It’s one thing to say that a place has culture. It’s another to witness how the people of that place share a culture, how they use it, how it brings them together.
That is one of the really gratifying things about New Orleans food. It’s a culture with a long history and many mothers and fathers. But it’s also one for the here and now, as immediate as the next meal, and it’s one that’s refreshed by each generation.
This is been on my mind lately because New Orleans lost one of those mothers.
When Ella Brennan died last week at age 92, it made the news because of her prominence in the industry, the acclaim of her flagship restaurant, Commander’s Palace, the far reach of the Brennan restaurant family she led, the star power of the talent she helped develop, no less than Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.
But her passing is also a reminder of just how deep the city’s food culture runs in New Orleans life. Food has an outsized grip on the attention and imagination of this town, and those who earn success and fame in its realm can have an influence far beyond the plate.
Ella Brennan wasn’t so much an ambassador for New Orleans food, not in the way that her star chefs became. She was more like the engineer behind the scenes, building, maintaining and expanding the framework.
Her drive was to assert that New Orleans could be a world-class food city, while still remaining unique in all the world. To accomplish that, she could draw on the city’s rich history, it’s many global influences, an audience of eager eaters that live here and visit here. But most of all it had to come from people, New Orleans people, the native-born and the transplants. It was her self-perpetuating gift to others and to the city that she pushed people in her orbit to do better and reach farther.
So if you want to take the full measure of Ella Brennan’s impact you’ll have to stick around a while longer. You’ll need to watch how people who have been inspired by her continue to keep the story of New Orleans food vibrant, changing and most of all, our own.