Love NOLA: A lesson about eating in New Orleans (for free)
In New Orleans, there is a holy trinity that guides our hearts and lifts our souls: It consists of live music, da Saints and food. Now, I know you’re not supposed to rank-order holy things (unless you are electing a pope and we just did ‘dat!), but, if you were, I’m pretty sure that New Orleanians would name food the holiest of the holy.
After living here almost three years, I know a few people who never go out to hear live music. About 10. I know a handful of people who do not care about the Saints. There are three (and they all are in witness protection). But I have yet to meet a single person who does not wax rhapsodic about our food.
New Orleanians are obsessed with food. We adore food. We get anxious when we are more than two blocks away from food. If you live in New Orleans and you cannot see -- or smell -- food, wherever y’at, well, then, you got a problem.
Food is everywhere here. It’s where you expect it. And, sometimes, where you wouldn’t. But, wherever you see it, you can rest assured of one thing: It’s there for you to eat.
I know this now.
I did not know it when some English friends visited in late 2010 (think more Charles and Camilla than Wills and Kate). I had lived in Treme only a few months and wanted to take them to our storied Candlelight Lounge for their last night. I had only been to the Candlelight once before, but had fallen instantly in love with its music, its dirty dancing …and its setups.
So, there we were. In a Treme bar. On a Sunday night. Two Brits and one still very Boston boy (I think I even shaved before going out). It took awhile, but eventually the music and the setups got us to dirty dancing right along with everybody else.
After awhile, the younger version of Prince Charles pointed to a table in the back.
It had a red and white plastic tablecloth over it, a crock pot, two aluminum tins, an igloo cooler and a stack of white napkins … with a brick on top. There was a Rouses bag that looked like it had an assortment of plates and utensils in it. Perched on a stack of chairs was what looked to be a cake box. Every now and then, someone would amble over there and re-fill their plate.
“What is that?” Prince Charles asked. “I’m a bit hungry.”
I didn’t have a clue, so I asked a dirty dancer as she bumped and grinded past me.
“Oh, that’s for Angie,” she said. “She's making 36 today.”
I took this to mean that Angie was turning 36 so I relayed to my friends that what we saw were the makings for a birthday party, adding "It must be a private party because the Candlelight doesn't have a kitchen."
With that, this Boston boy and that Brit couple nodded at one another in polite, reserved agreement and took our leave, in search of more, um, public food.
A few days later I told a neighbor this story. She asked what any true New Orleanian would ask: “What’d they have?”
I told her that I didn’t know. “It was a private party,” I said, “since I didn’t know the woman, we left. We didn’t want to eat someone else's food.”
My neighbor burst out laughing.
“Honey, you live in New Orleans now. There is no such thing as a private party. It doesn’t matter whether you know the person or not. You live here. That’s all you need to know.”
A few minutes later, I got a text from this same neighbor.
“Wait,” it said. “Don’t tell me that you left there and went and BOUGHT food somewhere.”
When I told her that that was exactly what we did, she texted back: “Stop it!!! You walked away from free food so you could go buy food? You got a lot to learn about living in New Orleans.”
I did have a lot to learn. Back then.
And, I still have a lot to learn. Today.
But I tell you what. Now, no matter what I learn or where I learn it, there’s always a plate of food in my hand. And, often times, it’s free.
Brett Will Taylor is a southern Shaman who writes Love NOLA weekly for NolaVie. Visit his site at ashamansjourney.net.
Brett Will Taylor is a southern storyteller whose previous column, Love NOLA, appeared weekly on NolaVie. He now shares his stories at Brett Will Taylor: A Storyteller and his Stories. Follow him @bwtshaman.