Because of the weekend long excursion to see Kevin Costner and Modern West at the Beau Rivage with my family, I wasn’t near a TV for HBO’s Treme. Today, I called the good people of Cox and subscribed to HBO so I could catch up. First up was a special called Treme: Beyond Bourbon St., a peek into the people and ideas that make up the series.
I was thrilled to see that the series will be using footage from this year’s Super Sunday as their Mardi Gras Indian footage. I recognized many of the Indians they featured, including Big Chiefs and children, from the footage I videotaped that day as well as the photos Ross generously (and wonderfully) snapped for the blog. If you haven’t already seen the video and photos, consider them a preview for Treme‘s Mardi Gras episode.
It was a greyish day today. I’d gone for a walk, of course, but kept clutching at my collar when I’d pass under the Live Oaks as the stinging caterpillars are starting to drop from their leaves and, hopefully, not down my shirt. I’d been sort of down, under the weather as they say, and sitting on the couch watching TV feeling melancholy. Watching the producers and cast talk about the food here, how everyday there’s music, I realized that I would never have survived watching this series from my couch in Los Angeles. I would have been too unhappy knowing all of this was only 1800 miles and a lifestyle change away. This show would have called me home.
Someone on the show said something about these being people who’ve made a commitment to be here, even after the storm. If that’s what it takes to be a true New Orleanian, I was true blue the day I left L.A. New Orleans is a city people never leave. Before Katrina, the city was last on the list of places people move away from. I can’t find the statistic, but I remember hearing that 96% of the population never left before the storm. Sounds crazy and yet I believe it.
When I went to Texas to do Katrina relief work, one of my many heartbreaking moments was when we were unpacking jars of olive tapenade and sun-dried tomatoes and a woman came into the pantry to see what we had. She looked at the California cuisine we’d brought by the bagful and then at me, “What am I supposed to do with this?” I realized that this marvelous-I’m-sure cook needed dried red beans and bags of white rice. She needed sausage and seafood and chicken. Our foods suddenly seemed fussy and silly in the face of feeding many on little – a specialty here. I felt like I’d let her down. I thought of all those people who’d been bussed all over the country to places with no boudin or crawfish. Goodness knows I tried every “authentic” New Orleans restaurant in every place I lived that offered it and have almost always left scratching my head and wondering where they got these recipes and the crazy idea that the food tasted authentic. If this was the only food I’d ever known, I would have found it hard to build a life anywhere else.
There are people here who grow up not knowing that people in other American cities don’t do second line parades every weekend. I remember once in L.A., a movie star’s child asked me why the Oscars were held in L.A. I tried to explain that this was where the industry was, but this made no sense to the 7 year old asking so I tried a new tactic and explained – when you go to the grocery store in other cities, Michael J. Fox isn’t in line behind you and when you get ice cream at the drug store, Sharon Stone isn’t there picking up a few things. He was shocked. We all think our world is the only world when we’re little, but I can tell you as an adult, there is no other world like the deep South.
Now, about 80% of the population is said to have returned and the city is certainly better for it. I hope the others are on their way or have found there way elsewhere, but I suspect they’re crowded around TVs every Sunday, watching Treme and missing home.
The episode this week explored more of the restauranteur’s story, loosely based on the story of Susan Spicer of Bayona.
Last June, Lauren and my cousin, Will, and I went to Bayona for an impromptu night of fine dining in inappropriately casual clothing. Lauren and I ordered specials and both were good, but the hit of the evening was a regular menu item, the peppered lamb loin with goat cheese and Zinfandel sauce. I’m not a big lamb person, but I was immediately hooked. That’s how it is here – I’m not a fan of oysters but I gobble up every one I’m served here. I’m not a big fan of duck, but there’s a sandwich at Avenue Pub (food by J’anita’s) called the St. Chuck Duck with current tapenade, cheddar and bleu cheeses on sour dough that is absolutely to die for and under 10 bucks. Still can’t wait to try the Buddha’s Temptation, an appetizer (or, as cousin Ruth would say – appe-teaser) of bleu cheese stuffed, bacon wrapped, deep fried apricots.
But, I digress. At some point, the Kim Dickens restauranteur character burns her own breakfast eggs and begins to cry. I remember at 12 years old, my family had gone through many changes. My father left the marriage and we left our school district and moved from a suburb into a 200 year old farmhouse in the country with some other recently divorced families. Though I loved it most of the time, too many things were unfamiliar and out of my control. One day (like too many others) there wasn’t enough hot water for me to have a bath. I broke down under the weight of it all. I never forgot that feeling and watching someone else act their way through it, I thought (again) of how exhausting all that loss was, how important things like hot water and well-cooked eggs become when nothing is normal.
The missing arrested brother storyline brings light to the confusion and corruption that occurred at that time. No city is immune from corruption but this city has gotten very serious about cleaning their closets after it became evident that the NOPD covered up the shooting of unarmed citizens on Danziger Bridge, killing two, including shooting a mentally disabled man who was shot 7 times in the back as he ran from police firing their weapons.
Perhaps there are those who believe in letting sleeping dogs lie as we have been told to do about many government choices over the years. The innocent have nothing to fear so I suspect much of the sleeping dog argument comes from the guilty. It may be uncomfortable to hear John Goodman’s character accuse the Army Corps of Engineers for the levee failures or to hear that neighboring jails held onto prisoners extra days to suck on the FEMA teet, but those are things that already happened. We already survived them (or not) and we’re only being asked to look at it now.
I loved that the show introduced gris gris (an object that brings luck or protects) and juju (the power the object exudes). This area is a gumbo of religions and traditions. Many people here believe equally in the Stations of the Cross and the power of a bag of herbs under their pillow.
I also continue to love all the locals who’ve been included in the cast. I recognized Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who plays Wendell Pierce’s get-a-job girlfriend, from an earlier HBO offering, Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke:A Requiem in Four Acts. Her house had been destroyed and her pleas and entitlements were ignored. Turns out, she’s the niece of Big Chief Tootie Montana, a Mardi Gras Indian who fought tirelessly for their right to parade without police harassment. In June of 2005, he’d just finished addressing the City Council about police misconduct when he had a heart attack and died.
I can’t wait to see the Mardi Gras Indians on the show. They have better cameras.
And, though it may look ungrateful to some, there is truth to the wall between the Bourbon Street tourists and the locals. Here’s how I see it so far. Many tourists go from the New Orleans airport to their French Quarter hotel, party til they puke on Bourbon Street, buy a t-shirt saying, “I got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street” and some beads (the height of absurdity to locals who have attics full of beads they’ve caught) and go home with photos and fuzzy memories of good times. I think it makes the people here feel misunderstood and under-appreciated as a culture. I remember going to the Louvre in Paris years ago. It’s a giant building filled with antiquities, but the tourists were all crowded around only two pieces, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. They snapped photos with flashes despite the many signs alerting them that it would degrade the paint. Many never even got close enough to see the pieces, just stood at the back of the crowd, holding cameras above their heads, snapping away. I remember thinking, “No wonder the Parisians think we’re crass.” I think it’s like that. I happen to have many happy memories on Bourbon Street, but I can see their point.
I short, I think the show stirs up things we’d rather put behind us but I think it’s a window into something rare and beautiful and I’m so glad I watched it from my couch in this city rather than from my couch in L.A. I can walk out my door and have a big adventure full of this amazing music and food and these unique and amazing people any day of the week.
To see more about HBO’s Treme: