Wednesday, October 7, 2009

AFJ 2009: Beyond French, Spanish and African-American Hands in the Pot

This year's conference opened on multicultural note, which one would expect from the Crescent City. New Orleans food has many hands in the pot and this panel was devoted to the crossed lines from regions like Croatia, Germany and Latin America into what has become the well-known food of Louisiana. The moderator was Elsa Hahne, author of "You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans." Chef Adolfo Garciai of RioMar noted that saying food is Latino would be the same as assuming that all English-speaking people share a common diet. Croatian native Snjezana Senut-Bjelis noted that her coastal country used mussels in their cooking, but adapted their recipes to incorporate oysters to the point where oysters are now shipped back to Croatia in quantity. Croatians are in Plaquemines Parish, where they can be on the water and fish. The German community brought beer, sausage and baking and settled in the Saints parishes where they learned French and assimilated somewhat, according to Sevilla Finley. One of the best-known German bakeries in New Orleans specialized in French bread. Frieda Waeckerle Arwe, president of the Friends of the German-American Cultural Center (Finley is a co-founder). Arwe focused on the southern most of the 16 states in the country. All German food is fresh. Germans grow everything they cook.

Sauerkraut and red cabbage are featured on Oktoberfest but the sausages are imported from Texas and Illinois to name two places.

Potato pancakes and onion pies (“one of the most fantastic things you can eat,” Arwe notes) are two exports that are well-known for you. The only German restaurant in New Orleans, Kolb’s, closed in 1994. Hahne asked why no one has stepped up since. Arwe notes that assimilation has taken the toll. People don’t know the role Germans played in settling New Orleans. Also, the World Wars saw the muting or elimination of names and cultural touchstones. Some places are doing German cuisine a couple of nights a week.

Rev. Vien Nguyen of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, noted that Vietnamese cooking was scary and unknown in the 70s. Vietnamese chefs often ran Chinese restaurants but had some Vietnamese dishes on the menu. Later, in the 90s, the actual cuisine came to the forefront. Vietnamese also run New Orleans’ Japanese restaurants, but had created hybrids like raw fish wrapped in rice paper. The cuisine uses a lot of seafood, but Vietnamese don’t go for raw oysters. Some Vietnamese eat raw oysters but not with horseradish and Tabasco. Redfish was popular but used in sushi with bread crumbs and sauce with fresh herbs, not blackened. The Vietnamese are along the East Bank and West Bank.

Gar is not popular with Caucasians, but Vietnamese make it into a paste and it’s sweet. Vietnamese don’t eat much bread,as it is not substantial. Rice is more solid for fueling agricultural. Banh mi is the Vietnamese po’boy. Nguyen noted that Vietnamese grow their own herbs and sell them at an open-air market. The market was closed for six months, but it took Winn Dixie two years to come back. Many Vietnamese grow vegetables and herbs in their backyards. Growing grass is an insult. Nguyen likes Gar Kho, simmered croaker with tomato and spices and a three-day cooking time.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

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