So the Pentagon-sponsored meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, that constituted a good chunk of the hot meals eaten in the city in the days that followed Katrina became fodder for dark humor (note the abundance of MRE-related costumes during Halloween), meal customization (Tabasco sauce makes seemingly everything palatable) and even recipe swapping (ask soldiers in passing Humvees how to warm your MRE veggie burger and its accompanying chocolate brownie dessert simultaneously in the same pouch).
When the immediate crisis in the city had ebbed, the speculation and anxiety over the fate of beloved local restaurants rose as a constant topic of conversation. Rather than blithe concerns in the face of such grave devastation, these conversations reflected just how deeply important New Orleans food and its restaurants are to the identity of the city and its citizens.
For almost all of its first eight months, 2005 was an exciting though not extraordinary year in the New Orleans culinary scene. Several great new restaurants opened to enthusiastic responses, including the Saltwater Grill, a seafood specialist in the Riverbend area, and, nearby, One Restaurant & Lounge, the intimate cafe opened by Clancy's Restaurant alum Chef Scott Snodgrass. Others expanded, with both Acme Oyster House and Felix's Restaurant opening new locations in Metairie and Uptown, respectively.
And some historic restaurants marked significant milestones. Both Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream & Confectionary and Galatoire's Restaurant celebrated their 100th anniversaries in 2005. Galatoire's also was named the San Peligrino Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation this year. At the other end of the culinary spectrum, the foundation also honored Willie Mae's Scotch House with its America's Classics Award, which recognizes restaurants that the organization deems to be "honest, true and beloved by their community."
In April, a Faubourg St. John grocery store closed, usually not the stuff of much controversy, but in this case it was the tiny Esplanade Avenue Whole Foods Market that was widely considered an anchor for small businesses in the neighborhood. The ensuing neighborhood uproar prompted a series of community meetings, and a successor, Charles Ciaccio of Lakeview Fine Foods, was picked to restore organic groceries to the area. Whole Foods opened a much larger store in Metairie and, despite the storm, Ciaccio intends to open in the Esplanade location soon.
The flap over Whole Foods was a small example of just how protective New Orleanians can be of the establishments they consider their own, especially when food is involved. In the aftermath of Katrina, examples of the same devotion and concern for our food culture piled up at a dizzying pace. Some of the first restaurants to open in September, like Scott Boswell's new venture Stanley!, and Ralph Brennan's Red Fish Grill initially cooked with bottled water and served their limited menus on paper plates to feed people hot meals and keep employees working. Restaurant owners and their families were in some cases joined by their regular customers in efforts to clean up and get business rolling again. FEMA trailers sit by kitchen doors across town now as temporary housing for restaurant workers who lost their homes.
The owners of Papa Joe's, a barbecue joint that was wiped out in Slidell, can often be found selling chicken and ribs Uptown under the highway by Lee Circle, their endeavors powered by a generator and charcoal and watched over by a life-size pirate statue and a live parrot.
Some of the biggest news about local restaurants after Katrina actually occurred in Baton Rouge, where New Orleans stalwarts Galatoire's and Mandina's restaurants opened expansion sites. Galatoire's expects to reopen on Bourbon Street in January, while Mandina's timeframe for serving turtle soup au sherry again on Canal Street is around October 2006.
The fate of countless New Orleans restaurants that remain closed relies on the decisions of individual owners, the purse strings of insurance companies and perhaps even the edicts of those who will determine future zoning, rebuilding and flood protection measures in the city. Regardless, some fixtures of the New Orleans culinary scene are gone forever. Earlier in 2005, acclaimed Creole chef Austin Leslie left his long-time spot over the fryer at Jacque-Imo's to bring is distinctive fried chicken to Pampy's Creole Kitchen in Gentilly. The chef, an icon of local cooking, died in September in Atlanta where he was staying after the storm. Joseph Casamento, the 80-year-old patriarch of the family that owns the exemplary oyster bar Casamento's Restaurant, died the day Katrina hit New Orleans -- though the restaurant reopened in November. Mary Hansen, the ever-smiling proprietress at the landmark Hansen's Sno-Bliz, died Sept. 8 at the age of 95.
As 2005 closes, it's hardly business as usually for anyone in New Orleans, even those restaurants like Lilette or Lola's that managed to reopen with full menus from day one. Owners and managers continue to face monumental problems with procuring groceries and staffing shifts and wrangling insurance payments. Still, at corner joints like Parasol's Restaurant and Bar or the Creole grand dame Arnaud's Restaurant, patrons are undergoing a form of food-based therapy. There may be piles of debris just outside and uncertainties looming from every corner of life, but if the roast beef po-boys are still good and sloppy and the shrimp remoulade is still tart and fresh, surely our city's irrepressible culture will survive.