July 14, 2007


Hold the tacos, New Orleans says
: Mexican-food trucks are outlawed in a parish. Is it racism wrapped in a health issue? (Miguel Bustillo, July 14, 2007, LA Times)

Jefferson Parish politicians, who have long turned a blind eye to whites and blacks peddling shrimp out of pickup trucks and snow cones on the street, recently outlawed rolling Mexican-food kitchens, calling them an unwelcome reminder of what Hurricane Katrina brought. [...]

[T]he new ethnic eateries are emerging at a time when many traditional New Orleans restaurants are struggling in the face of sagging tourism and a smaller population — one that's noticeably browner than before Katrina. New Orleans now has about 260,000 residents, down from about 460,000. Roughly 50,000 are Latinos, up from 15,000.

So taco trucks have become fodder for a larger debate over whether to recreate the past or embrace a new future in New Orleans — a discussion that's thick with racial undertones.

To advocates of reclaiming the old ways, new establishments that do not build upon the city's reputation, and may not even be permanent, represent a barrier to progress. As New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas recently put it in an interview with the Times-Picayune, "How do the tacos help gumbo?"

Yet many New Orleanians welcome anyone willing to repopulate the city — and surprising numbers are eagerly munching tongue and cow's head tacos, broadening their palates in a city where the civic pastime is eating and talking about where to eat next.

Mary Beth Lasseter, who chronicles food history at the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance, said she was helping rebuild Willie Mae's Scotch House, a famed New Orleans soul food restaurant, when she sampled the offerings of a taco truck in the parking lot of a home improvement store. Most clients then were Latino workers coated in mold and dust. A few months later, half the customers were native Southerners like her.

"That was the first time the dots connected for me and I realized we were about to have a food revolution in this city," Lasseter said. "Food so often tells the story — that's our premise here — and that is when I knew that New Orleans would be changing again."

So far, the revolution looks one-sided: Latino laborers don't seem to care for shrimp Creole, oyster po' boy sandwiches — or even hamburgers, as long as there is Mexican food around.

"Crawfish? The little lobsters? I tried it, but to be honest it did not suit me," Abel Lara, 33, said as he stopped at a taco truck during a quick break from his job laying floors at a medical center. "I don't understand why it's so popular."

Amen, brother. If they were to do nothing but rid us of that outpost of Frenchness, the immigrants would be welcome.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 14, 2007 7:36 AM

Ironic since New Orleans was Spanish long before it was French.

Posted by: Pete at July 14, 2007 8:49 AM

Mr. Judd: Have to disagree with Mr. Lara, but New Orleans has great food, and the history of it is French, but also Spanish, Italian, German and African. Its just the stupid French claim all the good cooking came from them and everyone had to go and believe them!

Jambalaya owes more to the Spanish paella than anything in French cuisine. And gumbo may descend from courtbullion, but the okra, rice, cayenne, and sausage are not French.

Now, the dirtiness of the place (outside of Philadelphia, it is the filthiest place I've ever visited) and the corruption of its politics and institutions (unmatched anywhere in the U.S.) and the pessimistic, fatalistic and indifferent attitude of the population and their ridiculous ancestor worship are definately French in origin.

Also, New Orleans has had a long history of losing population, even before Katrina. Young people who had any talent at all (like my husband, if I may brag a little) left like bats out of, well, New Orleans. And now it has to rely on an influx of immigrants to keep it going. So very French, no?

So, yes, New Orlean's "Frenchiness" should go, but I'd keep the food, which is delicious and not French.

Posted by: Buttercup at July 14, 2007 9:17 AM

Hard to believe that some "officials," as per the story, have admitted that their anti-Latino food pogrom is not neutral health-code enforcement, but reather aimed at getting rid of people who "remind [them} of Katrina."

Rectification of names forbids acceptance of the author's description of anti-Latino discrimination as "racism." Manifestly, that is simply wrong. He is mixing up race and culture again. Sloppy language, sloppy thought.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 14, 2007 5:02 PM

For people who believe there are various "species" of finch n the Galapagos, every ethnicity is a race. It's hardly a coincidence that the Darwinian Right is uniformly anti-immigrant, nor that the Brights are. It's just racism.

Posted by: oj at July 14, 2007 8:48 PM