Full disclosure: I’m a New Orleanian, and I hate kale. I know that I hate it because I’ve had it in a variety of dishes, all eaten in my beloved city. My city, by the way, is oft cited as one of the best food cities in America, if not the world. I know this because I did completely scientific research on the subject by googling the phrases, “best food city” and “best cities for food” and then clicking on all of the links. I also have a host of anecdotal evidence based on my experiences in restaurants and kitchens all over the city. But that’s neither here nor there. I also have seen with my very eyes kale being sold not ten blocks from my extraordinarily well-kept house with original wood flooring and pocket doors from the 1830s. People in my neighborhood are more likely to spend their time finding their opera-length kid gloves than they are consulting with a Voodoo priestess. In fact, I’ve never once consulted with one in my entire life. “How is this possible?” you must ask. According to the recent New York Times article, every day I must pass through run-down crack dens filled with a lively mix of people eating fried everything and listening to underground brass bands made up of wise magical negroes who have something very important to tell us about their simpler way of life. I would say I hate to burst your bubble, but bubble-bursting is something I enjoy, especially when it comes to portrayals of New Orleans.
Growing up here, I ate mostly home-cooked, freshly sourced meals. Fried food, while delicious, was more of a treat than a regular staple of my diet. I lived Uptown, which is a world away from the idea of New Orleans most visitors and recent transplants have. While I had access to world-class music, I rarely partook in seeking it out. It still found me, mostly during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and Super Sunday, and gave me a deep appreciation for it, but I was never once kept up to all hours because of a band playing outside of my window. That’s not my New Orleans. That’s not the New Orleans of most of the people I know. I know locals, or people who have embraced local ways of life. And just as Gatsby would never be from East Egg, transplants who can only see the seedy underbelly as the “real culture” of New Orleans will never, ever, ever be New Orleanians.
The culture of New Orleans is vast, expanding from the secretive rituals of the krewes formed by old-money, Southern aristocracy to the secretive rituals of the krewes of working-class Indians. If you can’t see the similarities and differences between the two, you do not understand New Orleans. The culture of New Orleans includes everything from Vic & Nat’ly, to Vietnamese bakeries, to that one house on St. Charles with the killer Halloween decorations, to the buskers on Frenchmen, to a dix pack of sixie. It is not one of these things. To pigeonhole it as such is to miss the beauty of the city.
This is not to say that I’m blind to the deep poverty in this city. I’ve certainly witnessed my share of it. I went to public school in Orleans Parish. It was one of the best ranked public elementary schools in the state and one of very few public Montessori schools I have heard of. Education there was not based on how much you had, but rather your desire to learn. Even still, the majority of the kids who went there were part of the free lunch program. They sat right alongside the rich kids whose parents were excited by the ability to get a quality, Montessori education without paying exorbitant fees. My educational experience there just illustrates how complicated the juxtapositions in this city really are. It’s something New Orleanians see all around us. It’s something interlopers never can quite grasp the subtleties of.
My fiancé, who has lived in New Orleans since right before Katrina, had never attended a Mardi Gras Ball until three years ago. He was shocked by the exacting protocols of it, many of which have been in place since the late 1800s. Here he was, thinking that he knew New Orleans, only to find yet another side to the city he was completely unaware of. While he has nothing but the greatest reverence for the absurdities and nuances of this city, he’s still just outside of local status. He knows it though, and works hard to be able to say things like, “I didn’t go to school here, but my fiancée went to Franklin and NOCCA.” and know exactly how the other people in the conversation now view me, him, and our relationship to the city. New Orleanians know that this city is multifaceted. We know what the differences between formal, tea-length, and cocktail are dresses are, just as well as we know what the differences between cajun and creole cooking are.
For all that I keep using “us” and “we” in this article, “we” are not one thing. I know people who have lived here their whole lives and have never once been to Vaughn’s. They have, however, had their own waiter at Galatoire’s since before they could speak. I know people who have lived here their whole lives who have never been to Galatoire’s. While those people should really go because the food is super killer, it makes sense that they haven’t, because we are not one thing. My New Orleans is some kind of combination. My father teases me that I am planning an “Uptown snobby bitch” wedding in a Victorian mansion catered by a prominent New Orleans food dynasty. Still, this Uptown, snobby bitch wants a full brass band, because I can mesh those two worlds without a second thought. So, while I don’t like kale, plenty of others in this city do. Unsurprisingly, they can find it just down the street in their New Orleans.