecture, its size. If you read the landscape, you’ll notice the wider lanes, the ease of transport, the location on the River, and proximity to the original city. From the lungs of the French Market, New Orleans stretches itself like Alvin Ailey into a choreographed body of distribution.
And that is the essence of this entire situation. The devolution from precedence. New Orleans is groping its way into the 21st Century, hyperbole aside (Silicon Bayou vs. 50% unemployment for African American males; OPP’s public renovation and public school privatization; tax credits for film companies and Babel-high property and business taxes; a new street car line for tourists and boil water alerts for locals). We stilt-walked over the 20th Century and are here to stay. The monuments are coming down, but the oppression is staying up. And if we can’t even put a local orange back on the plate, how can we learn to walk?
Food is the single most inalienable human right. Without food, there is no shelter, no clothing. Without ecology, there are no people (plants did fine without us for a long time). Meals are relationships—conducted in restaurants, homes, parking lots—and the essence of food is sharing. A cyclical gift, a karmic bank, withdrawing only what you deposit. The culture of agriculture is the cohesion of our society. Access, local/regionally grown, seasonal, fresh, organic, affordable: these are not menu labels, platitudes, or the currency of branding: these are the principles of what was once New Orleans’ food economy and what it must become again. Democracy was invented in the Greek agora (marketplace) without irony. The democratization of our food and its ingredients is the rubric against which all other success or failure will be tailored. If this city cannot feed itself by its tricentenial, then all other triumphs will slouch towards tragedy. The plate is a mirror: look down and you will see yourself reflected in its contents. The remedy, the cure, is inoculated within the disease, and so too is our future. Our solutions, like seeds, are self-pollinating.