Thinking In London About The Flooding In Louisiana

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I had what I was going to write this week all planned, but I changed my mind as more and more information and images came through regarding the terrible flooding in Louisiana.

The first thing to say is that I’m hugely saddened by what has happened, particularly the news of the deaths that are reported to have been caused by the flooding, and I send my sympathies and good wishes to all who have been affected.

I have been impressed, but not surprised, by how much the New Orleans community has been supporting those affected by the floods – in terms of cash donations, food and other practical supplies, and emotional solidarity, which I think is also important.

This quote, cited in this article in the Times-Picayune, from Amy Cyrex Sins of restaurant and cookery school Langlois, really struck me: “I think we all know after Katrina what it’s like to be hot, sweaty, wearing the same clothes or someone else’s clothes that have been given to you. There are a lot of people who are tired, but people are really coming together.”

What has surprised me is how little coverage the floods have had in the media elsewhere, particularly in the UK where I live. A notable exception is this article in the  Guardian, which points out that the floods are part of a bigger picture of extreme weather events occurring across the world as a result of climate change.

This article and others making similar points are good reminders that while the Louisiana floods are in some ways very particular to their location, they are also one element of something that is pretty much everyone’s problem and that we shouldn’t be ignoring, in the UK as much as anywhere else. We often now have serious and sometimes life-threatening winter floods in the UK and it takes the huge Thames Barrier to protect London from the powerful waters of the Thames estuary.

Finally, I wanted to flag up that in the many excellent articles I have seen listing some of the ways that people can help with flood relief (thanks are due here to @UtopiaforCynics who sent me some great information), there are also options for people who live outside Louisiana or even, like me, outside the US, so can’t volunteer or contribute food or clothes in person.

You could mail items through an online store. You could make a donation. And there is one donation option that caught my eye in particular. Called the “Nola Pay It Forward Fund”, it’s designed primarily for those in New Orleans to help their neighbouring parishes. But whether you’re thinking from a cultural, environmental or simply human perspective, it’s hard to deny that we’re all neighbours of a sort, so I would say it’s a good way for anyone to help.

Image: Thomas Cizauskas

A Louisiana Sandwich in London

This Friday, I spied a sandwich in the cafe near my office that I just had to have: a “Louisiana tuna melt”.

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Mmm – doesn’t look that great, does it? And, no, it didn’t match the standards of the legendary Louisiana sandwiches that I’ve been lucky enough to eat over the years.

There’s the quarter-muffuletta from Central Grocery on Decatur, for example – I dare you to try to consume a whole, or even a half, one. I have a big appetite, but this New Orleans-special sandwich, reportedly invented at this very store by Sicilian immigrants many years ago, is bigger.

Done properly, it’s made of mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone, sandwiched together with olive salad on a round Italian sesame loaf with the crisp yet soft texture that’s characteristic of the city’s breads, and which makes them European and not-European at the same time.

It’s my leaving-New Orleans sandwich for some reason – I ate my first one in Memphis after the long train journey up the Mississippi; my second in Louis Armstrong Airport waiting for a flight to Houston; and my third when jetlagged at home in London, improvised from not-quite-right British ingredients but pulled together by a jar of Boscoli olive salad I’d received as a present and carried home in my suitcase.

Then there’s the smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly sandwich served up at renowned New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s restaurant Bayona. Now I have to confess that I’ve never had this one, but I’ve read so many delectable accounts of what it tastes like that I almost feel I have.

I particularly want to try this sandwich because duck is special in my family – we often have it for big-occasion meals, and it’s a favourite of my sister, who now lives very far away, even further from London than New Orleans. My dad, meanwhile, once served up duck to a nephew of a US president, but that’s a long story for another time.

I also crave this sandwich for the way of thinking it seems to represent as well as its flavour – when people write about what can sound like an overly jazzed-up take on a classic PB&J, they often comment that it’s actually simple and good value (currently $15) as well as delicious, which for me is an essential ingredient of truly good food.

Finally there’s my ultimate Louisiana sandwich, the one I go and have without fail as soon as I arrive in New Orleans: the fried shrimp and oyster po-boy from French Quarter deli Verti Marte. Former chef and writer Anthony Bourdain loves it; I love it, and, soft and crisp, spicy and sweet, it always makes me feel like the part of me that lives in New Orleans is home again.

So no, this London sandwich – a hot tuna and cheese combo on focaccia with some red chillis – didn’t quite compare. But actually, it wasn’t too bad. Eating fish on Friday always feels right to me. Melted cheddar on toasted bread is never a bad idea. And the gentle heat of the pepper slices was a tasty and unusual addition to a lunchtime standard.

It was warm and filling, familiar and yet surprising – a good end-of-the-week treat that made me a little bit happier. Its ingredients might differ from those you’d find in a real Louisiana sandwich, but these are certainly characteristics I associate with the food there that I love.

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Death, Film And Taxes

2013-07-14 23.03.41I watched Interview with the Vampire this weekend, the largely Louisiana-set 1994 Neil Jordan film based on the Anne Rice novel of the same name.

I’ve read the book recently (love it), but hadn’t seen the film since my last year at school, over fifteen years ago. That was long before I’d visited Louisiana, so it was interesting to watch it again knowing the state and New Orleans in particular, though of course there are one or two differences between Jordan’s dark and theatrical settings and the state today.

Large portions of the film were filmed on location in Louisiana, though – for instance, lead character Louis de Pointe du Lac’s estate is Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, and the house where he sets his onetime companion Lestat on fire is in fact the building known as Madame John’s Legacy at 632 Dumaine Street.

Since the mid-1990s, a fair few more movies have been filmed or partially filmed in the state, including two vampire flicks schoolgirls are probably more likely to be found watching today – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Part 2, and the superlative Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact, Louisiana boasts more cinematic activity than any other state in the US apart from California and New York, with New Orleans being nicknamed “Hollywood South”.

Popularity with filmmakers is something Louisiana has in common with London, where film production also continues to boom. Those making movies here also show an appetite for horror, with zombie films being some of the best-loved London productions over the past decade – see 2004’s Shaun of the Deador the more recent Cockneys vs Zombies.

I’d love to be able to say that London and New Orleans/Louisiana in general have storytelling in their water, or that there’s some mystical quality to these places that makes them particularly magical when looked at through a camera. I do actually think these things could be true, but what’s probably the real reason for their cinematic popularity is more prosaic – both Louisiana and the UK offer hefty tax breaks to filmmakers.

However, I think the association of both places with telling horror stories on film is about more than accounting. London and New Orleans are old cities with long and – partially – dark histories that hover close to their surfaces. They’re also ports, always welcoming a flow of new people, new tales and new money which can mean, in the popular imagination at least, new dangers. Both of these factors make them good settings for all things scary supernatural happenings.

And it’s intriguing that New Orleans and wider Louisiana continue to be associated by filmmakers with vampires, which were popularised in the modern era by Irish-born London resident Bram Stoker through his seminal and partly London-set novel Dracula.

Zombies, meanwhile, London’s silver screen monsters of the moment, have their cultural roots in Haiti, which is not so far from Louisiana, geographically and culturally.

I think it just goes to show that, while bloodsucking and monster munching are a little icky in literal terms for some, even those who don’t love watching a good horror film have to admit that they’re thoroughly good things when seen as metaphors for cross-cultural feeding and fertilisation. As are those juicy tax breaks too, of course.

Food Glorious Food (part 1)

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When I was growing up, it was rare to hear much that was positive said about American food in London. Usually, it was described as acceptable, but bland and unexciting – and in “such large portions!”

If you agree with Alvy Singer, the lead character in Woody Allen’s famous film Annie Hall, that feelings about food and feelings about life in general are comparable, these kinds of comments are depressing for anyone who holds out hope for transatlantic cultural understanding.

However, Allen’s film also contains some beautiful and quintessentially American food scenes that I think showcase some of the deep and subtle flavours specific to American life and culture – I’m thinking Alvy and Annie chasing a live lobster round a New England kitchen, the comparison between their two very different families at dinner, or when they decide to kiss on the way to the deli on their first date so they can enjoy their pastrami sandwiches properly.

But for a long time, people in London generally weren’t familiar with the richness and diversity of American food, or what it reveals about America. In fact, I think sometimes even Americans aren’t familiar with the richness and diversity of American food, or what it reveals about America. Even a thoughtful and knowledgeable commentator like novelist and small-scale farmer Barbara Kingsolver still exhibits a characateristically New World inferiority complex when writing about the cusine of her native land.

In her great work about her Appalachian smallholding and US food culture in general, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, one of my favourite books, she says that American food could be seen as “more an absence than a presence of specific character: not Chinese, not Italian” and asks: “Is it true that ‘American food’ means ‘nothing’?”

She goes on to answer her own question by bringing out what I see as some excellent witnesses for the defence: “We have our New England clam chowder, Louisiana gumbo, southern collards and black-eyed peas.”

But the book also describes a trip to Italy, where Kingsolver raves about the hyperlocal and ancient food culture of the Tuscans and Umbrians. These peoples, she says, “were living on and eating from this carefully honed human landscape more than a thousand years before the Pilgrims learned to bury a fish head under each corn plant in the New World”.

She lovingly describes “the tomatoes dressed with fruity olive oil“, her enchantment with pizza names like “Margherita, Capricciosa, or Quattro Stagioni”, and her attempts to wash and dry the seeds extracted from a zucche di chioggia, a particularly luscious variety of Italian pumpkin.

But tomatoes and pumpkins are native to America – and there’d be no margherita pizza if Europeans hadn’t journeyed across the Atlantic. And the history of most kinds of food, once you look closely, is one of dislocation and hybrid.

It’s arguable that there’s no food with roots in only one place, just as there are no such people, and no places with people of only one type. America’s a melting pot, but so are London and Italy, and all ones that produce very tasty meals.