2015 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award: JoAnn Clevenger
There are many reasons to bestow the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award on JoAnn Clevenger, who founded Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans in 1983. Two are topical. In this tenth anniversary of the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, it makes great sense to honor a restaurant industry professional who served her city nobly and poetically and inspirationally before and after that manmade disaster.
JoAnn Clevenger took the Symposium stage at SFA that October in 2005, just two month after the levee failures, talking with Johnny Apple of the New York Times, John Besh of Restaurant August, and Lolis Elie, an SFA founder and New Orleans native, about the “New Orleans Culinary Renaissance.” She reminded us then and she continues to remind us now that the root word for restaurant translates from French to English as restore.
There’s another reason to bestow this award in 2015, when SFA examines pop culture. Inspired by the 1991 movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” Clevenger conceived one of the most widely dispersed pop culture dishes of the 20th century. “When I heard about the movie, I knew it was going to be a big deal,” Clevenger said in a conversation about the origins of her restaurant’s signature appetizer, fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp remoulade. “I grew up on fried green tomatoes. I was anxious to share. I knew people would like them, and the movie gave me an opportunity. From there, my country-come-to-town synthesis just spread.”
Clevenger, who grew up picking tomatoes in and around Alexandria, Louisiana, said, “Before we came up with the dish, I thought about it for three days and nights. And on the fourth day I had it. We would top fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade…Now they’re everywhere,” she said of the fried green tomato dishes that now grace restaurant menus across the nation. “That gives me a thrill, to have taken that movie and used it to introduce fried green tomatoes to the restaurant community.”
But the REAL reason SFA honors JoAnn Clevenger with our 2015 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award is so that we may celebrate the compassion and community stewardship she brings to her vocation and her life and her city. That sensitivity shows well in the film SFA commissioned from 1504 films, “JoAnn Clevenger: A Girl Scout with Gumption.”