It’s Christmas time and people always ask me why I stay in New Orleans for the holidays instead of going home to New England. Well first of all, New Orleans IS my home. It’s hard to explain what it is about this city. Local musician Jon Cleary, a Brit ex-pat, said in an interview in OffBeat magazine that coming here from England was like going from a black & white world to one of color and the only way to do “… it properly was to absorb it all—not just the music, but the food, the water.”
So earlier this year Robert Jr of Big City Blues Magazine asked some people to write down what they thought made New Orleans so special and he ran it in the issue that came out at JazzFest when he and Sugar Mae, his partner in crime and in life, appeared for that yearly grand celebration of life. I was honored beyond anything I can say that my words were included next to those of New Orleans musicians.
Here’s what I said.
What’s special about New Orleans? Well there’s been entire books written about that. Books like Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza or One Dead In Attic by Chris Rose. I can’t match their level of description, but I’ve lived here for a while so I can tell you what I think. I’m actually a damn Yankee. New Orleans locals know what that is. A Yankee comes down from the north to visit … a damn Yankee stays. I came down 26 years ago, fell in love with the city and stayed.
Why? It’s an old saying that the kitchen is the heart of the home. I remember growing up in New England always being in the kitchen. The smells of cooking. the laughter of voices, the music on the radio, people running in and out. I used to look out the kitchen window and watch it snow, first heard the Beatles on the radio in a kitchen, kissed my first girlfriend in a kitchen, went to wakes in kitchens, was married in a kitchen once. Lived half my live in a kitchen.
Some lines from a great song by Los Lobos called Good Morning Atzlan say it well:
There’s a sharp dressed man
Playing something on a fiddle
In the backyard right next door
And everybody’s mother
Is cooking something in the kitchen
Got dishes stacked ceiling to floor
Now the same kitchen table I sat at growing up in New England is in my kitchen. And all that sound, all those smells, all those voices, those are now captured in my kitchen and are part of my life. People making gumbo and pies and songs and friendship. People coming from Vermont and Wisconsin and Puerto Rico and Utah and Europe and Japan. Coming from Chicago, like the Boss said, “from the shotgun shack to the SuperDome, from the muscle to the bone”. They all know what it means to miss New Orleans.
But I know what it means to come home to New Orleans. I fly in over the curve of the river at night, lights flickering over the lake and the refineries, get home, throw my bags down, grab a Barqs from the fridge and a cigar from the humidor then go stroll thru my neighborhood, stopping to say hi and talk with all my neighbors and friends. And it makes me smile.
Other cities in the U.S like to honor politicians and lawyers and doctors and architects. In New Orleans we treasure chefs and musicians. Artists and athletes. Indians and actors. Poets and painters. People who create things that warm your heart. Songs, paintings, second lines, poems, parades. Meals that warm your stomach and your heart.
Because New Orleans is the kitchen of America. Like it says in the old song from up the crossroads at Clarksdale, come on in my kitchen. It may be raining outside but it’s warm and full of friends in here. So, come on in, sit down, have some gumbo and listen to the song those funny guys from Chicago are playing out on the porch.
Like Ron McKernan said once: get up and dance, it won’t ruin ya.
Yeah you right Ron. Merry Christmas everyone.