I arrived in my favorite city in November with hope and dread mixing in my gut. I was accompanying my wife back to New Orleans, her hometown, to spend Thanksgiving with her family. I also planned to spend a few days visiting some of the city's most storied restaurants, talking with the owners and chefs to find out how their rebuilding was going.
But what I most wanted to find out was whether the great cultural spirit of the city "ain't dere no more."
I should explain. New Orleans is home to one of this country's most distinctive cultures, but it's also probably the most inward-looking city in America. New Orleanians are addicted to their own city. And who can blame them? Who wouldn't be hooked on a town with great food, free-flowing drinks, seductive music and an intense love of life that permeates everything?
But like any addiction, it's hard to let go. When parts of New Orleans fade away, people hang on to them, endlessly discussing restaurants they once loved or stores they once frequented. Benny Grunch, a local singer and comedian, wrote a song about this phenomenon titled "Ain't Dere No More." Schwegmann's grocery? Ain't dere no more. K&B drug store? Ain't dere no more.
Today, the sad truth is that a lot of New Orleans ain't dere no more. As we drove around the neighborhoods, some looked almost normal except for the downed trees and blue tarp—covered roofs. Others looked like a tsunami had swept through. It was heartbreaking. Every gutted home represented a family forced to flee. But what I wanted to know was: Will they ever come back?
Call me a foolish optimist who can't let go of something that ain't dere no more, but I believe most will. The odds aren't good right now. What major business can commit to returning to New Orleans without adequate flood protection? If almost any other city were in such dire straits, people would likely never return.
But New Orleanians love their home, and if the cultural spirit of their city is still alive, it will draw them back. And the most tangible part of that cultural spirit is the culinary spirit. Good food and good wine will be the glue that holds this town together.
Locals in New Orleans discuss food constantly: Where they've eaten recently, what they ordered, and where they're eating next. And New Orleanians don't discriminate. They hold just as much passion for holes in the wall like Franky and Johnny's or Uglesich's as they do for historic Creole palaces like Galatoire's and upscale newcomers like Cuvee.
Spend a few days visiting the restaurants and bars, and you understand why locals are addicted to their city. Let one of the dignified waiters at Antoine's recommend some pompano with crabmeat on top and you'll be hooked. Pore over the phonebook-size wine list at a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner or order a Sazerac or a Ramos Gin Fizz at a bar like the Napoleon House. Walk into the Jazz Fest fairgrounds on a sunny May morning, order a plate of hot, fresh beignets buried in a drift of powdered sugar, and you'll be shouting "Amen!" long before you reach the gospel tent.
Is that spirit still alive? After my trip I can say that it's weak, but it's still dere. I saw it on the faces of every chef or bartender who was pulling out rotting food or restocking a ruined wine cellar. Returned residents spoke constantly about which restaurants were back in business and which might reopen soon. Two days after Thanksgiving, Clancy's, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, was packed to the gills with locals trying to relax, eat good food and drink good wine. One afternoon, a truck from famous local bakery Leidenheimer's pulled up outside po'boy joint Domilise's, and people celebrated around it in a spontaneous parade. Leidenheimer's makes the French bread of choice for po'boys.
New Orleans' spirit can't be killed off so easily. "I have been really impressed with the city's resilience, the determination and the spirit," says Ti Martin, who manages Commander's Palace. "It's like Mardi Gras. I can understand the rest of the country thinking it's a frivolous thing to do in the midst of all this, but it is who we are and is part of our spirit, and if you don't do it that's just caving in. Even if they said there's no Mardi Gras, there'd be a Mardi Gras."
And you can bet there will be good food and good drinks when those parades start rolling down the avenue.