Robert and I flew to New Orleans the week before last to spend time with our youngest, who was finishing an internship in southern Louisiana, and to see the city for the first time. I hope you don’t mind my diverging from the topic of homegrown food once more to share some photos of NOLA’s unique food culture.
Waiters take a break at Café du Monde, the city’s favorite spot for beignets and people watching. Though I’ve avoided coffee blended with chicory since my dreadful experiment with a 100-percent chicory brew, I had to try Creole coffee, typically an 80-20 blend served as equal parts brew and milk. New Orleans folks seem a bit defensive about their chicory, which tourist literature describes as “very mildly bitter”; Café du Monde’s website says chicory “is added to the coffee to soften the bitter edge of the dark roasted coffee.” Thankfully, the milk softens the bitter edge of the chicory, but the acrid aftertaste lingers on the tongue.
This is Café Beignet, Café du Monde’s leading competitor, situated in a lovely city-owned plaza where musicians entertain at nearly all hours. Café Beignet’s beignets—rectangular yeast doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar—are said to be lighter than Café du Monde’s, and we concurred with this opinion. We also appreciated not having to excavate Café Beignet’s beignets from a mountain of powdered sugar. (At Café du Monde, I watched a man eat his excess sugar with a spoon.) But at both cafés the beignets were excellent, as doughnuts nearly always are when they’re served fresh and hot. Which is the only way to serve a doughnut, right?
Our server at Café Beignet is Laurie, who led a fascinating group tour of New Orleans eateries through Tastebud Tours.
On Bourbon Street, in the French quarter, crowds of tourists stroll and stagger from one club to the next, all night long. Choose your blues, jazz, rock, Cajun, or whatever (the music is so loud that the genre may not matter), and you can sit and listen or dance for free provided you buy a drink. But many people prefer to drink as they amble down the street, and this is perfectly legal. Here is one of several shops specializing in frozen daiquiris to go, in a rainbow of artificial colors.
And here is a walk-up bar that opens right onto Bourbon Street. The sign says, “Pour me somethin Mister!”
I was thrilled that our food tour included servings of muffuletta, also known as muffoletta or muffaletta. I’d been intrigued by the name of this sandwich ever since my sister brought me a jar of olive relish labeled with the same word. Actually, the relish isn’t properly called muffuletta or even relish; it’s known in New Orleans as olive salad. Originally, muffuletta was the name of neither the relish nor the sandwich but of the bread loaf, which a Sicilian baker introduced to the city in the late nineteenth century. In Sicily, soft, round, sesame-topped loaves of muffuletta are still popular, especially on November 2, All Souls Day. They are split crosswise and spread with various fillings, such as cheese, anchovies, and olive oil. At Central Grocery, a little Italian market still thriving in the French quarter, Lupo Salvatore invented the New Orleans muffuletta sandwich in 1906, when he filled muffuletta loaves with Italian cold cuts, cheeses, and a mixture of chopped olives and pickled vegetables and wrapped the sandwich in paper to make a portable lunch for his countrymen who worked on the Mississippi River and on nearby farms. The muffuletta pictured here is from Mike Serio’s sandwich shop.
Once I understood that muffuletta was bread, the name lost its mystery. Muffuletta is an obvious cousin of the French moufflet (soft, tender bread), the German muffe (small cake), and the English muffin. I suspect that all of these words are related to the English muff and terms in various European languages for puffy things–boxing gloves, mold, softness, and even wild sheep.
A French Quarter shop displays hot sauces, distinguished one from another more by their provocative names and label art than by their ingredients.
Johnny’s Po-Boys, another stop on our food tour, specializes in the other iconic New Orleans sandwich, the po’ boy. Filled with anything from roast beef and gravy to deep-fried seafood, the po’ boy has its own origin legend: Bennie and Clovis Martin worked as streetcar conductors until they saved enough money to open a coffee stand in the French Market in 1922. In 1929, the streetcar workers went on a long and violent strike, which the public supported with a boycott. The Martins offered free food to the strikers, big sandwiches filled with gravy and fries. Whenever one of the strikers came toward the stand, the Martins would say, “Here comes another po’ boy!” Their generosity made them and their sandwiches famous.
The Martins worked with a local baker to develop a new sort of French loaf, 40 inches long and blunt at both ends, to be easily quartered with no waste. Today most of these loaves are made by a bakery called Leidenheimer, which also makes most of the muffuletta loaves used by New Orleans shops and restaurants.
By the way, the German immigrant who founded Leidenheimer Bakery in 1896 first tried to sell the dense, dark breads of his homeland. But today Leidenheimer makes only “French” (white) bread. We saw no whole-grain bread anywhere at all in New Orleans.
Laura’s Candies specializes in pralines (pronounced “prah-leens”), candied pecans that are more candy than pecan and formed like drop cookies. Other candies in the shop are at least as interesting.
We came across this coffee truck in the Garden District. The only food carts allowed in the French Quarter, for some reason, are Lucky Dog hot-dog carts. The owners, I guess, are lucky dogs.
Royal Street, in the French Quarter, has a lot of antique shops. In one of them we found these French copper jelly pans, priced from $300 to $600. Keep these in mind if you want to send me a birthday present.
In New Orleans we ate a lot of crawfish, mostly boiled in heavily spiced water (and at one restaurant left in the water until they turned to fiery mush).
Better still was this crawfish etouffée, shelled crawfish smothered with a roux-based sauce, at the Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street.
At the Praline Connection we also ordered fried pickles, vinegared dills sliced crosswise, battered, and deep-fried. They are a pleasant change from French fries or fried onion rings, but fermented pickles sliced into spears are much better for frying, I think.
Miss Sandra stirs her gumbo at the New Orleans School of Cooking. I took several pages of notes in her class, which was as entertaining as it was informative.
After a swamp tour near Slidell, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, we let Sam’s GPS find us a restaurant. What the GPS thought was Schaefer’s turned out to be Speckled T’s, but no matter. For $19 each, we enjoyed the most amazing all-you-can-eat brunch of our lives, with raw and grilled oysters, boiled shrimp and crawfish, braised catfish, shrimp and grits, asparagus, sliced duck breast, whole boned quail, prime rib, and more, including all-you-can-drink champagne.
For our last meal in New Orleans we visited Deanie’s Seafood, a fifty-year-old favorite with a casino downstairs. While we waited for our entrées, the waitress brought not us not bread but red-skinned potatoes, boiled, apparently, with the same chile-based seasoning mix used for crawfish and shrimp. What a revelation! In Louisiana, potatoes and sweet corn are often boiled in the same pot with shellfish, but I hadn’t considered boiling potatoes on their own with Cajun-Creole spices.
At Deanie’s we also loved the soft-shell crab, something we don’t have here on the West Coast. How clever to time the catching and selling of crabs so people can eat them just after they have lost their shells but haven’t yet begun to grow new ones! If I had to shell a crab this small, though, I think I’d order something else.
I’m sorry we didn’t get to eat at Commander’s Palace, probably New Orleans’s most famous restaurant, in the Garden District across from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The owners, the Brennan family, have several other expensive restaurants in town. Five days in New Orleans wasn’t quite enough.
We did eat in two other expensive and impressive restaurants where I was too busy eating to take any pictures: Luke, one of John Besh’s several restaurants in the city, where I watched the cooks work in a glass-walled room, and La Petite Grocery, in the Garden District, where the lobster beignets were unforgettable. Keep these two in mind if you plan your own trip to New Orleans.