Photo of the columnist by Denny Culbert.
Food and History:
Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing
edited by Brett Anderson
(The University of Georgia Press, 2012)
A funny thing happened on the way to the pho room. Several months ago, a friend and I made plans to meet at “that new Vietnamese joint down Magazine Street, the one across from the burrito place.” We ended up at different restaurants, both recently opened, doors down from each other. Choosing between the two, we settled into our soup bowls and considered what was happening along this stretch of Uptown New Orleans.
If a local did not know better, if she or he had not paid attention during the past four decades, or if said individual does not eat with one’s eyes open or, at least, with one’s car pointed in the direction of the West Bank, across the Mississippi River, or New Orleans East, separated by the Industrial Canal, one might think that Vietnamese food was new to New Orleans. These nearly adjoining soup shops we originally found ourselves in are two of five Vietnamese restaurants that opened nearly simultaneously this spring.
Including the delicious and friendly Lilly’s Café and the hipstery Pho Noi Viet, the two neighboring eateries, there is Le Viet Café, just a short walk up to St. Charles Avenue. Magasin Vietnamese Café, with its modern, uncomfortable plastics and Americanized menu, sits just a few miles upriver along a tonier section of the Magazine Street shopping and dining district. And finally, there is Tamarind, an upscale, fusiony Vietnamese-French restaurant in the newly renovated Hotel Modern on Lee Circle, operated by celebrated chef Dominque Macquet and his chef de cuisine Quan Tran. These five restaurants have received a slew of attention, in patrons and in print. In the city’s history, never before has one ethnic cuisine amassed such a large culinary footprint seemingly overnight.
Recently, in local and national publications, writers have documented this Vietnamese culinary presence in the greater New Orleans area. This spilled ink qualifies as “a meme of contemporary food writing,” in the words of New Orleans restaurant critic and journalist Brett Anderson, a rapidly replicated idea “that Southern cities offer a virtual buffet of foods that previous generations would never consider Southern.”
Memes beget books, and a slew of new texts cover this Global American South—an ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse South. There is Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing, in which the preceding quote appears, an essay collection that covers international and amalgamated culinary cultures from Houston Tex-Mex to Viet-Cajun in California; Paul and Angela Knipple’s guidebook-slash-cookbook The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South; and The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes That Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America and the American South by Sandra A. Gutierrez.
But global flavors have been meme-ing throughout the American South for well over a century. In New Orleans, the first truly cosmopolitan Southern city, Lafcadio Hearn wrote in 1885 that “One of the great gastronomic attractions of the city, lies in the fact that you can dine in any fashion, or in any country you wish, Spain, France, Italy, the United States, or even China, without going half a dozen squares from your room.” The American South joined the global table long ago.
Rooting through the Times-Picayune archives, I’ve discovered that Vietnamese chefs, restaurants, and groceries have operated since 1976, or just a year after the arrival of the Vietnamese immigrant-exile population following the fall of Saigon. Prior to April 1975, the nation’s Vietnamese numbered just fifteen thousand, but just a decade later the same number lived just in Louisiana, most in the New Orleans area (about twenty-five thousand people of Vietnamese origin reside in Louisiana today). Furthermore, though geographically and socially isolated along the city’s fringes, these Vietnamese immigrant-exiles and their food entered the city’s culinary, cultural, and economic purview very quickly. Early on, Vietnamese staffed kitchens and food processors, participated in international culinary events, and owned eateries and markets throughout the area.
Vietnamese cuisine, in fact, memed in New Orleans over three decades ago.
Take for example, the story of Hai Nguyen, a Saigon exile and owner of The Asian Restaurant, a modest, suburban strip-shopping center eatery that opened in July 1978. Queues soon formed for Nguyen’s substantial, inexpensive dishes, probably a mix, like similar Vietnamese menus of the era, of vernacular and Americanized Chinese recipes. Quickly, according to Picayune reporter John Pope, “the American Dream began to turn into a nightmare” for the restaurateur after two years. In what the newspaper called “a painful lesson in fame, American style,” Nguyen, working eighteen-hour days alongside his family, closed The Asian Restaurant because of too much business (he went on to manage five farms in the area).
To Hong Duc opened what was perhaps the first Vietnamese restaurant in the area, Hong-Lan, in 1976. That same year, Duc and several compatriots participated in New Orleans’ France-Louisiana Bicentennial Festival Celebration, where he served four dishes from a booth alongside French-Creole restaurant stalwarts like LeRuth’s, Antoine’s, and Commander’s Palace, and readily answered “any questions concerning their country’s foods.” Throughout the next decade, Vietnamese cuisine appeared at many food festivals, absorbed into the melting pot, or gumbo pot, to use the local trope, of Louisiana’s Creole cuisine.
Vietnamese transformed other sectors of the service industry. Taking low-paying jobs and forming referral grapevines, they staffed kitchens and table-service positions across the area, including tourist trail destinations like Café du Monde and the Napoleon House. In the late-1970s, the oyster industry rebounded after filling shucker positions with Vietnamese. In an interview, Ralston Barns, owner of the M. J. Bilich Oyster Co., positioned that “I don’t think most oyster shops would be going without the Vietnamese.” Schwegmann Giant Supermarkets, the dearly departed local grocery chain, hired fourteen percent of their workforce from the exiled population. One urban anthropologist reasoned “You can measure the degree of immigrant adaptation in New Orleans by who’s checking at Schwegmann.”
Vietnamese-owned grocery stores sprouted up in New Orleans East and Westbank enclaves. In October 1980, the Picayune encouraged readers to visit the largest Vietnamese grocery in the area, the Oriental Food Store in Harvey, for the “canned vegetables and fruits that you never dreamed existed...with poetic names such as lily flowers and grass jelly” included alongside a “dazzling array of strange and enticing foods that make up this typically Oriental cuisine.”
Today, Vietnamese ingredient like fish sauce and rice vermicelli noodles may be found in most any grocery, while re-imagined versions of pho and banh mi find a place on menus across the city and throughout the South. Vietnamese food has become as exotic as Lebanese, that is to say, not in the slightest.
Nearly a century after Lafcadio Hearn ate his way through the world without leaving his New Orleans neighborhood, Times-Picayune reporter Rachel Daniel examined a 1980 survey that named “food” as the city’s prime tourist attraction. “Creole and French cuisine, and sometimes Cajun cooking, loom large,” wrote Daniel, “but there are many other ethnic” foods that appeal to the area’s six million annual visitors, including: “Chinese, German, Japanese, Mexican, Filipino, Spanish,” and finally, “Vietnamese.”