Eating My History: Shellfish and Shabbas in New Orleans

Over the last week I’ve been thinking about how New Orleans culture is like a cauldron of gumbo: a crazy hodge-podge of ingredients that don’t seem like they can possibly go together but somehow manage to produce something delicious.  This isn’t an original observation, of course, but I recently experienced a few things that really drove it home and thought they would be a good excuse to focus on aspects of the city that don’t always get so much attention.  Plus I made my last New Orleans post back on Mardi Gras, so it was about time to press pause on higher education and give some attention to a richer, more satisfying theme.

My musings started last Wednesday night when I went to a Vietnamese-style crawfish boil with Mallory and our friend Nate.  The basic idea was definitely Cajun (large pot, salty broth, lots of mudbugs), but the other things they threw in were decidedly not.  Asian chili and star anise took the place of cayenne and clove, the garlic was roughly quadruple the normal amount, and large chunks of pineapple stood in for potatoes, resulting in a sweeter, lighter side than you get in a traditional boil.  And things only got better from there.  After the soak the add-ins were sprinkled with curry powder, and the crawfish got tossed in lemongrass butter before getting mixed back in with everything else.  The result was unlike any dish I’d ever had–distinctly Vietnamese, undoubtedly New Orleanian, and so good that the three of us polished off eight pounds without much effort.

The Vietnamese community here dates back to 1975, when New Orleans welcomed about 2,100 refugees as the United States pulled out of the Vietnam war.  The fit was logical: both origin and destination points are former French colonies, experience (suffer?) subtropical weather, possess land that’s suitable for both fishing and rice production, and have large Catholic populations.  The resettlement efforts were in fact spear-headed by the Archdiocese, and are an extremely successful instance of mass migration.  As noted in a brief history of the community published by the Times-Picayune this past Monday, the number of Vietnamese in the city grew rapidly after that first group settled in, quickly becoming a fixture in New Orleans East, then the city proper.  Now you can find Vietnamese restaurants in every neighborhood, and an immigrant-owned bakery called Dong Phuong actually won reader’s choice award for best King Cake in 2017. But my personal favorite is Namese.  Started by third-generation New Orleanians whose parents ran a Chinese restaurant (Americans were averse to everything Vietnamese after the war), they began with a simple idea: mix their grandparents’ traditional recipes with the techniques and flavors of their home city.  The results are fantastic, and I’ve been thrilled to see their Mid-City operation expanding steadily since it opened back in 2014.

Shellfish were decidedly not on the menu on Friday, when I attended my first Shabbat dinner at the home of a colleague.  That I hadn’t attended one before was something of an embarrassment for somebody who once told his father he wanted to be a little Jewish boy when he grew up, but I was thrilled to be invited into such an intimate gathering where I could slow down and focus on people instead of things, work, or gadgets.  I couldn’t understand the prayers before dinner, of course, but I did remember to bring a Kosher beer and to leave the light on when I was done in the bathroom.  Not bad for a Catholic goy!

It may come as a surprise to people outside the city that New Orleans has a small but strong Jewish population.  There are two synagogues–both in prominent positions on St. Charles Ave.–and Tulane actually has three different Jewish centers to support the 30% of students who identify as members of that tradition.  As has been the case far too often, Jews experienced uneven treatment during their time in the city: they were mostly cut out of elite society groups–especially Carnival krewes–during the 20th century, even though the first King of Rex was Jewish in 1872, and a number of storied institutions such as Delgado Community College and Touro Hospital were first endowed by generous and influential members of this resilient population.  Today you can grab a Kosher meal at Hillel’s Kitchen or a matzoh ball soup at Stein’s deli–just don’t expect a baby in your King Cake: they’re still waiting for their Messiah.

One of the things I love about New Orleans is that you get to eat your history.  This last week drew my attention to the contributions of two groups that rarely get top-billing, and allowed me to reflect on how the experiences of the city’s Vietnamese and Jewish populations differed both from one another and from the trials of the French, Africans, and others who made this place their home by choice, compulsion, or necessity.  Some groups may stand out more than others, but all have left their mark and made this into a place so many people are proud to call home.  The proof of that is in the pudding–and the flan, the crème brûlée, the babka, and the boba.  And at least to me, a New Orleans without those things would hardly be New Orleans at all.

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