Why It’s Worth Mapping Out A Comparison Of Two Cities

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People are often surprised when I tell them I write a blog about London and New Orleans. The pairing is not as obvious as some. You might expect London and New York, or London and Paris. Or New Orleans and Paris, or Marseille.

There are some similarities, however, between the two cities. Despite their many differences, for me they sound some of the same notes at times: being dapper, old rhythms, deep water. There’s similar tone, too: a kind of proper appreciation of decadence shot through with courtesy and a sense of social order. This simply isn’t found in, say, New York (too uptight) or Paris (too laissez-faire).

Tastes echo as well. French-influenced food is still the ultimate in fine dining in both cities – but in both we’ll do it very much in our own way, thanks. New Orleans-style dishes have gone down a treat in London in recent years (some cooked right, some less so), as part of a wider fad for Southern food, and US comfort food as a whole – barbecues, posh burgers, hard shakes and all. I’ve recently heard that New Orleans gourmet grilled cheese joint The Big Cheezy might just be opening here in London soon…

Meanwhile, some British classics are well-established on New Orleans eating and drinking circuits – the Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House, for instance, is the best cocktail made with the English drink that I’ve ever had.

But regardless of whether or not you find actual connections, it’s always an interesting exercise to read any foreign city through your knowledge of another. I recently found an app that allows you do to so by juxtaposing a map of one with another, and I couldn’t resist immediately plugging in my two favourite metropolises.

I found the following. Two bendy tidal streams. Two east ends where the further you go out, the more the water dominates. Big swathes of parkland to the north-north-west with whispers of wild animals. Epicentres at riverbank cathedrals looking across to a neglected south.

I also saw that London looks like a web, and New Orleans like a spider spinning one. London seems a green and pleasant land, while New Orleans gets the blues. Follow the Mississippi river on a map of New Orleans and you’ll pass through Empire, Bohemia, Venice and Sulphur as the ground dissolves around you. From London, you’ll encounter less poetic-sounding places like Grays and Southend, and an assertive opening to the world, like a trumpet or a speech bubble in a cartoon.

Ultimately, this kind of mapping exercise is less about compare and contrast, and more about the questions it sparks in your mind. Just as children that are bilingual are supposed to grow better brains for communication than the rest of us, trying to translate between two cities makes you more able to grasp the elements that link them all, and to pose some interesting questions, too.

Are cities that look east different by nature to ones that look west? Does a river bring cities together or divide them? And just how far out is too far out? If you’re wondering any of these things about your own city, looking at another one might help you decide.

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

Alligator Tacos

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It all started with alligator tacos. Not eating alligator tacos (this photo isn’t mine, sadly) though I’d love to try this Louisiana delight. No, this week I’ve been so busy I’ve barely had time to eat anything.

But I did manage to go for a run, during which I listened to a great podcast item about Mexican food across the US, including the Louisiana take on it, and also happened to go past my local Mexican restaurant at the same time.

Doing so made me think about Latin American culture in London. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know I’m always on the lookout for anything New Orleans-related in my home city, and Latin America is a part of the New Orleans cultural gumbo.

The city has long historical links to Haiti and Cuba, and New Orleans has often been dubbed “the northernmost Caribbean city”. Much of the architecture of the “French” quarter is Spanish colonial in style, its distinctive features dating from Spain’s forty year rule of the city in the late eighteenth century. And in recent years, the city’s Latino population has grown rapidly, partly due to an influx of construction workers since Katrina.

The UK meanwhile has strong ties to the formerly British Caribbean nations, which have given London a rich Caribbean culture. However, Latin American influences in London are less evident. Until just a few years ago, for instance, it was pretty much impossible to get the kind of authentic and good quality Mexican food here that’s easy to find in many parts of the US.

Things are changing. I was recently fortunate enough to come across online magazine Jungle Drums that’s doing an amazing job of charting the presence of all kinds of Latin American culture in London, particularly Brazilian culture.

And on food again, I used to love going to Sabor, once a north London restaurant near where I live that, unusually for an eaterie here, served amazing food from all across Latin America.

Very sadly, Sabor closed in 2012, but is now up and running again in the form of a pop-up venture. I’m planning to sign up for their latest event and – who knows – maybe, just maybe, there’ll be alligator tacos on the menu…

Image: Alyson Hurt https://www.flickr.com/photos/alykat/

 

Food Glorious Food (part 2)

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Hackney, the part of east London where I live, has certainly been made culturally richer, and its eating options yummier, by a long history of waves of immigration. If I walk the length of Kingsland Road, I’ll pass though Vietnamese, Chinese, West Africa, Turkish and Orthodox Jewish communities – and their eateries.

But the biggest food influx in east London in recent years has been…yes, American food. Within easy walking distance of my home in Hackney and where I work, a little further south, there are countless rib rooms, multitudes of dirty burger options, red velvet cupcakes and whoopie pies galore, and no shortage of speakeasy gin bars. And not only have east Londoners been chowing down on barbecue and fondant icing, and slurping juleps and Old Fashioneds, for a while, but we’ve also adopted other US dining conventions, like having cocktails with dinner (just fine in my book) and queueing at no reservation restaurants (not so happy about this one, unless I can have a cocktail while I wait).

I think, however, that I can now sense a new trend on the horizon that’s on the verge of displacing the American food that’s been so ubiquitous here in recent years. Just as the humble burger got jazzed up, layered up and priced up into the gourmet delight east London’s hipsters know and love, humble fried chicken has now ben getting the same upmarket treatment at spots like Tramshed and Wishbone.

But I think all this clucking over spicy wings and poussin is actually part of something even bigger and newer than the fast food-gone-gourmet scene. There’s so much more to chicken than American-style fried chicken, divine as it can be at the right place. Many cultures across the world love chicken and think of it as their own – just ask the Singaporeans, or Jewish people – but right now I’d like to highlight the fact that it’s at the centre of French cusine.

You may think the promise of “a chicken in every pot” is something US presidents say. However, it was in fact first used as a political slogan by late sixteenth/early seventeenth century French king Henri IV. And a cousin of a friend who works in a very swanky London restaurant, says the smart money on the London dining scene is looking east to Paris rather than west to New York these days.

And round where I live in Hackney, French or French-ish restaurants are sprouting up everywhere – east Londoners, have you tried Oui Madame or Bouchon Fourchette yet?

Just to be clear, we’re talking French food Hackney-style here – the informality of the indigenous greasy spoons and the more recent US diner trend has made an indelible impact on how any food gets served up here. This is not slices of kiwi fruit and raspberry coulis novelle cusine-style dishes. We’re talking peasant food and Parisian café fare – croque monsieur, coq au vin and proper chocolate mousse, all washed down with humble vin rouge.

I even reckon there are signs that this new-style earthy French food is even making its presence felt in the Big Apple. For instance, the latest foodie craze there is a doughnut (ok, if you insist – donut)/croissant hybrid that apparently has Manhattanites queuing round the block every morning.

But if I want American food with a little bit of je ne sais quois, I know where I’m going. New Orleans was always there already, taking African dishes and adapting them with French techniques, or making a French staple from local ingredients and creating something new and special in the process.

New Orleans food is my favourite food in the whole world. For anyone like me who was brought up standard European home cooking, eating gumbo or beignets in New Orleans feels like a departure, but also a homecoming to somewhere you never knew you belonged. Is there a better way to represent America on a plate?