How Van Damme Showed Me Great American Food

I love food. Whenever I leave home I look forward to strange dishes, like snails in Nigeria, to tasting the wonders of the place I’m visiting. But I didn’t expect any culinary pleasures in the US because everyone who goes there complains about the food. I braced myself for three months of eating junk, of feeding on things that taste like plastic.

A meal to eat on the go. Po’bo

My first bite was a banana. I thought, since it was a fruit I loved, it would help me adjust. But as I held it in my hand, I thought something was wrong. It had a logo on it. I frowned. A branded banana? GMO? Afraid, hesitant, I took a bite, and it confirmed every horror story I’d heard about their food. It was like eating sponge. At least it was yellow. The next day at breakfast, they gave me a green banana. I stared in awe at those eating the unripe fruit. I took a bite, and it had a bitter taste, which was better than the yellow one I’d had the previous night.

During that breakfast, I had frozen eggs too. Everything on the table had come straight out of the fridge. The only hot things were the tea and toasted bread. I soon learned that they love very cold food, that they have no problem eating stuff straight out of the fridge. I can understand eating room-temperature salad, but frozen salad? Frozen boiled eggs? And the eggs had an expiry date three months away! Boiled eggs are not supposed to last more than a day. This one was covered in some gooey yellow jelly to preserve it. For lunch, they gave me chicken (I think its their national food). I’m used to enjoying chicken parts; drumsticks, wings, back, breasts, adunde. But I couldn’t tell which part I was eating, it was just chunks of flesh and it tasted like salty paper. Every meal was like swallowing a pill to take the hunger away and keep me alive.

Stuffed Mushrooms was a pleasant surprise. Sadly, such delicacies were few.

“You’ll like the food in New Orleans,” someone told me when she heard I was going there. “There’s real food down there.” I was skeptical. After weeks of choking on goo, I could not imagine enjoying food until I returned home.

In New Orleans, the first restaurant I went to, because the sign said they served seafood and I wanted to taste oysters, was obsessed with movies. It kindled hope. The walls were covered with images from movies and movie stars. There was A Streetcar Named Desire, Rocky, Gone with the Wind, and many others. Of course, there was Marilyn Monroe. The atmosphere seemed great, low lights, almost like having a candlelit dinner. I thought that anyone who was so obsessed with movies was a romantic and would cook great food. I was so wrong. The oysters were fried and covered in something that gave it the taste of very oily and brittle mandazi.

Cafeteria crap.

I wanted to enjoy my stay. I refused to let the bad food kill my mood. Knowing I was in the country of great movies, I decided to visit movie locations, an easy and cheap way to see America, guaranteed to avoid over-rated and over-priced tourist attractions, because the whole place is a movie set.

As I searched for locations in New Orleans, I discovered the Nicolas Cage tomb. I frowned. Was he dead? Nope. Yet he has a tomb at the St Louis Cemetery No. 1, a unique burial site where bodies are not kept underground, but above ground. It’s a true city of the dead. There are said to be over 70,000 corpse there, sharing graves. Nic was one of my childhood heroes, so I decided to see it. Surprisingly, there is an entry fee to the cemetery. Twenty dollars per person, for a forty five minute visit. I think they get so many visitors that they decided to make some money. They claim its to prevent vandalism, but did they have to charge that much? They took only cash and did not give us receipts, so probably the guides pocket all the money. We were about seven people in the tour, and yet after it the guide still asked us for tips! (I’m going to rant about their obsession with tips in the next post.)

Apparently, Nicolas Cage is a voodoo person and he built a tomb to salvage his career. He wanted his grave to be close to that of Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess whose grave partly accounts for the cemetery’s fame. Sadly for Nic, after he built this pyramid-shaped tomb, his career went downhill. He ran broke. He owned one of the houses I wanted to visit, the LaLaurie House, where a woman called LaLaurie tortured and killed hundreds of slaves back in the 1800s, keeping their dismembered bodies in her attic. This house is said to be haunted and Nic Cage bought it knowing its history. He lost it in 2009 to foreclosure. They say there is a curse on him. Some think it was bad luck for him to build a tomb while still alive, and right next to Marie Lavaue. Proof of the curse? There’s a crack on the tomb that no repair can fix; it keeps re-appearing, same shape, same length.

The hippy film Easy Rider (1969), starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, had a sequence shot in this cemetery. They say they shot it on an extremely low budget, and so they sneaked into the cemetery at night, without permission, to shoot in secret. The film is about two men riding around the US while high on drugs (and Wikipedia says real, hard drugs like cocaine and marijuana were used on the set) While filming, at the Italian society tomb, Hopper allegedly convinced Fonda to talk to the statue of the Madonna as though it were Fonda’s mother, who killed herself when he was ten years old, and ask her why she left him. When the Catholic archdiocese, which runs the cemetery, saw the scene, they were pissed off and banned all filming in the cemetery until today. Some people claim it is because the production team broke the head of the statue of the Madonna.

City of the dead, with that of the living in the background.
The Italian society tomb, were only Italians were buried back in the day.
Where Nicolas Cage will be buried.

After the cemetery, I went searching for the Frenchman street, where they shot one of Van Damme’s most famous fight scenes, from the movie Hard Target (1993). The fight has all the round kicks and splits that made him a darling to action fans worldwide, but it also has some of his best, cliché quotes. “Next time be more careful when you show your wallet.” (And the woman he tells this looks at him wide eyed, the way women in Hollywood movies look at the male hero who has just saved them.)

I had trouble finding the location of this scene, for at the beginning the woman walked under a big sign that said Half Moon Utility Restaurant. When I saw it, I decided to go and eat there, but it looks like it was closed a while back. However, another restaurant appeared for a few frames, but it was clear enough for me to get its name. The Praline Connection. The name sounded like a movie’s title, and for a moment I thought the set design department had made it up as some kind of joke, but it turned out to be a real restaurant. I can’t remember if this is where Van Damme had just finished having a meal or tea or something (in which he complained about the hard times) but well, the restaurant still stood and I decided to have a meal in it, just because I saw it in Hard Target.

The Praline Connection

Am I lucky that I did?

The Praline Connection was “originally thought of as a home delivery service targeting career women who were too busy to prepare home cooked meals for their families,” according to a note on the menu. Instead of a delivery service it became a restaurant “serving great recipes that were passed down to us over the years from our relatives.” The food did taste like home made food, not like the factory crap in other restaurants, and finally on the menu I found familiar items. The food tasted as if a grandmother back in a village in Tororo had prepared it. The waiters were the friendliest I met, they dressed classy, and they patiently explained the strange menu items and suggested what I might enjoy. They even asked me where I’m from and engaged me in conversation, making me feel like I was visiting a relative, not a restaurant. I gorged myself at The Praline Connection, knowing it would be a long time before I had good food again.

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