Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Willie Mae's Scotch House

Willie Mae's Scotch House, originally located in Treme, opened as a bar in 1957. After a year, the bar moved to its current location in the Sixth Ward, near Treme and the French Quarter. Willie Mae's Scotch House originally featured a bar, a barbershop, and a beauty salon in the front. By the 1970s, however, the beauty salon closed, and taking advantage of the available space owner Willie Mae Seaton expanded the bar into a full-service restaurant.

The restaurant quickly became famous for its soul food and especially its fried chicken. Fried chicken is something of a New Orleans speciality thanks to the efforts of Willie Mae's and Al Copeland and the creation of Popeye's. The restaurant garnered national attention in 1995 when the James Beard Foundation awarded Willie Mae's with an award for "America's Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region."  The fried chicken often appears on lists of America's best fried chicken. The restaurant continued to grow in popularity until it was nearly destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. As with other famous New Orleans restaurants--like Dooky Chase--Willie Mae's eventually reopened in 2007 thanks to the support of local and national organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization devoted to the preservation of Southern food culture.

Currently, Willie Mae's kitchen is run by Seaton's great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton Stewart and still serves the famous fried chicken.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Second Lining

            Second lining is one of New Orleans’ biggest cultural traditions. In traditional brass band parades, there is the main or first line—consisting of the band and members of the organization or club sponsoring the parade. Then there is everyone else who follows behind just to enjoy the music or the atmosphere—the “second line.”  Typically those in the second line wave handkerchiefs or twirl parasols in the air. There is frequently exuberant dancing, drinking, and general jollity. New Orleans also has a tradition of jazz funerals with a band parading through the streets. These, however, are more solemn occasions and feature funeral dirges or hymns rather than the upbeat music common to second lines. 

            Second lining likely derives its origins from traditional West African circle dances where children formed a circle outside the main circle of adult dancers. As with many West African traditions—like the use of spices in food—this second line tradition came via the Atlantic slave trade. African slaves, during their free time, continued to engage in their cultural traditions. As a result, second lining found its way into funeral processions and other group celebrations. While New Orleans’ various slave codes eventually banned such activities since authorities feared that slaves congregating together might eventually lead to resistance or even outright rebellion.  

            After the Civil War African and African American musical traditions began to merge with white traditions like the brass brand cultural. This fusion gave birth to jazz, among other things. While emancipation meant the end of slavery, it did not mean equality. As whites denied the formerly enslaved access to cemeteries, churches, and other businesses, African Americans created their own. They organized benevolent organizations and clubs. Membership in these clubs included brass bands for funerals and at least one organizational parade per year. The increasing frequency of these clubs led to the development of the second line tradition. 

            As a result, second lining is most common in the traditionally African-American neighborhoods of Treme and Central City. They, however, can generally be found all across the city. Jazz Fest features a daily second line to introduce visitors to this quintessentially New Orleans’ tradition. Second lines range in size from a handful of people to hundreds or even thousands. Any occasion featuring a brass brand frequently leads to a second line. The past few years at the DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil has featured a second line. New Orleans, naturally, has a second line season that lasts throughout most of the year. It takes breaks for Mardi Gras—that’s a whole separate parading season—and during the hottest parts of the summer. Some parades are spontaneous and others are planned. Longer parades often make stops, commonly at bars, with food and drinks for members and participants. Most recently, New Orleanians have held second lines in honor of chef Leah Chase and legendary musician Dr. John—both of whom recently passed away.  

            So the next time you see a second line, join in! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Southern Food and Beverage Museum

           New Orleans has long been a center of culinary creativity in the United States, merging the city’s diverse ethnic and culinary traditions into a cohesive whole.  The city has also been at the forefront of preserving the history of food in the United States.  The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, founded in 2004, seeks to explore the culinary history of the American South, including the origins of Southern food and drinks.  

            The museum’s first exhibit opened in June 2004, at a temporary location, about the history of New Orleans beverages. Later exhibits included an examination of the revival of the New Orleans restaurant scene following Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to the museum’s growing popularity, they found a permanent home at the Riverwalk Marketplace in June 2008. Six years later, in September 2014, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum opened its doors in Central City. The permanent home includes Toups South, a restaurant run by local chef Isaac Toups, an archival research center, and an events space. 

Inside the Food and Beverage Museum 

            The current exhibits include: 

The Leah Chase Louisiana Gallery: Named after the restaurant legend who died last week, the exhibit focuses on the food and traditions of Louisiana including beignets, crawfish, jambalaya, and Cajun and Creole cuisine. The Museum is currently pushing for the city of New Orleans to rename Lee Circle in Chase's honor. 
Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar: This exhibit looks at the history of sugar in Louisiana and around the world. 
Capturing the Coast: Eating from the Gulf: The Gulf of Mexico is essential to the history of New Orleans and its food. This exhibit explores food of the gulf, the history of Gulf fish and fishermen, and the environmental impact of disasters like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  
The Delgado Community College Culinary Arts Program: For years, Delgado Community College has had a thriving culinary arts program that has taught thousands of New Orleanians about the city’s culinary traditions. 
Red Bean City: Red beans and rice is inseparable from New Orleans and Camellia Beans tells the story of the rise of the humble red kidney bean. 
The lights outside Al Copeland's house 
Creative Kitchen of Al Copeland: Al Copeland was a New Orleans food legend. The exhibit takes guests through his life of creating Popeye’s spicy fried chicken, opening a series of restaurants, famously decorating his house with Christmas lights. 
Gallery of the South: States of Taste: Curated by residents of each Southern state, the exhibits highlight the food traditions that are unique but also contribute to a regional “Southern” food culture. 
Galatoire's Restaurant: An Exhibit: You can’t tell the history of New Orleans restaurants without discussing Galatorie’s. The famed Friday lunches still require men to wear sport coats and the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. The exhibit features artifacts, menus, and other mementos from over a hundred years of history. 
The Menu Project: An ongoing project that collects menus from a wide range of restaurants across the South. The projects traces the trends of the food world, cataloguing the rise and fall of dishes and ingredients, and how they spread across the South. 
            The next time you visit New Orleans, make sure to carve out some time for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, it’s well worth the trip. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Leah Chase

            Leah Chase, the famed New Orleans chef and restauranteur, passed away on June 1 at the age of 96.  Born in New Orleans, Chase grew up in Madisonville, Louisiana, the oldest of 11 children. When she was a teenager, Chase moved back to New Orleans to complete high school—since Madisonville did not have a high school for students of color. 

            After graduation, she worked a variety of jobs including for a local bookie and as the manager of two amateur boxers. She also worked as a waitress at the long-defunct Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter. In 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase, a local musician whose parents owned a street corner stand in Treme that sold lottery tickets and po’ boys. In the ensuing years, Edgar and Leah began converting the stand into a full-service restaurant. Leah took over the kitchen and combined her experience helping out on her family’s farm growing up and her time spent in the service industry to create a menu deeply rooted in the New Orleans culinary tradition.

            During the Civil Rights era, the restaurant, now named Dooky Chase after her husband, hosted African-American and white leaders. Local civil rights leaders A.P. Tureaud and Dutch Morial often met at Dooky Chase to plan protests. In the upstairs meeting rooms, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders organized the Montgomery Bus boycott based on the work of Baton Rouge activists. All the while, Chase participated in these discussions and served everyone gumbo and fried chicken. The Chases hosted voter registration campaigns, NAACP meetings, and a myriad of other activities. Police and city authorities, meanwhile, refused to interfere with the meetings or close down the restaurant. The restaurant served as a neutral ground for city authorities and activists and shutting it down would only enrage the community further. 

            Over the years, Dooky Chase Restaurant began a local institution in the African-American community of New Orleans. The Chases patronized local artists and musicians, hanging their art in the restaurant and invited them to play. The restaurant also became known for its Holy Thursday tradition. Leah Chase would prepare her famous gumbo z’herbes—a meatless gumbo made from various greens—and fried chicken.  Chase found that food had a remarkable power to bring people together. As she explained, "Food builds big bridges. If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together."  

            Dooky Chase Restaurant flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Leah Chase, now in her 80s, lived across the street in a FEMA trailer for over a year while she and her family worked to raise money to rebuild the restaurant. After reopening, Chase and her family ran the restaurant under limited hours to prevent Chase from overworking herself. She won about every culinary award imaginable both in New Orleans and across the country. She was the inspiration for the Disney film The Princess and the Frog. Chase famously stopped Barack Obama from trying to add hot sauce to her gumbo. 

            Chase was a New Orleans legend, not only for her food, but for her activism, belief in civil rights, her support of local artists and musicians, and her unwavering belief that food could bridge the differences between people.   

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Opening the Morganza Spillway

The Morganza Spillway in 1973 

           The Mississippi River has been above flood stage for four months. Continuous rain in the Midwest has sent torrents of water down the Mississippi towards the Gulf of Mexico. With no let-up on the way and the increasing threat of the Mississippi overflowing its banks at Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to open the Morganza Spillway to alleviate the problem. The opening of the Spillway will divert the excess water into the Atchafalaya Basin, relieving the flood threat. It will also destroy wildlife, ruin crops, and devastate the crawfish, oyster, and other aquatic life. 

            Since the opening of the Morganza in 1954, the Corps of Engineers has only opened it twice—for 56 days in 1973 and 55 days in 2011. The opening of the Spillway is generally considered as a last resort to protect populated areas from flooding. As the Corps of Engineers prepares to open the Spillway, let’s take a look at the point of the Spillway, its history, and what happens next. 

The Spillway in action 

            In 1927, heavy rainfall that began the previous year swelled the banks of the Mississippi causing the river to overflow its banks. The resulting flood left 700,000 people homeless and put over 27,000 square miles of land under water. In a desperate attempt to save the city of New Orleans, city and government authorities blew up the levee 13 miles south of the city at Caernarvon. By blowing up the levee, they hoped to divert the floodwaters into the lowlands south of the city. Ultimately, however, the detonation was unnecessary. Other levees had already broken upstream that lessened the flow of water towards the city. 

            The following year, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928 to try and prevent future disasters. The law authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to design a system of levees and spillways to divert water away from populated areas during floods, but also keep the Mississippi on its current course through Baton Rouge and New Orleans before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps of Engineers eventually constructed multiple spillways along the Mississippi River including the Bonnet Carre Spillway outside of New Orleans that directs floodwaters into Lake Pontchartrain. Work on the Morganza Spillway’s levees began in the late 1930s, but was not completed until 1954. 

Graphic from The Advocate 

            The land around the Morganza is well above the normal river level, so for most of the year, the land is dry. Water only reaches the Spillway when the Mississippi rises above flood stage. When the water level is normal, the Old River Control Structure (ORCS) and Old River Control Auxiliary Structure (ORCAS) control the flow of water before it ever reaches the Morganza. ORCS and ORCAS divert excess water from the Mississippi River into the adjacent Atchafalaya River. By sending about 70% of the water to the Mississippi and 30% to the Atchafalaya, ORCS and ORCAS have kept the Mississippi River on its current path. If left to its own devices, the river would have shifted to the west down the Atchafalaya, which is now the shortest distance to the Gulf. 

When the ORCS and ORCAS systems can no longer direct the course of the water, the Corps of Engineers considers opening up the Morganza. The structure itself has 125 gates that can be opened or closed to allow more water to flow from the Mississippi. To open the gates, the Corps of Engineers employs 25 foot cranes to open and close the gates as needed. As the flood waters rise higher, the Corps of Engineers needs to open the spillway before the water rises over it and ruining any chance of lessening the flood levels. 

            As a result, the Morganza has only been opened twice in its history—in 1973 and 2011—and the Corps has never opened all 125 gates. In 1973, they opened 42 and in 2011 only 21. Considering the large amount of water being diverted, the Corps prefers to release the water gradually. 

Flood damage from 2011 

            The opening of the Morganza will cause immense damage to the Atchafalaya basin, which is filled with a diverse range of wildlife, farms, and seafood. Over the years, people—especially the poor—have taken to living in the basin because they cannot afford to live elsewhere. The water will damage their homes and livelihoods. The influx of water will also drive animals of all kinds—deer, bears, turkeys, hogs, rabbits—from their homes, forcing them to seek higher ground that could include roads and residents’ homes. With a lack of available high ground, most will die. The water will also be devastating to fisheries the influx of warm fresh water will kill crawfish and oysters, which thrive in salty, cold water. This river water, which has largely been accumulating near the Spillway, is stagnant and will kill fish or other aquatic life. Birds may be better off, but ground birds and birds in the midst of nesting will likely drown. 

            All of this will be the result of nearly a hundred years of flood control where the Corps of Engineers decided to try and assert its authority over the Mississippi River itself. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

DGA Dining: Bywater American Bistro

            Last year, we reviewed Compere Lapin, a restaurant blending New Orleans, Italian, and Caribbean influences. The restaurant, the brain-child of chef Nina Compton, a competitor on Top Chef: New Orleans, has become one of the most beloved restaurants in the city. Compton and her team have won a slew of local and national awards. Food & Wine Magazine named Compton one of the Best New Chefs of 2017. Eater critic Bill Addison placed Compére Lapin on his list of 38 Essential Restaurants in America. In 2018, Compton won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. New Orleans restaurant critic Brett Anderson awarded Compére Lapin four beans—the Times-Picayune’s highest rating.  The appeal of the restaurant, Anderson argued, was that “Every meal at the restaurant over the past six months has brought a creation that, at the time of its consumption, has had the effect of overshadowing something extraordinary that came before.” 

            In 2018, Compton and husband Larry Miller opened Bywater American Bistro, their much anticipated follow-up to Compere Lapin. The two restaurants differ in significant ways. Bywater American Bistro is located in the Bywater, a formerly working class neighborhood undergoing an artistic and culinary evolution. Bywater is very much a neighborhood restaurant. The simplicity of the name revealing its purpose. The menu features a section devoted to grains as a tribute to the restaurant’s building, formerly the largest rice mill in the country. Now the Rice Mill Lofts house Bywater and residential condos. Compton and Miller live in one of the condos above the restaurant. 

            While Miller manages Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, Levi Raines helms the kitchen at Bywater. A former sous chef at Compere Lapin, Raines oversees the small open-air kitchen with ease. At a recent dinner, Raines, recently named a 2019 Young Gun by Eater, glided seamlessly between plating, tasting, and expediting, all within several feet of the restaurant’s bartenders, who serve the customers seated at the bar. At any given moment, Raines is six or so feet away from customers, while the restaurant hums around him. 

            Like Compere Lapin, Bywater American Bistro’s food shines with well-executed food inspired by a sense of place. Let’s take a look at some of the dishes we tried. 

            The spaghetti pomodoro combines the comfort of spaghetti at home with the precision of one of the nation’s most skilled chefs. The noodles are silk-like in the texture, and the surrounding sauce is combines buttery richness and a delicate balance of sweet and acid. 

            The ricotta agnolotti is a pasta-lover’s heaven. The ricotta burst with flavor out of the delicate pasta wrapper. Swimming a rich and flavorful sauce, we would have been happy to just eat a giant plate of it. 

            The rabbit curry, served with jasmine rice and pecans, rivals the flavor found in Compere Lapin’s curried goat. The bold flavors of the curry match up well with the tenderly cooked rabbit. The pecans provide crunch and substitute for cashews or other nuts found in curries. 

            The spiced Nutella flan is a delightful and surprising dessert. Light and bright, the flan is a wonderful compliment to the rest of the menu. Filling, but not overwhelming, the flan leaves diners with one last bold hit of flavor in a menu full of them. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

New Orleans Accents

Accents. Everyone has one. Our accents are shaped by where we were born, our education level, our class, our race, and a myriad of other factors. Across the United States, different regions have different accents. Try asking for "wah-tah" in Boston or "wooder" in Philadelphia and you'll see the difference.

Then there's the ubiquitous "southern" accent with its slow pace, glideless vowels, and emphasis on pronouncing "r"s, amongst other linguistic evolutions. Accents are both a point of regional pride and a nearly inexhaustible source of humor. Some of it funny, most of it trite.

When it comes to New Orleans, the city has an accent all its own. Centuries of immigration andclass and racial divisions have made the city's accent unique--not just in the United States, but in the South and even within Louisiana itself.

Want to learn more about the New Orleans accent? The good people at Very Local NOLA have put together a handy little guide. Enjoy!