New Orleans steps up its local-food game
The Feeding the City series is profiling several cities with thriving urban-agriculture and alt-food scenes.
In the land of gumbo and beignets and crawfish and rabbit-n-dumplings, of Haitians and French and Anglos and Africans, life moves at a slower pace, with more color and spice than most of America. There’s time for food and music, and for parties to celebrate both.
New Orleanians have always taken pride in all things local, but since Katrina and now the oil spill creeping in from that blessed and cursed Gulf of Mexico, that pride has swelled immeasurably from Gulf shrimp to Ninth Ward greens to edible schoolyards.
Things grow here. And people know how to grow and how to cook. Hard-core foodies could take a week to sample the white-table-cloth restaurants relying on serious local sourcing. The chefs from Bayona, Coquette Bistro, Dante’s Kitchen, Cochon, M Bistro, Herbsaint, and Patois are becoming regulars at city farmers markets. Emery Von Hook, director of markets for the organization Market Umbrella, sees chefs all over the produce stands.
“It’s certainly picked up after Katrina,” she says. “There’s an accelerated sense of pride in local cuisine, local ingredients. It’s like an act of solidarity.”
The chefs are joined by local residents, and not just Uptowners, either. Thanks to a new Market Match program, shoppers with food stamps get matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $25 per market visit (there are three markets per week, and they can receive funds for each). Last year’s pilot program matched $10,000 in stamps.
This is a land of opportunivores, however — it’s not all squash and okra and tomatoes down here. Seafood has always been a centerpiece of a southern New Orleans meal. But prices have risen. Gulf shrimp used to cost $3 per pound, but in recent years it’s gone up to $17 per pound. That was even beforethe oil spill, which has finally reached its greasy fingers into Lake Ponchartrain, the last major outpost for shrimp and crabs.
“Usually we have three seafood vendors at our Crescent City Farmer’s Market,” says Von Hook. “They sell Louisiana shrimp, crawfish, brim, crabs. One has stopped coming — they’re having a hard time finding help to run their traps since people are taking BP clean-up jobs. Another vendor, who’d been coming until a few weeks ago, went west to Cameron to try to pull shrimp out of there.” The third is still coming, she says, “but who knows; it depends on all the openings and closings in the different fishing areas.” (Led by New Orleans culinary icon Susan Spicer, a group of restaurant owners is suing BP over the spill’s effect on their local-seafood business.)
A lot of fishermen live in east New Orleans’ Village de l’Est neighborhood, a community of 6,000 Vietnamese who arrived here with the Catholic Church following the Vietnam War. Their backyards and canal-sides overflow with greens, fruits, and root vegetables brought from their homeland. Elderly residents grow produce for their families and for sale at the local markets. (For a closer look, see my post in the Breaking Through Concrete series on Grist.) No one knows that the city’s best pho — and a serious national contender for best food-security model — live here, between the pavement of Highway 90 leading out of New Orleans and the wetlands that drain Lake Ponchartrain. And all this despite the fact that the wetlands have been soured by an emergency post-Katrina landfill that illegally accommodated highly toxic waste, which, of course, leaked into the shallow groundwater system and canals. It’s all documented in the film A Village Called Versailles.
Knowing is half the battle. One of the common problems with all these new food projects spread throughout the micro-worlds of cities is awareness of who’s what and where, and how to get there. To help, the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN) has been putting together a book to be published this fall. Growing Back to Our Roots will be a collection of essays, maps, and photographs of the backyard gardens, community gardens, grocery stores, and markets growing and/or selling New Orleans-grown food. It will be both a celebration of this city’s rich food and garden tradition and a resource to find all the varied projects like the Edible Schoolyard, where chef April Neujean is using two gardens at two public charter schools to drive a national discussion on food policy and schools. Or NOFFN’s own Holly Grove farm and market, or the Midcity community garden.
Like Detroit, New Orleans has the sense of a wild laboratory, the open-sided, free-air market for food security discussions and, above all, action. It’s partly because of Katrina’s ruin, but it’s also just part of the culture.
Three of the city’s most interesting experiments: