Photo Essays

Food and Culture: Exploring the Origins and Meanings of Food (New Orleans)

Photos and Captions by Jamie Tiampo

Post-Katrina New Orleans is an American tragedy of epic proportions. NYU’s Spring 2006 class led by Professor Amy Bentley offered a unique opportunity to tour the region and witness history. Our first day in New Orleans included a ‘disaster tour,’ an organized group event which reconstructed the events of the storm and the ensuing levee breach. While our bus tour was informative and certainly emotionally powerful, I felt disconnected from the city as it whizzed by.

Longing for a more personal view, I hired a taxi and revisited the Lower Ninth Ward. Never had I witnessed such destruction and power spread over such a large area. Standing in virtual solitude with my feet on the ground was the only way to completely appreciate the overwhelming force of the levee breach. I had the luxury of my own time, which allowed me to experience a much more personal relationship with the place where thousands once lived. Common objects hiding in the rubble became precious, and brought meaning to the lives of the displaced residents.

As a student of food and culture, I was most affected by the image of a spatula and spoon seemingly arranged by a former resident on a chimney deposited outside a front porch. The house which should have been in the background was swept off its foundation, leaving only the twisted handrail and the wreck of a school bus. I can only imagine the grief and anguish one felt when returning home to find only a concrete slab and a few kitchen utensils.

Jeanette Bell - Fleur D'Eden
2111 Baronne - New Orleans, LA 70113

One of the most inspiring people we met was Jeanette Bell, owner of the Fleur D’Eden Community Garden. She purchased a lot and built the garden on property in one of the poorest neighbourhoods within New Orleans, converting an abandoned land parcel in the ghetto to a ‘rose lover’s paradise.’

In so doing, she transformed the community and provided hope to residents. The garden contains hundreds of roses, culinary herbs, begonias, tropical plants, fruits, and vegetables.

"My love of flowers compelled me to search for a way of sharing the enjoyment with gardeners, former gardeners, and those who have never gardened. When I arrange a bouquet, my primary goal is to situate each flower so that it can be appreciated for its’ contribution to the whole." – Jeanette Bell

LeJeune's Bakery - 1510 Main Street - Jeanerette, LA

Our adventures included several field trips across Louisiana, one of which was visiting LeJeune’s bakery in Jeanerette, LA. LeJeune’s is the oldest bakery in Louisiana, and the only bakery on the National Register of Historic Places (1884). Although no longer working, their original brick ovens are still installed, and much of the production equipment in use today remains unchanged.

Three generations of the LeJeune family kneaded bread and patiently supervised the rising of the loaves. The best time to visit Jeanerette is in the morning, when the bakery creates their signature French bread, garlic loaves, cinnamon bread and filled pies, infusing the entire town with the aroma of baked goods.

The Savvy Gourmet
4519 Magazine Street - New Orleans, LA

Any trip to Louisiana would not be complete without a crawfish boil. Affectionately known as ‘mud bugs,’ crawfish live in brackish swamps throughout the state. A Cajun man who wrestles alligators for recreation hauled a bag of wriggling crawfish for us to enjoy at “The Savvy Gourmet,” a cooking school and store in New Orleans.

Our traditional crawfish boil involved half onions, garlic heads, corn on the cob, whole potatoes, alligator sausage, a commercial crab boil seasoning, and of course, crawfish. The cauldron of goodness was boiled for ten minutes, and rested for an additional 15 minutes to complete the cooking and develop the flavours. Everything was then emptied onto folding tables covered with butcher paper, and the whole mess was enjoyed with bare hands and beer. Rachel, one of the students, is attempting to reanimate the crawfish.

McIlhenny Company - Avery Island, LA

Ever wonder how Tabasco is made? The McIlhenny company grows Tabasco peppers in small tropical plantations around the world. At harvest, the peppers are ground into a mash with only salt as a preservative and packed into oak barrels. The oak barrels are sent back to Avery Island, LA, where they are aged in a gigantic warehouse. The mash is mixed with vinegar and blended for several days before it is bottled in a highly automated bottling plant. It is then packaged and shipped worldwide.

Tipatina's - 501 Napoleon Avenue - New Orleans, LA

We were lucky to enjoy the musical talents of the ReBirth Brass Band, an internationally renowned brass band formed in 1983. ReBirth maintains the traditions of brass bands while incorporating modern elements of funk and hip hop into their music. Philip Frazer, the tuba player, is the founder of the band and the fearless leader of the band.

“Nobody in ReBirth gets fired. They fire themselves.” – Philip Frazer

I started out on this trip seriously questioning whether or not New Orleans should be rebuilt. This is a city which was built essentially underwater in the middle of a reclaimed estuary with no bedrock, in a known hurricane zone. Surely the deep water ports could be moved to lower risk cities. Surely the energy companies could relocate to less disaster-prone areas along the gulf. Surely the tourists could find another Pat O’Brians in which to drink yet another hurricane. But just as Las Vegas can’t quite reproduce New York, Paris, or Venice, New Orleans can not be reconstituted anywhere else but New Orleans. Despite the sagging infrastructure, rampant poverty, and corrupt government, New Orleans is Home.

New Orleans must be rebuilt. Many parts should be restored as wetlands. The people of New Orleans deserve more than a $2500 WalMart gift card and a FEMA trailer. Most importantly, they deserve not to be forgotten.