As we face the largest environmental crisis in our nation’s history, a man-made catastrophe with no solutions in sight, the trials of the characters on Treme seem both hauntingly familiar and yet small in comparison. I’m sure there are those who wonder if I’m glad I moved here now that this is all happening, whether I would have stayed in L.A. if I’d have known this was coming. Who knows what I would have done if I’d known in advance, but I can tell you that, yes, I’m happy I moved here. Yes, yes, YES!
I didn’t have it in me to sit and watch this unfold on TV from a distance. I found that out during Katrina. I would have needed to feel useful and it would take more than driving a truck of supplies and clothing to help with this situation. More to the point, this is where I want to be. I have a deep love for this city and its culture. Like when a loved one is ill and perhaps dying, I want to be here for the last moments in this ill or dying place.
As John Goodman’s character quoted this week, “Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” (Lafcadio Hearn)
Maybe we all sound crazy or drunk to those who think we should seek higher ground and an easier, safer way of life. But Hearn, the man quoted in the 1880’s, and John Goodman, the actor quoting him who lives here in real life, are people who knew other ways of life and chose to come here and preach their love for this place and its culture. In fact, many of the residents of this city are new to the area, transplants, and many of them moved here after the storm, after they knew the potential price of choosing to make a home here.
It’s sort of surreal to see how much of Treme and its retelling of this city’s journey out of Katrina mirrors what’s happening now. Again, the tragedy is man-made, a symptom of greed and corner-cutting. Again, the government response is so slow as to appear paralytic. Again, the nation doesn’t seem to really get what’s at stake. Again, local officials are left begging for help and attention. And, again, we are being thwarted in efforts to save ourselves.
I wasn’t able to attend my friend’s Treme party in Treme, but I was there all day as preparations were made. From 9:30 in the morning, I watched 3 men, 2 from Lafayette where people really know how to cook, putting together a duck/andouille (sausage) gumbo. The ducks were so fresh, I could still see the bullet holes from where their friend in Houma had shot them. The men fought over, not politics or women, but whether jalapeños belong in a gumbo. They would crowd around the giant cast iron caldron (seems everyone here has kitchenware that makes it obvious I don’t even have the equipment to cook a decent meal here, much less the know-how) and say things like, “If you put that in there, I’m going to punch you in the face.” No blows were actually exchanged, of course, but it was fun to see them fight over whether the roux was dark enough and whether it’s a cheat to use oil instead of butter, etc. They also made potato salad and fried fish (fresh caught, of course). I was able to have a bite before I left for work, but there was no rice yet so I was served gumbo over potato salad – a new experience for me. I liked it quite a bit, surprisingly, but though I love sweet pickles in my potato salad, I haven’t made the mental leap to wanting pickles in my gumbo.
We live in a time where children can’t identify fruits and vegetables on sight as they’ve never seen food being prepared or grown. I thought that sounded crazy, too, when my mom mentioned it after seeing an episode of Jaime Oliver’s show about the fattening of our nation, but I saw the episode for myself and was shocked to find she hadn’t exaggerated. I remember when I was an SAT tutor, there was a sample question that included the word, “silo.” Sample questions are designed to be the absolute easiest so that you don’t need to figure out the answer, only what type of question it is. Far more than half of my students in L.A. had no idea what a silo was.
I know how to make a roux (flour and fat stirred over heat until beige, reddish brown, or dark chocolate brown – used for flavoring and thickening a dish) because I watched my family do it. I know how to make salads and cold side dishes because I was put in charge of them before I was old enough to cook with heat. I watched raw foods being turned into cooked meals my whole childhood. And I learned about the reuse of food, setting fat aside to use for gravy, boiling meat off of leftover chicken, etc. to be used for gumbos and other dishes. Almost nothing is thrown away. My friends who learned to cook from their Italian mother, operate the same way in the kitchen. I can’t tell you how much better the flavors are when food is used in this way. No small wonder that I almost never crave fast food and find the taste of many processed foods unpalatable.
But I digress.
I remember when people tried to take back their homes in the projects after Katrina. I guess I understand that the federal government owned those housing projects and could do with them what they pleased, and I know that some people here were glad to see them locked and their residents unable to return. That said, what an insulting waste. There are still people trying to come back here, people paid exorbitant rents after the storm because so little housing was available, the FEMA trailers took forever to get here then made people ill – and yet, folks were not allowed to move back to their perfectly fine homes.
The Kim Dickens’ character is doing what many chefs were forced to after the storm, rethinking her overhead and just selling food. Though locals still point out occasional inaccuracies on the show, it’s nice to see so many small details are worked out. Dickens’ character takes her new grill to Bacchanal, a restaurant I mentioned months ago.
Bacchanal, a wine and cheese shop, rose in popularity after the storm. They remained open when few could and began inviting local chefs to prepare paper plate versions of their extraordinary food. Between the music, food, wine, and cheese, the shop and its casual back yard full of tables became a place for people to meet, eat, and have fun.
I was particularly drawn in by Wendell Pierce’s storyline this week, a trombone player having to start over from the bottom up. I have been starting over here, too, beginning my career again in a place where no one knows me or my work. Pierce was hardly playing his airport gig with pride before the Andrews boys arrived. Trombone Shorty and his older brother, James, join in but put Pierce in his place, illustrating the complicated line between humbling and humiliating. I have been walking that line myself this week as I finally got an acting job, my first since moving here, the largest movie to come to the state of Louisiana thus far! So, why am I not singing from the rooftops? Because I feel like a trombone player in an airport. I’m grateful for the work and optimistic about the movie, but this is the smallest part I’ve had since becoming a union member. It is humbling to feel like a new girl all over again, to have to prove my value again, build relationships again. It’s humbling but not humiliating.
Then there were all those giant trucks full of unclaimed dead bodies toward the end of the episode. Some people don’t want to know what Katrina’s aftermath looked like, what it cost people. I’m guessing that those people, if they were watching Treme at all, are done with the show now. As dark as this week’s episode was, there are still so many dark topics left untouched. Mental illness, depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) ran rampant here after the storm. Entire chunks of the population were medicated. Except there were almost no doctors or hospitals to give treatment. The NOPD officers who didn’t quit or kill themselves were working under a tremendous amount of strain and many had no homes to speak of. I could go on and on. The point is that the people of this city survived far darker things than a 44 minute show can encompass. They lived in it all day everyday. Some lived with it inside trailers filled with asbestos and all of their family members from grandbabies to mawmaws. If they could handle living with it, I can handle watching it for a little while once a week. We’ve already survived these dark things, the show is only asking us to survive the awareness of it all.
I’m going to keep watching because I’m pretty sure the Mardi Gras finale will do what this town does – throw a big uplifting party to celebrate all the things that make it, “Better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”