Yes, but it's a wet heat
When I left New Orleans as a young adult to pursue an education and later a career in other parts of America, I quickly realized that simply being from the 504 carried with it a certain exotic quality. “Wait,” new acquaintances would say, “you’re actually FROM New Orleans? I never thought that someone could, you know...grow up there…”
And so would begin my attempt to tell them what it was like to grow up in the land of hurricanes, nutria in the canals, airborne cockroaches, crawfish boils, and, of course, Carnival. But the next question they’d inevitably always ask rarely had to do with costuming, with the city’s natural splendor and magnificent architecture, or the fact that we graced the world with inventions like cotton candy and movie theaters. This, more often than not, is what I’d hear:
“Isn’t it, like, really hot in New Orleans?”
To which I’d respond with a patient, “Yes. Yes it is.” In the same way that you’d reply to a child if they asked if the swimming pool was wet, or if the moon is far away. This, in philosophy circles, is known as an “a priori truth,” something that, by its very nature, is true. Like “ice is cold” or “1 = 1.” That said, just telling someone that “New Orleans is hot” does a disservice to the unique nature of New Orleans heat. Because it’s not just hot.
Think I’m kidding? Imagine yourself driving down I-10 on a hot July day in New Orleans, just after the typical torrid, hour-long summer rainstorm. The pavement has been literally baking in the relentless sun, and then, as it always does, that rain pours down and then simply turns into steam, leaving you literally driving through the clouds. If you’ve never experienced this phenomenon, the first time it happens to you, you’d swear you were driving an experimental rover on the surface of an alien planet.
And then there’s the “soup factor.” People in other parts of the country, particularly the deserts of the southwest, refer to their climate as a “dry heat,” as in, “Yeah, it’s 400 trillion degrees outside...but at least it’s a dry heat.” No such luck in New Orleans. It’s hot, and it’s wet, and you know it as soon as you take one step outside of your beautifully air-conditioned home or office. When this happens, you’re enveloped in what some locals refer to as “the soup,” since the climate in these situations is less represented by traditional air than by a thick, steaming bowl of file gumbo. The sweat begins immediately, and it is all-encompassing. The notion of “antiperspirant” is a joke. Stay in the soup long enough, and it will suck the marrow from the bones of your soul.
However, in true New Orleans fashion, we’ve learned to live and deal with our oppressive soup with good cheer and panache. How does one survive a New Orleans summer? It’s simple. Step one: cool down from the inside out. This means copious amounts of iced tea, iced coffee, icy-cold draught beer, frozen daiquiris, and, naturally, sno-balls. If your belly is cool, you’ll be cool, too.
Step two: Seek out conditioned air like a bloodhound on the scent. Ever wonder why New Orleanians tend to linger so long “making groceries” for their family dinner during the dog days of late July and August? Yeah, no secret there. Supermarkets and corner stores are deliciously cool when the mercury spikes, and everyone knows it.
Step three: Embrace it. This is the most Zen-like advice any New Orleanian can offer when it comes to dealing with summer in the subtropics, our home-spun version of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Only in this case you’re joining a climate that wants nothing more than to braise you in its silky, liquid heat like a pork shoulder. As soon as you accept the heat for what it is, the sooner you’ll realize that it’s not as painful as you thought it was. You’ll sweat. And you know what? Sweating is the body’s way of cooling you down. Also, it makes you look extremely sexy and sultry. During summertime, the inhabitants of New Orleans have a glow about them, a complex and inimitable mixture of perspiration and laissez faire attitude only found in places as steamy and wonderfully complicated as the Crescent City. So catch that heat wave, and ride it.
But if all else fails, just go to a movie theater. After all, we did invent them.
Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, Thrillist, Edible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.