Coming to Terms with the Ever-Evolving Flavor of New Orleans

All photos by L. Kasimu Harris.

L. Kasimu Harris is one of the most varied talents in New Orleans today. Writer, photographer, and style maven, he is an authority on life, food, and fashion in his hometown. Before heading to college, he even had stints as a semi-professional baseball player, a deputy sheriff, and a jazz trumpeter. His solo photography exhibition, “The 10-Year Journey: Reflections of Family, Identity and New Orleans” is on display at the George & Leah McKenna Museum in the city through Oct. 10. The show is his visual narrative of life following Hurricane Katrina.

By L. Kasimu Harris

He could’ve thought I was discriminating. At the very least, he had to think my half question, half assertion was a politically incorrect sweeping generalization. It was 2007 and while I interviewed John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, I worked out some anger, too. I was a journalism graduate student at the University of Mississippi and Hurricane Katrina had ruined my native New Orleans like too much salt in a pot of gumbo. Aspects of my city stayed the same, some things changed, and others disappeared, and a decade later, the food industry remains a barometer of progress or regression.

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On that day in Edge’s office, I wanted to know if the Asian-owned corner stores that peddled po’boys and seafood plates deep in the low-income neighborhoods of New Orleans were a detriment to the venerable culinary traditions of the city. At that point in life, my only exposure to Asian food contributions in New Orleans was limited to corner stores where the healthiest food option might be a boiled egg or a banana at the front counter — but malt liquor was always stocked. Places, I felt, that thrived off the land of these impoverish areas — yet, gave nothing back. I hadn’t feasted on pho and I didn’t know about Village de L’Est, the largely Vietnamese community in Eastern New Orleans, with its farmers market and popular eateries. I conflated these largely immigrant-owned corner stores in food deserts with another community that happens to be vital to the seafood industry. And I made preserving New Orleans’s foods my singular contention. I was displeased with the reshaping of New Orleans, where I saw people being systematically left behind. I had valid points with my politics. However, my oversimplification was still wrong. Edge said I shouldn’t despair and flavors from other cultures would amalgamate with the traditional offerings of New Orleans foods to make new tastes. It didn’t take me long to understand his point.

Linda Green, the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady, and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Now, I willingly endure the bad parking and the cacophony within the French Quarter for Killer Poboys, home of the “Internationally inspired, chef-crafted, New Orleans styled sandwiches.” I feast on seared lime shrimp topped with marinated radishes, carrots, cucumber, herbs, and house-special aioli that’s served on a soft banh mi style roll. Some people call them the Vietnamese po’boy. Before Katrina, all of my seafood po’boys were golden fried. Chefs Cam Boudreaux and April Bellow opened the eatery in 2012 in the back of Erin Rose, a bar with personality, and reinvented the city’s favorite sandwich.

My current perspective of food, particularly in New Orleans, is through the lens of musical innovations. Louis Armstrong sounded a lot different in 1967 on “What a Wonderful World” than in 1925 on “St. Louis Blues” and the 42 years between is evolution. In later years, Armstrong had more vocals than horn playing, but the emotion, the blues, and his mastery of rhythms never changed. If music hadn’t advanced, we’d have no King Oliver, Cosimo Matassa, Dr. John, and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. And for cuisine, without growth, we’d be devoid of Antoine Alciatore, Leah Chase, Austin Leslie, and Susan Spicer. Before that connection, I struggled to understand my city post Katrina. I lost my neighborhood and that’s a loss of being, compounded by a population that was rapidly in flux. I know New Orleans and its people are in perpetual transformation — yet, it changed too fast for me. I wondered how to deal.

“New Orleans has tradition that must be preserved in order for New Orleans to continue to be New Orleans,” said Zella Palmer, director of the Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture at Dillard University, where I’m the assistant director of communications. She added that New Orleans has always had new people arriving and opined that once people settle in, they become creolized. “New Orleans will get in your soul,” she said.

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In the span of 10 years since Katrina, neighborhoods have shifted, people have been priced out, displaced, or they’ve elected to make a home elsewhere. And neighborhood eateries, across various communities, didn’t reopen. Decades of familiarity were erased. Many of these places were the fabric of the city and constructed their reputations on cooking creole foods well. Despite those loses, food has made major gains. Recently, I dined on smoked duck with okra, and red bell pepper and oat crumble at Coquette, where Mike Stoltzfus is the chef/owner. Other days, I’ll eat perfectly fried yard bird from McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’ or Willie Mae’s Scotch House and I’m always game for fare from a food truck.

Bo Dollis Jr., Big Chef of the Wild Magnolias in front of his home before St. Joseph Night, the only time Mardi Gras Indians mask at night.

Palmer said what makes New Orleans a unique city in comparison to other cities are the cultural threads that still exist from France, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and Native American Tribes to Louisiana that are still seen in material culture in 2015. From the architecture to the front porches and ironwork, this city has a plethora of physical evidence from centuries ago.

“You can see it in second-lines, jazz bands playing on the corner, and you can also see it in our food,” she said, and added that it’s a manifestation of black culture displayed to the world. “And although the Black Hand in the pot is often a ghostwriter in material culture, it still finds a way to live.”

This summer, Edge invited me to the SFA’s Summer Symposium in New Orleans, where the organization met a decade earlier, just before Katrina. I interviewed Linda Green, “The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady.” To me, Green epitomizes New Orleans. After Katrina, she lost her job as a public school cook. Then, she took the almost extinct “poor man’s dish” of spaghetti noodles, beef stock, beef, and green onions – aka ya-ka-mein – and has made it a business. But, beyond her savory and award-winning food, it’s her story, her warmth, and her innate ability to weave between the demographics at a second-line, a museum, or at festivals across America that exudes the soul and spirit of New Orleans.

In this city, we need the neighborhood joints and the white tablecloth establishments; we need barrooms and churches; we need true neighborhood schools with veteran educators, just as we need fresh faces and ideas. All of those things have a direct impact on the food and are paramount. The gumbo could have the freshest ingredients, but if the roux isn’t right, the whole dish is ruined.

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