Thanksgiving In New Orleans, A Very American Festival

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In writing about Thanksgiving, I know I’m a week late. But I hope that will be forgiven given that we Londoners, other than expat Americans, don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving. In New Orleans, however, I know that Thanksgiving is most certainly celebrated and I’ve very much enjoyed reading about the city’s take on the traditional turkey meal over the past week.

I’d never heard of a turducken before, a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey, which one city website describes as an “ecclectic and excessive” creation. Sounds about right for New Orleans. It also seemed fitting that seafood featured significantly on many of the city’s Thanksgiving menus that I looked at, with plenty of shrimp, crawfish and raw bars popping up.

Special mention should also go to some amazing-sounding dishes that seemed to show that, as with many other things, New Orleans does Thanksgiving in very much in its own way and in some style (and made me want to make sure my next trip to the city takes place in late November). How about yellowfish tuna Rockerfella, turducken gumbo, sassafras glazed ham or sugarcane smoked turkey? Sides? New Orleans can offer andouille gravy, ginger whipped sweet potatoes and haricot verts with a bacon demiglace. And don’t forget desserts: tiramisu bread pudding (pictured), anyone? Yum.

But while we can – and should – make much of the special culinary traditions of New Orleans, and of its distinctiveness in other ways, there is no denying that Thanksgiving is of the whole US and is one of the most American of the nation’s holidays.

“As a child of the farmlands I appreciate how [Thanksgiving] honestly belongs to us,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her food-orientated memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. “Turkeys have walked wild on this continent since the last ice age, whereas Old Europe was quite turkeyless… Corn pudding may be the oldest New World comfort food; pumpkins and cranberries, too, are exclusively ours. It’s all American, the right stuff at the right time.”

Why is it important to point this out? Because, as I have written elsewhere, sometimes New Orleans suffers from being portrayed, internally and externally, as exotic, other, even outside the American nation. But the way New Orleans celebrates, at Thanksgiving and at other times of year, should be not be seen as making the city fundamentally different to the rest of the US, but as an example of the very best of what the nation can offer in terms of festivity, creativity, hospitality and community,  areas in which, it seems from a European perspective at least, the whole of the American nation has historically often excelled, and New Orleans in particular.

America needs New Orleans and what it represents about its past, present and future, and not just at Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras but all through the year, now more than ever. And the fact that this great city is a part of the nation, turducken gumbo and all, is something for which we should all be thankful.

Image: The Brooklyn Star

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Nightlife’s Slow Death In London And New Orleans

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This weekend I went to a gig at the George Tavern in Stepney (pictured), not too far from where I live. This pub has a long history – it’s mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare and claims that at least some of its brickwork is 700 years old. In the latter years of its long history, it’s become well-known as a music and culture venue, largely because of the work of artist landlady Pauline Forster who bought the pub as a derelict building in 2002.

A few years ago the George Tavern faced closure as a developer’s plans to build a block of flats near to the site would affect its ability to host live music nights, one of its most important sources of income. The George Tavern was saved, thanks in part to a high-profile campaign and the backing of a number of celebrity supporters, from Amy Winehouse to Justin Timberlake.

However, the venue is once again under threat. Plans have been proposed to replace nearby studios with, once again, a residential building. “[The George Tavern] is a vital community asset and must be protected at all costs,” said the George Tavern’s management in the text of a letter they recommended fans of the venue send to the borough council. “Experience across London has shown that introducing residential uses in close proximity to noise sources inevitably leads to complaints of noise nuisance which can result in curbs on the established activities at the site and ultimately closure.”

What they’re referring to is how noise restrictions and development pressures are now having an effect on iconic music and clubbing businesses in many parts of the city. In recent years London has seen the closure of a significant number of iconic venues, in part because of these kinds of factors. These include legendary Soho venue Madame JoJos’s, nightclub Cable located under the arches of London Bridge station, and Dalston club and historic centre for black music Four Aces.

In Hackney, the part of London where I live and where Four Aces and many other closed venues were located, the closure of and restrictions on nightlife businesses is such a keenly-felt issue that a campaign has been set up to oppose this. Fittingly, it was launched last year with a party that attracted over 600 people. One closing East End venue even held a New Orleans-style jazz funeral.

Nightlife in New Orleans could be slowly and picturesquely dying too. This city as well has seen many beloved places to listen to music, dance and socialise close and, despite the differences between the two cities, they are doing so for the same reasons that they are in London. And as in London feelings have coalesced into campaigns similar to the London ones both to keep individual venues open and on behalf of the city’s music scene as a whole – MACCNO deserves a special mention here.

When thinking all this, it is important to remember, however, that the places we live in have always changed. Venues of all kinds have always closed and been replaced by new ones, and it’s especially in the nature of the bars and club world for this to happen, where being new can be a significant selling point,

But it does feel like something different is happening now. The centres of our cities are becoming hollowed out by gentrification, as living somewhere urban is becoming more fashionable for the affluent middle-aged than the suburbs. People are living in areas once rich with nightlife who think they want to be somewhere lively but who actually don’t, so end up loudly complaining about bars or clubs. Meanwhile, in part because it’s now harder for them to live in city centres and in part because of other economic and social pressures on them, young people are going out less.

So while we should all campaign about individual venues in our neighbourhoods that we care about and our cities’ nightlife as a whole, we should also think about how the ways in which people, money, music and noise are ebbing and flowing across our cities are part of a bigger social picture too.

Image: Ewan Munro

Speak Out Now For Migration In London And New Orleans

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This week I went to an unusual and rewarding theatre work about migration. London Stories: Made By Migrants, currently being staged at the Battersea Arts Centre, gives you the chance to hear six stories about migrant experiences related to London, told by the people who experienced them.

Who did I meet? An stylish elderly lady who survived Auschwitz, by video. A woman – around the same age as me – who was born in Iran and is now an artist. A Syrian man who came to the UK after crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat and being smuggled in from Brussels on a German lorry, and who is dreaming of working as a dentist again. A Chilean-American man who had spent much of his life in New York but now loves London. A girl who spoke about her Pakistani father and his habit of hoarding as he built a life here. A Ugandan refugee who had fled her country to escape Idi Amin.

The genius of this work is the way in which it mirrors the type and significance of the experience it describes. Separated from the people we arrived with, we were led in small groups around the rambling and artily slightly decrepit Victorian former town hall building that now houses the BAC. This seemed to recreate the dislocation and loss of control that many migrants must endure, though of course in a much more gentle way and entirely without the jeopardy that is so often a part of the migration experience

Six times we arrived in a small room or space – each time differently shaped, decorated and lit – to sit face to face with another person to hear the story they wanted to tell us, each time an unusually intimate, true and valuable piece of art.

Migration and what it means is extremely topical at the moment. This summer’s Brexit referendum in the UK and the campaign and result of the 2016 presidential election in the US have put it at the top of the political and public discourse agenda in both nations. The producers of London Stories: Made By Migrants have not shied away from this, choosing to place posters with headlines and comments of various kinds about migration – some welcoming, some analytical, some hate-filled – on the walls of the building to be viewed as the audience walk around it.

It is a sad but true fact that hatred of migrants and what they seem to represent has not been confined to paper and ink. Hate crime against migrants or those who look like they might be increased sharply astonishingly soon after Brexit – and it seems that the same thing may be happening now in the the US.

Luckily, there have also been some steps taken in London to assert not just tolerance and empathy towards migrants but also the fact that migrants have been integral to the creation of the city and to its nature today. London Stories: Made By Migrants is one shining example. There are others in the arts world – I heard that the next At Home With The Ludskis event, a recurring art/film/theatre night at Dalston’s Rio Cinema, will have a pro-migration theme. This reflects the fact that the Rio’s founder Clara Ludksi, who the event is named after, was a migrant who came to London from Russia in the early twentieth century.

We still need many, many more such arts events, and other actions that achieve a similar effect. Given what it happening in the world, it seems no longer enough in London to not be anti-migration and to assume that people from different countries will always live here and that we will all always rub along together pretty much fine. We need to say that this is what we want and that it is important.

New Orleans is a different city in a different country. But, like London, this city and everything it means cannot be conceived of without its history of being open to and of valuing migration. With recent anti-immigration narratives in the UK now being uncannily echoed in the US, New Orleans needs to speak out now just as much as London.

Surprising Reasons Why I Welcome Direct Flights From London To New Orleans

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The news that soon there will be direct flights between London and New Orleans made me feel happy, for several reasons.

I’m glad of course that our cities will now be linked so much more closely. I also welcome the prospect of more people coming from New Orleans to London, and going from London to New Orleans – there is a tendency for Londoners to think of the US as simply New York and California, with nothing in between. So wrong.

The prospect of direct flights also reminds me how much New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Airport is a happy place for me, unlike London’s Heathrow or some of the southern US airports I’ve had to travel through on trips there. While I would never recommend that people coming to New Orleans spend much more time at the airport than they need to given all the city has to offer, it definitely has its attractions.

It’s named after Louis Armstrong, a musician whose life and work means a lot to me. I first visited the city to go to Satchmo Summerfest, a festival in his honour; later spoke at that same festival; and, as I have learned more about him over the years, have realised how much he – with his joyfulness and sense of hospitality – embodied all that is best about New Orleans.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect an airport to share the qualities of the person it is named after – but in New Orleans it does. While they’ve not always been joyful in the strict sense, my experiences at Louis Armstrong Airport have never been bad. The airport always seems efficiently run, yet also relaxed – which cannot be said for any London airport.

The airport is also certainty hospitable. I’ve been greeted by a brass band in baggage reclaim on more than one occasion. Also, once when feeling sad in Departures I heard what seemed like an appropriate performance from a local singer of Amy Winehouse’s melancholic and beautiful masterpiece “Love Is A Losing Game”. This song – like all of her work – is so of London, yet this singer made it sound like it was from New Orleans, which of course in a way it was because she was so influenced by the jazz tradition to which the city gave birth.

This is what airports and flying do. The former might seem like soulless, transitory locations, but they represent the places and people they belong to. Meanwhile, the acts of travelling and transition they embody, and the links these create, help to construct the identities of those places and people.

Image: Mike Chaput