Once again I find myself at 35,000 feet wending my way across the not so friendly skies of America but this time I don’t mind as much as I normally do. That is probably because this time I am headed for a city that I have had a not so secret love affair with for over 20 years. A city that captures my imagination with it’s history, it’s culture, it’s music and most of all it’s food. It’s a city that has been known for it’s excesses since it’s early days as a pirate port and celebrates those excesses even now as though they were an everyday occurrence. I am of course talking about the Crescent City itself. I am talking about New Orleans.
I didn’t first set foot in New Orleans until the mid 1990’s and to be honest, I can’t think of a good reason why I had never been there. It seemed that throughout college and my early adulthood I made it to a lot of places and partied in a lot of cities but somehow I never made it to the fabled Bourbon Street. Maybe it was my east coast upbringing that made me look down on certain parts of the country. Maybe it was the fact that the only exposure I ever had to the Louisiana was the Shreveport Airport whenever I flew down to visit my grandparents in east Texas. Louisiana to me was the PX at Barksdale Air Force Base, the wrestling shows at the Civic Center where Haystacks Calhoun would sit on a handful of wrestlers at one time while the crowd roared their approval and ate food that came from a swamp. I couldn’t understand wanting to eat creepy crawly things and I certainly couldn’t understand the fascination with spice and all things hot. I liked my food plain & beige. I suppose I was lucky that I never went to Mardi Gras during my college days or during my early adulthood when I was making every mistake a young man could make. I am not sure that I ever would have left.
In the late 80’s I finally made a decision to replace the highball glass in my hand with something less damaging and a bit more constructive. I found that if I had a book in my hand, I didn’t need that drink. I could use the words written by the writer to transport myself somewhere else which was all I had really been trying to do all those years that I used drinking as a crutch. One author caught my attention like no other. He painted pictures with his words that bled off the page and colored my senses & surroundings. His name was James Lee Burke and he wrote about Dave Robicheaux, a homicide detective that was also a recovering alcoholic. Dave had demons inside him that scared me but he had a pure streak in him that I could relate to as if I had known him all of my life. What fascinated me most about Dave was that he lived in southwest Louisiana. This was a Louisiana that was completely foreign to me. It was a Louisiana that intrigued me. It was a Louisiana that I had to experience for myself and right in the middle of it all was a city that was building to an almost mythic stature in my mind, New Orleans. The more of Burke’s books I read, the more I wanted to be a part of New Orleans and Acadiana. Work finally cooperated in the mid 1990’s and New Orleans became part of my sales territory and Cajun food soon became a staple in my style of cuisine.
The first thing I did was start to use Tabasco on my food. As I have mentioned before, I grew up in a family where the most exotic spice we used was pepper and that was used very sparingly. Even though the Tabasco burned my tongue and turned my insides out, I was hooked. I also opened my mind to the dishes and creations that I had heard about & read about but had never tried. Alligator, blackened redfish, crawfish, gumbo, dirty rice & beans – you name it, I tried it. The first Cajun restaurant I went to was actually Prejean’s in Lafayette and the old Cajun who took me there had me try the Etouffee and I thought that I had found Nirvana. I went to Mother’s on the far end of Poydras for their Etouffee and that special blend of hospitality that the servers dish out in portions that equal those on your plate. I went to the Café Desire in the Royal Sonesta Hotel for Turtle Soup (hold the sherry) and crispy golden brown Hush Puppies. I ate at Emeril’s for the first time (without my wife) and mistakenly brought home a menu. (I took my wife 3 months later for her birthday) I ate at The Commander’s Palace, Chef Paul’s, Brennan’s, Antoine’s and at the chef’s table at NOLA. I made my way down backstreets and discovered little gumbo shops that rivaled all the big names in flavor. I always made a stop at the Café du Monde for Café au Lait & Beignets and I will tonight, diet be damned. To top it all off, my job finally took me to Avery Island where I got a tour of the Tabasco Plantation from none other than Paul McIlhenny himself.
In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina tried to wash away New Orleans. I felt the pain as I watched the devastation that was wrought. As soon as I could, I went back to New Orleans to show that the people of the Crescent City still had a friend and a believer in this “yankee”. When the oil started flowing into the Gulf courtesy of BP, I flew right down again to show my support. It killed me to see my adopted home away from home under attack again but like the legendary Phoenix, New Orleans has risen again. The city is once again bouncing back and still riding the crest of the Saints winning the Super Bowl even though it is more than a year removed. I may be just a small cog in the wheels of the paddle boats that cruise the Mississippi River by the old Jax Brewery but I believe in New Orleans. I believe in it’s beauty. I believe in it’s history. I believe in it’s music. I believe in it’s culture. I believe in it’s people. Most of all, I believe in it’s food.
Come back next time when we reflect on the damage that less than 24 hours in New Orleans can do a diet (Diet ? What Diet ?) and discuss the influence that my time living in Denver (next week’s trip) had on my cooking too.