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Where Y’Eat: When New Orleans Was Down, Local Restaurants Again Stepped Up

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Ian McNulty
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Cedric and Carolyn Singleton cooked free meals for the community at their restaurant the Real Pie Man after Hurricane Ida knocked out power.

The day after Hurricane Ida struck, when we were just starting to assess what this monster storm had left behind, in New Orleans it was small local restaurants that brought the first assurances that they were still there for us.

Restaurants that were able to get back cooking were not open in any conventional capacity for some time. But if they had food on hand and the prospect of using it, many found a way.

It was all a juggling act of generators, perishable food, shelf-stable staples and the crucial currency of water, ice and gas. But it was still hospitality, it was people who serve finding ways to keep doing that.

At some restaurants, the impulse to serve the stricken community sent chefs and operators to the stoves, bearing the oppressive heat of fired-up kitchens without electricity to cook for others.

Most of the restaurants cooking again have been small mom-and-pops, operating with family, a handful of staff or, sometimes, just the proprietor working alone.

In other cases, service was as simple as telling people to come take whatever they needed and could use from their kitchens. The urge was to put it to use before it went bad. I found chefs frantically packing off whatever they could into the hands and ice chests of neighbors and regulars and staff.

Sometimes this initiative coalesced into group efforts, as with the downtown music club the Howlin’ Wolf, where dozens of restaurants and many volunteers kept bringing fresh and ever-changing inventories of food, equipment and know-how to supply thousands of free meals in a matter of days. Between barbecue smokers, seafood boiling pots, fryers and sidewalk sandwich assembly lines, with music blasting in the background, it almost resembled a Louisiana food festival.

In fact, it was all just more evidence of what we’ve seen countless times before in this town. The people who help make the good time roll are there to help their community roll through hard times too.

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