Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nawlins: Random Thoughts

I recently had the distinct privilege to visit New Orleans. I am not an New Orleans expert, nor have I spent any significant time in the South in general, this was in fact my first visit to the South. What I want to share are some reflections and memorable moments from my time in New Orleans.

I am from the West Coast, a Californian born and raised, and that thoroughly influences me, FYI.

My observations come from spending 4 days in New Orleans, so take any kind of general observations I make with a grain of salt. This is less about New Orleans and more about how I walked away a bit changed from my time in Nawlins.

New Orleans is a place full of natives. I met a lot of people who have lived in New Orleans for a long time. Most of those natives love the place and hope to never leave.

New Orleans is humid as hell. It rains in the summer, often.

New Orleans is surrounded by water.

New Orleans has amazing food. For example:
  • I had a Po-Boy Shrimp sandwich, a fried prawn sandwich with lettuce and a white sauce.
  • I had Rice and red beans. I was told this was a traditional Monday meal. A Monday meal because people traditionally would cook a ham on Sunday and have leftovers. So on Monday, you cook up some rice and red beans and put that leftover ham to good use. I had my red beans and rice (on a Monday night) with chicken.
  • I drank some Abita beer, a local brew from Abita Springs, LA. I tried their Amber, IPA, Purple Haze (Rasberry), and their summer wheat. Their rasberry beer was a good, sweet/fruity beer (it's definitely not my style, but it was a good fruit beer). I thought their IPA was a solid IPA that was worth going back to a couple of times.
  • I ate a pulled pork sandwich at a BBQ joint, with a stellar potato salad on the side. I believe the restaurant was called The Joint.
The most interesting and exciting experience relating to good was a crawfish boil. So crawfish are basically small lobsters, as a kid I called them crawdads, and we caught them in streams at Auburn Recreational Park. Apparently crawfish are pretty good when eaten. So a crawfish boil consists of buying a load of crawfish (we happened to purchase 80 pounds) and inviting over some friends for a nice afternoon meal. You fill up an 80 gallon pot with water and place a metal basket inside the pot. Add seasonings, lemons, onions, garlic, and any other desirable vegetables and fruit (I highly recommend mushrooms, onions, and pineapple), and about 40 pounds of crawfish. Leave on heat until the water returns to a boil. Turn off heat. Let sit for 20 minutes. Remove basket without scalding yourself, and let cool. Once the crawfish have cooled a bit, dump out your 40 pounds of crawfish + vegetable/fruit goodies on a big table. Yeah that's right, you set up a washable-table outside, place trashcans at either end of the table, and go to town. I also learned that there are crawfish tables. Thinking of a poker table first will help: a table designed for the game of poker, with chip holders, can/bottle holders, felt surface to keep cards in place, markings on the table for cards. Ok, so crawfish table, an aluminum table with a big hole in the middle of the table for a trashcan, providing easy access for everyone around the table. There are can/bottle holders in the table to prevent your cajun spice-reducing beverage from slipping away and there are two spindles on either end of the table for a roll of easily accessible paper towels. It's also made of smooth aluminum, for an easy hose-off after the crawfish feast. The Nawlins natives were shocked that I had never had crawfish.

a"You're kidding man, of course you have.""No really, I mean, I know what they are. But I have never had crawfish, I have never eaten them."
"Wait you know what they are, but you have never eaten them? Have you ever eaten, like, shrimp? Or lobster?"
"Yeah I have eaten shrimp and lobster, and most kinds of seafood, but people on the Left Coast don't eat much crawfish."

There is also a skill to eating crawfish. You break off the tale, suck the juices out of the head, throw the head away, and then eat the meat in the tail. Pros (i.e. not me) can just pinch with their fingers and pull with their teeth and get all the tail meat out. I had to peel off a bit of the tail shell to open up the meat a bit before I pulled with my teeth. Nonetheless, I think I held my own at that crawfish table.

The Lower Ninth Ward (the area of New Orleans that was pounded more heavily than most of the area when the levee breached during Katrina). We drove through the area and saw lots of concrete steps leading up to empty lots where houses used to be. There are lots of new homes in the area, built by Habitat for Humanity and Make it Right (among other organizations doing work in the area). The Make it Right Foundation homes (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's foundation) are building some really neat homes. Homes that are built with environmentally safe and responsible materials, homes with energy efficient design to stay cool in the Nawlins summers, homes that are solar powered. The designs are a bit eccentric and really change the vibe of the area (when you compare the new homes to the existing homes of the Ninth Ward). But the homes seem responsibly built with the future in mind. I hope they are doing right by the citizens of the Ninth Ward who were slammed with the 1-2 punch of Katrina and shitty protection, planning, and response which so happened to most strongly affect this lower-income, black neighborhood. I hope the residents of the Ninth Ward were consulted early and often in the building of their homes.

The BP oil spill is a big freaking deal. It is on talk radio non stop and there are TV commercials encouraging people to stay involved and informed. I didn't meet anyone whose job is directly affected, by the oil spill, but I certainly didn't search these people out. But I did met quite a few people who told me about how their lives will be affected by this oil spill. People who have a day job, but who fish on weekends. Several of these people are wondering how the fishing aspect of their life will be affected. People are getting in as much fishing as possible right now because the rumors are that they might not be able to fish for the next 5-10 years. A couple of guys I met had gone out fishing last Saturday. They had a good day and caught a lot of fish, thankfully the water directly surrounding New Orleans is still open to fishing. But they talked about a brown foamy substance they saw in the water. One thought it was crude oil and the other thought it might be chemical dispersants. That suspicious substance was a distance away from where their fish were caught, so they weren't concerned with any contamination. When asked if they would report the substance, they said no.

"Naw, if we report this oil or chemicals or whatever it is, they will probably close the whole area and then we won't be able to fish anywhere. This is one of the only areas left where we can fish."
"But if it got a lot worse, would you really want to catch your fish in crude oil."
"Catching your fish in oil is better than not fishing at all."

This isn't just, oh shoot, can't fish. But this is a way of life for people, this is many folks financial means all tied up with their way of life. The ocean, the marches, the seafood are things that have shaped people's identities, social norms and rituals, cuisine, and their culture and way of life writ large.

There is much more to say about New Orleans, but I should probably leave my reflections there so I will have a incentive to go back, eat more, meet more people, and experience more of this rich part of the world.

Let's keep actively thinking of how to make New Orleans and southeast Lousiana a place that will actually be here in the future, instead of an oil-dredged waste dump that British Petroleum (with the guidance of our fossil fuel addiction) destroyed back in 2010. The future is not yet.

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