I am pushing my pine-green shopping cart—or buggy, as we say in Louisiana—through the wide, colorful aisles of the Whole Foods that recently opened up in Baton Rouge. This food-lover’s nirvana has people running up their credit cards with such items as chocolate almond tangerine cookies, mild basil-chipotle pesto and salmon so fresh it’s practically still swimming. The store opened, to much fanfare, in late July. Now it’s mid-September, just two weeks after Katrina, but business is brisk.
I always thought that people who obsessed about food, like my friend Mark, who regularly drove the 70 miles into New Orleans from Baton Rouge to get the exact right ingredient for whatever divine concoction he was whipping up, were basically nuts. With millions dying of malnutrition in far-away places, all this concentration on food struck me as being, well, downright unseemly. But something happened to me along the way from idealistic undergraduate to middle-age mom, and now, like Mark, I dream about creamy meetha kaddoo, homemade fusilli with zucchini and basil sauce, and expensive Swiss chocolate.
In the meantime, there is Katrina—the shameful spectacle of Americans dying for lack of emergency resources, the tens of thousands of newly homeless, and New Orleans, the queen of the South, buried under tons and tons of toxic muck. In the shelter where I’ve been volunteering, people who once worked on river barges, taught in the public schools, tended gardens, fixed cars and worked in restaurants huddle on fold-out canvas cots, hundreds and hundreds of them, their clothing bunched in black plastic Glad bags, their families scattered, their homes and jobs and photographs and family recipes gone. Indeed, these are the working poor—proud people who have never asked for a handout or a dime from Uncle Sam, who have now been rendered homeless, without ever having made enough money to have much in the way of savings. Here at the Baton Rouge convention center, the Red Cross is serving hundreds of meals a day: ready-to-eat, microwavable containers of lasagna, hamburgers. fried chicken and grits, paid for, in the main, by private funds. Thank God no one here is going hungry.
You have to work hard to find a bad meal in New Orleans—or so we used to tell our friends who wanted advice about where to eat in the Big Easy. Like its music, the varied cuisine of New Orleans was high-brow and low-brow, a saucy, excitable and wholly original American art form, combining the local love of hot spices with the flavors of the world. There were some 50 oyster bars in New Orleans, fancy cafes serving the finest Creole cuisine, corner joints where you could munch on world-class po-boys while you watched the Saints getting demolished on TV, and soul food so good you wondered why anyone was ever unhappy.
In Judaism, the religion into which I was born, more often than not the rabbis teach the middle way. Thus, it’s all right to consume beef, but one must do it with a certain awareness that the cow, like any living creature, was created by the Almighty, and is hence a small piece of Divine Unity. So too it’s okay to enjoy life’s sensual bounty. We bless God because He is the creator of the bounty that sustains us and gives us such ridiculous— even heavenly—pleasure.
But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is it okay to buy a $14 bottle of extra-virgin olive oil? In the wake of Katrina, is it permitted to sit at my kitchen table, reading Marcella Hazan?
Amazingly, at the first shelter where I worked—set up overnight in an abandoned Kmart to serve the sick and the elderly—the food was fabulous: red beans and rice; seafood gumbo; po boys on thick French bread; and chewy, rich chocolate chip cookies. Every bit of it was supplied, gratis, by local caterers. But in the enormous Red Cross shelter at the convention center, things are a bit more basic. Not that anyone’s griping about it.
James is a handsome, lean, tall black man in his late 50s, who, because he didn’t have a car, weathered the storm in his New Orleans apartment building. For two weeks after the levees broke, James rescued old people, sick people, and dozens of dogs and cats with the help of an improvised boat. His feet are covered in sores; his legs look like sacks. Before the storm, he was a cook—first at New Orleans’ famed racetrack and later at Mike Anderson’s, a popular seafood restaurant. He can’t wait to get back to the kitchen.
When I ask him how the food at the shelter is, he shrugs, flashes me a smile and says, “Baby, I can’t complain.” And thus it is here in the strangest of makeshift communities, with people who have everything in the world to complain about gracefully accepting their circumstances and, in the main, showing gratitude.
I’ve been showered with thanks, with “you so sweet, dahlin’,” and “the folks here been right good to me,” and “it ain’t Momma’s home cooking, but it ain’t bad either.” I’ve been blessed, hugged, patted, told that I’m an angel. This in a place where 500 sleep in the same room, and the noise from announcements coming through the P.A. system never ceases.
America, the breadbasket of the world. Louisiana, home of the world’s warmest people.
And in my own home, just two miles from the cavernous River Center shelter, where James and others like him are grateful for the food that sustains them, my cabinets are filled with olive paste, Indian spices and five different kinds of vinegar. What do I do with this? Where do we go from here? And what’s to become of the land of gumbo and shrimp etoufee?
Jennifer Moses lives with her husband and three children in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is the author of Food and Whine, a memoir, and writes regularly for The New York Times and The Washington Post.