New Orleans sits on a crescent shaped bend of the Mississippi River, approximately 90 miles from where the great muddy river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The alluvial soil, on which the Crescent City is built, was deposited over several millennia as the mighty river shifted and meandered to form the boot of Southern Louisiana. French explorers, commissioned in the mid-1600’s to explore the river in search of a suitable site for the port, reported seeing 300 ft tall cypress trees and herds of buffalo at the mouth of the great river. These cypress giants, with their network of roots or “knees”, would catch the river’s silt as the land continuously grew into the gulf. As recent as the early 1900’s, 40+ miles of cypress swamps stood between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. These swamps created an impenetrable fortress against hurricanes as 1 mile of cypress swamp will absorb up to 1 foot of storm surge.
The culture of New Orleans is a unique blend of African, European and Native American influences. The French founded the port city in 1718 on the high ground along the river that had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. The era of Spanish rule (1769-1803) played a profound role in shaping of New Orleans’ culture. The French Quarter’s famous stone buildings and iron balconies were actually built by the Spanish during this period. Under Spanish law, slaves were given Sundays off, allowed to gather at Places de Negres and were able to purchase their freedom.
The most famous gathering place was Congo Square, located in the “back of town” which is now the site of Louis Armstrong Park in the historic Faubourg Treme neighborhood. African rhythms and cultural traditions, which were forbidden in U.S. colonies and states, were celebrated every Sunday at Congo Square. Gumbo, the African word for okra, was prepared in iron kettles over open flames and sold along side African spices & vegetables that were unknown in the New World. Europeans were drawn to the sounds, sights and smells of the Sunday markets and rituals. European brass instruments soon found their way into the African drum circles. These musical elements blended together to eventually give rise to Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Funk and Rock’n Roll. The french roux soon became the base of many dishes that were seasoned with African spices and native foods to create the Creole cuisine of today. Spanish paella made with local ingredients became known as jambalaya. The world that created New Orleans, in turn, was forever influenced and changed by the cultures that grew out of Congo Square.
The great flood of 1927 drastically altered both the geography and culture of Southern Louisiana. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, created in response to the great flood, channeled the river with levees under the auspices of flood control. In actuality, the levees were were built to prevent the river from naturally shifting towards the Atchafalaya Basin and away from New Orleans, which estimates indicate would have happened by 1950. By channeling the river and preventing it from shifting and flooding, the levees halted the natural deposition of silt which had created one of the most fertile wetlands in the world. Southern Louisiana was furthered scarred by the emergence of the oil and gas industry that dug channels through the wetland. The channels allowed salt water to infiltrate the wetlands, which killed cypress trees and other natural plant species that are dependent on fresh water. Dead cypress swamps now exist within the New Orleans city limits and in the surrounding areas. The combined effects of destroyed wetlands and a channelled river has resulted in Louisiana losing nearly a football field of land every hour. Entire communities have disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico in a region where the great plains once grew into the Gulf a mere 200 years ago.
What has happened down here is the winds have changed Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
The river rose all day The river rose all night Some people got lost in the flood Some people got away alright The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
President Coolidge came down in a railroad train With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand The President say, “Little fat man isn’t it a shame what the river has done to these poor crackers land.”
-lyrics from “Louisiana 1927”, Randy Newman (1984)
The 300 or so miles of Louisiana coastline contains over 7,000 square miles of wetlands, the largest wetland in North America. Approximately 70-80% of all marine and bird species in the Gulf of Mexico breed in the fertile wetlands of Louisiana, which also produces the vast majority of all shellfish consumed in the United States. In addition to this fertile region being destroyed by man-made erosion, the region is being poisoned by commercial agri-chemicals that are carried down by the very river that once built this amazing region.
The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is the most notorious hypoxic zone in the United States. The Mississippi River, which is the drainage basin for 41% of the continental United States, dumps high-nutrient runoff into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 70% of the nutrients that cause the hypoxic dead zone are the result of agricultural runoff of this vast drainage basin, which includes the heart of U.S. agribusiness, the Midwest. The discharge of treated sewage from urban areas combined with agricultural runoff deliver 1.7 million tons of potassium and nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico every year.
Louisiana, Louisiana They’re tryin’ to wash us away They’re tryin’ to wash us away
The Louisiana coast suffered two devastating blows when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall in 2005. Geologists estimated that the land lost during the two storms was equal to 50 years erosion at the current rate. Katrina made a last minute shift to the northeast & narrowly missed New Orleans before slamming into the Mississippi Gulf Coast. However, the federal levees failed under forces that were significantly less than they were designed to withstand, resulting in the flooding of over 50 neighborhoods and 200,000 homes in New Orleans. A city that was home to 500,000 people and employed 1.8 million before the flood, had a population estimated at 40,000 three months after the levees broke.
Communities were slow to recover, hampered in large part by bureaucratic politics. The people who were able to return home found that their vibrant neighborhoods had turned into abandoned food deserts. Out of tragedy grew an increased sense of independence and self-reliance among residents. This bond of independence was further fueled by the influx of people that came to assist in the recovery, but soon found themselves at home in New Orleans.
The 2010 BP/Gulf Horizon oil disaster dealt a devastating blow to the fishing industry and economy of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, just as the region was showing positive signs of recovery from the 2005 storms. P&J’s Oyster House, the oldest oyster shucking establishment in the U.S, was forced to close its doors for the first time since it was founded in 1876. The city that gave the world Oysters Rockefeller no longer had any oysters to shuck or serve.
The New Orleans of 2013 can be best described as a boom town. Forbes Magazine recently named New Orleans as the fastest growing city in the U.S. Several publications have listed the Crescent City as one of the top cities for entrepreneurship. The present population is estimated at 350,000, ~150,000 less than before the flood. Yet, the restaurant industry is prospering with over 1,000 establishments in a city where approximately 700 existed before the levees broke … and P&J’s is once again supplying Louisiana oysters to the restaurants of New Orleans. However, Louisiana continues to lose wetlands at the accelerating rate of a football field of land every 38 minutes.
Louisiana, Louisiana They’re tryin’ to wash us away They’re tryin’ to wash us away
Growing seasonal fruits and vegetables has always been a part of New Orleans’ culture. The recovery efforts increased the sense of self-reliance that always existed in New Orleans and fueled the desire of residents to grow their own food. The local food movement has been further boosted by the influx of young people and green business entrepreneurs that have come to New Orleans in search of ways to make a change in today’s society. Gardens and urban farms increasingly dot the landscape in today’s New Orleans and surrounding communities. New Orleans East is home to a vibrant Vietnamese community that is farming the swamps and fishing the local waters according to Vietnamese traditions. Several restaurants and groceries are now sourcing from their own gardens and local farms in addition to locally produced food.
While the New Orleans local food movement is growing by leaps and bounds, it presently lacks a cohesive force to allow all parties to work collectively to advance Good, Clean and Fair Food. The possibilities for growing local food are truly endless as nearly 4,100 blighted and abandoned acres presently exist within the city limits. New Orleans truly has the capacity to be growing and sourcing its own food.
New Orleans is getting back to the “slow roots” of its African, European and Native American ancestors. New Orleans will benefit from being part of Slow Food and Slow Food will most definitely benefit from being part of New Orleans.