Food writer Ian McNulty on the odd, annual rite of airborne produce as the city celebrates St. Patrick's Day along the parade route.
Long before we thought much about food culture, learned to crave complex flavors or even did our own ordering at restaurants, many of us began to fantasize about food thanks to one enduring classic of a book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
This picture book, written and illustrated by Judi and Ron Barrett and first published in 1978, describes the fantastical town of Chewandswallow, a place over the horizon where food falls from the skies as weather. In this make-believe land, eggs and toast would rain down at breakfast time and baseball games might be interrupted by a downpour of pie. Restaurants had no roofs, so the food could fall directly on diners' plates, and townsfolk in this magical burg left the house toting their plates and bowls for whatever feast the winds would blow their way.
Charming to the adult reader, the tale can be absolutely spellbinding to children, and I remember looking to the sky as a youngster to imagine mashed potatoes whipping it up in the puffy white cumulus up there.
It wasn’t until many years later that I moved to the real-life fantastical town of New Orleans and discovered that sometimes food really does come pouring from the sky. If you doubt it, find your way to the Irish Channel and Garden District neighborhoods of New Orleans this Saturday. Just make sure to keep your head up and your eyes peeled, lest you get pelted with produce.
You’ll find the area's largest St. Patrick Day parade, a procession put on by the Irish Channel St. Patrick's Day Club that boasts a fleet of Erin-themed floats worthy of a Mardi Gras krewe. And just as at Mardi Gras, the float riders will be equipped with the usual throws, plus the unusual yield that really makes this parade stand out. Vegetables, tons and tons of vegetables, and all of it will go flying over the sides of the rolling floats in a pounding torrent that is hard to believe until you witness it.
Thanks to the need in New Orleans to do up celebrations to the extreme, the produce aisle staples for dishes like Irish stew or corned beef and cabbage have become the most coveted St. Patrick parade throw. Riders heave leafy cabbages from the float decks like cannonballs shooting from a galleon. Potatoes and carrots and onions ricochet off balconies and storefronts and craniums. Wise shopkeepers put sheets of hurricane season plywood up to protect plate glass windows since unguarded panes are prone to be smashed, just as unwary spectators may have to explain black eyes as the result of ballistic spuds rather than bar brawls.
After the floats pass, the streets look like the wake of some medieval harvest celebration or gigantic food fight. Advocates for the needy often fill the trunks of their cars with the intact produce they catch or collect, and all over the city parade goers return home to start cooking their own take.
In Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, weather forecasters would advise townspeople what utensils they might need for the day's edible precipitation. This weekend in New Orleans, just consult your St. Patrick parade calendar and bring along a sack for the street harvest.
Click here for schedules and maps for the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day parade.