New Orleans on my mind

The food of one city is unshakeable

By
June 13, 2012

Although I have eaten in New Orleans just once in my life, I have returned to its food — the variety, the intense and exciting flavors — a million times in my head.

During my senior year of college, my roommate and I booked flights from Providence on a whim. She wanted to catch Mardi Gras. I was game for nearly anything. So we left New England on a Friday morning in February. Neglecting to double-check the calendar, however, we didn’t realize that we would actually miss the party by a few days.

On the ground, we decided to plan our own festivities. They don’t call it the Big Easy for nothing. Over the long weekend, we would eat and drink as best we could on our student budgets.

For lunch, we had muffulettas and oyster po’ boys. These are casual, convenient sandwiches, proteins and carbs in the same package, the first a meatfest topped with an olive spread, the second a showcase for deep-fried oysters.

For dinner, we had red beans and rice and crawfish étouffée, with bold spices we seldom encountered in the dining halls back at college. They were foods my roommate knew from her Southern childhood, but for me, they were foods with which I had only recently become familiar.

We sipped hurricanes in bars on Bourbon Street and treated ourselves to beignets and chicory-spiked café au lait at Café du Monde.

Piled high with powdered sugar, beignets need to be handled carefully; one shake sends a dust cloud of sweetness across the table. One laugh out loud, and there was snow on our noses, our hair, and our shirts. We went through several plates of these signature pastries, laughing into the early morning.

Chicory with coffee, I later learned, is an old Louisiana tradition. The French added roasted and ground chicory to coffee to help stretch supplies during the Napoleonic blockades in the early 19th century. When naval blockades cut off shipments to New Orleans during the Civil War, people in Louisiana started to add chicory to their coffee as well, and came to appreciate the nuttiness it lent to the beverage.

New Orleans, it seems, has always been about good food. “We not only love to eat and to cook what we eat,” Charmaine Neville says in the anthology My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy By Her Sons, Daughters, and Lovers. “We love to talk about what we are going to cook and what we are going to eat. Before we finish what we’re eating, we’re already talking about the next meal we’re going to have together.”

“In spite of our differences,” editor Rosemary James says in the book’s introduction, “we have sought out each other’s company over, always, the very best food, ingenious dishes created from a poor people’s basics: beans, rice, okra, fish, crabs, oysters, shrimp, peppers, garlic, onions, filé . . . And elegant desserts created from everyday things like bananas and sugar and rum. Ours is comfort food even for the aliens among us.”

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Traditional Louisiana cooking blends a number of cuisines and techniques. Creole dishes might have been based originally on French stews and soups, but they were influenced significantly by other cultural habits: the Spanish affinity for onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and garlic; the African use of okra; and the Native American introduction of filé, or finely ground sassafras leaves. Like Cajun foods, considered country cousins, the cooking of Creole culture was spicy and robust.

By the 1980s and 1990s, avuncular chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse had mostly blurred the lines between Creole and Cajun cooking, popularizing both in person and in print. Lagasse, for example, incorporated them at Emeril’s, his first solo restaurant venture, and in the best-selling book Emeril’s New New Orleans Cooking, developing additional recipes further influenced by his Portuguese roots.

In the months following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, eateries were among the first businesses in the city to re-open. Some places, unfortunately, did not survive. “Their owners were getting on in years,” the food writer and radio host Tom Fitzmorris writes in Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleans, “or their buildings had been too badly damaged to rebuild, or they had intractable insurance problems.”

beans and ham hock
A pot of beans is a classic New Orleans dish.

But others, including Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, still thrive. Homegrown chefs, such as Susan Spicer, Donald Link, and John Besh, also continue to play with seasonal ingredients and innovative approaches at places like Mondo, Herbsaint, and Restaurant August, respectively.

Before Katrina hit, according to Fitzmorris, there were more than 800 restaurants in greater New Orleans. These days, there are more than 1,200 — big and small, casual and formal, Creole, Cajun, Caribbean, French, Italian. This is a testament to the hunger people in the city have for good-tasting food, and the lengths to which cooks will go to feed that hunger. It speaks to their commitment and hospitality.

Since college, I have tasted many different foods and visited a number of other cities. I have bitten into fresh scones, for example, topped with strawberry jam and lovely clotted cream in London. I have eaten cheese-smothered deep-dish pizzas in Chicago. I have feasted on Korean favorites like bulgogi and bibimbap in Los Angeles.

Why, then, do I return so often in my head, and in my kitchen, to iconic New Orleans foods?

When catfish fillets are on special at the market, I grill them Louisiana-style, seasoned with paprika, black pepper, white pepper, and cayenne pepper; I like the heat. When Christmas comes, I make a festive jambalaya; it seems the right project for a celebration. And when rain threatens to dampen my spirits, I gather ingredients for chicken and sausage gumbo; by now, I have nearly perfected my roux.

The foods we eat, of course, literally become part of us. Some flavors are familiar because our parents and grandparents fed them to us: poached whole chicken or macaroni and cheese, barbecued pork buns or fresh-baked apple pie. Other foods, however, are part of who we choose to become, the people we essentially grow into. They are the dishes we discover on our own when we choose to travel and broaden our palates. They are the flavors we try to re-create when we can.

For me, they are the combinations that started with a weekend trip to the South long ago. Po’ boys and beignets, okra and filé. They are items my parents and grandparents never ate. After immigrating to the U.S. in the 1960s, my mother spent her time and effort at the stove fine-tuning Chinese dishes that reminded her of home. She knew of nothing else and wanted nothing more at her table in California. I would inevitably learn more and need more.

Maybe that’s what New Orleans means to me. It is a terrific city with an extraordinary history. But it is also among the first places I found myself, when I began to look, when I hoped to forge an identity outside of family. There is that thrill. Maybe that’s the connection.

And the food? Well, maybe the food is just a splendid bonus.

Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California.

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