Hurricane Katrina destroyed my home town of New Orleans days before my 18th birthday.
The aftermath of the storm was devastating, My city seemed irreparably broken, along with much of the Gulf Coast. My family, like many others, was forced to relocate to Houston for nearly a year. Katrina, aided by government incompetence, caused billions of dollars in infrastructural damage, stole at least 1,800 lives, tore families apart, shuttered businesses, drowned homes and shattered lives.
Despite overwhelming odds, New Orleanians rebuilt their city.
The storm brought the area notoriety, but one of the more minor indignities following one of America’s greatest natural disasters was the deluge of television networks that chose to decamp in the creole city of New Orleans and its Cajun surroundings of small cities and towns like Lafayette, Opelousas and Grand Coteau.
There should have been something thrilling about seeing my part of the country on television in shows like “K-Ville,” “True Blood” and “NCIS: New Orleans.” But they trafficked so heavily in caricature, they felt insulting — like dumping Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning in an enormous wound.
Even “Treme,” David Simon’s love letter to New Orleans, felt forced, an outsider coming into the city and trying to show off what he’d learned.
One person always got it right: Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain took his own life earlier this month, and in the aftermath, CNN chose to air two final episodes of “Parts Unknown.” The final one, which takes place in Bhutan, airs Sunday. But it was last week’s penultimate episode, which took place in Southern Louisiana, that hit me with the force of a hangover on Ash Wednesday. It was about Cajun Mardi Gras.
“The thundering hoofs of many horses. The sound of a thousand beer cans popping open. And music, always music,” Bourdain says to open the episode, adding, “There are parts of America that are special, unique, unlike anywhere else. Cultures all their own, kept close, much loved, but largely misunderstood.”
Nothing, to me, better describes Southern Louisiana.
Cajun Mardi Gras — which takes place in Acadiana or “Cajun Country,” an area west and north of New Orleans — is difficult to describe, much less understand. It’s vastly different from New Orlean’s much more famous version.
And Mardi Gras in New Orleans isn’t generally portrayed correctly to being with. The debauchery for which it has become pop-culture shorthand is limited to a few streets (think: Bourbon) and generally practiced by tourists. Locally, it’s a family event stretching for almost two months. Parades roll from morning to night on some days, filled with masked men and women on floats throwing plastic beads to children and punctuated by marching bands.
Cajun Mardi Gras, meanwhile, is an entirely different beast. It invokes several men in wildly colored, traditional garb, drinking whiskey and beer from morning to night while gallivanting around Acadiana on foot and horseback, searching for elusive chickens to slaughter and use in the evening’s gumbo.
As Bourdain explains, it “is another thing entirely — closer to the ancient French tradition, vaguely more dangerous, downright medieval. Cajuns do things their way, always have, always will.”
“Our depiction stops at swamp scenes and alligators, and it’s so much more than that,” Toby Rodriguez, a Grand Coteau chef and artist, tells Bourdain at the beginning of the episode. The host goes on to explore that “so much more,” just as he always did.
The gorgeous episode is awash with fais do-dos, boudin and zydeco music along with loving shots of the bayou and its surrounding plains.
Bourdain joins the locals for a round of Stump, a drinking game in which you throw a hammer into the air with the intention of catching it and blindly hammering a nail on a tree stump.
He learns not to call crawfish “crawdads,” a term excited (or leering) Northerners often use when guessing how us Louisianians speak. He explores the differences between Cajun and Creole, a distinction most outside the region rarely take the time to consider. He drinks beer all day, slurps up fresh-made gumbo and even dons the traditional Cajun Mardi Gras outfit.
And after Mardi Gras Day, Bourdain gets his ashes on Ash Wednesday, just like everyone else.
The delighted host does it all with a huge grin on his face.
It’s a strikingly stark contrast to the portrayal of Cajun Mardi Gras presented in the first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” when the party was viewed as something primordially evil that fueled a story line centered on pedophilia, incest and murder.
Bourdain’s care and genuine warmth for the area shouldn’t come as a surprise. He visited New Orleans and the surrounding bayous several times before, and he always found what no one else would.
Take New Orleans, for example. Yes, he had his share of po’ boys, but Bourdain also acknowledged the area’s robust Vietnamese population when dined at Pho Tau Bay. Sure, he ate at Emeril’s, the flagship outpost of the city’s most famous chef Emeril Lagasse. But he also visited Café Reconcile, a nonprofit eatery where underprivileged youth receive restaurant industry training. He drank sazeracs at the town’s fanciest cocktail bars, but he also took shots at Snake & Jake’s, a smoke-filled dive open until 7 a.m. where a Christmas tree and its accompanying lights are on display year-round — a bar in which you’ve likely greeted morning if you grew up in New Orleans and happen to imbibe.
Bourdain always saw a place for what it is: a collection of stories rather than a single, simple narrative.
That he understood and explained the region that bore me is not unique. Add my small voice to the chorus that praised him for entering new and misunderstood cultures as a student, not a teacher.
Seeing my city, region and culture and the surrounding ones through Bourdain’s eyes never ceased to be a learning experience, or at least a reminder of what made home special. It’s easy to forget what makes one’s experience unique if you’re steeped in it day after day, much the way a fish isn’t aware of the water it’s in.
Bourdain always reminded us to consider that water. He could make home feel as exotic as any place on the globe.
And, particularly for a reporter living far from the place he loves, the place he considers home, that quality cannot be overstated.
“On balance, my Cajun Mardi Gras experience was certainly memorable, if nothing else,” Bourdain says to close the episode. “And through the parting clouds of cruel winter, there was life and hope and the onset of spring.”
Happy Mardi Gras, Bourdain. I hope it was a good one.