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NEW ORLEANS—To most Americans, a barroom is where you get drunk, meet friends or find a bit of strange, maybe see a show. You may know one of the bartenders, you may not. There might be a few familiar faces you’ve attached to names over the years, fewer still you’ve gotten to know.
But in New Orleans, bars are our town squares, our therapist offices, our living rooms. Their patrons are our family, our lovers, our occasional enemies. Their bartenders are our priests, our news anchors, our confidants, and our dinner companions. Hell, second lines base their routes on the locations of bars. That is how important bars are to this city.
And as with everything here, there’s food. Always in New Orleans, there’s food. Not food service, mind you. Free food. Good food. Food that fills you up, that roots you here, and now, in New Orleans.
There’s Red’s famous crawfish and shrimp boils at the R Bar in the Marigny on Fridays, or red beans and rice at Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge. Over at First and Last Stop, Ms. Carol probably has a plate of something delicious for ya, no charge. It’s nothing formal, and never fancy, but it’s always free to regulars and sunburned tourists alike.
“We’re not skinny for a reason,” my friend Michelle McMahon said, laughing. A bartender at BJ’s, my regular bar, Michelle explained that as a child “we’d go out with my PawPaw. We would go to his favorite little dives, ya know. … They always had pickled eggs, sometimes they had hogshead cheese they were sharing, or a po’boy,” Michelle.
Some nights you’ll walk into BJ’s and with your first breath your stomach growls ferally, an instinctual response to the smell of the big pot of beans and rice that Teal Grue, the bar’s owner, cooked that afternoon. During football season there’s gumbo, or beans and rice, maybe pizza. On the bye week, there’s an annual cook-off, and the pool table overflows with food brought by regulars.
And on glorious Saturday afternoons in late winter and spring, when the days get longer and the sun shines and everybody’s back in their shorts and shorter skirts, when it’s finally crawfish season, we boil out back—or, more correctly, we stand around and watch Little Johnny work his magic.
Johnny grew up at BJ’s, zooming between its dark interior and the brilliant summer sun on roller skates. A plumber by trade, Johnny is New Orleans through and through—loud, brash, quick to laugh or throw hands, yet deeply sensitive and empathetic. And he’s a goddamn genius with a sack of crawfish. With his beloved dachshund, Mabel, at his feet, he works the boiling cauldron like a hungover Mickey Mouse, performing an age-old alchemy absorbed over decades of crawfish boils.
When he dumps the pot’s deep red contents on the table and the spicy steam hits, it’s as if the Virgin herself has smiled on your face. Shoulder to shoulder we huddle around the mass of crawfish, eating and laughing and sweating, vying for who will be that day’s champion crawfish eater.
That tradition has endured through hurricanes, dark economic times, and rampant gun violence. Even during the lockdown following Katrina, bars across the city easily and quickly slipped into speakeasy mode to give residents some sense of normal.
If we’d known it might be the last boil of the season, we’d probably have bought more than one sack, maybe even sprung for a couple dozen raw oysters. But it was March 7 and the coronavirus was still something happening to people in far-off places like Italy or Washington. Still, we’d heard about what was happening in other parts of the world, and rumors were already starting that a closure was coming. Nobody could figure out how a city that thrives off personal contact and connection could ever do “social distancing,” whatever that was.
Two days later, the first case of COVID-19 was found in New Orleans. Within 24 hours, six people who’d contracted it were in hospitals around the city. That afternoon, Mayor LaToya Cantrell had announced she was shutting down all the major public events for the week, including annual St. Patrick’s Day parades and Super Sunday. Less than a week later, Cantrell and Gov. John Bel Edwards would announce that all bars, restaurants, and music venues were to close.
Overnight, thousands of service industry workers, musicians, and artists were out of work at the exact worst time. The coronavirus hit New Orleans just as the city was gearing up for festival season, when many people would make enough money to last for most of the year. Starting with Buku Fest in March through the French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest in April and May, the festival season brings in tens of millions of dollars to the city and forms the backbone of the tourism industry. But with everything shut down and all the festivals canceled or postponed, most people have been caught with little in the tank to get them through the coming months. Worse, it’s unclear how many of those bars and restaurants will ever open again.
And it’s not like the city government has vast reserves of credibility here. It’s easier to get away with murder in New Orleans than it is to get the city to fill a gaping pothole. For nearly six months, city officials have left at least two bodies to unceremoniously rot in a partially collapsed construction site—including one that is visible from the street whenever a strong gust blows away the blue tarp covering him.
If the city’s bartenders and artists had decided to go on a bender holed up in their houses, it would have been understandable. After all, a solid chunk of America is more or less drunk all the time at this point anyway. But instead of turning inward, many of them stepped up almost immediately to provide what help and comfort they could.
Within days of bars closing in the city, a network of service industry people transformed into small-batch meals-on-wheels operations. Michelle McMahon settled on delivering bread to friends and other service industry folks after she saw reports that bread was disappearing from store shelves as fast as toilet paper was. The loaves, which she cooks in cast iron skillets, are simple but delicious, with cloves of roasted garlic and rosemary baked into them. So far she’s delivered 20 of them.
“I wish I had more skillets,” Michelle joked. For her, ultimately the deliveries are a way to keep people connected to their community. “It really is just, ‘How’s your mom and them.’ ” The need to check on your people, she said, is “one of the beautiful things about this place.”
BJ’s general manager Julie Kelly began cooking meals for neighbors. Every few days she brings around meals for people, particularly those who may not have anyone else in town, live on fixed incomes, or are too sick or old to fend for themselves. It’s not a new thing for Ms. Julie, who regularly organizes dinners at BJ’s for our bar family and whoever might come along. And as the lockdown has dragged on and officials have warned that residents should wear masks when they go to the store, Julie has once again stepped up, sewing dozens of masks for friends and family.
Once schools were shut down as part of the stay-at-home order, Jim Vella, a BJ’s regular and world-renowned glass artist who teaches at-risk youth at an after-school arts program called YAYA, found himself at home, uncertain about what the future would hold for him and his nonprofit employer. With their children at home all the time now, the YAYA staff could have hunkered down to wait out the virus and worry about their community and the fate of their nonprofit.
Instead, Vella and other staff have started holding regular classes online—no small feat for a neo-Luddite like Vella—while providing packages of art supplies for families to pick up from the organization’s space.
The BJ’s family members aren’t the only ones stepping up. Even before the stay-at-home order went into place, Dre Glass—a gregarious Canadian transplant with a penchant for leopard-print everything and a sharp tongue—was already planning out how to help. A longtime fixture in the city’s bar industry, Glass, like a lot of service industry workers, was already supplementing her bar gigs at Lost Love Lounge and Mimi’s in the Marigny by selling small-batch meals, mostly to friends or at pop-up events.
By the end of the first week, Glass had turned her Once Around the Kitchen hustle into a coronavirus response operation. She’s averaging the sale of 10 to 20 food baskets a week—think Community Supported Agriculture, but with multiple meals of red beans and rice or peanut soup instead of raw turnips and cabbage. At $20 a pop, the money helps pay for her and her husband Blas’ grocery needs while also subsidizing free meals for people struggling financially. And that goes a long way—this Friday, Glass delivered more than 100 meals to people. “I’ve had a lot of people donate money for gas, or they’re in a spot where they can still order delivery or groceries or whatnot, but they want specifically this to eat and they will pay an additional $30 to provide for someone else.”
How the coronavirus will end up changing New Orleans culture isn’t for me to say. This city has a way of being invaded by people, music, food, arts, hurricanes, and now pandemics. And while they all leave their mark, New Orleans history seems to tell us eventually the city will send most of them on their hungover way, keeping only what adds to the city’s flavor. Like … sigh … a gumbo.
In a time when greed and cruelty seem to rule the day and keeping away from everyone around you means survival, these small acts of cultural caregiving are critically important. Keeping alive the communion of breaking bread, even from afar, helps give people hope that this, too, will end. And that soon enough we’ll be out back at BJ’s, elbow to elbow, enjoying the sun and Johnny’s dark crawfish magic.