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State Of The Dining Scene
I did not watch the State of the Union address the other night because I have been avoiding politics with some success for the last 20 or so years. I don’t care which side of the aisle a politician is on, they never seem to be speaking to my needs. I, for example, believe squirrels are far more intelligent than they let on and frequently mock us behind our backs.
No politician has ever responded to the letters I’ve sent laying out the basic facts of the squirrel conspiracy, so I don’t see why I should pay attention to them. But having not watched the State of the Union address does not mean I have not thought about the topic in a very New Orleans context.
Y’all, the state of our dining culture is strong.
We may not have the population we did before the levee failures, but we haven’t lost our love for food. We haven’t lost the understanding that eating is one of life’s rare pleasures, and should be valued accordingly. Life is short and often unpleasant, why not eat well?
In New Orleans we have a performative culture. How else to explain Mardi Gras, when people mount garishly decorated wagons promenade through the streets tossing trinkets to friends and neighbors? We parade after funerals. Hell, we paraded after our football team was assaulted in what can only be called a “home robbery.”
We’re not just a party town, but we do know how to throw a party and we’re less likely to feel guilty about it the next morning than a person from Dallas, or Portland or Boston. We are different from those and other places in our cuisine, our language and our lifestyle.
We are one of very few places in the US to have a recognizably distinct cuisine. That’s something to be proud of, particularly when not too long ago there were serious concerns about whether enough restaurants serving New Orleans food would stay open for the cuisine to remain viable, but fortunately there have been a number of New Orleans-style restaurants open in the last 12 months, too.
The fact that so many restaurants continue to open (still more than are closing, it appears) is great if you love to dine out or are a food writer. It’s not so great if you own a restaurant. Perhaps the worst thing is that nobody can figure out how so many restaurants are managing to survive in a city that still hasn’t recovered its population over a decade after the levee failures.
I can see both sides. Were I an established restaurant owner, I’d be wary that the number of new restaurants opening would dilute the customer base such that nobody could afford to stay in business. When a new restaurant opens and is packed by people trying to see what all the fuss is about, those people are not dining at an established restaurant, goes the argument. And yet restaurants keep opening. It’s a puzzler.
Restaurants opening in “up and coming” neighborhoods also tend to drive up the cost of living in those neighborhoods to the point that folks who work in the restaurants can no longer afford to live in those “up and coming” neighborhoods because they are more “up” than “coming.” That’s only one reason why restaurants have such a difficult time finding competent employees.
But that’s not to say that the difficulties outweigh the benefits of being such a food-centric place. We have better food in dive bars here than you can find in some states and most cities. We love to eat but most of us aren’t gluttons – we’re gourmets. If you are confused about the difference there is a joke that does not illustrate it very well but which I found a little funny: How do you tell the difference between a glutton and a gourmet? The gourmet can button her pants.
We are entirely willing to try new things, but at the end of the day most of us can think back to a po-boy sandwich we’ve eaten and our restaurants reflect who we are as citizens of New Orleans. Overall the fact remains that we have so many restaurants because we live to eat rather than eat to live. We understand that food is ultimately fuel for our continued existence; we just prefer to consume fuel that tastes good, and we want to consume that good-tasting fuel in the company of other people who fall on the correct side of the “tastes great/less filling” divide.
It’s hard to predict the future, but I see no slowing to the number of restaurants opening in the next year. I do think we’ll start to see more closings, but I hope I’m wrong.
Share your predictions for the food new year in the comments.