red beans and rice

bad times call for good food

They arrived the day before landfall, in groups both large and small. One after another they flooded into our house with their pets, air mattresses, and Styrofoam coolers, and it felt like Mardi Gras in August. Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans the next day, and my relatives from New Orleans lurked apprehensively around the television screen.

Katrina had been downgraded to a Category Three storm the day before impact, so Uncle Billy chose to stay in his home at the last minute. It wasn’t his first time waiting out a hurricane. With a radio and his cellphone, he slept in the bathtub—shelter from any tornados that might spin off the hurricane’s edge. The next morning my Uncle Tommy received a call from him saying that Katrina was a nonevent, everyone could head back now, the sun was shining. Relief gushed over; everything was OK. Then Uncle Billy called back. In a panic he told Uncle Tommy the water was rising, his house was flooding, the levee must have broken. He hung up mid-sentence.

The next week was confusing, and everyone seemed to be in a daze. We had 22 people stuffed into our five-bedroom house, each with only a week’s worth of clothes. The news wasn’t saying which neighborhoods had flooded, and it wasn’t until satellite images of the city were released that they could finally know. My aunts, cousins, great-aunts, uncles, and even more distant relatives used the satellite images to zoom in on their homes and only saw black roofs peeking out of the water. I think everyone cried at least once that first week.

They were exiles now, jobless, homeless, and completely jarred, like something had hit them in the stomach and they couldn’t catch their breath. I have paradoxical memories about those first two weeks. At the same time that I was stunned to see my raucous Cajun family so somber, I recall gorging myself joyously on their food. Predicting power outages during the hurricane, they had piled all their frozen seafood in ice chests and taken it with them so it wouldn’t rot in their absence. But now that there was no chance of return, they were left with mountains of crab, shrimp, oysters, red fish, and tuna and zero freezer space in our house. We had seafood for every meal those first weeks, in gumbos, fillets and creoles. My uncles are avid fishermen and as we ate they would recount the stories of each meal placed before us. Most of the fish were caught from the same Lake Pontchartrain that had broken the levee and decimated their homes.

After a few weeks, it began to dawn on everyone that we were in this for the long haul. Twenty-two people, plus my family of five, shared our house for three months, and about ten more were always present for meals. Friends of ours had offered their houses to the ten who couldn’t fit. The living room became a bedroom, and hallway floors became beds. The dining room became a pantry, packed full of canned goods, pasta, pop tarts, and so much toilet paper. The tower of toilet paper stacked against the wall looked like a year’s supply, but in reality it had to be replenished weekly. My aunts took turns making trips to Wal-Mart every day, and since we didn’t have a dining room we started to eat dinner in three shifts. Something was always cooking, and every day became Thanksgiving. We feasted on jambalayas and crawfish etoufée and eagerly forked down baked mirliton and oyster dressings. Two huge cast iron gumbo pots continuously gurgled on the stove top, filled with red beans or turtle soup or seafood gumbo. It was the end of summer, so many nights we ate outside, standing around huge foldable tables covered in newspaper. We would have crawfish, crab, and shrimp boils weekly, or spend the afternoon shucking raw oysters. My uncles continuously grilled boudin sausages, hamburgers, and hot dogs.

Around the dinner table, in front of plates heaped high with Papa Gravy on top of baked macaroni, news and stories were exchanged, people laughed and people cried. My Aunt Debby and Aunt Loey told us that while shopping at Wal-Mart, a stranger in line behind them picked up their $500 grocery bill when he recognized their accents. We laughed when the septic tank overflowed because it could not accommodate the amount of hungry people in our house and had to be drained three times.

My Uncle Billy came to live with us too, and I heard his story over dinner the first night he was with us. Nobody had heard from him for the ten days after he hung up on my Uncle Tommy.  The water was rising fast in his house, then had swamped into the inside of his fishing boat in the front yard, so he had to take refuge on the roof of his house with only his dog for company. He was trapped on that roof for three days without food or supplies. The rescue boat came at night with no lights. They made him talk to them before they came close, because, as they later explained, they were trying to determine whether he was black or white. They weren’t picking up black people for fear of “being looted.” They wouldn’t let him take his dog, so they gave him a knife and he slit its throat.

He stayed in the Superdome for a few days, sleeping in shifts with another man because the dome was a madhouse of rape, looting, and murder. After ten days of failing to contact us, he was transported to an army base in Oklahoma. He called my Uncle Tommy and said they wouldn’t let him leave the base unless someone came in person to verify his identity. Uncle Tommy picked him up, and my aunts had a present waiting for him with dinner that night: a rain suit and a bottle of vodka. The two things he had wanted most on that roof. We all noticed a change in Uncle Billy. He used to be sarcastic and rude, generally an unlikeable man, but over the next few months it became apparent he wasn’t the same person. He was nicer, and had a gentle quality to him.

The hummingbirds were migrating then, and now every year when they swarm my backyard, I am reminded of that happy time in my life. I think, like Uncle Billy, we all grew gentler in those months. We had to. Bickering and blaming the world wasn’t going to change things, so we all kept smiling and made sure everyone knew that even though some things were lost forever, family dinners never would be.