History and Tradition
New Orleans has been described as the northern-most Caribbean city, and I’ve always thought that an apt description. It’s not just that our climate is similar, though that’s a big part of it since we tend to grow the same sort of crops they do in the islands. It’s not just that our buildings share many aspects of structures you’ll find in cities like Port Au Prince, Kingston, San Juan and others. I think the crux of it is that people in New Orleans have a somewhat laid-back attitude to life that, if not quite as relaxed as that in Montego Bay or Havana, sets us apart from most of the rest of the United States.
I started thinking about this topic after reading an article written by my friend Todd Price, which focused on the connection between Haiti and New Orleans. There’s no doubt that Haiti and Haitian immigrants have had a significant impact on our city, but I’ve noticed that – where food is concerned – the connection extends far beyond the French-speaking Islands.
At Baru, for example, chef Edgar Caro cooks the food of his home on the Caribbean coast of Columbia, and while it’s different enough to be “exotic,” the basic flavors and many of the ingredients are familiar to cooks here. Rice and beans are a staple throughout the Caribbean, though sometimes the beans are called “peas,” as at Boswell’s Jamaican Grill on Tulane Ave. “Congris” – rice with black beans – is a staple of Cuban restaurants, and there are versions of many, many dishes we consider indigenous throughout the region.
Sometimes our perceived “laissez-faire” attitude counts against us, of course, as exemplified by the reaction in some parts of the country to our plight after Katrina. That’s one reason I’ve been following the ongoing saga in Puerto Rico, where the effects of hurricane Maria in 2017 are still being felt.
There are influences from other places on our culture, of course, and I wouldn’t suggest that because we love food and celebrate Carnival that we really qualify as a Caribbean city, but Chef Nina Compton, of Compere Lapin, told me once that when she visited New Orleans it felt like home because of the people. I’m paraphrasing and summarizing what she said, but I think that’s the spirit of it. I took it as a high compliment, and I hope you do as well.