Story Melissa Bastian Breedlove
Photos Holly Feral
Web Feature sponsor Portland Vegfest
Originally published in Driftwood Issue Three
I am sitting in Sweetpea, an all-vegan bakery in an all-vegan mini-mall in the vegan mecca that is Portland, Oregon, absolutely full to the brim with vegan biscuits and gravy and eyeing a freshly stocked shelf of colorful vegan doughnuts. Putting this fuel to use, I’m carefully strategizing how to pack as many vegan bowls, cheeses, corndogs, and other delicious sundries into my belly as possible before I get back on a plane. And yet, despite this plethora of delicacies, I’m desperately homesick just three days into my trip. It’s okay, sweetie, I soothe. You’ll be home soon. I promise.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? I do.
My Sicilian family can trace its roots back a hundred years in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. They arrived, somewhat bedraggled, by way of Galveston, Texas, and quickly set about the work of making groceries. My great-grandparents ran a traditional grocery on the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Magnolia Street, a corner much changed since those early years of the twentieth century. The building that housed them is long gone now. Still there, though, is the house on Cleveland Street in Mid-City—the house that my Great-Aunt Nefa managed to save $500 during the Great Depression to put a downpayment on. When my mother and I visited the house a few years back, she described its deeply embedded smells of the jugs of olive oil, of pecorino and romano that she remembered from her childhood visits.
Though the grocery store dissolved under the weight of the Depression, my family remained. My Grandpa Joe became a musician and instrument repairman; my mother, in turn, a piano tuner some years later. She met my father at Loyola Music School in the early 1970s, and shortly after getting married they began an unofficial, unplanned tour of the U.S. that would keep them away from home for 20 years. And so I grew up in a tiny, mobile New Orleans outpost, filled with my daddy’s seafood gumbo and stories of the Irish Channel and Redemptorist High School, my mama’s spaghetti and meatballs and tales of taking four buses from Metairie out to Ursuline Academy wearing her saddle shoes, all to a soundtrack of Dr. John and Professor Longhair. It was always New Orleans at my house, no matter where my house happened to be.
They came back—everyone does—and with me in tow. I was 18, and I didn’t know yet that I was finally coming home.
Twenty years later, I love New Orleans. But more than that, I love being a New Orleanian. And I am a New Orleanian, even though I didn’t grow up here. I became myself here. This is a place that tangles itself in a person’s DNA, in their ganglia, and it has left its indelible mark on me. I carry it wherever I go, and being away from home seems only to concentrate it, recent homesickness being case in point.
After Katrina I left for a while. I had to—drowned home, drowned heart. I moved to New York City, and I thought I’d found My Place there. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I surrounded myself with New Orleans people, started making red beans, drank coffee and chicory—anything I could do to just get a little taste of home. The first year Endymion rolled through Mid-City again I cried big fat tears, watching the ParadeCam obsessively. I eventually became so homesick I could barely breathe. I returned joyously five years later, and wrote the city a love letter:
You are in my heart and head and soul, and yet I don’t fully understand you. Like a lover, I don’t know that it’s possible to know you completely. Just when I think I’ve got you figured out, you surprise me, thrill me, break my heart, then turn around and stitch it back together again.
Bordering on obsession, I never stop wanting more from you—even when you frustrate me to tears, even when I want to wring your neck. It is impossible not to forgive you, and our scrapes never last long. You are too beautiful not to love, too complex and mysterious not to investigate.
So I will breathe you in, smell you, taste you, listen closely to your every sigh and exclamation. Make you my own and become part of you again.
What is it to be part of this place of myth and magic? It’s different for everyone, of course, and I can only tell you what it’s like for me. While it’s difficult to describe, there are tangible glimpses.
To be a New Orleanian is to have a plan of attack for Mardi Gras parades—to know where the beers and the bathrooms are, and where to park, and to feel strongly about sidewalk side versus neutral ground side. It is to have a small but respectable collection of Zulu coconuts, and perhaps a Muses shoe, too.
It is to know the Jazz Fest stage layout like the back of your hand, not that you’d ever pay that obscene fee to get in—you remember when it was 20 bucks. But there are enough free tickets floating around that you always manage to swing one. It’s remembering your grandpa playing Dixieland jazz in the Economy Hall tent.
New Orleans life is recognizing at least a few of the Marsalises on sight. It’s knowing who Leah Chase is, and knowing who her mom is, and the importance of each. It’s having your strings plucked at the first chords of Irma Thomas singing “Ruler of My Heart.” It’s recognizing the name Mac Rebennack. It’s knowing why it’s called the Mother-in-Law Lounge, and understanding why Kermit Ruffins was the perfect new caretaker of that space.
At the same time, it’s feeling the pain of the I-10 Claiborne cut-through when you pass the Lounge by, wishing the houses and great live oaks still stood where there are now only shoddy parking lots with cars roaring overhead, where handpainted concrete pillars evoke the ghosts of What Once Was. It’s knowing why you should never try to drive through there on St. Joseph’s Day. It’s having a favorite St. Joseph’s altar.
To call New Orleans home is to have a reverence approaching religion for its trees and its waters; to have a love of the swampy cypress trees with their knees folded up beneath them just past Kenner; to think it’s normal for a lake to be surrounded with seagulls and pelicans and filled with crabs and the odd shark. To visit the Tree of Life sometimes. To know why you never keep your lights on inside at twilight in May.
Being from New Orleans means knowing that it’s pronounced cah-LIE-oh-pee but saying CAL-ee-ope anyway, because how you gonna tell people they’re not from where they’re from? You’re not, that’s how. It is to hold a deep pain for the people of the city who have suffered, who continue to suffer, so profoundly at the hands of corrupt and inept politicians and policymakers. To make jokes about car-swallowing potholes and sinkholes to mask the sheer outrage you feel at a state that prioritizes tax loopholes for the wealthy over maintaining the infrastructure you and your neighbors depend on.
It is to understand why it’s simply not okay that the new streetcar extension ends at Elysian Fields, or that the first one just goes to the damn train station. It is to know more than one person who’s rolled through Orleans Parish Prison. For too many of us, it is to know someone who has died in the streets.
There are those who would say that I deny a major part of my New Orleanian culture and heritage because I’m vegan. I don’t order oyster loaves from Parkway in the months with Rs in them (or just the months that Casamento’s is open), don’t go to crawfish boils or fish fries in the springtime, and don’t go fishing in Lake Pontchartrain or Bayou St. John in the summer. I don’t hightail it out to Chalmette for the best boudin. And I don’t look forward to Hogs for the Cause all year. I no longer eat my daddy’s seafood gumbo or my mama’s spaghetti and meatballs. Where, then, do I fit? How do I make these claims of New Orleanian-ness if I reject so much of what we’re known for?
Any who would question whether I’m bona fide might be forgetting that, much like veganism is just one part of who I am, food is just one part of what we do here. They may forget too, that while Gulf shrimp are considered a quintessential New Orleans food, so are mirlitons and okra and satsumas and Ponchatoula strawberries. The jama jama from Bennachin that they love so much at Jazz Fest? Yep, that’s vegan. The Creole Tomato Festival? It celebrates one of my favorite foods. I can even eat well at the Tremé Creole Gumbo Fest and Bayou Boogaloo. I have only to avoid cream flavors at my snoball stand (it’s Sal’s, and yes it’s in Metairie, but hush, it was my grandpa’s favorite), and a french fry po’ boy will do me just fine at Parkway—I’ll get it dressed, bring my own mayonnaise, and wash it down with an Abita. As for the boils, well, potatoes and corn and mushrooms and some Zatarain’s boil up pretty good without tossing in any crawfish at all.
Food is integral to New Orleans culture, yes. And I love food at least as much as any good New Orleanian does. I celebrate and embrace it. In fact, I spend a fair amount of my free time making it accessible to all who live in and visit this great town—not just the omnivores. What could be more New Orleanian than sharing delicious food with friends and strangers alike?
I feel both proud and honored to be a child of this place, a place where I was not born but where I became myself. Where I was married, where I own a house just blocks from that house on Cleveland, and where I will live until my old age. My family came to this town a hundred years ago; it is in my bones and in my blood—whether or not bones and blood are in my food. Because to be a New Orleanian means, above all things, to love New Orleans faithfully and unyieldingly, in all its glory and all its backwardness—and to remember its cardinal rule: Be Nice or Leave.
TASTE TOUR OF N'AWLINS
I’m here! Where do I eat?!
(Don’t miss the spots in red under any circumstance.)
BREADS ON OAK
Uptown • 8640 Oak St.
European-style bakery boasting wide-ranging vegan options. Exquisite (and well-labeled) soups, sandwiches, and pastries. Try the muffanada for some local flavor.
Arts District • 527 Julia St.
Incredible Caribbean food with a number of vegan items on its standing menu, with consistent vegan specials as well.
Mid-City • 2940 Canal St., within Swan River Yoga
Sandwiches, smoothies, Indian dishes, pastry treats, and a full coffee bar. Everything is vegan!
French Quarter • 307 Exchange Pl.
An interesting and ever-changing menu—ask the server what vegan specials they can provide. Seating is al fresco, so go when the weather is nice.
Lower Garden District • 1829 Sophie Wright Pl.
Vegan sandwiches and pastry are available in this ultra-modern yet comfortable space. It’s also the most reliable source of vegan doughnuts in town!
Riverbend • 1500 S. Carrollton Ave.
Lebanese food beloved by New Orleanians for decades. Vegan favorites include hummus, falafel, bathenjan dip, tabouleh, and grape leaves.
Bywater • 617 Piety St.
Pizza with vegan cheese, pastas, and sometimes sausage rolls and desserts. Adjacent to Crescent Park, if you’d rather picnic than dine in.
Marigny • 524 Frenchmen St.
Get traditional and vegan red or white beans while your omni friends and family enjoy various fried things.
Lower Garden District • 1330 Prytania
Nola’s only full table service, morning ‘til night, all-vegan restaurant—with a full bar! The menu ranges from raw, gluten-free salads to deep-fried comfort food. Don’t skip the southern-fried nuggets.
Bywater • 4017 St. Claude
This nearly all-vegan spot makes up for its modest decor with delicious, inventive dishes. Check out the specials board and finish with an vegan ice cream sandwich!
Uptown • 4113 Magazine St.
All-vegan wraps, smoothies, and juices.