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Bittersweet 

A culinary remembrance of New Orleans before Katrina|a report on its uncertain fate now

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Molasses-glazed ham hock consommé -- an urbane presentation of good old-fashioned pot liquor -- is followed by tawny slices of duck scented with cinnamon, allspice and black pepper. It hints of the powerful African contributions to local cookery.

After dinner, the organizers give out Guardians of Traditions awards to deserving folks who keep New Orleans culinary traditions alive: sno-balls made with fine shaved ice and homemade syrups; Creole cream cheese made from grass-fed cows; filé powder ground with a mortar and a pecan wood maul; po'boys served in modest lunchrooms.

We cheer with abandon, both to celebrate these artisans and assuage our fears about the encroaching weather. When Restaurant August chef Besh and his staff emerge from the kitchen to take a bow, we roar even louder.

Sure enough, New Orleans' moody, moss-lined streets are spared once again when "Dennis the Menace," as the press has dubbed the hurricane, veers far east of us. The city is indeed charmed. On my drive back to Atlanta, I don't encounter a single drop of rain. And I'm already jonesing for a return visit to Restaurant August. Next time, I laugh to myself, it'll cost me double to eat two of everything.

Seven weeks later, Hurricane Katrina shatters the charm. The city drowns in a cataclysm of toxic water. Its people, its singular food culture and its future become imperiled in an instant.

John Besh, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones.

Restaurant August is in New Orleans' Central Business District, where its elevation kept away much of the floodwaters. Strong winds and some minor looting left the building that houses the restaurant with only a few broken windows.

Yet there's no denying the new realities Besh faces. When the SFA dined in his banquet room in July, 57 cooks and servers were on hand to help churn out a meal for 150 people. The restaurant currently operates with 12 staff members.

Besh reopened his doors for business Sept. 28, a month after Katrina struck. "I couldn't wait for the insurance money," he says. "I had to get back to work." Just six months earlier, he had bought the restaurant from its original owner, real estate developer August "Duke" Robin.

When he first regained access to his kitchen, Besh immediately began cooking red beans and rice to feed the overtaxed police and rescue workers. Now FEMA pays Besh to cook three meals a day for 600 civil servants working in nearby St. Bernard's Parish. The lovely wood- and brick-lined banquet room where I'd savored my last dinner in the city has been transformed into a storage area for supplies to help feed FEMA workers.

Besh, a clear-eyed local boy who took a tour of duty with the Marines during Operation Desert Storm in the midst of his early culinary career, remains stubbornly optimistic. "Our menu has never been more exciting than what it is now," he boasts. "We have a much smaller staff, but in many ways it's the strongest staff I've ever worked with. The esprit de corps is just inherent -- no one has to be reread the mission statement.

"So the touchy-feely side is fantastic. We're paying our bills. But the banquet business is gone. The tourist business is gone. And we expect it to be 2008 before enough of it returns to be a reliable part of our business again."

Downstairs, the customers eating at Restaurant August are almost exclusively locals. "It's an amazing thing when there isn't anyone we don't know in the dining room," says Besh. "It's a really hardcore following returning to us."

He pauses. "The only thing that worries me is ... dining here is something of a celebration for those coming back to the city -- even an act of defiance. We have a menu right now that would rival anything we've ever cooked, and yet the economy is going bust around us. I wonder what will happen to business when the locals stop celebrating."

In October, just three months after the field trip to New Orleans, the Southern Foodways Alliance members have assembled again for its annual symposium, this time in Oxford, Miss., whose quixotic college town locale in northern Mississippi belies the destruction suffered by the state's Gulf Coast to the south. For the many New Orleanians in attendance, the quaint square and autumnal foliage are a painful counterpoint to the devastation they're still confronting back home.

The official theme of this year's symposium is "Sugar and the Sweet Life," but after Katrina hit, everyone knew what the real topic would be. Between workshops on "The Physics of Biscuits and Jam" and an oral history on "sweetea," we discuss, grieve and ponder the future of New Orleans.

In bars, restaurants and hotels across Oxford, we swap notes on which NOLA restaurants are open, about to reopen, or show no signs of opening. Nationally acclaimed Bayona will resurrect soon, we hear. Susan Spicer's restaurant received only minor damage from the hurricane, but her stepchildren had no schools to attend. Her family has been staying in Jackson, Miss.

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