Café Du Monde is a New Orleans fixture. Tourists seek it out for the “real” New Orleans experience, and locals and college students utilize it for everything from a last stop in a night escapade, to a hangover cure, to just a great place to get a café au lait and beignets. It celebrates over 150 years of life and has been in the same family since World War II. Café Du Monde has woven itself into the fabric of the French Quarter and the city itself. As a cultural icon in a city that revolves around food, it is a logical step that a book of stories about food name itself after the famous cafe. Meanwhile, Back at Café Du Monde: Life Stories About Food, celebrates the essentialness of food to our lives and culture. The collection of stories is a glimpse into American culture. It portrays a society in which people from different backgrounds are unified over similar a theme. While their stories may not be homogenous, it is their basis in food that unites Americans as a society, and their heterogeneity is what makes for a vibrant American society (and great restaurants).
The compiler, Peggy Sweeney-McDonald, has a story of her own. She is from Louisiana, and is an event producer in Los Angeles. Her book first began as a live performance version of Back at Cafe Du Monde. She first began working on it during Thanksgiving in 2009. Sweeney-McDonald’s business was suffering because of the recession, and says she was in “depths of despair.” It was her friend’s personal anecdote, involving food as comfort, that gave Sweeney-McDonald the idea to create a production involving people’s stories about their lives and food. She wanted to explore the concept of food as a unifier and an uplifter. Her production was a success, as many people wanted to share their own food stories. Turns out, many people think of food as an important aspect of their lives.
The story of Sweeney-McDonald’s friend, Lisa Annitti, is one of the best stories in the book that exemplifies food as comfort and an escape. Suffering from a horrible break-up, she was stuck in an apartment in Baton Rouge alone before Thanksgiving.
Bored, alone, and depressed, she drank a bottle of wine at home on her couch. Then, she decided to eat her pie she was supposed to bring to her boss’ Thanksgiving dinner the next day. Her boss did not really want more pie, but acted offended when she appeared the next day pie-less. Annitti’s story is relatable to so many Americans. The pie was friendly and inviting. Her pie (and her wine) allowed her to escape from her unhappiness into a momentary euphoria. Her playful story is surrounded by a deep cultural emphasis in food as comfort. Americans treat food as a way to escape a bad day, or mood, and through something delicious into a momentary bliss.
Annitti’s anecdote is followed by a recipe for coconut cream pie. Her favorite coconut cream pie is from a place in Shreveport, Louisiana called Strawn’s Eat Shop. Her claim is that if one cannot book the ticket to Shreveport, her recipe will suffice. While it lacks a recipe for a crust, the recipe for the filling looks fairly straightforward and delicious.
Other stories include fascinating tales from New Orleans chefs and other local foodies. One is from Drew Ramsey, owner of Hubig Pies. He recalls the amazement he felt when New Orleanians cheered him as a hero when he reopened the factory after Hurricane Katrina.
“I am a simple man, making simple pies…. who was amazed and astonished that on our first trip back down the parade route in 2006, people clapped, cheered, and cried when they saw us handing out our little fried pies.”
Ramsey was astonished that his little company could have such an impact on the entire city. People found inspiration in his company’s reopening. Those little pies had become a foundation of the city’s morale. When Ramsey tossed out those pies during
Mardi Gras, he was symbolizing hope for New Orleans to the people on the parade route. His little pies had become so much more than a delicious treat at convenience store counters, it was a symbol of a city striving to revive itself.
The stories in Meanwhile Back at Café Du Monde on the surface are amusing and uplifting, but they contain so much more depth. They explain a society that uses food for much more than simply eating. Americans use food for comfort, hope, escape and symbolism. Even though so many Americans have different backgrounds and prefer different foods, they all serve as a great unifier, making American society so fascinating and rich.