A Farwell to HBO’s Treme: The Series About Post-Katrina New Orleans Brought Us Music, Food, & Friends

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Last night was the final episode of Treme after 3 seasons. The 5 final episodes, a shortened season 4,  aired in December and wrapped up some of the story lines. In an interview in New Orleans just before the premier of season 2, creator and executive producer, David Simon told me he needed 5 seasons to develop the characters and tell the story of post-Katrina New Orleans. There are no doubt multiple reasons for shortening the series, but 2 weeks ago he joked that HBO has an odd idea that their programming needs viewers. I’ve joked for some time, when asked what I’m working on, that I’m writing about the best TV series no one is watching. Treme is destined to become a cult classic, and may live a long and fruitful life in syndication. I hope so. This series deserves to be watched.

I have no doubt that we will continue to talk about the unique space the city of New Orleans occupies in American culture in a post-Treme television universe. The final song of the final episode expressed the sentiment I already feel; to Miss New Orleans.  I will miss this raucous indulgence in food and music (and other things).

Featuring food and music as major characters on television wasn’t easy, though they DSC_0031made it look that way. The variety of bands and performers, clubs and buskers that appeared on the program was a musical phenomenon in itself. Some of the most stunning sequences on Treme were performances shot on location at many of the smaller music venues, most outside of the well-known tourist spots on Bourbon Street. Frenchmen Street is currently the place to go for some of the most vibrant music and the jazz at Snug Harbor and other clubs took the program to creative realms wholly different from the confines of ordinary television. This kind of on-location TV that collects vast amounts of talented local musicians (and extras) is expensive and complicated to film and choreograph. Treme was quality television of the first order.

DSC_0314Many NOLA musicians appeared on the program, and their lives and music were major inspirations for key fictional portrayals on Treme. The character of Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is loosely based on New Orleans saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr., who like Delmond, divides his artistic life between the Big Easy and the Big Apple. Harrison is also the son of legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., long-time leader of the Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, Guardians of the Flame. Harrison consulted on costume design for Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)DSC_0076 and offered instruction on how to move in the magnificent suits that can weigh over 150 pounds.

There is so much more to say about the music, and the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, and I will linger there in future posts, but food also played a major role in evoking New Orleans DSC_0036as a place and a culture, and deserves a mention in this tribute.

Speaking at the 92 Street Y on December 13, 2013, David Simon and executive producer Nina Noble, explained how food is central to the unique identity of New Orleans. Just as music took the series to new creative heights, so did the presentation of food. In visually rendering New Orleans cuisine, its chefs and restaurants, the writers, directors and cinematographers advanced the art of presenting food on camera, and food took its rightful place in narrative drama.

There was much to learn about filming real food. The use of fake food would have been, well, fake. If scenes took too long, the dishes would have to be replaced. In the first few episodes shot in kitchens where dialogue and interactions were also occurring between characters, the camera focused on the people and the food sometimes didn’t make it on screen. But by the second-to-last episode when chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) shares an extended moment with D.J. Davis (Steve Zahn) in her kitchen, the scene is an intoxicating blend of food and visual storytelling. The sequence ends when Janette offers Davis a perfect omelet for his 40th birthday. We see every aspect of her preparation and when she handed him the plate, I could almost smell it. Food as an extension of character and expression of emotion reached it full impact at that moment.

That December night at the 92 Street Y, one of the most renowned BBQ chefs in NOLA, the author and story editor for Treme, Lolis Eric Elie, joined in the discussion and talked about the important role New Orleans’ cuisine played in the series. He spoke lovingly about food, his family’s recipes, and the sense of identity that comes from cooking, from simple rice and red beans, to gumbo. If you’ve ever eaten in the city, you understand, and you will certainly miss New Orleans until you can get back for another plate of gumbo.

Related:

Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm

By Robin Andersen

Life and Death on Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown

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“Remember to wear the same clothes you wore the first time,” the email said. I had to return to the gaming arcade in Chinatown to redo an interview I’d done 3 weeks before. I found the jacket I wore in the back seat of the car. It never made it to the cleaners. I ran the iron IMG_0486over it, wondered if I’d gotten the hair cut before or after the last interview, looked at a picture I’d taken with the crew to see what earrings I was wearing that day and set out for 8 Mott Street in Manhattan. After a Metro North ride and a hike from the Canal St. exit of the 6 train, I arrived sweaty and late.

The answers were easier to come up with this time. The producer of a Norwegian TV series on global cultures of death was keen on including the endless, mindless killing done in the virtual war worlds of videogames in him programs. My ruminations on the emotionally detached thrills of cyber death were apparently important enough to rent the Family Fair IMG_0478Fun Center a second time. The Danish cameraman was grateful and apologized effusively for shooting me out of focus the first time around. I was relieved when he turned off the lights and unhooked the tiny microphone from my now dirtier jacket. I walked out onto Mott Street and an intermittent drizzle and looked forward to exploring the people and shops of Chinatown.

Up the street Pings offered Dim Sum and Peking Duck and the first thing I did was eat. The IMG_0602dumplings were hot off the rolling steam tray and I managed to pack away three different varieties – pork, shrimp and chives, and crab – each with a different texture inside the soft sculpted shell. I drank more tea. I sat next to Spaniards who, not thinking anyone understood, said the woman walking out the door was fat – gordita.

A man with a shaved head dressed all in black walked up the steps into the dinning room carrying his crutches. Getting to the top, he limped over to a table on an artificial leg and sat down on a pillow. The Asian woman and little girl with him reminded me of all the documentaries IMG_0616I’ve seen about the Vietnam War. They were happy together and the child grabbed his shoulder affectionately as they ordered.

The Spaniards ordered Sprit and wanted salt, which I had to translate for the waiter who pointed to the soy sauce on their table. They weren’t satisfied.

Back out on the sidewalk I walked north up the narrow street and was pleased that the
threat of rain kept the crowds away. A manikin                  in bright red silk looked down from a shop
IMG_0635 window and curios of all sorts pushed out of their stalls. A trading company with a
reproduction of a saddled horse from the Tang Dynasty caught my eye and I opened the shop door entering into a riot of ceramics. “Why do you only have numbers on the stuff in the window,” I asked the Chinese man watching TV behind the counter. He surprised me as he said, “It’s an old trick to get you into the store,” sounding like any average New IMG_0630Yorker. “You were born here,” I observed a little later. “Yes,” he said, “I grew up right here next to the Italians and went to the church school across the street. He told me how Mott Street had changed over the years, from mostly little restaurants to all these curio shops. I told him what I was doing in the neighborhood and he said that before it was a gaming arcade, the Family Fair Fun Center was much different and used to have a huge dragon that popped out a
IMG_0626box and scared him as a kid. Our conversation was wide-ranging, from the art in his shop to his relief that he and his wife never moved to New Jersey, something they contemplated once to raise their girls. “But we would have been stuck in the suburbs wearing designer clothes and mowing a lawn.” Since I live in the suburbs of New York City, I felt somewhat defensive and explained that I moved to New York from Southern California, which was very suburban. I moved to the suburbs because it was what I was used to, and it was only a half hour out of the city on Metro North. I mentioned my garden, which most people embrace readily, but I IMG_0628trailed off and asked if the 88 year old
shop had a website. Surprisingly, it did not, and yet it remained a viable business still owned by his in-laws. I admired a green rooster that he told me symbolized prosperity.  I wished him that and left.

Back on Mott I wanted to find the Vegetarian Restaurant that I hadn’t been to in years, and to my surprise it was still there. I loved the chicken made of yams. The food stalls carried IMG_0656everything from sweets, to oysters to huge pinkish-red Dragon Fruits. I wondered what the hairy-looking brown fruit was until I saw one opened up. Litchi! My favorite! I bought a pound and she raised 4 fingers. I gave her four dollars.

The neighborhood park was full of people, ambling and lingering under trees and on benches. Some women sat around a table that held a large book.  Some sat outside the fence with their chairs tilted forward as they peered through the iron grates. I heard the music and went around to see the long handled string instruments with tiny bowls at the bottom. The high-pitched lament of what seemed a melancholy ode fascinated me.

Video: Music in the park

After a while I headed once again toward Canal Street, and once again was distracted by food when I IMG_0659passed Mulberry Street and saw the Italian ices in the long refrigerated case on the sidewalk. I bought a double scoop; hazelnut and peach. The cup was tiny and the afternoon was now hot and I couldn’t eat it fast enough to stop it from dripping down into the sleeve of my jacket. The lining stuck to the skin on the inside of my forearm until the air conditioning dried the air as the train sped back to suburbs. I would finally have to get this jacket to the cleaners.