Historian Stephen Ambrose once told me that the greatest thing about New Orleans is not the food, music, art or architecture — all of which are wonderful. No, he said, it’s our ability to accept a person for who he or she is.
We New Orleanians, at our best, are generous and accepting people. At our worst, we get carried away with our self-perceived exceptionalism. We tend to get in a tizzy whenever someone describes our city or lifestyle in a way that runs contrary to our cultural dogmas.
So let’s demonstrate that generous and accepting side and lighten up on kalegate.
For the kalegate-uninitiated, Twitter went atwitter about a New York Times article in which actress Tara Elders was quoted as saying, “New Orleans is not cosmopolitan. There is no kale here.”
I have to admit that, until six days ago, I had no idea what kale was. Then it was served to me at Coquette, on Magazine Street, alongside a locally raised, chemically free, organically blessed steak.
“What’s this?” I asked the waitress.
“Kale,” she replied.
Little did I know that my side dish would soon be the center of cultural controversy.
My culinary ignorance aside, what Elders meant is true. New Orleans is not particularly cosmopolitan; people here don’t generally care about national trends.
We don’t care about the newest thing to eat in Los Angeles or the latest hot band in New York. We are (forgive me) the City That Care Forgot.
If you look up the definition of cosmopolitan, you’ll see that it means “belonging to all the world, not limited to just one part of the world,” or “free from local, provincial attachments.”
Let’s face it: Most of the time, we are very much “limited to just one part of the world.” That world is our culture. To our credit, we have a tremendous sense of place and are comfortable with who we are. And we can make fun of ourselves, our politicians, our overall zaniness. We’re quirky.
Austin has the inane slogan, “Keep Austin weird.” We are weird. And being so, you shouldn’t have to say so.
My problem with all the noise over kalegate is that we need to lighten up on the smug criticism of all the newcomers. We really need them. All of the young and old who have come to New Orleans since Katrina are helping to make our city a better place.
I recently read a bond-rating agency’s analysis of the city’s bond debt. One adjective struck a chord: Our economy and social conditions pre-Katrina, it said, were “calcified.”
We’ve emerged, I hope, from that calcification. Thanks in large part to these new, creative, energetic people who have come here and want to live here. They have embraced our culture; they’ve brought new ideas. That’s a good thing. (Can you say brain gain?)
We need to quit asking people what high school they went to, and simply congratulate them on being here. Kudos to 504ward and similar organizations, which have worked to bring people here and make them feel at home.
So let’s not go crazy over a vegetable. One that I’d never heard of until six days ago, and could not care less about. Like all trendy New York/L.A./elsewhere trends, it, too, shall pass.
Bring on the mirlitons, red beans, char-broiled oysters and bread pudding souffle. And share them around the table.
Stewart Peck is a local lawyer and ardent New Orleanian. He can be reached at email@example.com.