Every city exists in innumerable versions as each person experiences it differently and each person imagines it differently. New Orleans is a city rich in history, legends, dreams, contradictions, and below are thoughts and insights gathered from our discussions on imagined versions of New Orleans. These versions draw from the city’s illustrious music and food, its atmospheric literature, and its particular iconography of death, mystery, and magic.
Imagining Death and Magic by Elena Rivera
New Orleans has been the constant receptacle for imaginations of death and magic. With feature films such as Princess and the Frog, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dead One, and the hit TV show American Horror Story (AHS), NOLA has been the hot spot for mystery. Within the workshop, the fellows discussed and learned the many complexities and real histories that birthed these stories.
Through watching materials with their actual histories in mind, we all learned just how close the magic of NOLA is to reality. Voodoo queens, villains, and vampires we all discussed were just the manifestation of real people across years of storytelling. The people of local news and folklore carry legacies within the now, showing the power of being an icon. Local icons influence the imagination of a city throughout time, providing a character that embodies and imprints on the adjectives of the city. The magic of Marie Laveau leaches into the streets of New Orleans; the murderous and deadly nature of Madame La LaLaurie lurks in the corners of the French Quarter; and the local gossip of young women carrying a casket ingrained vampires within NOLA nights.
Furthermore, the histories of today impact the ways in which these icons are portrayed. With racial depictions changing over time and reclaiming of the black body, more and more the struggles of modern human beings are portrayed through each character’s eye. We thoroughly discussed the choices to show Marie Laveau resurrecting dead confederate soldiers to do her bidding. The intentional portrayal of a black woman having a soldier with a racist past fight for her is an explicit reclamation, which is a theme all throughout AHS as Marie LaLaurie also became a slave—resulting in a successful commentary on the race relations of the now.
Analyzing cities through moving images also shows how much visual aspects influence the ways in which a city is imagined. All of the scenes analyzed took place at night—furthering the darkness and mystery of the city, but also highlighting the liveliness of NOLA nightlife. With a city that comes alive after hours, the mystery of its imagination comes across even further through film. In fact, fellows noted how when they imagine NOLA, they too see it within the gaze of the night, highlighting just how powerful this form of image circulation can be. I can’t help but think how the subtle but consistent imagery emitted from Hollywood’s imagination of cities permeates my own thinking and I have to wonder what narratives are missing.
Imagining Creole Cuisine by Alana Hyman
This section discusses the historic influence of creole cuisine on how the city of New Orleans has been and currently is perceived. The term “Creole” describes the population of people in French colonial Louisiana which consisted of the descendants of the French and Spanish upper class, and over the years the term grew to include native-born slaves of African descent as well as those of mixed racial ancestry. The most well-known Creole staple dishes include gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée. Creole peoples are not to be confused with Cajuns, an ethnic group of Acadian descent. Acadians were French and some Indigenous peoples who settled in Canada. They were eventually exiled and relocated to lower Louisiana in the late 1700s, where they would begin to be known as Cajuns.
The most well-known Creole staple dishes include gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée, and they all hail from New Orleans. Creole food is a direct culmination of the cultural exchanges that NOLA was founded upon, as well as becoming an identity staple for the city. One key ingredient for Creole cuisine is Filé powder, a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the North American sassafras tree used to thicken dishes, which was sometimes substituted with okra in the summers (See recipe for Okra Shrimp Gumbo on Page 9 above). Filé can be traced back to the indigenous heritage of Creole culture, while okra was likely brought in by the West Africans. The holy trinity in Cajun cuisine and Louisiana Creole cuisine is the base for several dishes in the regional cuisines of Louisiana and consists of onions, bell peppers and celery. The preparation of Cajun/Creole dishes such as crawfish étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya all start from this base.
The discussion group found it notable that this book included “household tips” for the white women who had to learn to cook Creole food themselves, rather than depending on the generational oral traditions of their Creole slaves, as well as the detailed description of the kitchen space and its relation to the rest of the household’s construction.
The group was also asked to identify elements of this photo that stood out to them after reading an essay from Tulane University discussing the work. The conversation, in conjunction with viewing of other representations of Creole women throughout history (See Tante Zoe and Annie from Popeyes) led to a greater understanding of how idealized archetypes and caricatures of Creole women have become as a result of the popularization of Creole food, it’s identification with NOLA, and the inherent racism in Louisiana’s history.
Imagining the French Quarter by Anvita Budhraja
Louis Armstrong’s take on the classic jazz song Bourbon Street Parade elicited several different responses—“energetic,” “gets you in the mood,” and perhaps the most evocative, “feels like walking and dancing down a street with people you don’t quite know.” The marching bands and second line parades that are so characteristic of New Orleans take the action right to the streets of this city. An entire community is built through music and dance not so much inside the city’s establishments (although they have their denizens too) but outside, on the streets, where people are drawn in and the crowd swells with bass and bonhomie.
The streets of New Orleans are as iconic as the cafes of Paris—a cultural monument that have come to define how the city is imagined. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the historic neighborhood, the French Quarter, conjured up through Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire and William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches. Streets with recognizable names like Canal, Decatur, Chartres, Royal, and of course, Bourbon and Desire, become the center of activity, observation, and life, making up the lattice upon which these two literary works build their versions of the French Quarter. It is remarkable that even though the Mississippi river forms such a distinctive part of the history and the landscape of the city in general and of the French Quarter in particular, it is perhaps overshadowed by the New Orleans streets themselves.
Williams’ French Quarter is simultaneously mystical and gritty, with little drops of magic and fantasy accentuating the notes of the blues piano that play throughout. Faulkner’s French Quarter emphasizes the wanderers and those perhaps not quite settled on their journeys through life. Both texts, however, evoke a feeling, an atmosphere through distinctive characters and snippets of their lives. How is a feeling to be visualized or, rather, how is a city or a place to be visualized through a feeling? This is not a question a study of literature of a place seeks to answer. Rather, in the moments when the French Quarter escapes concrete visualization, readers of Williams and Faulkner find a glimpse of New Orleans, which is only fitting in a city that has a physical place, a street, named Desire.