Monday, 23 April 2012

Letting the Good Times Roll: 40th Anniversary of NAES Celebrated in NOLA


Well, hello, Blogosphere! For those of this on-line world who take occasional interest in my foodie experience, I would like to express my apologies for not keeping up with the blog as of late. (And yes, I know I've still got quite a bit of work to do in terms of upholding my New Year resolutions.) For those just now finding my blog for the first time, welcome! As I write this post, it's amazing to consider the last two weeks have truly flown by; in the next couple of days, I hope I can bring the blog back on track to its once-steady course. The adventures of this post bring us back to a very early April 5th, the morning of my flight from Columbus to New Orleans (via Charlotte) for the 40th anniversary of the National Association for Ethnic Studies.

Following a smooth transition from my connecting flight and finally arriving at the Astor Crowne Plaza (the hotel and site for this year's conference, located in short walking distance to the French Quarter), I soon found two very familiar faces: Dr. Carleen Sanchez (whom I had first met at the NAES conference in D.C.) and Dr. Diane Ariza, my honors thesis advisor. From the very get-go, I knew the conference would be even more fun and meaningful than I had anticipated. As it would become clearer and much easier to explain as the weekend continued, I felt like I was being reunited with an academic family, a professional organisation with which I know I want to remain associated. In contrast to other groups (albeit I can't speak from much history), NAES is a serious yet light-hearted community that has been built over the past forty years. It's a community that I first and foremost feel is built on mentorship and in wanting to provide the opportunity for students and colleagues to learn and share from one another. This, along with every breakout session I attended, was made evident at the luncheon banquet (where then interim NAES president Dr. Ron Scapp addressed those in attendance) which began with a salad held in place by thinly sliced zucchini.

Perhaps the surprise of the entire meal (as well as the luncheon meal the following day) were the portion sizes. For the main course, I went with the chicken option which was enrobed in a slightly sweet corn purée. The sweetness paired nicely with the heat of the chicken seasoning (yup, we're definitely in New Orleans!), and added richness and moisture to the otherwise nicely cooked protein. Served with this were blanched carrots and broccoli (that definitely needed to be cut down to size) and a healthy serving of roasted potatoes.

I knew though that I had to save some room for dessert and it was a good thing I did. We were served a cross between a strawberry shortcake and a napoleon (mille-feuille), simplified here by the use of a puff pastry shell instead of individual layers alternated with vanilla cream. Topped off with powdered sugar and interestingly dusted with cinnamon, the sweetness of the napoleon was put over the top (and I don't say that lightly) by the foundational layer of what I can best describe as concentrated blueberry and strawberry syrups (as opposed even to coulis). There was so much sugar in fact that the sugar comaesque crash loomed over me as I moved into the next session.

This would probably be a good time to confirm that I didn't just eat my way through NOLA (though that in itself would've been a grand adventure) but indeed spent much of my time in breakout sessions (click here for this year's program). The first one I attended, in fact, was just prior to the aforementioned banquet and among its presenters included the last person to leave the airport's shuttle bus with me, Kim (her spoken word artist name of which is inVinity). The panel session, thematically titled "Spaces of Identity" localised ethnicity within specified borders: a city (New Orleans), a region (California's Central Valley) and even in the individual's experience. What was particularly intriguing about Kim's presentation, and as she explained on the shuttle ride over, was her experience she would share of being "Boricuanese" (half Puerto Rican and half Chinese). Check out her brilliant video above which was shown in its entirety instead of reading a paper. Though the racial/ethnic, linguistic and gendered layers are all very much present, about halfway through (interesting screen cap on the part of YouTube, by the way) it's noteworthy that an unintended layer of food identity is introduced which, it could be argued, helps Kim to bridge and better understand both her Puerto Rican and Chinese sides.

Following a panel on "Globalization and Transnational Migration," I and the rest of the conference participants were in for a special treat vis-à-vis a plenary session titled the "History of Ethnic Studies" and its panelists, affectionately referred to as representing the Elders of NAES and the field of ethnic studies. Among the panelists were Dr. Molefi Asante (10, founder of the theory of Afrocentricity, author of 74 books and more than 500 articles and essays, and creator of the first Ph.D. program in African American Studies at Temple University); Dr. Miguel Carranza (4, founding Director of the Latina/o-Chicana/o Studies program at University of Missouri-Kansas City); Dr. Tony Cortese (6, former Director of Ethnic Studies and current Professor of Sociology at Southern Methodist University); Dr. Robert Johnson (1, Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at St. Cloud University); Dr. Jonathan Majak (3, past Director of the Institute for Ethnic and Racial Studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse); Dr. Rudy Mattai (8, native of Guyana and Professor of Educational Foundations at State University of New York- Buffalo); Dr. Robert Perry (9, one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology at Wayne State University, Director of the Ethnic Studies Program for 10 years at Bowling Green State University, Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies for 17 years at BGSU, and Department Head of African American Studies at Eastern Michigan University from 1997 to 2003; a NAES mentoring award is also named in his honour); Dr. Joseph W. Scott (7, creator and former Director of the Black Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame, and Professor Emeritus at University of Washington); Dr. Otis L. Scott (2, Professor Emeritus at  California State University- Sacramento); and Dr. Michael Soldatenko (5, Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at California State University- Los Angeles). As each panelist spoke, it was clear they found their individual places and collaborative roles within the field of ethnic studies, and that their personal stories meshed seamlessly (and in many cases as motivation for) their professional endeavours. I continue to find it quite interesting then that these ten men (and it was made clear from the start that there were female elders who were unable to join us), are at/of the foundation of a field which I find difficulty in finding common ground. Shortly after the conclusion of the panel, I was asked to reflect upon the relevancy or even the relatability of their experience to my own. With deep respect, I admire these individuals for their work and the ground they've broken (and continue to break) throughout their careers. Yet, the Asian American experience wasn't represented in the panel and perhaps that's why it was a bit challenging to resonate with the struggles the aforementioned pioneers had. Perhaps more plausibly, my experience with ethnic studies was developed at Albion within a global framework, and so my rootedness in domestic ethnic studies--or at least in its history and foundation--is not as strong as it theoretically should be, especially given my work in multi-cultural student affairs. But then again, I wonder if being too rooted in the past (if that's even possible) slows down progress and forward thinking to the future?

After the two-hour session, I met up with Diane and found another NAES member I met last time in D.C., Dr. Connie Jacobs, at the welcome reception featuring appetizers in "New Orleans" style. During the reception, I also got re-introduced to Ron (the then-interim president I mentioned above), and learned that he is the editor of Eating Culture, which is arguably the foundational text for the field of food studies. (Talk about your small circles.) With the hustle and bustle from the day, I took a quick break from all the activity and went back to my hotel to check up on e-mails and catch a quick nap; of course the nap didn't happen, but in any case, the short break was all I needed. That said, I met up with Diane, Ron and another NAES colleague at the hotel's on-site restaurant, Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House Restaurant and Seafood Bar. For starters, Ron ordered the Trio of [Baked] Oysters--which offered a pair each of the restaurant's Oysters Rockefeller (topping of bread crumbs and green herbs), Oysters Bienville (key ingredient: parmesan) and Oysters Fonseca (house recipe linked to this one)--served on a plate of rock salt. And among our drink orders, I tried out the bourbon-based streetcar, I think (I'm a little uncertain because those were definitely blackberries in my drink). In any case, it was quite good and refreshing without being overpowering.

Sharing our appetizers, our accompanying NAES colleague ordered the Crystal Alligator with bleu cheese dressing (not pictured), Diane ordered the Fried Calamari with chipotle aïoli and Pecorino Romano. I must admit I'm not a huge fan of calamari (for textural reasons), but especially with the aïoli it was wicked good.

As for me, I ordered the Bourbon BBQ Shrimp with rosemary, garlic and (of course) bourbon. In my last post, I mentioned herb dumplings that I could just eat all day; with the slightly heated sauce and the dumpling served with the perfectly cooked shrimp, this is one dish I would definitely add to the eat-all-day list. Following our evening post-reception dinner, I headed back to my room for the night, as I would be presenting my paper the next day.

Following what I would consider a relatively successful presentation of my research titled "Students at the Table: Stone Soup and Undergraduate Food Culture on a Liberal Arts Campus," which had been thematically placed on a panel appropriately titled "Expanding the Academy," we gathered (in the same venue as our first lunch) on Friday for the Awards Luncheon and address by interim president Ron. As you can see above, the meal began with a salad of mixed greens, berries and mandarin oranges for added brightness. Topped off with sesame seeds, one could argue this was something of an "Asian" salad. Interesting that without these last two ingredients, the salad could have been labeled by another region of the world, no?

For my main course, I went with the fish option which, while flaky and delicious and enrobbed in a great béchamel, once again seemed to be a bit on the over-portioned side. Accompanying the fish were asparagus spears and what I at the time identified as yellow summer squash. As I've recently come to find out, though, we were more specifically served "patty pan squash" or cibleme (in both Cajun French and French).

For dessert, the mystery blue syrup returned on the plate and so too did the Americana flare of the previous day's dessert, with its accompanying blueberries (can't get much more American then those), the requisite strawberry and an individual serving of cheesecake (which I first thought was panna cotta).

Following lunch, I attended the "Ethnic Diversity, Achievement and the Need for Curricular Change" panel which was being chaired by Diane. I should note, though, that only one of the presenters was able to make it; indeed, there had been a devastating tornado that had hit Texas and actually grounded/prevented participants from attending (even the panel that I was on had been missing our chair and a paper). Nevertheless, we were engaged in an intriguing discussion on the relationship between increased diversity and access within Louisiana's parish-based system. After this presentation, I headed over to a panel titled "Inequalities and Institutions" at which I ended up meeting the two scholars from the conference (one of whom presented in this session) who came from France. The other presentation, I'll note here, reminded me so much of the Development of Social Thought course I audited last semester. To end the last round of presenting, a plenary session had been prepared to screen UK-born and currently 12-year New Orleans resident Katherine Cecil's brilliant documentary titled, Race. Without question, this is one of two presentations I hope to bring to campus at some point in the upcoming year.

After the film screening and follow-up Q&A panel discussion, it was time once again..wait for it..to eat! The graduate student reception capped off the day's planned events and it was there that I saw another former Albion professor, Dr. 'Dimeji Togunde who had just arrived from Atlanta. [If memory serves me correctly, the last time I saw him was with Diane the year I graduated from Albion in 2010 (that year I also attended the 38th annual NAES conference with Diane, 'Dimeji, and ethnic studies major Sandy).] Fatigued from the day's events, I took a quick break before meeting up with Dimeji for a brief walk on the town; before this, though, I had the immense honour of meeting and speaking with Drs. Perry and Mattai, who--just like the rest of the NAES crew--are so down to earth and easy to talk to. Eventually, 'Dimeji and I briefly checked out the sights of New Orleans along Canal St., before once again separating; at that point, I found my evening energy and set my sights on finding what I consider to be the essential New Orleans stop of all New Orleans stops: Café Du Monde, the original French coffee stand. And where there's Café Du Monde, there must also be the requisite order of freshly cooked beignets and (now that I have learned to tolerate coffee on some level) an iced café au lait. A very slight crunch into the soft, warm interior, this is without a doubt simple perfection. As for the coffee, the flavour on its own is strong and mellows out very well with milk. For anyone planning to visit NOLA some time soon, making the trip to Café Du Monde is worth it, if nothing else, for purchasing boxed beignet batter and coffee (the price is guaranteed to be higher anywhere else). A bit of nighttime walking brought me back to the hotel where I saw Kim in the process of just starting dinner in the lobby; as she ate, she introduced me to a spoken word artist who might be a great fit for our campus-wide theme and of course talked about food, before inviting me to try and find a cigar shop that apparently played true Puerto Rican music. We were joined by Dr. Deborah-Eve Lombard (NAES's office manager) who shared her story about growing up in South Africa as we went back out onto Canal St; unfortunately, the place had closed and the music was nowhere to be found, and so we turned back and called it a night. At this point, I invite you to take a look at all of the photos I've posted in the first of two albums by clicking here. Or, continuing on reading!

Speaking of coffee, I made sure to get an iced mocha when I stopped in at PJ's Coffee of New Orleans, after packing up and checking out of my hotel room. To pair with this was one of the best chocolate chunk cookies I have had in a while; I mean, seriously, take a look at that chocolate to cookie (to even butter) ratio! But before I even made my way out of the hotel in search of food, I attended the panel that 'Dimeji chaired, "The Psychology and Politics of Poverty in the Caribbean." Unfortunately, this was again a one-paper presentation as the other presenter couldn't make it; though fortunately it seemed we could have used even more time with the depth we were able to achieve in understanding presenter Dr. Deanne Bell's research. A truly outstanding and engaging topic, Deanne's presentation was one of the clear highlights of the entire conference for me, and the second presentation I hope is brought to campus next spring. Analysing post-colonial Jamaica as her main framework, the legacy of past injustices that continues to manifest itself in contemporary society is unfathomable; through visual and lyrical art (and what's super amazing is that she's working on turning ethnographies and interviews into a reggae opera intended to share information outside of the Academy...seriously, a reggae opera!) she was able to carry her analyses and suggest radical, necessary changes to address social issues in Jamaica, some of which include attention that must be paid to the role of bystanders. And so, all that said, it was with this exciting energy that I enjoyed the PJ chocolate chunk cookie and headed to the NAES business meeting where new officers were formally elected, including current NAES President Ron.

For me, the business meeting was the conclusion of the conference itself; and with that, 'Dimeji, Diane and I met up for our long-await Albion-esque reunion and searched for a place to sit down and talk (and of course, eat). During the van ride back from the French Film Festival, Christine (the professor of the French gastronomy course I'm auditing) had strongly encouraged me to find the Royal Sonesta, site of arguably the best bread pudding in all of New Orleans. As it turned out, the hotel was not very far at all from where I had been staying, and so with Dimeji and Diane we had our Albion-esque lunch (or rather more so somewhere between brunch and snacking) at the hotel's restaurant that had this famed bread pudding Desire Bistro & Oyster Bar (check out the great menu here). I should note that similar to my Parisian experience with looking for the best pain au chocolat, Christine and her colleagues had visited many a restaurant to search for this southern dessert. To start things off, however, 'Dimeji ordered the Turtle Soup, drizzled with what our waiter called a signature finish to a dish: sherry. When in New Orleans.. right?

As for me, I wanted to try the restaurant's hush puppies. This southern staple, essentially a deep fried cornmeal dumpling (which, along with the beignet, how could you go wrong?), has an interesting number of histories associated with it, and is typically served as a side rather than as a meal item all on its own. Indeed, it's a rather dry dish, so bring on the water or a sauce of some kind!

Admittedly, though, I again chose this particular restaurant to dine in because of its famed bread pudding. Now, I'm no expert in bread pudding (though I do have a recipe I've put together and made last year), but.. wow. With a delicate consistency reminiscent of flan but the strength of crust of a homemade pie, its the bread pudding's whiskey sauce that harmonizes this bread pudding's sweetness and textures.

As for 'Dimeji's main plate (Diane tried our dishes as she was on her way out of NOLA), he went with the shrimp creole which included the "Holy Trinity" of Cajun cuisine: bell pepper, celery and onion. And with that--last words, final bites, and a group photo--our journey together at this year's conference came to an end. Who knows, perhaps we'll see each other at a future conference?

After our split, I had the rest of the day to fill up (I was scheduled to get shuttled to the airport at 10pm for my early morning flight Easter morning). And so, I walked back to the French Quarter and the Café Du Monde region (along the way catching a glimpse of a crowd that briefly surrounded Channing Tatum) and found myself in the Vieux Carré, a Montmartre-esque artist square which encircled the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, the oldest cathedral in North America. Along the front gate, one artist's set of artwork immediately drew me in: the artwork of Visual Artist Nathan Pitts. As Nathan continued to paint a pair of giraffes, he said to ask any questions if I had any. Well, after a conference devoted to ethnic studies, my inner ethnographer was able to come up with a few. I learned that Nathan had settled in NOLA, unplanned, following his three-month stay in California. A Saginaw (under two hours northwest of Detroit) native, he made the move down south 2.5 years ago; contextually, he arrived without the knowledge of what New Orleans was like pre- versus post-Katrina. In contrast to life in California, he shared, setting up shop in New Orleans is a much easier business. After receiving his permit, he began selling his paintings which, though perhaps unconventional, are inspired by African art. An untrained artist (within the classical sense of the Academy), he continues to paint what he wants, versus being remolded into art forms he's not all that interested in. Well, I suppose arguably so... He said that the one thing he doesn't like painting are the giraffes, but for whatever reason they sell. And to a certain extent, you have to do some things to make a living. Unlike those who buy into the giraffes, what drew me to Nathan's artwork were the less literal pieces of faceless images. Representing art in terms of duality, the "faces" are replaced by rather contradictory images; such inspiration for him is unplanned and understandably, he tries not to over think his work or plan too far in advance. The approach certainly works as this is his full-time job (while on the side working on building a skate park); speaking of which, I ended up purchasing not a painting of a giraffe or faceless duality, but rather the long, rectangular painting pictured above, two columns to the right of Nathan's left shoulder. The piece, representative of the varied African aesthetic, is literally a representation of his grandparent's farm in Saginaw. Talk about a small, full-circle there, eh? To intellectualize the unintentionally intellectual piece, I would like to make mention of the continuity of life that appears in this piece-- one which suggests that below our feet lies millions of years of history, as well as natural resources used today at great expense. If you're in the New Orleans area, check out and support Nathan's work; and look for the giraffes (or even the cats should catch your attention). If you're not in the area, but are interested in his style, visit his Etsy website here.

Just around the corner, a second series of paintings also captured my attention: the artwork of New Orleans Fine Artist Annie Walker. Prominently featuring swirls--which she says are in a sense her claimed "signature"--Annie's artwork was clearly inspired or at least built off the tree situated in her natural, peripheral landscape. (Again, I briefly intellectualize here and would like to suggest that the tree, symbolic of history and New Orleans, is used not only as inspiration but as an informer to the contemporary work being created.) When asked as to whether or not she found the swirls and tree imagery to be boring repetition, she shared that on the contrary, she finds them easy to replicate. Indeed, with art being used as a primary source of income, being invested in this style seems to also work for Annie; a graduate from Tulane, she's been at this for three years. To check out Annie's artwork (some of which is actually pictured, or at least reflective of those, above), visit her website here. Like Nathan and Annie, artists in New Orleans seem to be making a name for themselves, all the while adding to the beauty and diversity of this city.

Also located in the square is an interesting toy shop, one which includes what I'd call pieces of heritage. In speaking with the owner, I learned that, thankfully, folks (tourists, grandparents, and others from Louisiana) are specifically buying toys and books (educational tools of culture in their own right) that emphasize Cajun and Creolee culture. In contrast to Detroit, where I have seen relatively less emphasis on its French background, NOLA seems to be holding on as best as it can. Indeed, the store's owner shared with me that his father is also from the area, though the landscape of his time remained very much French Louisiana on one side of the river and American Louisiana on the other. Today, the mix of both cultures is present and growing to be more evident. From the shop, I returned to the foci of the foodie part of my visit to this city, and the admitted bias of this blog, and headed over to Creole Delicacies Gourmet Shop & Catering Company just a few doors down. Upon first entering, I was greeted by two immediate, prominent displays-- alligator sticks and jerkey to my left and pralines to my right. The friendly cashier explained to me that the store's version (for everyone makes them differently) were made fresh in-store; upon tasting this sweet concoction, I found it to have a soft interior while still having a slight bite without breaking your teeth (as I had initially thought it would). Slightly salty from the pecans and sweet from the brown and corn syrups, pralines became the "it" food for the limited rest of my stay. After a quick visit to the Tabasco store next door, I spent the next half hour in the shade, on the steps of the Louisiana state museum, and listened to the live music being played.

From the Old Square, I walked until I caught sight of the French Market, another reminder of my Michigan roots growing up and the energy surrounding Detroit's Eastern Market. After surveying the different booths, I returned to the first one--French Market Produce--and had to try their lemonade which was apparently voted to be the best in town last year. Either I was dehydrated or it was just really good (I'm certain it was the latter), but it took just one sip to convince me. According to the vendor, it's the fresh Ponchatoula strawberries that make this the great drink that it is.

As for my final foodie stop of the entire trip, I had to stop in the Southern Candymakers, a sign of which declared they had the best pralines. And since I had earlier tried some, I definitely needed to do a comparison test. As if the long line wasn't enough of an indicator (and there were folks who tried to unsuccessfully get in just one minute past closing time), the variety of freshly made pralines, fudge and sweet delicacies was a wonderful environment to witness. As one of the owners enthusiastically proclaimed, "Now you can say you've been locked in a candy store!" Upon leaving with my purchased pralines (which, by the way, I purchased here by the pound, as opposed to by the piece), I asked one of the owners what makes their pralines better than all the rest; the response: this company prides itself in using all natural ingredients. And I'd have to agree there's a stronger, crisper flavour (between both the original and the chocolate varieties), though I think I may prefer the texture of the one at Creole Delicacies.

As I continued to ponder which pralines I preferred, I eventually made my way back to the Cathedral Basilica in anticipation for the Easter Vigil Mass. As the hour arrived, I unexpectedly saw NAES-colleague Dr. Kasturi DasGupta who had also arrived for Mass with her long-time friend Henry and his wife. I made it through about 1/3 of the way into Mass, though, before I had to leave for my shuttle to the airport, the shuttle of which came too late and was caught up in a logistic mix-up that isn't worth any more words in this post. That blip in the context of the entire NOLA experience, however, paled in importance to the joy and collegiality shared throughout these three short, but eventful, days. As I said final farewells, I managed to get as my last photo one with Connie and Ron and complete the circle there. For the other photos of my second NAES/NOLA album, click here. And for a bios of NAES's current border of directors (quite a few of whom I mentioned in this post), click here.

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