Contrary to popular assumption, growing up in New Orleans is not a childhood of reverie in the French Quarter. I remember, most vividly, the city’s dark earth tones–derivations of the delta’s black, black soil: the spiraling gray of Spanish moss, the camouflage olive of turtles we sought in the woods, the muddied red of crawfish, the bottom-fed, dulled silver of catfish, the aging concrete of above-ground tombs, the rusty surface of the mighty Mississippi, the anodized bronze of the  Superdome, the lackluster gold of the Saints’ uniform.  To this day, decades later, I associate the Gulf of Mexico with a constant overcast sky, drab waters without a touch of ocean blue.  These colors and the milieu they foster–like the suffocating humidity–made me feel as if I was living below sea-level, even if, as a child, I was not cognizant of the fact.

I did not know of the city’ Garden District, its fancy restaurants, its Mardi Gras balls, its kings and queens.  What I did know were the red beans and rice, jambalaya, and corn bread served at the school cafeteria; the po-boy stands; the dacquiri drive-thru’s, Gulf shrimp and oysters; and the sucking of crawfish heads.   Only when I lived elsewhere Southern, moved out West, and visited up North did I realize that all of that food was specific only to New Orleans–not America as a whole.  In turn, what made me a native of New Orleans were spontaneous cravings for gumbo and boudin.  But only in retrospect did I learn about my New Orleans identity through food.

Growing up on the West Bank, in an immigrant family still naive about American life, my fandom for the Saints was the only way for me to imagine myself as part of the city’s culture.   On Sundays, my family sat in our modest ranch home and rallied for the New Orleans Saints.  We believed in Louisiana’s sole Danish celebrity:  Morten Andersen, the side-armed Archie Manning, the graying Ken Stabler, the post-USFL Bobby Hebert, Bum Phillips’s cowboy hat, the undersized Sam Mills, the pass rush of Pat Swilling–the patois of Who Dat!–only to be disappointed.  But I was New Orleans…that much I knew and felt, even then as a child.

I returned to New Orleans shortly after Katrina to do some reporting.  One Sunday, I visited a convention center that had turned into the makeshift home for hundreds of the city’s victims.  It was a tent city, boxed in by concrete.  It was somber and bleak and quiet…until an eruption of cheer startled me.  A local electronics dealer had provided some televisions, and of course, it was a football-season Sunday, so folks were watching the Saints.  Displaced and distraught, everyone commingled and rallied as a city.  (The Saints beat the Carolina Panthers that day.)  And as a native son, I understood why those people–strangers to each other–huddled and crowded over those plastic, lit boxes.  Too often in that gray, submerged city, there is too little to hope for–except went the Saints go marching.