Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Authenticity tourism

Katrina Cruise

When is a hot sausage po boy not really a hot sausage po boy?
The breadth and depth of food offerings at Jazz Fest is explained no better than by the grand dame of Creole cooking, Leah Chase: “You go to other festivals and they have rinky-dink foods like corndogs and hamburgers. Jazz Fest is unique because it serves food-food.”

For Ms. Leah, that means the absinthe-flavored oyster Rockefeller bisque or a hot sausage po-boy from Vance Vaucresson. Be mindful, though, that calling it a hot sausage po-boy will brand you as an outsider. To Chase, the proper nomenclature for any self-respecting Creole is a chaurice po-boy.
Here's something you won't read most places. Leah Chase, please STFU. Yes we all know the word chaurice. You still see it on grocery packaging every now and then. But when New Orleanians (yes, real, authentic, born and raised New Orleanians) go to order a po boy we all say hot sausage. The item is listed as hot sausage on every menu on which it appears or has appeared for as long as anyone currently alive can remember. Rest assured, ordering a "hot sausage po boy" will not "brand you as an outsider"

There are plenty of peculiar phrases New Orleanians do use on a daily basis without affectation. Neutral ground would be one. A lot of people still "make groceries" although I think that one is dying out a little bit. Some words and phrases like banquette, for example, are more or less arcane and out of currency. Use of such words is more likely to "brand you as an outsider" or at least a hyper self-conscious local than their more common synonyms.

But now we live in a time when outsiders, hyper self-conscious locals, and most importantly, people in the business of selling our image to visitors and to Hollywood are asserting more and more ownership over how we live our lives in New Orleans. And the local lexicon is being subtly redefined to meet those purposes. One particularly grating example of this I've noticed as of late is the new enthusiasm for referring to what locals call the CBD and Warehouse District by the vestigial 19th Century term "American Sector" in order to facilitate a clever branding effort by a locally-based national celebrity.

The Jazzfest, which opens next weekend, has for many years been the primary engine behind this kind of hip re-branding of New Orleans for the benefit of the smug segment of the tourist market. Like most of post-industrial America this city doesn't produce and sell things anymore as much as it sells services and experiences. In a tourism-based setting, this means we basically sell ourselves... or at least some idealized version of ourselves.

And that's demeaning for two reasons. First, by reducing your cultural touchstones to marketable commodities you allow your customers to redefine you and your traditions in ways that suit their understanding. Second, the traditions themselves become less of a celebration and more of a performance or worse a job. In a way we are really selling ourselves and in the process making the fact of being ourselves less enjoyable.

And this, ultimately, is what I think Treme will end up doing as well. Sometime soon, maybe a year from now, I'm expecting some outfit to start offering a "Treme tour" or some such thing. People will visit and want to see things as they were on HBO. And those things, although they are based on more realistic concepts than much of what Hollywood has produced on New Orleans, still distort things in irksome ways. But eventually the distortion becomes the consensus reality.

Here's a sort-of trivial example of what I'm talking about. Just last week, on the Back of Town blog, Treme was praised for its attention to detail in rendering the "first second line since Katrina" The impressive detail was the fact that some of the marchers at the parade in the show were carrying torn down street signs from the flooded 7th 8th and 9th Wards. The street names were poignant words for the moment like "Desire" "Benefit" "Humanity" and "Pleasure" Because I was at the event being replicated, I can tell you that this really happened. I took this picture of the signs as they were carried in front of me.

That's pretty neat but here's the funny thing. This actual parade, which was a big big deal "All Star" parade on Martin Luther King Day weekend and staged to help raise money for flood-affected musicians, happened in January of 2006. Treme presents the "first second line after katrina" in November of 2005. Maybe this doesn't matter much but I think it's likely that over the long term the lasting influence of Treme history can supplant the actual history in people's minds which leads to a fictionalized version of events gaining a place in the official record.

The punch line, of course, is that the real parade wasn't even the "first second line" The actual first second line I saw after Katrina happened in December 2005 and it happened Uptown, not in or anywhere near the Treme. If you read down in the BoT thread you'll find commenters cite other examples of earlier forgotten second lines as well. But because Treme depicts something like the January 2006 parade, people are now calling that event the "first second line after Katrina" So now we have a fictional history which causes people, in the process of attempting to reassert the actual history, to then misremember a crucial fact about the actual history itself. And so now not only do our cultural idioms become altered for the sake of someone else's product but our memories do as well.

Maybe the next time the Treme producers decide to film a second line scene, they'll remember to add the guy with the chaurice cart. I'm sure Leah would appreciate that kind of attention to detail.


The Haunty said...

I don't disagree with this so much as fail to share your level of intensity.

You're one of the few people who realize there's a level of local complicity to it. Just the fact that "Treme" and other productions are shot here will change the city more than the message "Treme," et. al. will send to the world. As hindsight's shown, "Treme" failed to change anything except for TV critics' perception of David Simon, so I'm sure you're resting easy over that! (The whole tech thing, which seems like a bigger driver of change, is a local-national partnership, too, obviously. I don't know what it is about those guys but they have no problem sticking their noses in everything. Maybe it's a you're-using-our-website-for-free thing so they feel they're entitled to anything they want in return.)

Look, I grew up in Los Angeles, which is as unsentimental a place regarding change as can be; e.g., the mansion in "Sunset Boulevard" was bulldozed without a peep from anyone to make way for a gas station. Even my interest in archaeology is tempered by the notion that things have to be abandoned for them to become fodder for archaeologists. So my default position is you can't stop what's coming, particularly when there's money involved.

As for letting outsiders redefine you, redefine is as redefine does. The chamber of commerce doesn't seem to be redefining you, for instance. If people want to be redefined or are passive accomplices to being redefined, what are you gonna do?

The Haunty said...

Also, there's nothing wrong with the writing in this post.