Today’s mantra is: push the envelope, but don’t forget to mail the letter. Let’s be truthful: It is impossible to be honest in New Orleans. And it is even harder to speak to a full belly about hunger. But New Orleans is at a pivotal point in its history; when this city is embracing change, not eschewing it, America’s food capital is becoming a food desert.
Our love of food is our hubris. Our gluttony has sowed the seeds of a food desert. We have nowhere to buy fresh food, public or wholesale. We have more Taco Bells in New Orleans than organic farms in Louisiana. Dining options are incessantly popping-up, but food is not staying put. Chain stores and city-sanctioned food courts are being built, subsidized, and buoyed by local government. But where is our culinary affirmative action? Where is the municipal support for healthy food that our unhealthy city needs? Our farmers markets are waltzing ever closer to a spectacular plateau. Corporate food stores (and chain stores which sell food) are opening with greater frequency. What diamonds we have are decentralized, short- term stitches in a long-term quilt. All the while, we citizens are receiving more of what we don’t want and less of what we need.
New Orleans’ cuisine—nonpareil at its worst, life-changing at its best—was created by proximity and precedence. This intersection of cultures engendered an architecture of singular exceptionality; it was as if the Tower of Babel had a restaurant on its ground floor. Everything was predicated on what was local, that is, on hand. Ingredients, equipment, recipes, and artisans annealed an identity exceptional, and isolated. This spleen of America was the confluence of culture— music, fashion, language, customs, rhetoric—and that is nowhere more apparent than in our food.
Today, it’s not the past which is threatened, but the future. We are dedicated to the preservation of the past because we are unprepared for the future: nowhere is this fear more manifest than on our plates. While the availability of prepared food (dining) is at an apex, real food—the kind we eat everyday—is in a ditch. We have nothing to eat at home, so we go out. We are hypnotized by the trends, the names, the choices—drunk with the perceived democracy of it all. But the helium is making us all dizzy, and gravity will hurt when the bubble pops: we are fed the sizzle and not the steak.
Simply put, healthy and sustainable food is not being created (or encouraged) in New Orleans or Louisiana. All our sugar, grits, rice, and flour are still lily white. Our eggs, meat, and dairy are imported. Southeast Asian shrimp and crawfish lurk in too many restaurant kitchens and on grocery shelves. Homogeneous and pasteurized calories are grown thousands of miles away, then sent here to be consumed in a transaction. It’s like a constant Christmas with so much packaging: are we unpacking lunch or presents?
We have spent so much time clutching our forks and stirring our drinks that we have disregarded the menu’s menu. We don’t ask where or how, only what and when, because not enough chefs, grocers, or bakers do. We know the trivial hiccups of every short-tooth celebrity chef, but we don’t know any farmers. Or millers. Or ranchers. Or bee-keepers. We don’t know our food because we don’t know the people who make it, or the soil that grows it. And that relationship can never be bought or shopped for.
In the words of a mentor, “What geographical bedrock is absent below New Orleans is present above.” Our emotional, human grit is rich, deep—a long, winding corollary that tethers us to this City. And through this City, to each other. That umbilical cord is nourishment—cultural, social, political—but it literally transports the healthiness of food. And if we do not earnestly cultivate those calories, we will be lost. We must be stewards of the City and Region—its soil, its people, its wetlands its water, its agency—and we cannot do that until we take seriously the erosion of access, now an anti-access, to fresh, local food. We have the infrastructure, we have the appetite, and most importantly, we have the precedent.
The pyramid must be inverted and the paradigm must be shifted. We cannot favor corporations, developers, or entrepreneurs who have no relationship or experience with food to run our markets or groceries. The bottom line is food, not finance. Biodiversity, integrity, and long-term vision must be incentivized and encouraged. We must embrace substance over form, subsidize policy and people, not property. Invest rather than extract; teach the beauty of straight lines and not the hustle towards angles. People who make food should sell food. (Or the people close to its creation should). Fresh, healthy food becomes affordable as it becomes widely available. We must have a long-term, dedicated re-focus and re-structuring of the nature of supply. In other words, we must nurture the Nature in supply.
Graison S. Gill
Owner, Bellegarde Bakery