What, Again?

It’s not quite as predictable as the 7-year plague of locusts, but this week the New York Times published a story by Kim Severson on the state of dining in New Orleans.

Ms. Severson is a fine writer who has obviously talked to connected people, done her due diligence and visited a lot of restaurants and it’s all fine. Really.

I mean, sure, her last few pieces about the City came off as a little condescending; but she clearly likes us, and that goes a long way, no? So what if she also seems to talk to the same people every time she visits? Everyone she quotes is still relevant, and her overall impression is, more than ever, positive. 

For example, Ms. Severson mentioned the “gentrification” issue when discussing the St. Roch Market, but she also recognized that the Market employs a lot of neighborhood residents. It’s complicated, in other words, and I can tell you from experience that it’s hard to be nuanced when you have a broad subject and a tight word-count.

And if her article focuses on only a few chefs? Well, at least she chose good ones.

You won’t find any bigger cheerleaders for the chefs Ms. Severson identifies by name in her piece – including John Besh, Donald Link, Susan Spicer, Alon Shaya, Michael Gulotta and Slade Rushing – than I, but I know most of those folks at least well enough to know they’d be the first to identify many other chefs doing great work in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I don’t have the time to mention all of the chefs who’ve either rebuilt following Katrina or come here to start something new, but the first chef that came to my mind when I read this piece was Adolfo Garcia. Garcia has twice now moved into neighborhoods that, when he opened his restaurants, didn’t look anything like a sure bet. Ms. Severson may have interviewed Garcia for all I know; or maybe she spoke to any of the dozens of young chefs who’ve opened restaurants here in the last few years. She writes for the New York Times, and there’s only so much space in that paper. There’s not enough room in any print publication to cover the restaurant scene here in-depth.

But recognizing all of that, I do have one small critique of Ms. Severson’s piece; she said that before Katrina Vietnamese restaurants, “… were largely cloistered in New Orleans East and immigrant enclaves on the Mississippi River’s West Bank…”

That’s not true. What is true is that in 2005 Vietnamese food was not as popular as it is today, and even some noted local food critics were not familiar with the cuisine, but I can’t see how Ms. Severson interviewed the chefs she name-checks in her piece (or who were photographed therein) on that topic and reached the conclusion that Vietnamese cuisine was rare before Katrina. Because I can tell you, I ran into half of the chefs she cites at either 9 Roses or Kim Son before the storm, and Gretna is hardly an “immigrant enclave.”

I know that’s a small nit to pick, but it raised my hackles because a lot of folks have written similar pieces about New Orleans in the last decade. The idea is that before Katrina, people weren’t aware of Vietnamese food, I guess? Because New Orleans was all old-school Creole food and hide-bound and staid and dusty, but with daiquiris and tits. That’s bullshit, though, and I don’t really think we need to put up with it.

In this piece, Ms. Severson mentions a joke about how New Orleans used to be a “town of 5,000 restaurants and five recipes.” Again, she acknowledges it as a joke, but that’s cover. She’s writing about how New Orleans has changed since Katrina, and that’s an easy hook on which to hang a story. I’m sorry if I’m a bit offended by the premise, which I perceive to be that we have finally started to catch up with the rest of the country in our appreciation for (insert fad cuisine of the week).

The truth is that New Orleans has had a diverse and remarkable food culture for a long time. We’ve had restaurants that were forward thinking for longer than most cities have had restaurants. Were some of our restaurants a bit long in the tooth by the 1980s? Sure, but I’d damn sure have rather had a meal here in that decade than most places, which were likely serving wasabi-crusted tuna tenderloin with vanilla scented mashed potatoes and balsamic dipping sauce.

We have an indigenous cuisine that’s endured for a long time, and which will almost certainly last longer than any trend you can currently identify. As for me, I see no contradiction in loving both the latest trends and the classic dishes that made us a dining Mecca. And I know at least one person who agrees. My 3 year-old’s favorite dish is red beans and rice, but this weekend she happily also ate grilled pork marinated in fish sauce, garlic, ginger and turmeric over sticky rice.

I’d say she’s a true New Orleanian.





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