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Where Y’Eat: Honoring New Orleans Legends, Looking for Their Heirs

Dr. John performs at the Link Stryjewski Foundation's Bal Masque in New Orleans in 2017.
Ian McNulty
Dr. John performs at the Link Stryjewski Foundation's Bal Masque in New Orleans in 2017.

It’s starting to sink in. The back-to-back deaths of Leah Chase and Dr. John feels like waking up to find that a pair of mountain peaks have vanished from the range of New Orleans culture.

The question now is whether New Orleans can still produce the legends it minted a generation ago. That is the gauntlet these greats lay at our feet.

Just think about the giants of New Orleans food and music we’ve lost in just the past few years. Paul Prudhomme, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, Ella Brennan, now Leah Chase and Dr. John.

These are people who not only defined modern New Orleans culture. They framed it for the world, they set the image, the flavor, the sound of New Orleans for generations.

They were not just accomplished, beloved people who happened to live in New Orleans. They were accomplished, beloved people shaped by New Orleans. They had something to express about this place that resonated far beyond it.

New Orleans was not just the backdrop for their calling and careers. It was the font for who they were and what they did.

Before Leah Chase served gumbo to presidents, she made it for her New Orleans neighbors.

Before Dr. John became a byword for New Orleans music, he soaked in the music of New Orleans that surrounded him.

Are the pathways still open for the journeys they took? Is the interplay of tradition and personality and individuality that informed them still vibrant enough here? Does our city still have the growing conditions to bring more like them into the world?

Nostalgia and best wishes are not enough to keep a culture vital. It takes participation and curiosity and decisions about what we as New Orleans people endorse as New Orleans culture.

We need to show up when the next generations bring this to the table, to the stage and to the streets.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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