Sunday, September 30, 2007

Local food challenge

A great interview with my friend Sarah Alexander (interviewed by our friend Orli Cotel) talking about her year long local food challenge she did with Northern Minnesota friends:

Thursday, September 27, 2007

get your ach to Oktoberfest!

Believe it or not, New Orleans does have a German population and a celebration. Deutsches Haus on S. Galvez...
get a beer and on Fridays and Saturdays in October!


Friday, September 21, 2007

Making Groceries locally.

The most recent food news is the move by Rouse's Supermarkets to buy all of the Sav-A-Center locations in our region. Rouse is a Houma based 16 store chain that focuses on stocking local seafood and produce and has started some natural food buying for their stores as well.

I often shop at the Rouse in Mandeville when I am over at my family's house-every few months-and I like it fine. Good selections, nice staff.
Also having met with the buyers and senior staff a few years ago (when working on our White Boot Brigade, the traveling shrimper roadshow we hold every year in different areas) I was impressed with their connections to the culture and issues we face in our watery region of the world.

Good news I hope.

Speaking of food, have you been to Mardi Gras Zone grocery store on Royal in the Marigny? I do like this store, although being in MidCity, I get to shop at Terranova's and now Canseco's in my own walking neighborhood.
But, I do go out of my way to go there, when staying with friends in the area, or when I need a Mardi Gras boa, or a new broom.
I hear a lot of grumbling from Marigny friends about surly service (which they undoubtedly have) and high prices (although they don't seem that high), and when I ask the grumblers if they go and talk to the owner, they always look a bit confused and slightly miffed that I think they should have to do that.

Recently, a guy was at a yard sale on Chartres when I was there(I picked up a Ventures surf album, Janis Joplin and Big Brother & Holding Company album with R. Crumb cover and book about Peter Jenkins walk across america with his wife, which I had already read but enjoyed a second time and then donated to the Iron Rail Book Collective-all for 3 dollars), and while there heard him saying when someone asked him if he shopped at Mardi Gras Zone, "Hell, no, the prices are too high and I can't get everything I need, so I just go to WalMart"


How does that figure?
-and when did we make it a priority to get EVERYTHING at one store?

So, he would rather have to drive across town, walk miles through a corporate behometh who is known for shitty working practices (which does great things for their customer service!), and buy his dog food there so he saves 90 cents, rather than buy some items at MGZ, try to utilize this local guy trying to bring food into his neighborhood, take the time on his trip to make some suggestions to the owners to make it better, and maybe ride a bike or yes, drive to MidCity to Canseco's or Terranova's and get the rest.

folks, when are we going to take the control back and go to stores and have conversations (maybe a few times before we give up) eye to eye with people who OWN their stores or have a commitment to an area and give them some cred for trying and help them to be better.

This is the state of our food system in a nutshell; we have given control away and then whine about stores that are not large enough for a massive monthly trip for food, and that don't have 12 different kinds of peanut butter (even though we only buy one kind), and where you have to park on a city street 1/2 block away.
Yes, I do it without having to go to those stores for 99.9 percent of my life. I shop at 2 local stores, at the farmers markets and then buy items from my monthly buying club. I stay away from soul-draining corporate monuments to unfeeling globalization, and as a result, I feel empowered.

I say, go to the local stores and ask for service, and soy milk and better local produce. Chances are, you might win.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Vietnamese.

An essay I wrote soon after the storm about the amazing NO East Vietnamese community.

Turn off Grande Route St. John on to Gentilly Boulevard. Pass the Fairgrounds, the Bike Plus place on Paris, the Gentilly Terrace area with so many beautiful arts and crafts homes of upper middle class Creoles, then quiet Dillard University on the left , strip malls galore, (basically you follow old 90 the way your grandparents would when going to the North Shore and Biloxi) and then you pass under I-10 and you are really on Chef Menteur Highway, Indian for Lying Chief.
Chef (as we call it, not really affectionately, more as an affectation of our parents word for it), is a mix of auto repair shops, small bedroom communities and as you near the Michoud plant, the Vietnamese community.

Have you been to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans east? Haven’t been? Not surprising, most have not, and asking them to get in the car at 6:00 am to go is too bizarre to even suggest. So, some never experience it.

Amazing. I started venturing out 4 years ago, when my work at the farmers market coincided with seeing it. Actually, Robert and Elizabeth of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse took me there first, and like so many New Orleanians-by- choice (not born here); they know the city well. They explore every corner and have done so since the late 60s.
They drove me out there one morning about 6 a.m. and showed me the gardens that ring the canals, the houses with elaborate statuary in front and sports cars for the children in the driveway. We had Vietnamese coffee, wonderful. Strong and sweet. They explained the history of this settlement that has been built by the Catholic Church since the fall of Saigon, with a larger Buddhist community on the West Bank.

For me, the open market was the most fascinating part. Set up alongside storefronts on Alcee Fortier Boulevard (not much of a boulevard, and not sure anyone out here knows this historian from the early 20th century), it is a walk through another country.
Farmers and fishers stand or squat in front of their products that are unfamiliar to most Americans. Once in a while, you spot cilantro or water spinach or something else appetizing and fragrant, and then point and ask for a price. Everything is between 1.00 and 2.00. You walk slowly into the interior courtyard, looking at every display and listening to the life around you that could be 300 years past. At 7:00 a.m. the market kicks into overdrive with the mass attendees mingling with the less devout.

The nearby storefronts also need time from you; the mangoes, noodles, dried mushrooms are there alongside of sweets and unfamiliar sauces on the crowded shelves. My friend, Veda loves all grocery stores since her early years in her family corner stores; she can be here for hours and when they talk to her, it’s clear that they see a kindred food soul and give her incredible discounts. We always stop at the storefront with no signs or ambience in the middle of the market for the Vietnamese “poboy”; their sandwich that is a taste and texture treat, with pork, carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, peppers, sauce. We buy 5-10 sandwiches to bring back and share with anyone we think deserves one. They always are amazed and delighted after eating the half or quarter we share with each.

Most outsiders and locals that venture here go to the bakery, Dong Phuong. Pork and water chestnut pastries, glorious bread (baked hourly), cinnamon rolls to take home. I have a calendar on my wall from there that I look at when at the computer; always makes me think of the homemade egg breads.

The levee breaks did their damage out there. But, true to their immigrant attitudes, they have begun rebuilding at an astounding rate. Their dynamic Catholic priest, Father Vien travels to Houston often to see his parishioners that have not shown up yet at Mary, Queen of Vietnam Church. He has big plans for Viet Town, and will take the time to tell anyone who can possibly help. We were invited for lunch with the staff at the church to talk; the priest has an energetic, can-do presence that one can believe in. He is ready to create this beacon of light for the region to see and draw from.
We’re there that day because my boss is a true believer in the power of markets and local economies to rebuild a world. He has been interested in making a bridge between our Italian, Croatian, French, Southern farmers world and this one for some time. He also understands that it is a genuinely exciting time to live in New Orleans, in between the heartbreak and exhaustion, if one can make things happen.
It occurs to me while listening to them that these two could end up being the fulcrum in lives of hundreds of families in the next 5 years.
They talk of small and big ideas, but mostly they talk about helping small entrepreneurs get back in first gear. They agree on sensible methods and partners and take their leave as if they were two musicians that have finished rehearsing for their big break. Understand each other’s rhythm and syncopation. Got it. Turns out funders are liking what they hear from these two, and are almost ready to put up. Big money to leverage small communities. Big ideas to let farmers get back to bringing that bitter melon to Alcee Fortier. Rebuild without city, state or (cough) federal help or awareness for the most part. We’ll be back out here many times.

All because of food.