NEW ORLEANS — Shrimp and grits served for breakfast on the sidewalk at El Pavo Real. “Super Secret” seasoned pork and braised greens handed out at the door of the Live Oak Café. Spicy jambalaya dished out under a canopy erected on the empty sun-scorched streetcar tracks by a couple who just wanted to help.
The hearty fare is being served up from neighbor to neighbor, free for the asking and badly needed in a city where the lunchtime conversation topic is often the dinner menu and where camaraderie flourishes over Monday plates of rice and beans.
In New Orleans, food is just one of the many ways that residents help each other during hard times. And it's been no different in the days after Hurricane Ida, which flooded or destroyed homes, tore up trees and knocked out the entire city's power grid.
While chefs and amateur cooks alike piled plates high with comfort food, residents with generators charged their neighbors’ cellphones and revved up chain saws to clear downed trees, while volunteers at a local church handed out bags of cleaning supplies and boxes of diapers.
“In times of crisis ... we all join together,” said City Council member Jay Banks, one of several people at the Israelites Baptist Church who distributed donated goods in the low-income neighborhood of Central City on Thursday.
New Orleans' problems echo those of much of urban America: dismaying bursts of violent crime, ingrained poverty, a dearth of affordable housing for the poor. Throw in a decrepit drainage system in one of America’s rainiest cities, and a dispiriting vulnerability to hurricanes as climate change contributes to more severe and frequent storms — and one could forgive anyone here who wants to give up and get out.
Some do. The population here has shrunk over the years. But many stay, and not just those who lack the means to relocate. They do so to nurture beloved neighborhood traditions: second-line parades, jazz funerals, century-old “social aid and pleasure clubs" — and good food.
In Treme, a cradle of Black culture and New Orleans brass band music, Backatown Coffee Parlor owners Jessica and Alonzo Knox couldn’t cook in their all-electric kitchen but gave away salad makings, pastries and rapidly thawing bags of frozen, precooked crawfish tails.
El Pavo Real restaurant owner Lindsey McLellan used food preserved “with ice and prayer” to whip up a free steak taco meal Wednesday afternoon, using herbs and peppers salvaged from a hurricane-mangled community garden by neighbor Jelagat Cheruiyot, a Tulane University ecology professor.
The garden is a project of the venerable Broadmoor Improvement Association, which rose to prominence advocating for the preservation of the working-class Broadmoor neighborhood after levee failures during Hurricane Katrina inundated homes there in 2005.
Refreshment-related relief efforts weren’t limited to those with culinary skills.
“Take all you want. Leave what you can,” read the hand-scrawled sign taped to a box of potato chip and snack mix bags on a little folding table in front of a “shotgun” cottage near the Mississippi River. Also available: bottled water, Pop-Tarts and granola bars.
Jessica Knox, a Mississippi native and 18-year resident of New Orleans, said she and her husband were in Washington during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and she knows from that experience that disaster brings people together, no matter where they are.
Still, New Orleans residents have had to display a certain resiliency many others haven’t, she said. “You’d think we’d be weary at this point,” she said. And yet, she senses a spirit of hope and resolve when she sits outside her powerless house and chats with folks who pass by. “I guess we’re over the complaining part,” she said.
El Pavo Real owner Lindsey McLellan is an area native and Katrina veteran who remembers dishing up free food after that killer storm when she was a restaurant employee. She’s lived in New York and Washington and said she’s seen examples of post-trauma camaraderie there, too, but — with a native’s pride — she questions whether it’s as baked into the culture elsewhere as it is in New Orleans.
“I mean, you definitely can find it,” she said. “But it’s just, sort of, the New Orleans way.”
Hank Fanberg knew he was facing days without power as he gathered tree limbs and trash in the yard of his home in the Carrollton area Monday, the day after Ida hit. But he took comfort knowing that neighbors on either side of him had generators and were happy to help.
Friends of Bette Matheny helped her remove sodden carpets and other water-damaged debris from her recently renovated ranch house in Lakeview, an area devastated during the levee failures of Katrina and hit by flash flooding on Sunday.
“Every single person we know has offered us anything they can,” Matheny said.
Matheny, who was 13 when she evacuated during Katrina 16 years ago, noted that people often remark on the storms that strike with such frequency in New Orleans and ask, "'Why would you stay there? Does this make you want to move?’"
She responded with emotion, her voice breaking.
“No. Why would I want to move? People are so amazing. You don’t find this anywhere else, you know?”