Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Doors: A Culinary Visit to New Orleans - Part 1

What I'm reading: Faceless, by Debra Webb

Thanks, Karen for sharing your thoughts. It boils down to "writers write" doesn't it?

Today, I'm pleased to be turning the place over to someone near and dear to me--my brother. As a young kid, he'd get up early Sunday mornings and cook breakfast. Pancakes, waffles, coffee cake, you name it. (He confessed later that he did it because he didn't like fried eggs, which is what our mother always made on Sundays.) His love of cooking, and of food, continued, and he became a chef. He's left that life ... or has he? And I'm proud to see the volunteer gene is evident in him, too. Welcome, Mark Carter.

What you notice first are the doors. Everywhere, in all parts of the city. Bleached and flaking paint. Open and exposed grain. Rotting and delaminating wood. Holes and gaps.

I thought that people had simply sealed the entrances to abandoned stores for security; temporary with no thought of posterity. When I saw them in most every neighborhood I thought that they remained from the early warnings of the approaching hurricane; storm windows of a sort waiting for the all-clear. But why had they been painted and continue to remain in place, weathering?

I’ve recently returned from a week in New Orleans and Ocean Springs, Mississippi with an organization called CulinaryCorps. Twelve of us, cooks and chefs at various stages, and from numerous cities and countries, volunteering to cook and more.

Thoughts that we might be ‘late to the party’ were quickly dispelled. One can limit oneself to indulging in the Quarter and have the familiar boisterous, tasty and tawdry New Orleans experience. That has been and will no doubt be the city’s saving grace. The cash cow of tourism was mostly spared and continues to provide visitors most of what they have come to experience and expect. It remains crazy, loud and over-amped; a city like no others. But its dirty little not-so-secret remains just a short drive, or even a walk, away. You can easily select your New Orleans experience. All fun? Stay around the Quarter. Despair? The Lower 9th Ward is just for you.

But those doors seemed ever present. They were stoic portals to vacant storefronts in the Warehouse and Garden districts. Sad but steadfast entrances to homes giving them a “Do Not Enter” look. Saddest of all were the ones just barely intact into a very revived elementary school where vibrant and optimistic teachers maintained their composure amidst hyper-energetic kids. Somehow, the city mustered its enthusiasm and love of itself, powered on and decided that the doors can wait. It has recognized its priorities. There are businesses, homes and lives to rebuild. Everyone will figure out how to get in.

The people we encountered exhibit a remarkable resilience. Perhaps it is the upside of laissez-faire, with nothing lazy about it. The government realizes that it has an impossible task ahead and the locals know that it probably won’t do much of anything, anyway.

More than once we were told of the silver lining of Katrina. A horribly dysfunctional city broken to bits is filled with people organizing to create a new New Orleans, this time done right(er). Schools have started gardens so the children can see how food grows and help turn it into lunches. Charter schools pop up in formerly abandoned locations to help raise the level of education from what they admit were sorry levels.

We helped cater a fund raising event for the opening of Liberty’s Kitchen, a non-profit that hopes to provide at-risk youth with work skills and responsibilities in a formerly flooded building. They know that it’s one thing to teach someone some employable skills, but that won’t be enough. They’ve wisely included a guidance, literacy and counseling component as well as annual follow-up to move the students into jobs and careers.

Throughout, the city is the look of a work in process. Like venturing through a construction site, there are still a layers of dried mud, broken pavement and cracked concrete. I always felt unclear: was this unfinished construction or remains of destruction? It’s probably a little of both.

And expect to get lost, or at least not know where you are. Mayor Nagin decided that it was going to be the big projects that got the first attention. Street signs blown down in the hurricane are low on his list. You can drive for blocks not knowing what street you’re on or what you have crossed. Unless again, you are in the Quarter.

But it’s definitely not a city shrouded in a veil of gloom. While the consensus is that many of those who left are most likely gone for good, the remaining population is still filled with a deep love of their home and a desire to share it with visitors. The heat of the South had not yet arrived but the area’s warmth has clearly never left. Our group ate at Dooky Chase, a landmark restaurant a little outside of the Quarter. It is run by Dooky’s eighty-plus year old wife who is thrilled just to have been able to reopen it years after Katrina. Her grandson, recently graduated from the Cordon Bleu has joined her kitchen. She’s grateful and eager to teach him some Cordon Noir.

But in spite of the restaurant’s legendary status and clientele, she’s sad to admit that there still are not enough employable residents to open for more than lunch. She, in her pink chef’s coat, entertained us with stories of her favorite breakfast (quail cooked in fruit jelly) and Obama’s blunder (asking for hot sauce to put on her gumbo). That evening best distills my reason for wanting to volunteer there.

I saved the links for last, because I wanted you to read the entire essay without interruption. But please -- take some time now to visit CulinaryCorps and Liberty's Kitchen to learn more about these programs.

And PLEASE - come back tomorrow - these folks did a lot more.


Sandy Wickersham-McWhorter said...

Good for New Orleanians! I talked to many people in N.O. for my second book with the Wild Rose Press due to a chapter being set there. I managed to get a sense of the city without having to go there. The more people I talked to the more I felt that everyone there was polite, helpful, and very eager to answer questions about the city or their employer there. Someday I'd like to visit!

Terry Odell said...

Sandy, I've been there several times. You really should plan a trip.

Lise Fuller said...

Well done Terry's brother! I know how hard recovery is after a hurricane. I, too, have lived through that severe devastation.

Lise Fuller

Linda LaRoque said...

One of these days I'm going to make it to New Orleans. There is so much I want to see and would love to try the food though I'm not much for spices.

I hope the city will be able to recover and be stronger and better than ever.


elaine cantrell said...

We went to New Orleans a few years ago and loved it. How wonderful to see that so many wonderful people still remain there.

Anonymous said...

Read your brother's post. I too went to N.O. after the storms. I'd just finished a cozy where a murder takes place there right after the parade on Fat Tuesday. My husband stopped there on the way back to Arkansas from visiting his brother in St. Augustine, Florida. I needed to check some of my research (and I found out beignets are good even without powdered sugar - but I sneaked a few dips anyway.) My husband and I went on our honeymoon in N. O. in 1947 and he died suddenly (aneurism)not long after our last visit there. He and those wonderful memories took about 80% of me with them - the other 20% is still writing, getting my ducks in a row, and by the time my grandson comes here from NY to sing for me in my place beside Jim (the Gem :-)- he's going to sing Beyond the Blue Horizon - that's where I'll be :-) Of course, I'm only 80+ from the neck down so do keep buying my books. I plan on writing as long as I can see the monitor. LOL Good luck helping rebuild and thanks for an interesting blog.

emcee said...

Terry's brother thanks his sister for posting this and the rest of you for reading it. And I second her suggestion to visit. Besides Washington D.C., it's the least-American American city but for wildly different reasons.


Terry Odell said...

Consensus seems to be that New Orleans is one special city. I hope you'll all come back tomorrow for more.

Debra St. John said...

New Orleans always seems to conjure up such romantic visions. It's so wonderful to hear that so many are perservering after all that has happened.

Jenny Milchman said...

What a hopeful post! Now I really would like to visit this city, see it in the process of transformation...