Diverse Impressions of a Passionate Cook’s State of Mind Eating New Orleans Soul Food – Part II
The swamp gives life and it takes life. This primordial cycle is simple, brutal and unforgiving: the laws of nature rigidly enforced in a lonely landscape painted pastel colors of green, blue, and gray.
The heat, humidity and mosquitoes rise from the swamp to assault human inhabitants with unbridled ferocity. They state the obvious: “You Are Not Wanted, Stay Out”.
This vast expanse of marshland is interspersed with bodies of brackish water, cypress trees, Spanish moss, marsh grasses, vines, palmettos and irises. It is wild, pristine, harsh and beautiful. The marsh is teeming with life – crayfish, frogs, snakes, turtles, catfish, snowy egrets, blue herons, pelicans and alligators.
The city of New Orleans stands as a solitary fortress in the middle of this alien landscape. Its citizens have erected barriers of concrete, roads and highways along with the trappings of human habitation to keep the swamp at bay. But Mother Nature is an implacable adversary. The swamp is hers, and all who choose to live in it must eventually bend to her will.
“What is born of me, shall return to my bosom, and the earth will shelter and provide shade in this, our final resting place.” As the citizens of New Orleans are nudged closer to deaths’ embrace, The City of the Dead waits patiently to house them. Rows and rows of concrete tombs bleached white by the sun stand as testament to the futility of fighting the cosmos.
In the years 1787 and 1788, New Orleanians suffered and died by the thousands from plague and disease. Smallpox, influenza, and mosquito-borne yellow fever and malaria filled the cemeteries to the seams. Conventional burial practices did not work: if you dug more than a few feet into the ground, you would hit water.
During times of flood, the coffins and bodies would float to the surface, sparking a fresh round of disease and death. The city started the custom of burying their dead above ground in mausoleums. Every year on November 1st and 2nd, All Saints and All Souls Day respectively, residents clean and paint the cemeteries and pay their respects to the deceased.
The swamp is more than the harbinger of death and decay; it also nurtures life in the plants and animals that spawn and reproduce instinctively. The pattern weaves as it will, each birth a celebration, as joyous as a newborn’s first breath. The circle of life also unfolds in the shotgun houses of New Orleans.
Shotgun houses are long and narrow instead of wide, with an entrance at the front and an exit at the back. A widely-told tale is that one could open both doors and fire a shotgun through the front and the bullet would fly through the back, without hitting anything. Having a door at the front and back also allows the house to stay cool in the hot and humid summer months. The history of the shotgun house can be traced back to the Caribbean, namely Haiti and by default Africa. It was the Haitians, who are of West African descent, who brought this style of home to Louisiana. Evidence suggests that the name “shotgun,” is actually a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God’s House.”
Hurricane Katrina and the Mississippi destroyed many examples of these homes in the lower Ninth Ward – and almost a decade later, the rebuilding process is slow.The effects of Katrina are still painfully evident in the hearts, minds and stories of the people who suffered through it.
There are neighborhoods where houses still wait: desolate, abandoned, shuttered and forlorn. But the people of New Orleans are accustomed to hardship and heartache.
In this city, life moves forward resolutely: hurricanes, floods and mosquitoes are faced with the strength of spirit of a people who have been dealing with the ravages of nature for hundreds of years.
This home is Grandma Davis’. She has spent her life in the Ninth Ward, marrying, raising four children, and burying a husband. She held the same job for 51 years and was laid off seven years ago, but retirement didn’t sit well with her. Instead, she found another job and continued working – just as she has done most of her life. She’s 78 and these are her twilight years.
Grandma Davis is New Orleans soul food. Her small garden overflows with okra, butter beans and collard greens. Her pantry is stocked with a lifetime spent in the kitchen. Cast iron skillets and baking utensils share space with birthdays, family cookouts, and the laughter of children playing in the house. Over the years this collection of bric-a-brac has meandered onto shelves and into drawers and cupboards – an old wire whisk, a hunting knife, a butcher’s block, plastic Tupperware, antique teacups, a cook’s treasure chest. I consider myself a fairly good cook, with an extensive repertoire of recipes and technique, but in Grandma Davis’ kitchen I bow before a master.
As she cut up the vegetables for dinner, her touch was gentle and minimal. Collard greens sautéed with ham hocks, Spanish onions, a pinch of soda, salt, pepper, then left to stew without fuss or fanfare until done – mouthwatering.
Sweet potatoes peeled, cut, then boiled until fork tender, a pat of butter, a sprinkling of nutmeg, a few drops of vanilla and a dash of salt- candied yamalicious.
A whole chicken, cut into eight, then breaded in seasoned cornmeal and flour, bubbling in a skillet of hot fat until golden brown and crispy – exquisite.
Grits, andouille sausage, red beans and rice, stewed okra, fried catfish, creamy potato salad, sweet potato pie, New Orleans 7-up cake. Classical dishes from the South; a lesson in the subtle nuances of taste and texture. Fried, steamed, baked…
I ate it all: buttermilk biscuits and eggs for breakfast, oyster po-boy sandwiches for lunch, and gumbo for dinner. While grandma was busy in the kitchen cooking, friends, cousins, her son, his wife stopped by to say hello and chitchat on the porch. Somehow there was always enough food to share an extra plate.
No one left without a bite to eat, a slice of cake, a generous portion of sweet potato pie. This is New Orleans, where generations of family live within a fifteen-mile radius of each other. This is New Orleans, where the bonds of family run deep and true like the roots of a magnolia tree. Where aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers help each other, rebuild, renovate and provide the support system that helps families stay together.
These are the lessons learnt in the bayous of Louisiana: life passes in the blink of an eye, like fireflies winking in and out of the night sky. Perhaps this is why everyone celebrates – Mardi Gras, the jazz festival, All Saints Day – it’s a parade, it’s joie de vivre, because no one knows what tomorrow may bring. There is strength in unity and community. New Orleans – and the people who make this city special – is stronger for it.