By Madeline Landry
When I first came to USC, I will admit I was a tad nervous. Okay, maybe a bit more than a tad. I was obviously extremely excited, as USC and “the college experience” had been a dream of mine for some time, but as I made the long flight here I couldn’t help but think about how California seemed so… far.
I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city located at the end of the Mississippi River, right as it floods out into the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is quite different than the rest of Louisiana, and sometimes the United States as a whole. New Orleans is often considered the birthplace of jazz, and is home to many famous events such as the Jazz and Heritage Festival, a large music festival featuring artists such as Elton John and Maroon 5, to Mardi Gras, a nearly two week-long, city-wide celebration. And while New Orleans is celebrated for all of these reasons and more, perhaps what New Orleans is most famous for is something I often overlooked – its food.
New Orleans food is often rich and flavorful, with dishes covered in seasoning and the occasional dose of hot sauce. Famed dishes such as jambalaya, gumbo, po’ boys, red beans and rice, dirty rice, beignets, crawfish etouffee, and bananas foster (and many more) are favorites to locals and tourists alike. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are rare, as local coffee chains such as PJ’s and CC’s dominate the market. Finally, as New Orleans is right next to so much water, boiled seafood dishes, particularly crawfish and oysters, are always fresh and delicious, and are so much considered a part of life that “crawfish boils” are probably more common than “dinner parties.” In New Orleans, food is embedded in the culture and spirit of the city, but somehow I didn’t really consider how much it was intertwined in my personal feelings of home until I left.
When I decided to go USC, I knew I would miss New Orleans, but I was still excited to try something new. Every city is different, and just like there were so many things I loved about New Orleans, I knew there would be so many things I would love about Los Angeles. And within my first months at USC, this proved true! I loved the countless events, the proximity to the beach, the amazing weather, and, of course, USC. I would explore the city with friends and try all the strange trendy places we saw on Facebook and all the free movie screenings we heard about through class. Still, every now and then, I would get a little homesick. California was always exciting and new, but there were times when I started to miss the comfortable familiarity of home. I would try to involve New Orleans into my California world, trying a “Mardi Gras Theme Night” at a dining hall, collecting songs by famous Jazz artists, and, even on one occasion, asking my much too nice parents to ship me New Orleans style coffee, but I still felt as if the closest I was to home was my Louisiana flag I had hung up on my dorm room wall.
It was around that time that I began to hear about a restaurant in Chinatown that supposedly served New Orleans style food. Multiple people seemed to have heard of it and spoke of it highly, but no one seemed to know the name until, at last, I found it: a small place in downtown called “The Little Jewel of New Orleans.” Upon finding this out, I immediately told my friends that we needed to go. Thankfully, they were almost as excited as I was to try the food I had been praising almost every day they had known me, albeit perhaps a little nervous about having to sit through my intense criticism should the food prove not “authentic” enough. Still, we made plans to go that weekend, and I could hardly wait.
The Little Jewel of New Orleans was an unassuming place from the outside, with a striped green overhang and a small neon sign over the door. But as I walked in, the atmosphere changed, with a brightly painted chalkboard menu and a lit up line of fridges. Looking at the menus, I saw a long list of po’boys. Better yet, looking around I saw several rows of signature New Orleans products, from beignet mix to Mardi Gras throws to even the coffee my parents had sent me a month before! Still a bit in awe I jumped to point out everything to my friends, telling them where you could buy this, and what was the right season to cook that. Still the moment of truth came when we actually ate our food, and for the first time since coming to Los Angeles, I found I had absolutely no complaints as to the “authenticity” of the New Orleans style food I was eating. The food, the products, even the décor sung of New Orleans, and all I could do was smile at how familiar it all seemed. With just a bit of French bread and some cold brew coffee, home didn’t seem quite so far. Perhaps best of all, my friends loved it as well, and by the time we headed home we had all agreed to come back again soon.
We did end up doing exactly this a few weeks ago. We bought some more good food and coffee, of course, and were about to leave when I thought I recognized the girl working at the counter. A bit nervous, I went up to her and asked her name. A few minutes later and we discovered that we had gone to the same high school, a year apart. The restaurant, as it turned out, belonged to her father, who had lived in New Orleans before coming to Los Angeles some years ago. As I looked back and realized my friends were still waiting at the door, I made to say goodbye, but something struck me, and I quickly added, “And tell your Dad I love the restaurant! And… thanks. It’s given me a chance to feel like, just for a little bit, I’m back home.”
Featured image by Aya Salman on Unsplash
Madeline graduated USC with a degree in Animation and Digital Arts. Coming from New Orleans, Louisiana, she always missed home, but loved exploring California. Her family full of avid readers, writers, and lawyers, she had constantly been pushed to continue exploring the English language. She loved visiting Ireland and France while at France and even studied abroad! While as a student, Madeline loved drawing, reading, watching movies with friends, and listening to lots of different music. At USC, she was a part of the satirical newspaper Sack of Troy’s writing staff, and was an aspiring DJ at the student radio.