August 24, 2015 - 7:00 AM
NEW ORLEANS - I'm normally not much of a meal planner but I know what I'm going to have for lunch one week from Monday.
Red beans and rice. On Monday. It's a tradition bordering on the cliché in New Orleans, but I've grown to embrace such customs more readily in the last decade, even those that seem a little clichéd.
Parades snarling traffic? No problem. People getting tears in their eyes when they hear Louis Armstrong sing "Do You Know What it Means?" I understand.
Ten years ago next Monday, the storm was two days' past. Whole neighbourhoods had all but disappeared under water that was still flowing in through failed levees. Thousands were stranded. No power. No running water. Food and drink in short supply.
Lives were being lost and ways of life were in danger.
At first, survival and escape were the main orders of business. A few blocks from the house where I was encamped in a relatively dry part of town, people with garbage-bag luggage, wondering how to get out, were among looters at a nearby drug store. One woman wondered aloud whether there was insulin there, and whether it was safe to use after days without refrigeration. Some took alcohol. Some took clothing. Many grabbed bottled water and food.
The humanitarian crisis slowly subsided. The structural and economic and cultural worries lingered. Would people come back? Would houses be rebuilt? Would commerce return? Jobs? The streetcars? Carnival parades?
Perhaps it seems trivial in the context of disaster but cooking and eating are discussed with gusto here; maybe even reverence. I've heard people go on at delighted length about Cajun vs. Creole jambalaya, proper seasoning for a crawfish boil, how to darken a roux.
Besides, food-infused life stories aren't peculiar to New Orleans.
I wasn't born here but I've got strong early culinary memories: fried chicken and okra at my grandmother's dining table in Oneonta, Alabama; takeout barbecue on Friday nights when I was growing up in Memphis, Tennessee; $1 vegetable plates at a cafeteria in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I was a starving college student; soul food at the Blue Light Cafe in Ruston, Louisiana, when I got my first radio job.
Then there was New Orleans. Way too much to talk about other than to say that I fell into and out of a few traditions of my own over the decades: gravy-drenched roast beef po-boys from Uglesich's; oysters in my omelets at Coop's Place; seafood gumbo at Rendon Inn; spaghetti and daube at Compagno's.
That food traditions are important — and were important even in those bleak days 10 years ago — was driven home for me almost three weeks after the storm. I was a bit of a nomad by then. There were occasional visits to see my wife and kids at a fishing camp in north Louisiana, but mostly I divided time among New Orleans hotels and friends' spare rooms in Baton Rouge, covering various aspects of the storm's aftermath. I lacked no comforts, unlike many of the people I wrote about. But I was exhausted and benumbed from covering a catastrophe in my own backyard.
Flipping through the radio dial, I hit on an interview. Someone was talking to an evacuee stuck in a hotel in Memphis. He and his wife were struggling with the big decision: Would they come back?
That there was any question profoundly disturbed me.
The man was asked what he missed about home. There immediately followed two words.
He sounded like he was ready to cry. I sure as hell cried.
He went on to explain about red beans and rice. Not that he had to. Not on my account, anyway.
Because — again, forgive the cliché — I know what it means.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans. He moved to the city in August 1983 to work for the AP. He's lived in numerous neighbourhoods and sampled red beans and rice in too many restaurants to mention.
News from © The Associated Press, 2015