Tradition: It’s What’s for Dinner

From Pepper Bowen

Did you ever wonder why New Orleans Mondays are inextricably linked to red beans and rice dinner? Tradition.

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Way back when, Monday was wash day. And if you have only ever seen a picture in history books, let me confirm your suspicions: those old hand crank washing machines were not the least bit speedy; nor were hanging clothes on the line to dry. At that time, folk had ready access to fresh beans that could be just thrown into the pot to cook. Leaving beans on the stove to tend themselves was an efficient way to multitask; preparing dinner and clean clothes. Now however, beans are most often found on supermarket shelves, dried, and have to be re-hydrated by soaking upwards of six hours in cold water. Only after that process is complete, does the task of cooking the beans over low heat, for several hours even begin. Today’s multitask is to prepare dinner and preserve tradition.

Likewise, Tuesday was earmarked for spaghetti with red gravy. Tomatoes could sit simmering for the better part of the day before having the trinity and a roux incorporated to make, not tomato sauce, but red gravy. This trinity is a take on the French mirepoix using onions, celery, and bell peppers instead of carrots. Red gravy is created with a roux, the same base for such iconic dishes as gumbo, thereby revealing a depth and complexity of flavor that is uncommon outside of these parts. Plain ol’ spaghetti (homemade or store bought) sits underneath its savory goodness. And this simple dinner was often served with a side of salad often made with iceberg lettuce.

Yes, iceberg lettuce – the red-headed stepchild of the microgreen family. Iceberg lettuce - the lone black sheep of lettuce families routinely ostracized from modern dinner tables for having no nutritional value, which BTW is not exactly true. Iceberg lettuce - the little leafy green that only seems to get headlines nowadays when it has been recalled for being an unwitting accomplice as a disease carrier. Iceberg lettuce – the lettuce no one wants to eat unless it is cut into a wedge and outfitted with a heavy dressing on top.

So if iceberg lettuce is so demonized, why is it even still on the market? Why don’t we just stop growing it and concentrate on the greens that are branded as more healthy like arugula, kale, or romaine? The answer is simple: tradition.

Recently I had a lengthy conversation about food and food culture with non-food people. We talked about urban farms, gardens, and other food access issues that prevent urban food security. We talked gentrification and its impacts on food access. At the end of our talk, we concluded that the greens grown on urban farms and in urban gardens are symptomatic of gentrification. The evidence is a simple statement by one of the ladies who passionately and exasperatedly asserted that what they grow is “not for my people!”

That’s quite a statement.  So, I want to take a second to unpack much of what is there by looking at the last 50 years or so in New Orleans; which likely applies to most urban areas.

In the years following Brown v Board of Education (1954) and after Ruby Bridges was photographed integrating William Frantz Elementary under US Marshall guard (1960), many whites started moving to the suburbs to keep from sending their kids to school with blacks. Even on Dryades Street (affectionately called the “black Canal Street” because it was littered with shops that happily took black people’s money) saw shopkeepers of the 1960’s preferring to shut their doors, rather than hire blacks. New Orleans saw the flight of blacks, who could and were so inclined, move out of the city and into the newly developing New Orleans East and Algiers. Consequently, folks who were left in the urban center of New Orleans were largely people of color who had few options to leave and ultimately struggled to get by in the wake of white flight, urban exodus, and the resultant diminished services. These people were hustlers who found a way, where no easy way existed, to pay the rent, take care of their families, and eat. But that invariably meant they relied heavily on the familiar foodstuffs that they could both obtain and afford; because there is no time to experiment during the fight for survival.  An accessible vegetable was iceberg lettuce.

To provide context, iceberg began to be shipped nationally from California in the late 40s. And it has remained cheap through gas price spikes, oil shortages, drought, and floods. Therefore, it makes sense that iceberg lettuce would have become a staple for folks who needed to get vegetables but didn’t have a lot of money. This is especially the case in a city where we continue to revere family, and identify strangers, either by where they went to (high) school or by who their “people is”. Now, New Orleans is a city like many others that is gentrifying; that is, previously black neighborhoods like Gentilly, Bywater, parts of Tremé, St. Roch, and St. Claude are, according to a report prepared by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, “now majority white or moving in that direction”.

This impact of culture by economics is not novel. But it does begin to explain why there are still so many people in the city, and especially people of color, who continue to eat iceberg lettuce despite the ongoing campaign to mar and undermine its place as the predominant lettuce in favor of more profitable crop.

In the statement that professes, “arugula is ‘not for my people’”, this woman is in no way saying that black people don’t, can’t, or won’t, eat arugula. She is saying that the price point is cost prohibitive for many working class folk who may already be struggling under the weight of two jobs just to pay the bills and feed their families. She is saying that her motivation for purchasing a vegetable is not the relative profit of a lettuce grower. She is saying that with the insinuation of other lettuces branded as more healthy, there was neither respect nor consideration given to those folks who have food traditions that include the humble iceberg.  At the same time, there is a presumption that “my” lettuce could and should, be replaced by one the gentrys have brought with them. She is saying that the introduction of designer mixed greens is akin to the gentrification of my plate and she is, to coin a phrase, not there for it.

Honestly, I don’t know that she should be – because… tradition.