Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Saenger Theatre

            Opened in 1927, the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans is home to Broadway musicals, rock concerts, and stand-up comedians. Currently, the Saenger is hosting one of the national touring companies of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical, Hamilton. The theatre, with its famous starry ceiling, has long been a staple of the New Orleans entertainment scene. Throughout its history, the theatre has seen its fair share of ups and downs, culminating in its recent renovation that has restored it to as much of its original appearance as possible. 

            Construction on the Saenger Theatre began in 1924 and was completed three years later at the cost of $2.5 million. Located on Canal Street, the theatre quickly attracted large crowds, who paid 65 cents for a silent movie and a production of a stage play. A live orchestra would accompany both the movie and the play. 

            The Saenger was once the flagship theater of the Saenger Amusement Company. In the 1920s, Julian and Abe Saenger constructed theaters across the Gulf Coast, including in Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans. The two brothers, who began their careers as pharmacists, bought their first theater in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1911. In total, they owned 320 theaters across the South, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and Puerto Rico. 

A postcard view of the theatre from 1940

            The Saenger brothers opened and operated their theatre chain during a transformative era in American popular culture. The post-World War I economic boom in America—coupled with runaway borrowing and lending—meant that Americans had more money in the pockets and wanted to spend it on the new entertainments and technologies of the 1920s. The twenties saw the rise of jazz, flapper culture, and the modern film industry. American popular culture soon became obsessed with celebrity as musicians, actors, and actresses became mainstays of magazines and newspapers. Modern technologies like movies, radio, cars, and the airplane transformed the ways Americans sought out and experienced their entertainments.  

            Tapping into this era of prosperity, the Saenger brothers hired architect Emilie Weil (1878-1945), who designed the Dixie Brewery, Pelican Stadium, and the Whitney National Bank in New Orleans, to conceive of and oversee the construction of the New Orleans Saenger Theatre. Using an Italian baroque style courtyard as his inspiration, Weil installed 150 lights into the theatre’s ceiling. He arranged the lights to take the shape of constellations in the night’s sky, lending the theatre an exotic appearance and appeal. Local advertisements described the interior as “an acre of seats in a garden of Florentine splendor.” The interior contained statues, crystal lighting fixtures, and oiling paintings. It had a seating capacity of 4,000. 

            In 1929, the Saenger brothers sold the theatre to the Paramount Publix film studio. The company converted the Saenger into a movie theater and ran it throughout the Great Depression. By 1964, the theatre's management decided to divide the theatre into two movie auditoriums. They separated the orchestra level seating and the balcony into two, making a 900 person upstairs theater and 1,900 person downstairs. In December 1977, the theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Pre-Katrina Interior

            In 1978, the theatre was sold to a group of investors who converted the Saenger into a performing arts venue. At the cost of $3 million, the group restored the building to its one theater set-up with seating for 2,736. Comedian Johnny Carson was the first performer at the renovated theatre. In the ensuing decades, the Saenger would host rock concerts, musicals, plays, and show films with a live orchestral accompaniment. 

            In 2005, Hurricane Katrina effectively destroyed the Saenger. While the building remained standing, floodwaters reached a foot above the stage and filled the basement and orchestra seats. The theatre’s vintage Wonder Organ also suffered some damage. In 2009, the city of New Orleans took ownership of the theatre and leased to the newly formed Saenger Theatre Partnership. As part of a 52 year lease, the Partnership has to host at least 80 shows and sell 100,000 tickets per year. The new partnership also benefited from state and federal aid, tax credits, and private donations to rehabilitate the theatre for $38.8 million. 

            The newly renovated Saenger reopened in September 2013 and has once again become a center of entertainment and culture in New Orleans. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Crawfish Boil 2019: Recap Video

We hope you all had fun at the 12th Annual DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil on March 9, 2019 at Maison Lafitte in Mandeville. For anyone who missed out or wants to relive the experience, we made this little recap video.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Crawfish Boil 2019: Peeling Crawfish

Just a reminder: the 12th Annual DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil is THIS SATURDAY! That’s right, this Saturday, March 9, 2019 from 12-5 at Maison Lafitte, 402 Lafitte St. Mandeville, LA.

Now to get you properly prepared, here’s Benson to teach you all had to peel and eat crawfish. 

The process is relatively simple, and a well-coooked crawfish should give even inexperienced folks little trouble. Before you start peeling, remember that crawfish boiled live typically have curled tails, such as the one in the image above.  Those that were dead when they went in the boil (there’s always a few) have flat tails and mushy meat.  You can toss those suckers into your pile of shells if you like.

You might have heard of the twist, pinch, and suck method of peeling crawfish.  This refers to twisting off the head, pinching the tail, and sucking the head.  This is the basic method we’re going to learn, although sucking the head is entirely optional.  Most crotchety Cajuns suck the heads to put newcomers off their crawfish, but there’s also a culinary reason to do it and I’ll explain that at the end.

Although these colloquial terms are wildly inaccurate in terms of a crawfish’s anatomy, the two basic parts you need to know about are the “head,” the main body of the crawfish, and the “tail,” the segmented abdomen of the crawfish. 

To start peeling, grasp the head in one hand and the tail in the other. 

Next, twist the head and pull it away from the tail. 

At this point, you can pinch the tail and pull out the meat with your teeth, but that takes some crawfish experience.  Being new to peeling crawfish, you will have more success if you peel the first segment of the shell off of the tail. 

You can then flip the tail over, use your thumb to pinch the tail at the base, and then pull out the meat.

Last, but not least, you can suck the head.  The reason to do this is that most of the fat is in this part of the crawfish and it doesn’t always come out with the tail meat.  Like crabs, crawfish fat is extremely tasty and it holds a remarkable amount of flavor. You also get a good taste of the spicy boil from sucking the head.

See you Saturday! 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Crawfish Boil 2019: What are Crawfish?

        The DGA Friends and Family Crawfish Boil is about many things. It's about bringing friends and family together. It's about listening to some awesome local music. And it's also about eating crawfish. But just what are crawfish and why do they taste so good? Let's take a look at the history of these delicious crustaceans and how they've become a culinary staple of south Louisiana.  

          Crawfish season runs from late February through early June. Crawfish live in the wetlands that surround the Mississippi River and its estuaries. In the centuries before European settlement in Louisiana, the crustaceans thrived in the creeks, lakes, and bayous of south Louisiana. Local native Americans collected crawfish by the bushel by baiting wooden reeds with venison and dipping them into the water. The crawfish would latch onto the meat and dangle off the reeds, providing locals with their dinner. 

Watch out... it'll get you. 

          When the Acadians arrived in Louisiana in the 1750s, they quickly learned the value and deliciousness of this local delicacy. These French settlers, who had been expelled from Canada by the English during the Seven Years War, began incorporating crawfish into the cuisine. Over the ensuing decades, crawfish became a staple of Cajun cuisine. The Cajuns even created their own legends about the origin of crawfish, demonstrating just how important they had become in Cajun culture. According to the legend, after the explosion of the Cajuns from Canada, local lobsters followed the Acadians from the ice cold waters of the Atlantic to the Mississippi basin. When the lobsters entered the warm waters of the gulf, they shrank to their present size. 

          The commercial sale of crawfish began only in the late 1800s with the first recorded harvest in 1880. The crawfish, raised in the Atchafalaya Basin, resulted in a  harvest of 23,400 pounds, worth about $2,140 (about $51,000 in today’s money). In 1908, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded that Louisiana produced about 88,000 pounds of crawfish per year, worth about $3,600 (about $93,000 today). The Great Depression of the 1930s drove the price of crawfish down to as low as 4 cents per pound. Technological advancements, including trucking, railroads, and refrigeration, fueled the movement of live crawfish from the rural bayou to urban centers like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The introduction of traps and nets allowed for the collection of greater numbers of crawfish. 

There are entire memes devoted to crawfish. 

          In the 1930s, Louisiana began to cultivate the production of crawfish on farms. Rice had long been a staple of bayou farmers. In order to gain more income, rice farmers began re-flooding their fields in order to produce harvests of crawfish in the winter and early spring. This practice soon spread across Louisiana wherever low-lying ponds and marshland could be found.

          The process of farming stabilized crawfish production. Before farming, the harvest in any given year depended on the water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin. Thus the market fluctuated wildly from year to year. Now with consistent water levels, farmers could control the size of the harvest and stabilize their incomes. By the mid-1960s, over 10,000 acres of crawfish farms had spread across Louisiana. In the decades since, crawfish farms have increased by a factor of twelve to approximately 120,000 acres. Louisiana accounts for 85%-95% of total U.S. crawfish production. 

Hmm... crawfish 
          In 1960, the community of Breaux Bridge was named the crawfish capitol of the world and every year since has held yearly crawfish festival.  This growth in production caused Louisiana restaurants to begin featuring crawfish on their menus. Long a staple of Cajun cuisine, crawfish étouffée became a restaurant staple. With its increasing visibility as a product unique to south Louisiana, crawfish boils became a way to celebrate the culinary traditions that make Louisiana unique. Today, the crawfish industry accounts for seven thousand jobs and 300 million dollars in revenue for the state. 

The process for cooking crawfish has stayed the same over the years (and this may attest to the longevity of crawfish consumption); get a pot of water boiling (seasoned with salt and spices), add the live crawfish, let cook for several minutes. Then eat the crawfish on newspaper covered tables until you can’t eat them anymore. It’s a tradition that we look forward to upholding on Saturday.