One of the things that struck me over and over again during my time in São Luís was how often I was reminded of the American city New Orleans. I can't say I know New Orleans intimately, and have only visited it as a tourist, but it's certainly clear to even the most unobservant visitor that New Orleans feels different that any other large American city. There's only one Big Easy and there's nothing else like it. São Luís has that same feel - it's Brazilian but it's not like other Brazilian cities. As there appears to be room for only one New Orleans in the USA, the cultural ambiance of São Luís isn't duplicated elsewhere in Brazil.
The resemblance between New Orleans and São Luís can be said to go back to the day of their respective foundings. Uniquely among all the cities in what was eventually to become Brazil, São Luís was founded not by Portuguese colonists, but by the French. Daniel de la Touche and 500 of his countrymen landed at the site of São Luís in 1612 to found the colony of France équinoxiale. They built a fort to established their new colony and named it after French king Louis IX (St. Louis). New Orleans was also founded by the French, just over a century later, in 1718. Although neither New Orleans nor São Luís would remain under French suzerainty in the long term, they both retain an affinity for French cultural which adds to their differentiation from other cities in their countries.
New Orleans and São Luís share not only their European foundation, they are both intensely creole cities. The word creole can refer to many elements of society and culture, from race and ethnicity to language, music, art and cuisine. Here I'm taking it to mean a mixture of European and African roots synthesized to create something that is neither purely European nor African but a homogenous mixture of both. Both cities have a large black population, reminders of their past as centers of the African slave trade. The slave ships of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries not only brought slaves from the coasts of Africa they brought the cultural belongings of these people - religion, typical food plants, language, rhythms. The Afro-American religions known as voudon or voodoo in New Orleans have their counterpart in São Luís' candomblé. African food plants, such as okra (quiabo in Portuguese), yams (inhame) play a prominent part in the gastronomy of these sister-cities, as does the liberal use of chili peppers to spice up dishes of shellfish and seafood. The creole cultural stew shared by New Orleans and São Luís also produced jazz in the USA and Brazilian reggae in São Luís - mixes of European musical styles with African rhythms and soul.
One other similarity that came to mind many times during Flavors of Brazil's visit to Maranhão was that both São Luís and New Orleans share an air of decadence and genteel decay. Part of this might be due to the climatic similarities of both cities, which are low-lying coastal towns, intensely hot and humid. There's a hint of must in the air at all times and a over-ripe lushness in the vegetation. Neither city is rich, and buildings of historical value range in state of preservation from recently-renovated to crumbling into nothingness. All things, including time, seem to move slower in these two towns. It's just too hot to rush.
In future posts here about São Luís, Flavors of Brazil will highlight more of what makes New Orleans and São Luís such intimate soul-sisters.