Ice Cream Memories In London And New Orleans

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We London people like ice cream more than you might think, given that our climate for most of the year is not ideal for this frozen delight. But we don’t mind not having the weather for it – in fact, I’m sure I remember reading somewhere or other that more ice cream is consumed in the UK in the winter than in the summer.

Personally speaking, this Londoner adores ice cream. I’ll eat it any old time, but it’s also my default choice on a restaurant dessert menu and my favourite prize for when I feel I deserve something special. I’ve celebrated a new job with pillowy swirls of frozen yoghurt sprinkled with my choice of toppings (brownie pieces and raspberries), and on my birthday this year I made a pilgrimage by myself to a new cafe in my neighbourhood to sample a creamy caramel “freakshake”. But my London ice cream memories stretch a long way back into my past.

Paddington Bear and his Knickerbocker Glories. How a maths textbooks – a US import, as it happens – taught me how permutations differ from combinations by asserting that “a double scoop ice cream cone with jamoca almond fudge on top and strawberry on the bottom is not the same as strawberry on the top and jamoca almond fudge on the bottom” – quite true, of course. Everyone loving impromptu hot chocolate sundaes at a New Year’s Eve party after the hostess mistakenly put salt instead of sugar into the apple pie. The Ben & Jerry’s music festivals on Clapham Common – unlimited free cones! The innovative gelaterias that make your ice cream on the spot with liquid nitrogen, require a secret password for certain flavours, or even whip up an icy treat up out of breast milk. The very traditional gelateria that has for generations been located in Primrose Hill near my parents’ house, and where I had my 29th (yes, 29th not 9th) birthday party.

But many of my most precious London ice cream memories involve my grandmother, very much a native Londoner, if mainly of its suburban south-west fringes. I think she loves ice cream almost as much as I do. I remember, when I was a only small child and she must have already been a mature lady, ordering “honey gelato, please” in unison with her in a restaurant we were at for a family party. Her coffee ice cream (recipe pictured) is legendary. To this day, we’re quite likely to both have a dame blanche for pudding if it’s on the menu when we meet for lunch.

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My grandmother’s coffee ice cream recipe

Perhaps because it also has significant Italian immigration in its history, New Orleans of course also has a rich tradition of making and eating ice cream. I’ve been in love with the city’s ice cream parlours for almost as long as I’ve been love with the city. I think I visited La Divina in the French Quarter on my very first day there, and I also have happy memories of attending an evening poetry readings around the cast iron tables in its little alley courtyard. Angelo Brocato (pictured) meanwhile, was one of the places I made a beeline for when I began to explore Mid City.

I’ve been thinking about all these ice cream memories a lot recently. Perhaps because this September it has been unseasonably hot in London, which happily has prompted more ice cream eating. But a favourite gelateria wasn’t open when I tried to visit, as it’s actually officially autumn now. Hot weather at this time of year can also lead to storms and flooding, unfortunately suffered by parts of the world both near London and near New Orleans in recent weeks, which reminded me of Ben & Jerry’s climate change awareness campaign – tagline: “If It’s Melted, It’s No Good”.

These things show that there are ebbs and flows in ice cream that reflect those in every other part of life. The sweet stuff symbolises life’s pleasures and can be a powerful connection to the precious things in our histories, but by its very nature also represents and reminds us of their fragility and fleetingness.

I read recently that La Divina closed its original Magazine Street outlet. Angelo Brocato moved in the late 1970s/early 1980s from the French Quarter to Carrollton Avenue and then, just after celebrating its 100th birthday, was forced to shut for over a year after Hurricane Katrina, which was held to be one of an array of key signs of the trauma inflicted on the city by the storm. The return of the business and its famous lemon ice was warmly welcomed by the city and even got an honourable mention in Treme.

And on that lemon ice: I never used to like it much. Nothing against Angelo Brocato, of course – I just found the sharpness from those citrussy juices and oils, which are of course the very essence of lemon and hence of lemon ice, too much. My granny, meanwhile, loves what we call “lemon sorbet” probably more than anything else in the ice cream family.

But when I was recently in New Orleans and visited Angelo Brocato, lemon ice/lemon sorbet was suddenly the only thing I wanted. And it was very good. Maybe I’m finally growing up and getting more sophisticated tastes after all those birthday treat sundaes, I thought. I found myself thinking about my granny too, wondering if something had happened to her, if my sudden craving was some kind of cosmic message. And actually, while there was no immediate emergency then and there remains much about her life to be thankful for, she has bad days sometimes. She celebrated her 93rd birthday this summer, with all that entails. It’s the lemon in the lemon ice. But it’s still very good.

Main image: Kevin O’Mara

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Being Irish In New Orleans And London

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I have to admit that I’ve never really paid that much attention to Irish culture and communities in New Orleans. This was not a conscious decision, but I know it is not something to be proud of. In my defence, I think this is because I have Irish ancestry myself not too far back in my family, so have always thought, “I know about Irish people” and have been drawn instead to learning about aspects of the city’s culture that are less familiar to me.

But on my most recent trip to the city, I found myself encountering the Irish aspects of New Orleans, almost by accident, several times – and I am very glad I did.

First, I visited New Orleans’ Irish Cultural Museum, after walking past it while on the way to somewhere else and realising I had to stop and go in. In this wonderful education and events space, I learnt about how much Irish people and those of Irish descent have contributed to New Orleans throughout its history. To name just a few instances out of many: building churches; service in the police force; adding another valuable layer to the city’s rich musical culture.

I also learnt how much these people suffered, whether on the ships from Ireland to New Orleans, where as many as ten per cent of Irish passengers lost their lives, or during the yellow fever epidemics that struck the Irish community particularly hard, or in terms of the prejudice and discrimination that dogged them for many years.

Then, a few days later, I also encountered the history of New Orleans’ Irish people on a visit to the excellent New Canal Lighthouse Museum on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. I heard how Irish people helped to build the New Basin Canal that used to meet the lake near the site of the lighthouse, and also how this work took the lives of perhaps as many as 30,000 Irish people, many of whom were buried in the levee beside it and are now commemorated with a Kilkenny marble Celtic cross dedicated by the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans.

All this made me think again about London’s Irish communities. Because of its geographical and cultural proximity to Ireland, London has seen many, many Irish people make their way here throughout its long history. One piece of research has even estimated that as many as 77 per cent of Londoners have Irish blood. I can’t verify the accuracy of this, but in my experience you don’t have to look very far in the city to find a person with someone Irish in their family tree, or a sign of the influence Irish people and culture have had on the city, from Catholic churches, to Irish pubs, to festivals.

Irish people and those of Irish descent have suffered in London, just as they suffered in New Orleans. A notorious example of this is the “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs” signs that reportedly could be seen in the city on properties to rent in the mid-twentieth century. While some question whether these actually existed, what is certain is that there is a long and complex history of British racist prejudice towards Irish people, bound up with colonialism, Irish politics, anti-Catholic sentiment, and economics.

Being reminded of this history and how it connects to my own by learning about Irish people in New Orleans has made me resolve to pay more attention to Irish communities everywhere, as I owe a good part of the nature of my life today to the efforts and trials of my Irish great-grandparents and other forbears. There is also the happy fact that having Irish ancestry makes me part of a huge global family, and gives me another, particularly personal, connection to New Orleans.

Image: Craig

Tourism In New Orleans In Three Images

Last month, I visited New Orleans. I’ve been to the city many times but, as someone who lives in London, I still count myself as a tourist when I’m there. And while I was there this time, I found myself thinking a lot about tourism in the city.

I’m a writer, so I tend to express my thoughts through words. But, like all tourists, I took pictures – just holiday snaps – during my trip, and I thought it would be interesting to use some of these as a basis for my comments.

Image 1) Oysters: The Tourism Ecosystem

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Oysters are a good symbol of the many different culinary, historical, and cultural products that visitors to the city enjoy. Oysters and any other pleasure the city offers tourists are connected however to a larger ecosystem, both geographical and economic. Selling oysters is part of the city’s hospitality sector and Louisiana’s seafood industry. Both are important parts of New Orleans’ economy, and both are dependent on various complex and fragile flows of money, people and delta water connected to some of most severe problems faced by the city, now and through its history.

Don’t let that put you off oysters, however; in a great essay on eating seafood in New Orleans in a great collection, Evan Caspar-Futterman writes that precisely because many New Orleans pleasures connect at a sometimes ocean deep, sometimes surface level way to the trials and frailties of human existence, they should also remind us of “the importance of pleasures to the enjoyment of our fleeting lives”.

Image 2) Airbnb: Homes Away From Home?

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This image symbolises the damage that tourism can do to any city in general, and also represents a current issue specific to tourism in New Orleans. Short-term rental portal Airbnb has met with considerable opposition in the city, particularly around Jazz Fest this year, from locals who accuse it of disrupting their neighbourhoods and and even changing them for good because, they claim, long-term residents are being forced out thanks to Airbnb-driven rent rises in their area. I saw this poster in the Marigny, one of the parts of the city most affected.

Airbnb, like many tourist-focused businesses over the years, purports to offer travellers the chance to experience a place the way its locals see it – its current tagline is “experience a place like you live there”. It therefore seems somewhat ironic that this business, according to some at least, is doing so much damage to the lives of these very locals.

Image 3) Coffee And Beignets: A Pick-Up For Everyone

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After the threats the first two images prompted me to think about, this one reminded me of the resilience of New Orleans and the positive aspects of its tourism industry. Taken one morning when I was rushing around and wondering how to fit in everything I wanted to do, it shows a late breakfast pit-stop of coffee and beignets.

It’s a very touristy combination to eat and drink but also, I would like to think, very authentically New Orleans at the same time. And, most importantly, it was so good and so reviving that it changed the course of my morning in the city. It reminded me of how tourism in New Orleans can work at its best, when businesses in the city profit by bewitching visitors with its beautiful, nourishing, and sometime slightly sinful traditions, but do not compromise or damage its unique identity, without which there would be no visitors.