The Taste of Tet

New Orleans, LA – Traditional food assumes a central role during holidays. And one celebration many New Orleanians will share this weekend is no different -- only instead of turkeys and stuffing, the cornucopia at this holiday gathering will feature aromatic beef broth soups, bundles of noodles and shrimp wrapped in rice paper and batter-fried bananas by the truckload.

This weekend marks the local Vietnamese community's largest celebration of Tet, the lunar new year observed in many Asian cultures. The holiday this year welcomes 2010 as the year of the tiger, a traditional symbol of bravery.

Around New Orleans, Tet includes church-based communal celebrations. The one that begins February 19th and continues February 20th and 21st, is held at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic church, a centerpiece of community life in Village de l'Est, a largely Vietnamese neighborhood in eastern New Orleans. It's a big event, which in recent years has typically drawn 20,000 people over the course of three days.

Tet is traditionally a time for family reunions, exchanging gifts and best wishes and, of course, eating, drinking and making merry. For local Vietnamese-Americans, the holiday holds the extra significance of reconnecting with their heritage and perhaps introducing outsiders to their culture and folkways. As local Irish have St. Patrick's Day, Germans have Oktoberfest and Italians have St. Joseph's Day, Vietnamese-Americans have Tet.

Of course, food is an indispensable part of the holiday agenda. For those who already know and love Vietnamese cooking, the Tet celebration is a wonderland of abundance. For those just beginning to explore the cuisine, the event's festival setting provides a deep, headfirst dive into its distinctive flavors.

The church grounds are lined with massive tents, inside which visitors find long communal tables and makeshift, open-air kitchens. Different groups of parishioners are in charge of preparing various dishes, which are assembled right there under the tents. One vital dish is pho, the beef and noodle soup, ladled into bowls the size of football helmets and slurped with gusto. Elsewhere, teams of women wrap rice paper spring rolls with the speed of piano virtuosos and others quickly cram meats, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and hot peppers into crusty rolls for banh mi sandwiches. Giant vats bubble with oil as battered bananas fry up for hot desserts.

Of course, there's a lot more going on at this weekend-long festival than eating and drinking. A dragon dance kicks things off Friday night, and there are lives bands, fashion shows, children's carnival rides, craft booths and more huge tents filled with various games of chance, all benefiting the church in scenes not unlike parish bingo night.

Though this Catholic church community is predominantly Vietnamese, it also includes some Latinos, whose numbers around the Village de l'Est neighborhood have risen sharply since Hurricane Katrina. So this year Latino parishioners will also be preparing tacos, burritos and Mexican-style goat stew, alongside the noodles, fish sauces and exotic eats of their neighbors.

As we all hope our major holidays accentuate our culture's values at their best, Tet this year at Mary Queen of Vietnam can count inclusiveness among its virtues. That sounds like a good start for the year of the tiger.

Mary Queen of Vietnam Church
14001 Dwyer Blvd., 504-254-5660

Tet celebration begins Feb. 19, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and continues Feb. 20 and Feb. 21 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day.