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H A R D L E S S ON S I N T HE B IG E A S Y As New Orleans rebuilds, a storied tradition of food and drink struggles to survive — and long-hidden crises come to the fore
PHOTO CREDITS FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: TROMBONE PLAYER: STEVE STEVENS; EMORY THOMPSON: STEVE STEVENS; BEACHED BOAT AND COPTER: GEOFF HILL
BY STEVE STEVENS
ere’s something odd : In a city with some of the richest food and
drink traditions in the world, my most meaningful cultural experience was dinner with a homeless guy. Life is, as they say, full of surprises. He was standing by the bright red and yellow Lucky Dog stand in the French Quarter, on the corner of Bienville and Bourbon Streets. I was there snapping pictures for a magazine article. It was about three in the afternoon on Aug. 19, just 10 days before Hurricane Katrina would turn the city into a soggy war zone, but on that Friday, it was still the old New Orleans: the quirky one from A Confederacy Of Dunces; the festive one fixed in the minds of millions of Mardi Gras revelers; the tragic one from the pen of Tennessee Williams; and the personal one that I remember from so many of my own blurry trips to the French Quarter. A marvelous gumbo of hoboes and tourists, soccer moms and burnt-out party girls, all wandering Bourbon Street’s famous filth in the midafternoon sun. It was a sight only Bacchus, the benevolent Roman god of revelry, could love. My new friend and future dinner date told me his name was Emory Thompson, a 50-year-old born and raised in The Big Easy. He had a broad smile and a kid’s unbridled laugh, which first erupted when he saw my pen that lights up when you click it. Image on left: A trombone player works Jackson Square before Katrina. Center image: From left, Frank the Lucky Dog vendor and native New Orleanian Emory Thompson. Images on right: Moving beached boats and downed helicopters are a small part of the rebuilding of New Orleans.
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“Whoa, ho!” he guffawed. “I never seen a pen like that! That’s a light inside!” “Yeah,” I said, holding the pen out to him. “You can have it if you want. I have another one.” “All right!” he cried happily, taking the pen and clicking the light on and off a few times. Printed on the pen’s side were the words “Southern Comfort.”
W I N E I N D U S T RY P OU R S I T S H E A RT OU T Lots of people like Emory were affected — and disaffected — by the storm. But they weren’t all homeless. In fact, many of them worked in the hospitality industry, the very industry I had gone to New Orleans to cover in the first place. Roughly 55,000 people worked in the city’s estimated 3,400 restaurants, and thanks to Katrina, they were all suddenly unemployed. The professional food-and-drink community is especially tightknit, however, so it’s not surprising that the wine industry quickly got involved in relief efforts. Vintners and wineries are putting such a stake in helping all Katrina victims — not just restaurant and bar workers — that many fundraisers read like a who’s who of the American
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I said, my most meaningful cultural experience came from that dinner with my homeless friend. “I can guide you through the Quarter blindfolded,” Emory said to me confidently that Friday. So we waved goodbye to Frank, the Lucky Dog vendor, and wound down Bienville Street and over to Jackson Square, where Mauck, the big tuba player, was warming up with a few other musicians. We sat there and had our convenience-store dinner on the hot, white concrete steps of the Louisiana State Museum, enjoying two big bottles of Schlitz Malt Liquor and an oyster po’ boy sandwich (my treat). We listened and watched as the brass band blew their horns and shouted to the passing crowds. I’ve had tastier meals (and better food-and-malt-liquor pairings) but none more memorable; and it wasn’t because of the music, the food or the drinks. It was because of what Emory told me. “You know, there are a lot of things that you don’t see,” he said. “Things that they don’t like to show the writers and picture-takers. Like that Asian woman who got murdered in an over-the-counter shooting. Or the single mom trying to raise three kids without a husband. You know they’re tearing down all these housing projects? They
“You know, there are a lot of things that you don’t see. Things that they don’t like to show the writers and picture takers.” — EMORY THOMPSON, NEW ORLEANIAN
wine industry [see page 22 for the story of wineries coming to the rescue]. Top boutique producers in Napa, such as Screaming Eagle, took part in a Washington, D.C., wine auction for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. Nine Paso Robles wineries made individual donations, and almost 30 more are trying to raise $100,000. A Petite Sirah consortium called P.S. I Love You is supplying Katrina evacuees with meals. The Fess Parker Winery is donating $10,000 and organizing a December toy drive for children affected by the disaster. The list goes on: Wente, Trinchero, Clos LaChance, B.R. Cohn and the Napa Valley Vintners are all pitching in to help. The final aid tally is sure to be worth millions.
TA L E S O F N E W O R L E A N S At the moment, it looks like New Orleans will need every cent of that money to recover from Katrina’s destruction, but when I was there for a sticky few days in the middle of August, the city was in fine form. That week, Southern Comfort, the New Orleansborn liqueur company, put on a whale of an event called Tales of the Cocktail. It happened in the Quarter’s best restaurants, bars and hotels. Authors talked up the colorful history of famous drinks like the daiquiri and mojito (apparently a good deal of credit goes to Ernest Hemingway for both). A master distiller showed how whiskey got to be whiskey. There were startlingly good dinners at famous New Orleans eateries, such as Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s. At Harrah’s casino, there was the very Vegas-esque opening of a $43 million entertainment club, replete with high-kicking dancing girls and an appearance by Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger’s ex. “Impressive,” said Wayne Curtis, a rum historian who had traveled from Maine to attend the Tales of the Cocktail event. “There’s a lot of money to be lost here.” Then there was my temporary New Orleans home, the Hotel Monteleone. Literary icons Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty wrote affectionately about the hotel and its garish rotating carousel bar. For an American literature geek like me, the experience of staying there was nothing less than spiritual. Countless people passionate about food and drink have had similarly moving experiences in The Big Easy, but according to one local, the bars and restaurants are not the Crescent City’s true lifeblood.
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P O ’ B OY S A N D P E O P L E “It’s the people that make New Orleans tick,” said Archie Casbarian, whose family has owned the famed Arnaud’s restaurant since 1978. I think he’s right, because it’s the New Orleanians I remember most and wonder about, like Matthew Maas, the mellow 26-year-old street artist; Jeff Carter and Eddie Mack, whose liquor-truck route took them through the Quarter each week; Amy, the world-weary twenty-something barkeep at Ryan’s Pub. And Lou Giglio, the colorful Italian-Creole veteran of 47 Mardi Gras celebrations who was fond of joking, “In New Orleans, death by cirrhosis of the liver is death by natural causes.” Well, half-joking, anyway. Casbarian described them all perfectly in a phrase: “New Orleans people aren’t caught up in work. There’s no hectic pace here.” Indeed, they all had interesting stories to tell, and the stories usually came over a sumptuous bite to eat and a strong cocktail; but, as
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took down the one in St. Thomas and people were just dyin’ everywhere. They didn’t have anything to eat, nowhere to sleep, no jobs. It was like a genocide.” He went on to describe local killings and abductions, foreshadowing the post-storm atrocities that would soon be shown ad nauseam over the world’s television and computer screens. New Orleans’ dangerous side has never been a secret, but the unexpurgated firsthand accounts were nonetheless shocking.
A NEW BEGINNING The pretty side of the revered New Orleans food-and-drink culture was supposed to be the subject of this piece, but Katrina didn’t cooperate. She flipped that culture and the rest of the city on its back, exposing all the dirty, embarrassing parts that the kitschy glitz of the Big Easy used to cover up. And she washed the patina from that culture’s most pompous affectations; because when people are dying in the streets, no one cares which side of the plate the salad fork goes on. As the deaths, recriminations and indignities slowly pass into difficult memories, the New Orleans hospitality industry rightly focuses on how to reopen its doors, how to spin again the glittering web of gaiety. But the industry is struggling with some tough economic questions: Can even the great restaurants that survived the storm stay solvent until the city repopulates? Will the wealth of kitchen and bar talent that fled Katrina ever come back? How long will it be before the city’s infrastructure can support a steady flow of delivery trucks and returning tourists? These are big questions that require big answers, and the Big Easy’s rebirth will take a concerted national effort. But as we undertake that effort, let’s not forget about the people like Emory, whom progress often leaves behind. Because if we wait again for the crawfish to hit the fan, it’ll be too late. And, once more, there’ll be little to do but pick up the pieces. Steve Stevens is The Wine Report’s associate editor.
The Wine Report searched for Mr. Thompson in more than 40 national databases and registries of Katrina evacuees to check on his condition, but could not locate him.
U.S. wine professionals big and small are finding ways to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina When Santa Barbara’s Fess Parker Winery decided to name its new Syrah “The Big Easy,” Louisiana was a natural place to go for a marketing trip. The winery’s representative for the Southeast planned to travel there first and then fan out across several other nearby states. The plan, however, got derailed — by unexpected success. “Louisiana took every bottle we had,” says Ashley Parker, Fess Parker Winery’s executive vice president. Now Parker is repaying the favor by donating $10,000 from ‘02 and ‘03 Big Easy sales to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. The winery also plans to hold a toy drive in early December for children affected by Hurricane Katrina. Around the country and the world, thousands of wine professionals are getting involved to help victims of the storm. While we can’t list them all due to space restrictions, here’s a partial list of the vino-philanthropists and their charitable activities: Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance members hope to raise $100,000 or more for the New Orleans food-and-wine community in a variety of ways. Some examples are donations of tasting-room sales, percentages of wine sales and merchandise sales. Among the many wineries participating are: · Bonny Doon Vineyard · J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine · L’Aventure Winery · Norman Vineyards · Peachy Canyon Winery Livermore Valley’s Wente Vineyards raised $27,000 for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund in a wine auction. Bill Cosby also chipped in by performing live at Wente’s Estate. Wente is continuing to raise money in an attempt to get total contributions up to $50,000. Trinchero Family Estates also hopes to donate $50,000 by encouraging its employees to contribute to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund or the United Way. The company will match employee donations, up to a total of $25,000. Screaming Eagle, Colgin Cellars and Turley are among the wineries that participated in a wine auction that raised more than $112,000. The Congressional Wine Caucus and the California State Society held the auction in Washington D.C. in October. Six magnums of Turley were among the blocks sold. Proceeds benefited the Bush- Clinton Katrina Relief Fund. Southern Wine & Spirits of America, the United States’ largest wine and spirits distributor, announced that along with its 10,000 employees, it has collected and donated approximately $372,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company, donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Also, subsidiaries Icon Estates and Constellation Wines U.S. will each match employee donations to the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund, up to $25,000. And both companies have made unspecified cash donations to the Republic Beverage Company Katrina Relief Fund. Constellation’s total contributions are in excess of $175,000.
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