by Kate Heyhoe
Last September, the living symbol of New Orleans' heritage cookery, Chef Leah Chase, told me "Something's got to be done about global warming. Something's not right in the North Atlantic. Mankind's created it and we've got to fix it." She was dishing up grits and grillades at the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference, before heading back to her family restaurant, Dooky Chase (shuttered by Katrina and now re-opened, but just for lunch).
Hurricane season's over as of November 30, yet the effects of the two most damaging hurricane years (2005 and 2008) drive on, not just in Louisiana, but also Texas, Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti, where 537 people died from Hurricane Hanna alone.
The double-punch of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav couldn't kill the rugged spirit of New Orleans or Leah Chase, but they whacked tourism, already anemic from Katrina. I was there twice in 2008, and the city went from spirited optimism in April to a groaning "not again!" weariness in the fall. I spoke with a bartender who spent what little remained of his life savings to evacuate in August, fleeing from Ike. During a short trip across town, a cabdriver was eager to take me to the airport in two days, and I felt sad that a local friend was taking me there instead.
Want to do your fellow countrymen good while having a great time? Visit New Orleans. Things have gotten pretty dismal there for tourism, but as a result, the city couldn't be better for tourists. No crowds, lots of personal attention, great tables and service, and a heartfelt hospitality that comes with a heaping serving of appreciation. Plus, as food lovers, New Orleans deserves our support. It's not just any flavor-packed city: New Orleans is the nation's fifth largest port, and it's where your coffee, bananas, and other tropical fruits stream to from Latin America.
In the past few years, New Orleans has so much new to do. The Museum of the American Cocktail is a dashing journey through the artifacts, history and legends of the cocktail (many of which were invented in New Orleans, according to local mixologists. Even nondrinkers will enjoy the exhibits, and the best part is that the cocktail museum is housed in the larger Southern Food and Beverage Museum (also not big, but so well done!), which covers andouille, King Cakes, nutria, turducken, ice, chicory, and everything in between. In summer, the Tales of the Cocktail hosts a long weekend of cocktail-mania, with serious topics washed down by impeccable drinks. The Audubon Insectarium will have everyone from Gramma to Junior buzzing. And for more eating, take a leisurely spin out of the tourist areas. My colleague, the talented Chef Chris DeBarr, shuttled me to Dante's Kitchen for a wonderful al fresco meal, which featured all local foods and homemade charcuterie, by Chef Emmanual ("E-Man") Loubier, a Commander's Palace veteran.
For a delicious pre- and post-Katrina taste of New Orleans without leaving home, Sara Roehen's book Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table is like being seated next to a witty, charming and erudite dinner guest whose stories keep you riveted and rollicking. She is not a native, so her Wisconsin upbringing makes her perspective and attraction to the Big Easy wackily delightful. Even if you care nothing about the city, but enjoy entertainment, this book will remind you that people are complex, life is rich, and in humor, there's hope.
Walking around New Orleans today is more like being a local, rather than a tourist. No rush, no stress, just easy. It doesn't take long to see the daily routines of individual shopkeepers, cooks, musicians, and artists, or to travel around the city to places off the beaten track. This is the real New Orleans, a place that's a home, not a weekend.
Copyright © 2008, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created December 2008
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