The ugly revelations that sprang up like jimsonweed after Hurricane Katrina may have withered and all but dried up for most of white America. But organizers of a couple of recent fund-raisers have sought to revive our local Katrina consciousness with big doses of the things East Bay foodies respond to best: unctuous helpings of roasted free-range meats.
In June, chef Peter Jackson owner of the defunct Montclair bistro Canvas cooked up a lavish underground dinner at a West Oakland warehouse to benefit struggling New Orleans restaurateurs. Between courses of fried green tomato salad and jambalaya-stuffed quail, about forty guests scribbled off checks to the Crescent City Restaurant Re-Birth Project, a group of New Orleans volunteers who came together in the disaster's wake, cobbling together small donations to help restaurants mired in levee muck and FEMA bungling.
Now, just weeks before Katrina's one-year anniversary, the Big Easy's once-vigorous restaurant culture is seriously sick. Jack Jelenko, the Re-Birth Project's cofounder, says about 40 percent of restaurants in New Orleans proper still haven't reopened. Out in East New Orleans and Jefferson Parish where few tourists go 65 percent are boarded up.
But at a Slow Food benefit for the charity last Sunday, there seemed to be one thing on the minds of the fifty or so guests who showed up at Tilden Park, and it wasn't the troubles facing some muffuletta joint in Metairie. It was the hundred-pound creature slowly sweating its juices in a metal-lined box.
The Bella Berkeley Slow Food convivium called it the Wine and Swine Summer Picnic. Organizer Phil Brown tended to the split pig roasting in a device called caja china, or Chinese box, a Cuban contraption with an inexplicable name that works like a bathtub-size Dutch oven. Early that morning Brown slung the heirloom-variety pig into the box, clamped on the lid, and shoveled on a thick layer of white-hot coals. By four, guests had started to mill around the box.
When the lid finally came off revealing the rust-colored, blistery-skinned animal the struggling restaurateurs of New Orleans seemed forgotten. "I'm here for the pig," admitted Brenda, sipping Spanish rosé from a plastic cup. Others agreed, although Lee Ann gave a more cautious answer: "The pig, definitely but I'm happy to support the benefit."
At least someone thought to drape shiny Mardi Gras beads around the animal's neck before Brown began to hack it apart.