What is “local” food?
In Jacobellis v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal from the owner of a movie theater in Ohio from a conviction for obscenity. There is a very famous quote from that case, by Justice Potter Stewart, who in refusing to provide a definition of pornography said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
The “I know it when I see it” bit is what people remember, if they remember anything about the case at all, but there is another quote, from Justice Brennan’s “majority” opinion, that I think is more apt to what I’m going to discuss. Justice Brennan started by noting that some people suggested the Court shouldn’t come up with a definition of obscenity, because that was a matter better left to the State or federal district courts. He called that suggestion “appealing,” but ultimately rejected it because he felt the Court was obligated to decide it as a question of constitutional law.
That is a long-winded way of saying that I am about to try to define “local” in the context of cuisine, or at least in the context of New Orleans cuisine. It is going to be about as difficult a question as the Court faced in the Jacobellis case, and I suspect it will end up with about the same sort of division of opinion.
It comes to mind because at a meeting recently a colleague shared the opinion, which I share, that the number of restaurants opening in the last few years that serve food that is not “local,” is a good thing and makes our food scene more vibrant. I’m paraphrasing, but I think that was the gist.
I also wrote recently about making recommendations to folks coming here from out of town, and most of the places I mentioned have at least some connection to our indigenous cuisine. I believe that people coming to New Orleans from out of town should try food they can’t get in Chicago, Dallas, Orlando or anywhere else apart from our region.
I attended a seminar last week at the Sheraton. It was the first weekend of Jazz Fest, and on our lunch break I walked into the Quarter. I passed one couple who were obviously from out of town and heard a woman say, “Oh, Fogo de Chao, let’s eat there!” I did not stop walking, because if you come to New Orleans and want to have one of the half dozen or so meals you’ll eat while here at a Brazilian steakhouse chain, then you go for it. It’s not a bad joint and more to the point it’s not my place to object.
But it did leave me discombobulated for a good 10 minutes, which is the time it took me to walk to Justine, www.justinenola.com, the French Bistro opened not long ago by Justin and Mia Devillier on Royal Street, where Chef Daniel Causgrove is kicking ass. I had a couple of appetizers and a very nice cocktail made by an excellent bartender.
While I was there, a young woman sat down at the bar next to me and some time later a half dozen oysters were placed in front of her. I asked whether she’d ordered the bivalves from the Gulf or those from the east coast. She’d chosen the locals, and looked at me like I was a little odd for asking. (She said they were very good).
She was in town for a bachelorette party, and apart from suggesting a few other restaurants we didn’t have much of a conversation. But I did compliment her on choosing Justine, and that got me thinking back to my article about recommending “local” restaurants to people from out of town, and my reaction to the tourist couple heading to Fogo. It occurred to me that some might consider Justine just as foreign as the Brazilian chain.
Not me, mind you, and there are several reasons I make the distinction, but what I ordered doesn’t really factor into it, because what I had – steak tartare and oysters en perseillade that came with a thin baguette sliced almost all the way through and slathered in butter a la potatoes Hasselback – was so French I wanted to watch a Jerry Lewis movie.
Yet I consider Justine to be at least somewhat local, and while I’d make clear the menu is decidedly not Creole, Cajun or “Southern,” I’d recommend it to people who’ve been to New Orleans a time or three. Why?
It’s good, and Justin and Mia Devillier certainly qualify as local – they live a few blocks from me. I’ve had enough fantastic meals at La Petite Grocery when Chef Causgrove was in the kitchen to know he has a handle on local food, even if “local” in this context means beignets with blue crab; gumbo with tasso, chicken, blackeyed peas and collards; or pork chops with parmesan grits and kale.
In the column I wrote about recommending restaurants, I included Lilette, where Chef John Harris’ menu is also completely devoid of “local” dishes. Harris adds Italy and Spain to the continental mix, but there’s nary a Creole item unless you count tomatoes (in season). Lilette has been open almost 20 years (!!!) and while Harris is a transplant, as far as I’m concerned he’s earned the right to claim local status.
Those two restaurants at least feature food from the European nations that are traditionally recognized as part of the basis for New Orleans food. What about another restaurant I’ve recommended in the past, Baru? Colombian food is probably closer in technique and ingredients to what people here ate historically than anything from France or Spain, but can a Columbian restaurant be considered “local”? I believe so.
How about Compère Lapin?
Chef Nina Compton is from St. Lucia originally, and her Carribean-centric menu has a lot of similarities to typical New Orleans food, but there’s also the fact that Chef Compton gets New Orleans like few people I’ve met. I could say the same thing about Mike Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig of Coquette, who in addition to being locals in the truest (if not literal) sense of the word, have a lot of New Orleans-influenced items on their menu and like a lot of other chefs take great pains to use local ingredients whenever possible.
If it’s beginning to sound like I’m going to Potter Stewart my way out of this, you’re catching on.
None of the restaurants I’ve mentioned are as local, strictly speaking, as Mandina’s, or Domilise’s, or Liuzza’s (or Liuzza’s by the Track) or Mosca’s, or Johnny’s Po-Boys, or Antoine’s or Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, R&O’s or even Popeye’s for that matter. I call ‘em like I see ‘em, though, and I can fit each of those places into the local milieu if I try.
I can see the other side. I can see how people get concerned from time to time that “true” New Orleans restaurants are being replaced by places that cater to tourists and young people who only want to take pictures of food with their phones. (I take pictures of food with my phone).
I reserve the right to change my opinion, but that’s not a fear I share. I see our local food culture – red beans and rice, gumbo, boiled crawfish and shrimp, raw oysters on the half shell and our very own regional version of Italian food thriving because there are so many of us who not only patronize places that serve those foods, we cook those foods. There is no place else to get those foods either. Want proof? Tell me a place to get a decent poor boy more than 20 miles from the intersection of Canal and Carrolton.
May it please the Court, I rest my case.