Sometimes a sound can bring it back, as random as loose siding swinging in the breeze or the diesel rumble of an Army Humvee on city streets.
Even if you’re ready to close the door on Katrina and the levee failures, and plenty of us are, the persistence of sense memories may have other plans. It’s that vivid, involuntary recall of what we took in, and it has a way of creeping back, even a decade later.
Taste memories are hardwired, too, though these may feel different, resonating as reminders of milestones we marked along the twisting road back.
Some may float on the breeze, like the smell of burgers cooking outside Port of Call, recalling that surreal first fall when finding something functional in New Orleans was cause for celebration, even a burger joint. Or it could be the aroma of onion rings drifting out the kitchen doors at Liuzza’s and Mandina’s, evoking the outpouring of gratitude when these vintage restaurants finally reopened during the long slog that followed.
Crunch your way through a box of fried chicken and it may bring back parade route parties from the first post-Katrina Carnival, when no matter what anyone outside New Orleans might say about a devastated city making time for merriment, we knew our traditions had to return.
The lemon and spice of a good crawfish boil can send signals of that first spring, when sprigs of green finally broke through flood-crusted grass and barren gardens, and when having friends over might for once mean peeling shells instead of gutting walls.
Then, there’s a certain type of barbecue — that sweet, thick, red, street parade-style New Orleans barbecue — and how it can summon the jubilation of homecoming gatherings on blocks that stood silent for many months, and the way people might practically pull a curious passerby into their party and up to their barbecue buffet because, after all, they were back home, too.
Lift the lid on the right pot of red beans and maybe there’s a glimmer of the relief that came from cooking in your own home once again, or the pride from knowing you’d made a new home here, in spite of it all.
The history and culture of New Orleans food has inspired countless studies, articles and books. For New Orleanians who went through Katrina, for those who made it to this 10-year mark, a new chapter on that history and culture is written right into our taste buds.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.