Bittersweet 

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

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"Spicer's house was/is in Lakeview [another severely impacted neighborhood]," reports Sara Roahen, who wrote restaurant reviews for New Orleans' alternative newspaper, the Weekly Gambit, for five years. "Her husband has gutted it down to the wall studs; they're waiting to see what happens to Lakeview in general before going further with renovations. They plan to rent a place in New Orleans beginning in January [when city public schools are set to reopen]."

click to enlarge Austin Leslie (left), who fed his famed fried chicken to generations of loyal customers, died of a heart attack in Atlanta after an exhausting evacuation from New Orleans. - WEEKLY GAMBIT
  • Weekly Gambit
  • Austin Leslie (left), who fed his famed fried chicken to generations of loyal customers, died of a heart attack in Atlanta after an exhausting evacuation from New Orleans.

Commander's Palace and Antoine's, two renowned old-liners, remain shuttered. Galatoire's, which started life in the French Quarter in 1905, plans to launch a branch in Baton Rouge before reviving its original location.

Two of Emeril Lagasse's New Orleans restaurants are scheduled to reopen the second week of December. Lagasse has infamously stayed away from the city, and though he has hosted fundraisers for Katrina victims in New York City, the gesture has done little to sweeten the locals' soured attitude toward him.

"Ain't nobody give a damn about no Emeril," shouts one belligerent resident during the gathering's panel discussion of New Orleans and its fate.

Chefs and journalists tick off the main obstacles to rebuilding the industry: Their staffs have been displaced, literally across the country. Many have started to set down roots in other cities by necessity. Housing for staffers who have stayed behind is limited and expensive. Insurance payments are slow in coming. Contractors are booked for months.

Many purveyors of local ingredients -- fishermen, shrimpers, farmers -- are out of business because of destroyed property, the poisoned ecology or lack of restaurants to buy their products.

Of all the voiced concerns, though, the most unanimously urgent are for the fates of the mom-and-pop restaurants: the corner joints and hidden gems that serve Cajun-Creole specialties; the Cajun-style soul food speakeasies; the only-in-New Orleans Italian eateries that combine blue collar red sauce with fried oyster plates. They sustained the plucky essence of the city, and they typically took root in the areas of town that were severely pummeled.

"Right now it's easier to find sushi in New Orleans than it is to find a good po'boy," exclaims Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune, but with seriousness in his voice. "Where did these guys go?"

Leah Chase, who fed us gumbo z'herbes and bread pudding at her Creole soul food classic Dooky Chase, is 82, yet hopes to reopen. Her 88-year-old neighbor, Willie Mae Seaton, also reportedly longs to serve her smothered chicken and Friday fried trout to regulars.

But both these modest restaurants are too damaged to serve guests in the foreseeable future.

Some never lived to nourish their customers again. Austin Leslie, who fixed us his boozy black beans our first night in town, was trapped in his home for two days after the hurricane. He was rescued from his attic by neighbors and moved to the Convention Center. He stayed there for four days before being decamped to Arkansas. He contacted his family, and then stopped again in Dallas before arriving in Atlanta.

He died suddenly of a heart attack Sept. 29. He was 71.

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, dedicated a chapter to Leslie in his book, Fried Chicken: An American Story. In it, Edge notes the chef was "once the most celebrated Creole-soul cook in New Orleans, and his fried chicken was considered a definitive dish in the native culinary lexicon." Leslie's small chain of restaurants had fallen on hard times in the '90s, but after leaving New Orleans for a stint in Europe, he had returned to Louisiana. He was working as executive chef at Pampy's Creole Kitchen in the 7th Ward neighborhood when Katrina hit.

A jazz funeral in Leslie's honor took over Courtland Street in downtown Atlanta nine days after his passing. A day later, Oct. 9, a second funeral marched down the litter-strewn streets of New Orleans. The parade was comprised of 50 family members and well-wishers -- a small assemblage by Big Easy standards. But the vitality sparked by the procession throbbed throughout the community. It made national news as a sign of hope and a call for wayward residents to come home. Fitting, somehow, that a tribute to a spiritual leader of Crescent City cuisine would be a catalyst for rebirth and reassurance.

Lolis Eric Elie, metro columnist for the Times-Picayune and author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, is earmarked as the unofficial spokesperson for New Orleans during the Oxford symposium. SFAers are a rambunctious lot with short attention spans. But as Elie speaks now, the room falls so silent you can hear the electronic hissing of the audio/visual equipment.

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