By L. Kasimu Harris
I pressed my shirt, collar first, then shoulders and cuffs, just how I learned in a men’s magazine; my pants and shoes were sharp. Toting a leather portfolio folder, I left my apartment all bold with the prospect of a better life. I was ready for my interview — at the food stamp office. I was broke, hungry, and seeking government assistance. Application denied.
This was 20 years ago, when I was a student at Middle Tennessee State University, investing in my future and persevering the present. Undeterred, I reapplied. This time, my hair was uncombed, and I wore a heavy coat and shorts; the winter air made my ashy legs whiter than baby powder. I intentionally looked “throwed off.” Application approved. I wasn’t shamed. I had a ditty around my friends: “Big pimpin’, EBT. Steak and lobster, all on me.”
I didn’t actually buy steak or lobsters, but using canned tuna and broccoli, then staples of my undergraduate grocery list, wasn’t rhythmically close enough to the hook from “Big Pimpin’.” I did have jobs. I worked at Sam’s Club. I sold Cutco knives (I still use my sample set). I was a host at Outback Steakhouse, I was a maintenance man / pool cleaner at the apartment complex, full of college students, where I lived. I even worked Census 2000, till they learned I didn’t have a car and peddled around on my bike. My grind was no different from my second trip to the food stamp office, when I knew that a polished presentation undermined, in their opinion, my need for help. I knew I needed more food, and despite any obstacles, I wasn’t moving back to New Orleans without a degree. It was about survival.
I didn’t experience a dearth of food or financial resources until my sophomore year of college. My parents were entrepreneurs who lived well and provided for their children. I was raised and worked in their flower shop and outdoors, landscaping with my dad and his crew. My parents exposed me to great foods, music, arts, and culture. I wanted for nothing. Filled with money, love, and hope, in the spring of 1998, my parents drove me from New Orleans to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and dropped me off at college. It was an eight-hour trip that took 13, with stops for the buffet at Ryan’s and various flea markets, at my mother’s request. My first two years of college, I lived on campus and had a meal plan. But, the best foods still came from my parents. Around holidays, they’d send a care package with stuffed bell peppers, chicken filled with shrimp and rice, and a container of gumbo that stayed frozen from the hot ice my dad packed into the box.
“Your mom just figured you wanted some New Orleans cooking,” said LeRoy Harris, my father. He added that they would cook certain things and thought it was something I’d like to have. “You know how it is when you’re away, one of the first things you miss is the food or socializing, while sitting around with family and food.”
My father said they believed I would relish the thoughtfulness on their part, I’d enjoy the meals, and “it was something that we wanted you to experience while you were away.”
I opened those care packages with the excitement of a child opening gifts on Christmas morning.
But in 1999, my mother had a stroke and never regained her full independence or balance. Her vision suffered. Their income declined rapidly. Gradually, things that were quick dorm-room snacks — Ramen noodles, microwaved hot dogs on bread, Tony’s frozen pizza — became meals, “struggle foods.” It cost to be poor. The foods you eat, the stress, and the lack of health care all work in tandem to deteriorate the body.
In my second half of college, as my friend group expanded, so did my palate. I ate foods that I hadn’t heard about in New Orleans. Through eating, I learned about chess pie, a classic with its simple and readily available household ingredients; hot-water cornbread, a golden fried goodness that I wish was on more menus in New Orleans; and the Mexican-inspired Rotel and chimichangas. I’d explore Tennessee with friends who invited me to their parents’ homes, where I was introduced to fried frog legs and stewed rabbit and barbecued deer. I left the state in 2005, after a year-long stint as an assistant manager of a Walgreens. I grew tired of the 30-minute lunch breaks and the daily work that was devoid of my dreams.
I went to the University of Mississippi from 2005 to 2008, where I earned a master’s degree in journalism and gained a deeper understanding of food by eating at restaurants in Oxford and volunteering with the Southern Foodways Alliance. After graduation, I landed at a small newspaper in South Louisiana for two months, then worked on houses for a few months, and eventually taught full-time for two years.
But from the end of 2011 to the middle of 2013, I was intermittently broke, heartbroken, and depressed. In 2011, I was on the come-up and had art on museum walls, but my pockets were empty. I was dating without money, not even for gas. She seemed like everything I wanted. I knew my worth, my plan, my talent, and that money would come. But that shit could be a hard sell, and a “we need to talk” text is effortless to send. That heartbreak led to an unexpected parenthood, with a different woman, plunging me further into my emotional and mental abyss. My son was born on September 20, 2012.
Although stunted in some areas of life, I became relentless. I wanted to be a provider, to transition my potential into production. When I couldn’t afford to work from a coffee shop, I’d take my coins and walk a nearby gas station for breakfast: a Nature Valley crunchy granola bar and coffee. Sometimes, I’d get creative and mix the cappuccino or vanilla with the hot brew. I always opted for the oats ’n’ honey bar, because it’s two in a package. But maybe it was my go-to because its green wrapper was my proverbial black eyed peas and collard greens and bore the promise of prosperity and health.
I had that meal on New Year’s Day in January 2013, when I moved back home with my parents. I taught art in schools and wrote stories at night, and my life was moving to a better place. I had met the chef James Cullen months earlier on Twitter. One day, Cullen tweeted about Twelfth Night, a day related to carnival that I’d never heard about — and I love carnival. Cullen’s short explanation was about the first day of the Mardi Gras season. It felt odd to learn a New Orleans tradition from someone from New Jersey. Cullen extended an invitation to his house party — laughs, drinks, and fried chicken. I thought about how folk get beat up, robbed, and even killed by meeting up with people from the internet. But I showed up and feasted on king cake, downed some local beers, and ate the fried chicken. We’ve been friends since.
Cullen is the executive chef of Southern Yacht Club, a post he’s held since summer 2017. He stepped down from Press Street Station in April 2016 and was underemployed for a year and a half.
“I didn’t know if I would ever work again,” says Cullen, who graduated cum laude from Boston College and graduated first in his class from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 102 and from the French Culinary Institute. “New Orleans is such a small and insular town, and I feel like what I consider integrity, many people consider being difficult.”
Cullen said that period was also fun. He recollected not having an idea where his money was coming from; some weeks, it was selling plate lunches of fried chicken, and other weeks it was photography for the local business paper, and some weeks it was electrical work.
“I scrapped and waited,” Cullen says.
He had his own period of heartbreak. In 2008, still living in New Jersey, he received his divorce papers in the mail. He was already separated from his wife, but Cullen says he never felt the finality until the papers were in his hand.
“I remember the foods I ate,” Cullen quips. “They resembled alcohol.”
Cullen was living in a small apartment in Jersey City Heights with six other people. His son was only 6. He was taking home $300 a week as a chef.
“And I was despairing,” he says. “Truly. Like thinking-about-jumping-in-the-Hudson despairing. But I never did it. Because you don’t want to break more hearts.”
Cullen says that when he is sad or irritated, he wants to be busy, to cook more, but he doesn't necessarily want to eat.
“You want to give it away,” he says. “Sometimes, the best way to comfort yourself is to comfort others.”