Shrimp and Gumbo
I arrived in Cuba ever so slightly rotund- and there’s good reason for this- the food in New Orleans is some of the best around. Borrowing heavily from French cuisine Creole food is amazing thick sauces, rich meats and fish and more rustic provincial styles originating from Cajun country (spices, amazing seasoning, fried goodness) I had read reams before going so headed straight to the Central Grocery for a muffuletta - New Orleans’ signature sandwich (along with the po-boy). Think chunky ciabatta, piled high with 3 kinds of meat, olives, cheese a fist high and you get an idea of the depth of these monsters. No wonder the Italian dockworkers used these for sustenance. However, the po-boy rules supreme- French baguette stuffed with fried shrimp and salad. Sitting on the Mississippi, I sat and watched the ships roll in planning the next 2 months. This is a photo of this occasion.
A short stroll across the road and you hit Cafe Du Monde- selling a New Orleans institution- Beignets (ben-yays); flat doughnuts covered with a fine mist of icing sugar, with a cup of cafe au-lait and open 24 hours! It’s the perfect pick me up after a disco nap and before a night of dancing.
Chicken at Coops diner with a taster portion of the rabbit Jambalaya I soon understood was legendary, as is the service- it’s the moodiest around. The height of customer relations is when they trap a cockroach in a glass that’s approaching you and your food (really happened, he flashed a kind of ‘that secures my tip’ smile)
In New Orleans, the food, the people, the music are all intertwined in a sumptuous union where one nourishes the other. Trumpet maestro Kermit Ruffins and his band of BBQ Swingers cook up a storm of chicken and red beans and rice and serve it up to the crowd as part of the show. On one of the many second lines I went to, I remember the food as much as the music. After a night of dancing at Mimi’s in the Marigny, I dragged my tired self to the second line, promising myself just an hour, then home…3 hours later I’m still stepping as the musicians and dancers stop only for refreshment- the most luscious BBQ chicken and chunky gumbo in little plastic pots. Add in some Yakamein (a kind of Chinese style noodle broth with Cajun seasoning) and you’re ready for the next 4 miles.
At Jazzfest- the best food retailers all come out in one go- cochon-au-lait (suckling pig) competes with alligator pie, stuffed green tomatoes and delicious iced tea… or just crawfish (mud bugs as they’re playfully called) tipped out on a bar covered in newspaper and eaten to local tunes and the sounds of new friendships being made.
Even in the most run down, off the beaten track neighbourhoods, the food is divine- no room for prejudice here. At Jazzest I saw a poster that sums it up–“Come hungry, leave soulful” That’s the story of New Orleans- it’s all about a warm heart, good food and contrast- nothing is as it seems. The City has the last laugh if you dare judge only from what you see on the surface and fail to scratch and reveal the beauty below – this applies to the people you meet and the food that’s on your plate.