Flashback: 1905 “You got what you got”

Last week I met with Arthur Brocato, grandson of Angelo Brocato, who was the founder of now famous Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream and Pastry. Because Brocato’s is truly a New Orleans institution, I wanted to make sure that I was well informed on the history of the establishment before I met with Arthur. The Brocato family is aware that a glimpse of their history is sought after by many- over the years the family has been interviewed for food books and magazines, the Gambit, the Times Picayune and even curious college students on reporting assignments. The family has done an excellent job of providing a detailed account on their website complete with photographs to keep those who are curious in the know . When I met with Arthur, I had already done my research and I knew about the establishment’s history so I was looking for something more. Arthur provided me with a very detailed account of what “the row” looked like when they moved there in 1979 from the French Quarter (The account he gave is a story in itself which will have to wait for a another blog entry). Then, as Arthur warmed up to reminiscing, our conversation turned to the way Brocato’s used to be. He told me that when they moved to the Carrollton location his family lived in the back. He pointed out where his kitchen stove once sat before they moved out and expanded retail space. He then moved further back in time to tell me about how things were for his grandfather in 1905 when he opened his business on the 500 block of Ursuline Street ( not to be confused with the location founded in 1921 at 615-617 Ursuline which is now Croissant D’Or).

Sidewalk in front of the 1921 location at 617 Ursuline

And Of Course...The Ladies Entrance at 615 Ursuline

He explained to me that the choice to make both gelato and pastries was one of necessity due to the extreme heat and lack of air conditioning in the French Quarter in 1905. Ices and gelato could be made from roughly Easter to October using copper freezers that were created specifically for the task. The freezer compartments needed to be copper because rock salt used in the ice cream production would react and eat through any other metal. Angelo started making his frozen treats early in the day and made one or two flavors daily. These he sold directly out of the freezers until they were sold out; nothing could be stored. If a customer came in for gelato, they got whatever Angelo had mixed that morning. “You got what you got”, says Arthur. Cannoli, on the other hand, were a wintertime treat. Angelo had no way to refrigerate the creamy cannoli filling which simply could not withstand the heat of a New Orleans summer. Arthur tells me that his grandfather’s first oven was coal burning and had no thermostat. Arthur demonstrates sticking his hand inside the oven and waving it around to test for temperature, a method he tells me he learned early on, working with his grandfather. Listening to the difficulties of running an Italian ice cream parlor in 1905 makes me appreciate the bustling establishment that Brocato’s has turned into. It hardly seems worth it to preserve fruit, cream and ice in extreme heat with no refrigeration, and yet Angelo never gave it up. Today, thanks to the modern wonders of air-conditioning and refrigeration, one can choose from an endless array of gelato and ice flavors, cookies, pastries, and cakes, all thanks to the vision of a Sicilian immigrant who wanted to replicate a little piece of Italy in the new place he called home.

One of five cases filled with treats at today's Carrollton location.

Spumoni Cheesecake! A great reinterpretation of a classic

Here is a short video of Brocato’s selections on July 21, 2010:

Eating Your Feelings

When I told a friend about the restaurants that would be the focus of our project, she lit up at the mention of Mandina’s.  This is where her family has always gone immediately following the funeral of a relative.  In fact, she told me, members of her family have become so accustomed to the ritual of post-funeral dining, that many of them now make a point to eat at Mandina’s after any funeral – family or otherwise.  Eating one’s way through a difficult time seems to be characteristic of many New Orleanians – evidenced in the aftermath of the 2005 storms, when local papers and the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization posted almost daily updates on the projected reopening dates of the beloved Restaurant Row ; as if residents couldn’t wait to eat away troubled thoughts at Brocato’s or Venezia and be assured that all would be well  because the restaurants were back.

Now, most of them are back and we are trying to establish what it is about them specifically that has so endeared them to the community.  Why are these businesses flourishing and in such concentration?  “Zoning,” was the response  David Beriss got from a restaurant affiliate to this question – an answer a bit deflating for a few moments for us, who are hoping for something more curious and charming than zoning to explain the vibrant area.  I gave this some thought, deciding that location in the row alone was not a guarantee of success for a food establishment.  Our research team is now collecting stories of the early years of business for the restaurants as told by owners, employees, and customers.  So far I am most impressed by the adaptivity of the establishments.  One restaurateur told me she had to change her menu completely three times within the first months of opening earlier this year.  She and her patrons are still trying to agree on what her restaurant should serve.  Anthony of Venezia said that his restaurant used to be open till all hours for pitchers of beer and pizza.  At that time they were drawing in a student crowd.  Now he said they mostly do large parties and family gatherings.  Maybe I should recommend my friend check out Venezia as another great after-death meal spot.

Welcome to the Restaurant Row Recovery Project

New Orleans is a restaurant town.  Tourists who come here know that, of course.  In fact, restaurant owners say that people often come for the music and leave talking about dinner.  Yet one of the things that makes the city’s restaurant obsession distinctive is that it exists at least as much for locals as it does for visitors.  There are bistros and neighborhood joints everywhere, it seems, often in places where tourists never tread.  You can get a great po’boy or have a wonderful plate of seafood in nearly any neighborhood in the city.  These are mostly local restaurants, not the casual dining and fast food chains that define eating out in much of the United States.  In an era of increasingly homogenized dining, New Orleans’ restaurant obsession—and the broader culinary culture of which it is a part—seems like an anomaly.

We want to figure out what makes it work.

Based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans, we are a team of researchers (1 faculty member and 4 intrepid undergraduates) trying to understand the links between a collection of restaurants, the surrounding neighborhood, and the distinctive culture of New Orleans.

The neighborhood is called Mid-City, a mixed-income, ethnically diverse part of New Orleans full of interesting people and an amazing array of architecture.  We are specifically focused on the restaurant row that runs roughly from the Little Tokyo at the corner of Bienville and N. Carrollton down to Juan’s Flying Burrito near the corner of Carrollton and Canal, while taking a little detour down Canal toward Mandina‘s and The Ruby Slipper, in one direction, and toward Café Minh in the other.  This takes in nearly two dozen eating establishments…a fascinating collection of dining opportunities and small businesses (if we pushed the geographical limits a bit more, we could bring in several other restaurants, but we only have so much time).

The area has long been characterized by a significant cluster of restaurants and bars.  Some have been there for a long time (Mandina’s has been a restaurant since 1932 and the family has had a business in the spot since 1898), while others are very new (Yummy Yummy Chinese Restaurant opened in 2009).  Even before the 2005 floods devastated the neighborhood, the restaurants were a diverse bunch, including both old-line Creole Italian restaurants, sushi, French haute cuisine, fast food and a famous purveyor of tamales (Manuel’s, now departed).  Many of the old restaurants are still there and they seem to be thriving.  There are also new restaurants that reflect the city’s changing demographics, including three Latino restaurants, a Vietnamese restaurant (with a Chinese history), and others.

When the floods cleared, the recovery began and the restaurant cluster seemed to lead the neighborhood in rebuilding.  Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream and Confectionary was one of the first to reopen in the area, in September 2006, 13 months after the storm and 101 years since they first opened in the French Quarter.  It seemed like the businesses came back, renovated and reopened even before many of the people in the area came back.  There is still a shuttered strip mall, which once housed a Chinese restaurant, a daiquiri shop and a few other businesses, as evidence of the destruction.  But there is also much that is new.

This is where we are conducting our research.  We are out there interviewing restaurant owners, managers, cooks, waiters and busboys.  We want to know their stories and the stories of their businesses.  We are researching the history of the area, trying to determine when the cluster developed, what facilitated it, and what sustains it.  We are taking pictures, making videos, writing notes and collecting artifacts.   This blog will serve to showcase our intermediate findings, our thoughts, questions and insights.  We’ll put up a picture or two.  Maybe we will make you hungry enough to go out to eat at one of these restaurants (careful, many of them are packed at lunch and dinner already!).

We think that this restaurant cluster is a key part of New Orleans culinary culture.  Our results will show how the restaurants are connected to the neighborhood, the city and to what makes this place distinctive.  We are working with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to put together two exhibits (one on-line, the other on-site) in the fall that will showcase our findings.  And, of course, we will endeavor to write-up and publish our results.  There will be much to say!

Posted by David Beriss