I became acquainted with Lolis Eric Elie when he was a writer for the New Orleans Times Picayunne and co-producer for the documentary “Fauberg Treme” that premiered on the PBS series “Independent Lens.” Lolis eventually became a writer and story editor for the HBO series “Treme” which, in the words of the series’ co-creator, David Simon, recently wrapped up “four-and-a-half years, and 36 hours of television later.”
I consider it no accident that Lolis wrote the Christmas episode for the show’s 2nd season. Culture is on full sensory display during the holidays. It was after the 2013 Christmas holidays that Lolis and I finally met face-to-face during his travels to promote his cookbook, Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans, a delicious tribute to the colorful characters of New Orleans and its cuisine.
Here’s an “eclectique interview” with Lolis Eric Ellie about post-Katrina New Orleans as featured in “Treme,” the series, the cookbook, and the glorious food.
E916: My first visit to New Orleans was 2010 for Mardi Gras (post Katrina). Being from a long line of Virginians, I had to have my greens (collards, kale) but didn’t know they would be so hard to find in New Orleans (NOLA). I told Mrs. [Leah] Chase (chef, Dukey Chase‘s) about my hunt for greens, and she set me straight about New Orleans food culture. About my greens, she said “That’s southern; this (NOLA) is something else.” Why is NOLA something else and not Southern?
LE: New Orleans is Southern, but it is also Caribbean. If you look at our food, much of what we eat is typical Southern food–grits, cornbread, biscuits–many of the Southern staples. But there are also a lot of New Orleans staples that have more to do with the food of Haiti or Cuba than the food of Mississippi or Alabama. Like Haiti and eastern Cuba, red beans are a staple. Much like menus in Puerto Rico there are lots of items in tomato sauces described as “Creole.” Because New Orleans is a port city, and because of our history as first a French then a Spanish colony, we’ve always had influences from south of us.
E916: How has the cuisine changed post-Katrina? Who/what are the new influences?
LE: New Orleans has become the site of a kind of domestic Peace Corps. Young people have flocked to the city because, particularly in the years right after the federal levee failures, there was the sense that the city was rebuilding and that there were opportunities to participate in something really exciting. So there’s a new vibrancy to the nightlife fueled in part by this influx of young hipsters.
Just as the federal government was dispensing our citizens all over the country and denying many of them the right to return to their place of previous residence, they were recruiting workers from as far away as Brazil with the dubious promise of high wages. Those wages quickly went down, but many of those people have stayed. So in New Orleans and its suburbs there are enclaves of people from Brazil and Honduras and Guatemala and Mexico. There are restaurants and trucks serving the food of these places. You also see more influence of these food traditions alongside the Creole and Southern and Vietnamese influences that had dominated our menus in the years before the flood.
E916: Was there a food CV for each of the characters in “Treme”?
LE: There wasn’t a food CV for each character per se. Each writer, in the course of writing their scripts, had to think about where and what this character would eat. That was my starting point in writing the book, the scripts. Then it was a matter of thinking through the various personalities. Often I think of a character as being similar to some real New Orleanian I knew and I’d graft part of that real food personality on the character I was writing about.
E916: If you had a choice as to which “Treme” character you would cook with, who would that be? Who would you go out with and share a meal?
LE: If I was going to cook with a “Treme” character, it’d be LaDonna. She knows the tradition and could teach me some of the dishes that my mother and grandmother raised me on.
If I was going to go out, I’d probably want to go with Creighton Bernette, John Goodman’s character. Though he only lasted one season, Creighton had profound and lasting influences as a voice of “Treme.” Talking to him about literature and culture would be fun.
Lolis Eric Elie discusses and signs copies of “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans” Monday March 24 at 6:30 PM at Eatonville Restaurant‘s Food & Folklore dinner series. Eatonville Restaurant is located at 2121 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009. Reservations required – call 202-332-ZORA (9672). Copies of the “Treme” cookbook will be available for sale and signing at the event.