Ya-ka-mein: Old Sober

Published in Edible New Orleans and Best Food Writing 2016 by Da Capo Press

Photos by Matthew Noel

Photos by Matthew Noel

Each step I took into the Ogden Museum of Southern Art hurt worse than the one before. I moved lethargically and my headache had contractions. I plopped on a bench, away from the music and people gathered there on a Thursday night, almost two years ago. Even the lights hurt my eyes. But I knew something was truly amiss when I declined a bourbon on the rocks—offered by the museum’s director, who knew my affinity for the drink. All day, not water, a nap or even aspirin had made me feel better. Then, I paid $5 for a savory elixir dipped from a slow cooker and served in a Styrofoam cup: Miss Linda Green’s ya-ka-mein.

I wasn’t drunk or hungover, but that day, it was my Old Sober. For the past 19 years, Green has served her dish of spaghetti noodles, beef and green onions in a spice-filled broth topped with half of a hard-boiled egg. As I ate and sipped the goodness, I grew stronger by the second; it was Popeye the Sailor’s can of spinach. Shortly thereafter, the dish proverbially transported me back to my youth.

I spent a lot of my childhood on North Broad and Saint Phillips streets, the Sixth Ward, where my parents owned Le Earth Florist & Balloons and second lines often passed on Sundays. A few doors down was Manchu’s, a carry-out-only Chinese food place where I feasted on egg foo young, Saint Paul sandwiches and ya-ka-mein. My folks introduced me to the dish; for them, it was a quick snack on long days. For Green and so many other residents of the city, the dish dates back to their youth, family and neighborhood barrooms. And at those lounges, deep in those black communities, where the sounds of rhythm and blues reverberated around the walls and soul food was served from the kitchen, the legend of Old Sober was born.

“It was a unique dish. It was always a poor man’s dish,” Green said. “It was leftovers.”


The Fried Green Tomatoes

Published in the Bitter Southerner

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I had the fried green tomatoes — even though I’ve been a lifelong tomato hater. It was April 1, 2017, my father’s 74th birthday, and almost the whole family was at Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans. Everyone was there — save for my mother, Eartha. She transitioned about two years ago; she was 75. I ordered the dish, with its shrimp remoulade slathered atop the fried delight, on a bed of lettuce, because it was among my mother’s favorite treats. Folk passed their turtle soups with sherry and the Spicy Shrimp with Jalapeño Cornbread & Aïoli. 

However, I shared the fried green tomatoes with no one. That day, the dish meant something different to me. 

Like most people, my food preferences derive from my parents. I vote along their party lines for almost all of the traditional New Orleans fare and beyond that I grew up eating — save for their indulgences in hog’s head cheese, sardines, chitterlings, and liver. I will not have relationships with those foods.    

I don’t recall the taste of my mother’s foods, and I know none of her recipes — just how great they were. She had a stroke in 1998, while I was away in college, and my father has been the primary cook since. He said her deteriorated vision and her penchant for high flames made for a bad combination. But she still made fried green tomatoes.  My father, LeRoy Harris, was about 7 when he started learning how to cook, by observing his mother — his father didn’t cook. She instilled in their 11 children that they never knew the kind of situations they might find themselves in, and thus had to learn as much as they could, about everything they could.

“She used to say that there is no such thing as a female job around the house,” my father recalled about my grandmother.    


What I Want Every Out-of-Towner to Understand About New Orleans

Published in Thrillist

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NEW ORLEANS IS PISS, PRIDE, POVERTY, PROSPERITY, AND PO-BOYS. I mean that with love -- but a love I came by honestly. I was born here. I've lived here for 30 years. This city still crawls with secrets, the neighborhoods, affluent societies, and places I've heard of only as whispers. I haven't been invited, and to some I never will. But I'm inviting you into parts of New Orleans now. Because this city, and its people, are your passport to worlds you haven't yet imagined.

Your oyster shucker might be a big chief in a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, who sews beautiful suits that are rich with historical bearing but financially unappreciated by our city's tourism peddlers. Or you could run into another culture bearer who has played in second-lines since he could walk, even while earning his PhD. Your bartender might be one of the foremost authorities in the field, traveling the world to educate others on proper drinks.


The Dismantling of Southern Photography

Originally Published in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Catalog for New Southern Photography

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There are no separate bathrooms or entrances, and you won’t see “whites only” signs in museums or galleries. Yet, the genre of Southern photography remains segregated. Image makers who are not white men have been suppressed as it relates to recognition and opportunities for their visual contributions to the category. It’s time out for that. There’s a need for an André Benjamin moment, to disrupt the industry.

At the 1995 Source Music Awards in Madison Square Garden in New York, Benjamin strode to the stage, as a confetti of boos fell about his ears. He was draped in a purple dashiki and dark jeans, and the neglect of Southerners of the black diaspora was on his heart. The civil war between the east and west coast, for hip-hop supremacy, was at its apex — everywhere else was overlooked. Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, the hip-hop duo Outkast, were named Best New Rap Group. As Outkast, proud lyrical ethnographers of black life in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, and beyond, reached the stage, the debris of boos fell on their backs.

Benjamin paced and clapped with conviction, replete with frustration. Then he took the mic. “But it’s like this, though, I’m tired of folks, you know what I’m saying. Closed-minded folks, you know what I’m saying,” Benjamin said slowly and swayed side-to-side. His speech accelerated and became more emboldened. “It’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody want to listen,” he declared. “But it’s like this, the South got something to say. And that’s all I got to say.” He and the cadre of Southern creatives exited the stage. That moment changed the demographics of rap forever.

Southern photography hasn’t been ignored in decades. From Walker Evans, William Christenberry, and Clarence John Laughlin to William Eggleston, the visual aesthetic of the South is globally recognized. But the majority of the promoters of the genre, such as curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors, and editors — fields dominated by white men — have exclusively uplifted the photography of white men. (The exceptions have been Eudora Welty, Sally Mann, and Debra Luster.) These gatekeepers were tasked with the responsibility of telling this region’s story, but conversely, they disrupted our story by presenting incomplete narratives.