Here are the questions: What is real New Orleans food? Is there a real New Orleans food and how would any one of us know it? If it were a snake would we bite it back?
The answers are afoot when I go to John and Mary’s on Orleans Avenue for a boiled turkey neck, McHardy’s on Broad Street for fried chicken, the Orange House for Ya Ka Mein and/or over to the Seventh Ward to find an African-American grandma selling Huckabucks (ice cups) from her kitchen doorway for 50 cents. Real New Orleans food is going to Galatoire’s for Crabmeat Ravigote, Pascal Manale’s Barbecued Shrimp, eating Tujague’s Oysters en Brochette and a fabulous ribeye at Crescent City Steak House.
Real New Orleans food is found at fancy places and filling stations. From the Calas at Elizabeth’s to the Creole Cream Cheese at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market; from Lafcadio Hearn to Sara Roahen. Above all, real New Orleans food is an attitude. Mirliton is New Orleans, chayote is Mexican…although they’re the same vegetable. Real New Orleans food goes back nearly three centuries and is a gumbo of influences.
The Creoles subsisted on seafood from the Gulf, lake and river. The early Germans at Des Allemandes kept us alive with their farming and dairy products, they handed us our first charcuterie. The indigenous peoples taught us to make hominy, Tasso and the use of powdered sassafras leaves (filé). The French brought their cooking methods and terminology. Wheat came down the river to make our roux. The Africans came and farmed rice (“YaYa” in their language) and brought okra (quingombo) to our pots. The Spanish gave us the ham (jamon, jambon) for our jambalaya, and from a common ancestor in Peru came red, black, white and pinto beans. The Cajuns? Well, the Cajuns have kept us in touch with our rural and rustic roots.
This new land of ours gave back to the world: chili peppers, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, squash and vanilla. We in New Orleans adopted celery, artichokes, thyme, coffee beans, sugar cane, bananas and bay leaves. We made them our own. We took in and we gave back. And real New Orleans food is a product of Spanish, French and African cultures with influences of the Germans, Italians, indigenous peoples and settlers making do with what they could find, forage and figure out. Slaves bought their freedom by selling foodstuffs in the streets of the French Quarter. Businessmen became rich importing ice to keep it fresh, housewives traded collards for courgettes over back fences, and Caribbean cooks added a pinch of cayenne to our everyday dinners. Many cooks did not spoil the soup; they just turned it into gumbo.
Put aside for a second what our visitors dive into: red beans, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffée, remoulade, beignets, pralines, bread pudding, po-boys. Those are native to us—baked in, so to speak. They are second nature to us, and are only window dressing to the real meat of what sustains us as a people. Try also to ignore, for now, the “newer” ethnic-oriented foods that, happily, have diversified our daily eating habits in the last, say, two decades (something that newly-arrived folks may not realize). Foodstuffs that were once novelties are now mainstream: Vietnamese, Hispanic and Middle Eastern. It used to be that you couldn’t find sushi here with a Geiger counter; now, pretty young things are having it for breakfast at Whole Foods (another come lately business). These I consider no less than real New Orleans food, just newer New Orleans food—updated, expanded, and modified from the old to the new. The eat goes on.
I do question those “modern” ethno-fusion, local ingredient-driven, over-fussy and unnecessarily complicated works of art that pass for high end food nowadays—terrific to look at, hard to eat, and harder to remember except that they contained weird animal parts and far too many garnishes. But that might just be me. I’m sure it has its place. After all, in 1722 after the “Petticoat Rebellion”, when Madame Langlois (Governor Bienville’s housekeeper) taught our founding mothers the recipe for pecan stuffed squirrel, I’m sure a few eyebrows raised as well..
New Orleans, known to visitors for our affinity for music, food and booze, has become polarized four-square by conflicting, if not confusing, messages that are sending visitors running to our culture pundits for explanations as to our New Orleanian definitions of what really is real New Orleans and what is not. Let me say this about that: Music and alcoholic drinks are a subjective experience and give rise to opinions that, like noses, vary from face to face, person to person. I cast no aspersions toward tastes in those areas. Although I have my own opinions, I mostly keep them to myself.
When we talk New Orleans food, however, I’m ready to get “real”. I’m prepared to get up into some “grill”: New Orleans food is like a religion to us here and what we eat on any given day can be classified as such. All the food we eat here is good food (I should hope so) but it’s either New Orleans food or it’s not. It’s found in the components that we swear by: Camellia Beans, Crystal Hot Sauce, pickled pork, smoked sausage, Mahatma Rice, CDM Coffee and Chicory, and greens of every description. It’s found in the onions, celery, bell peppers and garlic that no home is ever without. It’s found in Steen’s Cane Syrup, Zatarain’s Fish Fry and our own special secret spice mixtures. Real New Orleans food has always been based on us being locavores and we were slow cookin’ (and slow dancin’) before “Slow Food” became cool and a convenient catchphrase.
Our food rituals set us apart as well: red beans on Monday, King Cake at Carnival time, Reveillon dinners around Christmas, Gumbo Z’herbes on Holy Thursday, oysters in months with an “R” in ‘em, and that grilled pork chop sandwich from the back of a pickup truck at a second line winding through the Tremé.
Real New Orleans food is eaten all day and all night, washed down by cold beers and conversation. In the street or at the table, with smiles and camaraderie. The scent of smoke like perfume among the jasmine, magnolias and sweet olive comin’ over the fence tells you that a neighbor will be over soon to invite you for an impromptu “cook out” before a Saints game. Our gumbo is “too thick to drink, too thin to plow”. Our boiled seafood brings burn to your lips and sweat to your brow. The tropical fruits from Mr. Okra’s truck perfectly ripe; that praline-stuffed beignet from Loretta’s having your eyes roll back in your head. There is nothing superficial or elusive in Real New Orleans food and it cannot be had anywhere but in New Orleans. Have a muffuletta in Des Moines? Not on a bet! Call it the heat, call it the humidity, call it the water. Call it my stubbornness. I’ll have enchiladas, pad thai, pho, frankfurters, falafel, paella and pizza in Pittsburgh, Pensacola, Flushing and Fargo. I will eat banh mi in Boston, green eggs and ham with a goat on a boat. BUT…I will save my crawfish cravings for the Crescent City—and only in season.