After the storm, a hunger for tradition

New Orleans: Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- I'm normally not much of a meal planner but I know what I'm going to have for lunch one week from Monday.

Red beans and rice. On Monday. It's a tradition bordering on the cliché in New Orleans, but I've grown to embrace such customs more readily in the last decade, even those that seem a little clichéd.

Parades snarling traffic? No problem. People getting tears in their eyes when they hear Louis Armstrong sing "Do You Know What it Means?" I understand.

SEE MORE: Special coverage on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

Ten years ago next Monday, the storm was two days' past. Whole neighborhoods had all but disappeared under water that was still flowing in through failed levees. Thousands were stranded. No power. No running water. Food and drink in short supply.

Lives were being lost and ways of life were in danger.

See the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans:

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Katrina 10 year: Archival photos from 2005
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After the storm, a hunger for tradition
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: A palm tree lies on Canal Street during the heavy rain and wind from Hurricane Katrina August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina has been down graded to a category 4 storm, tracking to the east of New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: A woman hangs from her roof waiting to be rescued by New Orleans Fire Department workers after Hurricane Katrina came through on August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina was down graded to a category 4 storm as it approached New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: A man watches as heavy wind and rain from Hurricane Katrina August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina has been down graded to a category 4 storm, tracking to the east of New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: An overturned car sits in front of the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina made landfall just east of the city at about 6:00 am (EST) with winds of over 140 mph. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
New Orleans, UNITED STATES: This 29 August, 2005 image shows damage to the roof of the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. American football's New Orleans Saints could be marching out of the storm-damaged Superdome and moving next week's workouts for their season opener to Texas because of damage here from Hurricane Katrina. Two holes were punched in the roof of the 80,000-seat domed stadium Monday as about 10,000 people took refuge inside, trying to escape the hurricane's fury. Flooding and wind damage was expected to take a heavy toll on the surrounding area. AFP PHOTO/ James NIELSEN (Photo credit should read JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: In this handout photo, flooded roadways can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment over flights August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds in excess of 135 mph. (Photo by Kyle Niemi/US Coast Guard via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: Two residents wade through chest deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area on August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina was down graded to a category 4 storm as it approached New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: Chest deep water dumped from hurricane Hurricane Katrina collects in the street late Monday afternoon on August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina was down graded to a category 4 storm as it approached New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2005: Man driven from his home by Hurricane Katrina carries an unconscious boy past a row of National Guardsmen outside the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, where many residents took shelter when the storm hit the Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005. Shots were fired and a near riot erupted at the arena today as thousands who had taken shelter there fought to board the buses for the Astrodome in Houston, Tex. (Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 29: People come out of their homes to a flooded street after Hurricane Katrina hit the area with heavy wind and rain August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina was down graded to a category 4 storm as it approached New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: Mark Benton, of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, helps to rescue three month old Ishmael Sullivan from a school rooftop after he and his mother were trapped with dozens of others in high water after Hurricane Katrina August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds in excess of 135 mph. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Debris from Hurricane Katrina piles up along a bridge 30 August, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans is under flood waters as levees begin to break and leak around Lake Ponchartrain. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Vincent Laforet (Photo credit should read POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: Jason Biggs pushes his wife Diane on a raft down Canal Street, flooded by Hurricane Katrina, August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sixty people were dead and thousands left homeless in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama when Katrina roared ashore yesterday, cutting off power and leaving much of New Orleans flooded by water up to 20 feet deep in some areas. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: Residents search for survivors by boat in the neighborhoods surrounding Lake Pontchatrain a day after Hurricane Katrina blew through August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Devastation is widespread throughout the city with water 12 feet high in some areas. Hundreds are feared dead and thousands were left homeless in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida by the storm. Looting has been reported in New Orleans, mostly empty due to the storm. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: Lynell Wright (15) carries Luric Johnson (3) through a flooded intersection crowded with survivors awaiting rescue at the St. Cloud bridge on August 30, 2005, a day after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans, Louisiana. Much of New Orleans was flooded after levies broke and water rushed into the city. (Photo by Marko Georgiev/Getty Images)
A section of Interstae 10 west bound remains flooded 30 August 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane-battered New Orleans was consumed by a catastrophe of unimagined scale Tuesday, cut off from the outside world, submerged by rising floodwaters and troubled by signs of fraying public order. AFP PHOTO / James NIELSEN (Photo credit should read JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 30: People use a boat to make their way down a flooded street in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered a full-scale evacuation after levees weakened by the storm gave way and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain flooded the historic jazz city. (Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: Survivors from the Lower Ninth Ward wait to be rescued from the rooftop of the Martin Luther King Jr. School and Library, one of the only two-story buildings in the area, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds in excess of 135 mph. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: A woman is carried in a bedsheet after being rescued by boat from the Lower Ninth Ward during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds in excess of 135 mph. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 30: A levee in the West End of New Orleans has been destroyed next to homes submerged under water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered a full-scale evacuation after levees weakened by the storm gave way and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain flooded the historic jazz city. (Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Water spills over a levee along the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 30 August, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans is under flood waters as levees begin to break and leak around Lake Ponchartrain. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Vincent Laforet (Photo credit should read POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 30: Neighborhoods in New Orleans are completely flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered a full-scale evacuation after levees weakened by the storm gave way and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain flooded the historic jazz city. (Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 31: People wait for assistance after being rescued from their homes in high water after Hurricane Katrina August 31, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Devastation is widespread throughout the city with water approximately 12 feet high in some areas. Hundreds are feared dead and thousands were left homeless in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida by the storm. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30: In this U.S. Coust Guard handout, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty, of Long Island, New York, looks for survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans is under flood waters as levees begin to break and leak around Lake Ponchartrain. (Photo by NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)
People stand stranded on a roof in high flood waters from Hurricane Katrina 30 August 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans is under flood waters as levees begin to break and leak around Lake Ponchartrain. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Vincent Laforet (Photo credit should read POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 31: Two men paddle in high water in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area August 31, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Devastation is widespread throughout the city with water approximately 12 feet high in some areas. Hundreds are feared dead and thousands were left homeless in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida by the storm. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 5: Paul Garrett, 56, and his neighbor's dog, Rusty, whom he rescued during Hurricane Katrina, walk the streets of the 9th ward on their way home. 'Everybody left,' said Garrett, a former longshoreman. 'I stayed.' Garrett said he stayed to help the neighborhood's elderly and sick. 'Everybody can't leave,' he said. 'I'm lookin' [sic] out for people who can't help themselves. Especially the older people. See, I'm just a 'junior citizen.' They're 'senior citizens',' he continued. 'You got a lot of people in this city who don't care for each other. I feel like we should pull together now instead of apart. It's gotten worse. It's not right,' he said. (Photo by Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
New Orleans, UNITED STATES: A plea for help appears on the roof of a home flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, 04 September 2005. New Orleans began counting its dead 04 September as US troops turned to the gruesome task of harvesting bloated corpses from the hurricane-torn city's flooded streets and homes. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Robert GALBRAITH (Photo credit should read ROBERT GALBRAITH/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 04: A man watches a house burn on Napolean St. as helicopters try to extinguish the fire by dropping water from above in Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Because of the extensive flooding caused by the breaking of the city's levies, fire trucks were unable to reach burning homes and in some cases whole blocks burned to the ground. (Photo by Craig Warga/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
IN FLIGHT- AUGUST 30: A neighborhood east of downtown New Orleans remains flooded August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Approximately 100 people are feared dead and estimates put the property loss at nearly $30 billion as Hurricane Katrina could become the costliest storm in US history. It is estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans is under flood waters as levees begin to break and leak around Lake Ponchartrain. (Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images)
New Orleans, UNITED STATES: The sun rises over the Mississippi river in New Orleans, Louisiana, as fires continue to burn in the city 03 September, 2005. Massive help has started to arrive to help thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina. AFP PHOTO / HECTOR MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 03: Hurricane Katrina Aftermath In New Orleans, United States On September 03, 2005 - Refugees evacuated from the 'Superdome' waiting for buses. (Photo by Laurent VAN DER STOCKT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 4: A gas fire burns straight out of the water on Septermber 4, 2005 in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, Louisiana. Most of the people who stayed behind during the hurricane have finally been evacuated from downtown New Orleans, since Hurricane Katrina struck the region August 29. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Survivors on a rooftop in New Orleans catch MREs (meals ready to eat) from a Navy helicopter on Saturday, September 3, 2005. The city remains under water as military helicopters evacuate people. (Photo by Daniel J. Barry/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2002: The body of Alcede Jackson lies covered on a front porch in the Garden District neighborhood of New Orleans. Six days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, the drive to find survivors has slowly become a body search as rescuers go door-to-door in the submerged city and across the region looking for the thousands who did not escape the storm's wrath. (Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2002: Requests for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are written on the pavement of Burgundy St. in the Bywater section of New Orleans. (Photo by Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
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At first, survival and escape were the main orders of business. A few blocks from the house where I was encamped in a relatively dry part of town, people with garbage-bag luggage, wondering how to get out, were among looters at a nearby drug store. One woman wondered aloud whether there was insulin there, and whether it was safe to use after days without refrigeration. Some took alcohol. Some took clothing. Many grabbed bottled water and food.

The humanitarian crisis slowly subsided. The structural and economic and cultural worries lingered. Would people come back? Would houses be rebuilt? Would commerce return? Jobs? The streetcars? Carnival parades?

Restaurants?

Perhaps it seems trivial in the context of disaster but cooking and eating are discussed with gusto here; maybe even reverence. I've heard people go on at delighted length about Cajun vs. Creole jambalaya, proper seasoning for a crawfish boil, how to darken a roux.

Besides, food-infused life stories aren't peculiar to New Orleans.

I wasn't born here but I've got strong early culinary memories: fried chicken and okra at my grandmother's dining table in Oneonta, Alabama; takeout barbecue on Friday nights when I was growing up in Memphis, Tennessee; $1 vegetable plates at a cafeteria in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I was a starving college student; soul food at the Blue Light Cafe in Ruston, Louisiana, when I got my first radio job.

Then there was New Orleans. Way too much to talk about other than to say that I fell into and out of a few traditions of my own over the decades: gravy-drenched roast beef po-boys from Uglesich's; oysters in my omelets at Coop's Place; seafood gumbo at Rendon Inn; spaghetti and daube at Compagno's.

See how tourism in New Orleans has rebounded since the storm:

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Katrina 10 year: Tourism in New Orleans since the storm
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After the storm, a hunger for tradition
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That food traditions are important -- and were important even in those bleak days 10 years ago -- was driven home for me almost three weeks after the storm. I was a bit of a nomad by then. There were occasional visits to see my wife and kids at a fishing camp in north Louisiana, but mostly I divided time among New Orleans hotels and friends' spare rooms in Baton Rouge, covering various aspects of the storm's aftermath. I lacked no comforts, unlike many of the people I wrote about. But I was exhausted and benumbed from covering a catastrophe in my own backyard.

Flipping through the radio dial, I hit on an interview. Someone was talking to an evacuee stuck in a hotel in Memphis. He and his wife were struggling with the big decision: Would they come back?

That there was any question profoundly disturbed me.

The man was asked what he missed about home. There immediately followed two words.

"On Monday...."

He sounded like he was ready to cry. I sure as hell cried.

He went on to explain about red beans and rice. Not that he had to. Not on my account, anyway.

Because -- again, forgive the cliché -- I know what it means.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans. He moved to the city in August 1983 to work for the AP. He's lived in numerous neighborhoods and sampled red beans and rice in too many restaurants to mention.

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