Food, Race, and a Flood in New Orleans

With historians from around the world set to arrive in America’s greatest eating town for the AHA’s annual meeting, I thought it appropriate to post a couple paragraphs about the history of my favorite restaurant in New Orleans.  After the days panels are done, the streetcar line down St. Charles Ave. to Commander’s Palace is a trip well worth making.

The most renowned restaurant in New Orleans’s history was never located in the French Quarter.  Commander’s Palace opened in 1880 at the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the Garden District of the greater Uptown area, and the restaurant has kept the original location ever since.  Emile Commander, the restaurant’s founder, wished to take advantage of the demands for food created by an influx of new money Americans (i.e. Anglo-Saxons) seeking a separate space from Creoles in the blocks surrounding the St. Charles railway line.  Following the fashionable architectural trends of the neighborhood, Commander’s featured a stately “Painted Lady” Victorian design complete with the signature hexagonal tower at the street-side corner.

Commander’s immediately entered into a food market both divided and inspired by race and culture.  Older Creoles had long distanced themselves from the Anglo incursions and created self-contained neighborhoods with a profusion of restaurants serving their food.  African Americans influenced food ways and culinary reputations of New Orleans by serving as cooks—with a certain culinary creative license—in the homes of wealthy city residents.  The peripatetic service-work of these African American cooks brought them into cafes, eating houses, boardinghouses, upscale restaurants, and kitchens of neighborhoods throughout turn of the century New Orleans.  The most famous cookbook of the time—really the first cookbook to proclaim a Creole culinary style that was not only dominate within New Orleans but beyond the achievements of French haute cuisine—featured an African American woman as the lone chef in the book’s only color plate. Such placement reflects the prominent influence of African Americans in the dominate cuisine of New Orleans while simultaneously hinting at a continued role that African Americans would play in the kitchens of New Orleans rising service economy.

***

As writer Andrei Codrescu has suggested about New Orleans’ cuisine and Commander’s Palace in particular, “the secret charm of old restaurants” has the most to do with a sense of “continuity” one feels with sharing a seat and a dish with someone one hundred years before.  And while for far too many, exclusion in the nineteenth century meant continued marginalization from culinary experiences throughout the twentieth, Commander’s continued to make important cultural impacts in New Orleans while also gaining a national reputation.  In 1915, the Giarrantano family bought and brought the restaurant to national prominence.  This rise to fame came, at least in part, from the restaurant’s reputation for facilitating illicit liaisons between sporting men and un-married women in the sequestered dining rooms constructed to separate such trysts from wholesome family luncheons. But rendezvous also started to creep into the kitchen and onto the plates.  In the 1960s Creole cuisine began to intersect with lower-class Cajun cuisine which generally featured fewer sauces, more seafood, and more spices.  Commander’s did more to popularize this fusion than any restaurant when America’s first real celebrity chef, the farm-raised St. Landry Parish native Paul Prudhomme brought the Cajun “trash” redfish into the kitchen. Simply blackening the spice rubbed fish in a cast iron skillet harkened back to the rural and ethnic origins of food and people high-society long treated with contempt.  This one recipe did more to transform New Orleans culture of cuisine than any single dish since jambalaya.

In addition to innovations from the chefs, Commander’s changed under their new owners the Brennan Family.  The patriarch of the family, Owen Brennan operated a 1940s nightclub right on Bourbon street right next to Arnaud’s famous gourmet restaurant.  Arnaud’s owner, “Count” Arnaud Cazenave would frequent Brennan’s absinthe house, and the two would often strike up food-centered conversations.  Supposedly, Cazenave often criticized Brennan’s Irish background; the banter inspired Brennan to open his own French Creole restaurant to out-cook Arnaud’s.  Regardless of motivation, Brennan’s became a big hit in New Orleans, spawned a second restaurant, and eventually led the family to accumulate the capital necessary to quickly purchase Commander’s when it went on the market in 1969.

While family members came and went, someone in the Brennan family controlled Commander’s through the present day.  The owners renovated the darker Victorian interior with bright paints and more open air spaces—a design choice which actually resembles renovated Creole sugar plantations along the Mississippi river.  Ironically, the status of Commander’s as a celebrity-chef-centric-kitchen—Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, and Jamie Shannon all served as executive chef of Commander’s—meant the restaurant would sometimes lose the creative influence when these chefs decided to open and own their own restaurants. Nonetheless, the chef’s of Commander’s were renowned for their approachability—both to visitors but especially to regulars—often stepping out of the kitchen to talk to patrons, or literally inviting eaters into the kitchen by pioneering the famous chef’s table concept.

***

How did such openness change after Katrina?  The short answer is both not much and a great deal as despite its wealth, prestige, and history Commander’s was pummeled by Katrina resulting in millions of dollars of renovations and a closed for business sign for over thirteen months.  In months directly following the closure, Commander’s saw revenue of about 80 percent of their pre-Katrina average; however, like many relief efforts in the city, these numbers likely dissipated as the novelty of the recovery wore off for the reality that full recovery may never be a reality.  Citywide the Louisiana Restaurant Services estimated financial losses of $800 million dollars out of a $2.1 billion industry as a direct result of Katrina: such a loss omits the employment dimension where restaurants like Commander’s traditionally hired fulltime workers with employee benefits, kitchen privileges (i.e. meals), and average wages instead forced to run on a thirty percent slimmer staff due to an absence of skilled workers in the market.  Because of the perishable qualities of food products, those restaurants affected by the storm had a great deal to lose.

Perhaps what benefited Commander’s most in its recovery was its location in the diverse but upscale Garden District.  Historically, the neighborhood was pretty integrated since at least the 1960s as former resident Senta Eastern recounts: “The neighborhood was quite low-to-upper-middle class, with the exception of the mansions on St. Charles Avenue about four blocks away…The neighborhood was very integrated.”  Eastern’s demographic observations helps clarify recent vital statistics for a one square mile space around Commander’s Palace showing an average home price of over a million dollars, but a median family income of roughly $37,000.  Of the 4,450 residents, 43 percent were white and 40 percent African American, with the historical trend of a young neighborhood continuing with an average age of 31 even though about a quarter of the neighborhood’s residents have moved into the area since Katrina.  Having said this, New Orleans restaurants citywide continue to flourish post Katrina as the current number of restaurants, according to New Orleans food critic Tom Fitzmorris, has risen from 809 before the storm to 1222 as of 18 October, 2011.

While it is tempting to celebrate the upswing in New Orleans restaurants over the post-Katrina years, such a success likely obscures the slower recovery felt by many workers and residents who have not been able to recover to full-time employment or to a neighborhood as it was before the storm.  Detailing the pace of recovery experienced by cultural icons like Commander’s Palace complicates a story telling how tourist attractions were protected from Katrina.  Having said this, such a narrative does hold water in that restaurants with deep historical veins prove surprisingly difficult to uproot from the physical landscape because, at least in part, of their prominence on peoples’ palates.

References:

Administration, Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress. New Orleans City Guide.(Canada: Garrett County Press, 2009).

Brennan, Ella Dick Brennan, and Lynne Roberts, The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1984).

Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

Campanella, Richard, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008).

Codrescu, Andrei, The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans: And Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1996).

Collin, Rima and Richard Collin, The New Orleans Cookbook: Creole, Cajun, and Louisiana French Recipes Past and Present (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).

Dawdy, Shannon L., Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Fitzmorris, Tom.  Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleans (New York: Steward, Tabori & Chang, 2010).

Hirsch, Arnold R. and Joseph Logsdon, eds., Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992).

Levenstein, Harvey “Food and Cuisine,” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. Vol. 3, 3rd ed.  (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003).

Martin, Ti Adelaide and James Shannon, Commander’s Kitchen (New York: Broadway Books , 2000).

McCaffety, Kerri, Etouffée, Mon Amour: The Great Restaurants of New Orleans (Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Co., 2002).

Penner, D’Ann, and Keith C. Ferdinand. Overcoming Katrina: African American voices from the Crescent City and Beyond (New York: Macmillan, 2009).

Sothern, Billy. Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Troutt, David Dante, After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina (New York: New Press, 2006).

Categories: Events, Features, Field Notes | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

About gregoryruth

Gregory Ruth is a second year PhD student in Loyola's History Department. Working in nineteenth and twentieth century America, his recent projects touch on topics of capitalism, consumer culture, urbanism and the environment, ethnicity, gender, violence and memory, as well as celebrity culture. His public history experience includes museum work, oral history projects, and library special collection employment. A former high-school history teacher, Ruth is also interested in pedagogical practice in the contemporary classroom.

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