I write about food, and I’m the New Orleans Food Examiner. As such, I have a fantastic reason to read cookbooks, eat out, attend festivals, talk to strangers in grocery stores, and generally do things I already want to do. I like it, it’s fun.
Every once in a while, I get asked a tough question though. The tough one of the week was to define “New Orleans style” food. I am having to really really THINK. Everyone knows New Orleans has some of the best American cuisine, and probably is among the top for worldwide cuisine, but what really makes it so damn special?
We have had our fair share of famous chefs, and Emeril Lagasse is probably among the top names that rose to fame on New Orleans’ cuisine lately. Paul Prudhomme brought it to national attention decades ago. Thousands of fantastic chefs and cooks created the food we love today, adapting recipes to ingredients and changes in people’s tastes over time.
We have the po’boy, that sandwich on French bread with a variety of fillings, which we’ll order dressed sometimes. The funny look from other people at the counter will quickly tell you who is new to town too.
We have the muffulata too. I don’t even know what all is really included in one, but I know that the hands down best is Central Grocery’s. I’ve had some good ones elsewhere in town, but they totally rule the muffulata market as far as I’m concerned. I even like the toasted version, which some purists turn their nose up at.
Then there is the seafood, fresh and plentiful in its variety. It’s served fried or boiled or 101 other ways, including in gumbos.
Of course, we have our ethnic restaurants too. Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Cajun, Creole, Soul, and French…but even there, there is something uniquely New Orleans about the food that is served.
There are cheap restaurants, and expensive ones, and a million in between. Great sandwiches are found at gas stations, and bad ones in cafes sometimes. There are Hubig’s pies, daiquiris, Big Shot soda, and king cakes to be had, and then there are the expensive but delicious doberge cakes. Backyard barbeques and seafood boils, festivals with fried and boiled seafood, kitchen tables and dining room tables and tiny kitchens in shotgun houses with homemade goodies.
There are adventurous cooks, and those who do it just like their mama and them used to do it. There are some people who are great at the eating part, and avoid the cooking parts, due to lack of skill. Most of us could do with a little more avoiding those tables and long walks in City Park too.
We know that there will be red beans and rice on the special boards all over town come Mondays. Word spreads fast about who has the greatest Lent specials too. We hear where to take out of town visitors from co-workers and friends. We talk food, all of us, and we do it a lot.
New Orleans is a foodie’s heaven, and a dieter’s hell.
But I still haven’t figured out what is New Orleans’ style, what makes it New Orleans and not some bad cloned copy of what is real. I’ve learned to avoid “New Orleans style” food when I’m in other towns, it isn’t the same. So I think about what was wrong with the food at these places that failed to capture our real style, the essence of what makes it New Orleans style!
It’s partly the spices, I think. I swear, most restaurants and groceries are permanently and indelibly marked with the scent of the boiling spices. I remember noticing that when I first moved here. The smells, they were so different from anywhere else. I could stand on the balcony of the apartment that was my first home, and catch the scent of the seafood boils in the air, tickling my nostrils and making me a part of the city itself. I would breathe it in, and catch a bit of the magnolia blossoms along with it. Another breeze would carry the scent of someone making gumbo, and a whole new set of tantalizing aromas would twist around my head, only to be replaced with the aromas of someone cooking Italian, with the basil and garlic binding me further.
The spices and herbs are not heavy handed, but rather just USED. I dread eating out in Mississippi, just a few miles away, where the use of the herbs and spices is forgotten and food becomes bland and heartless once again. While we use our fair share of Tony Chachere’s and Tabasco, it’s so much more than that. You can’t put New Orleans style in a packet and sell it anymore than Cavender’s Greek Seasoning captures Athens in its round yellow box.
We’ve been called the soup bowl of America, and it wasn’t complimentary, but we made that our own too, as the gumbo bowl of America. Surrounded by water, vulnerable to flooding with the loss of our wetlands and coastal marshes, we are still here as one of the busiest ports in America. That port is part of who we are too, it brought everything that became New Orleans here.
Immigrants of all kinds, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, free, indentured and slaves, they all landed here, passing through the streets and becoming part of the city. They brought their hopes, their dreams, and they all ate food of some kind too. Many of them cooked food, some of them would sell food, and some would raise the food for others to eat.
New Orleans eats more pork, chicken, and seafood than beef usually. Our recipes reflect that too. We eat some Southern foods, but we dress them up—New Orleans style. We have our “fancy foods” and our “working man’s foods,” and they vary some, but they all possess that unique thing called “New Orleans style.”
Fried chicken here isn’t like fried chicken in Atlanta or New York or Chicago or Seattle. Ours is better! Spicy or mild, it has zing. Red gravy has nothing in common with the bland spaghetti sauces served in Denver or Los Angeles either. Ours has some zing to it.
I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here. New Orleans style food is based on the cuisines of the immigrants who have formed the city, but it takes those dishes and makes them its own by using local ingredients and seasonings. We like things bold here, able to stand up and say here I am. We aren’t afraid to experiment and change things either. Where else would you get a pizza that’s topped with crawfish?
We love certain seasonings: garlic, onion, cayenne, Tony Chachere’s, Zatarain’s seafood boiling spices, basil, oregano, rosemary, dill, gumbo file… We have our favorite meats for flavoring too: tasso, pickled pork, salt pork, smoked ham hocks, smoked turkey, andouille…
Then there are our local sausages: Cajun, green onion, andouille…
Rice, we love the stuff. Long grain white rice rules the roost still.
Red beans, cooked to a creamy consistency, and served over rice.
Red gravies, rich with tomatoes, and spiced with a touch of cayenne, and full of garlic and Italian seasonings, they go over pasta…and other things.
Stuffed things that aren’t…like crabs and artichokes.
Messy foods are okay too, everybody loves a roast beef po’boy with lots of debris and gravy. There is nothing neat about a seafood boil either. Seafood gumbo with its gumbo crabs is also not exactly “neat eats.”
At the same time, dressed up and sitting at a table covered in white cloth, ties choking the men and women sweltering in heels and hose, hoping their makeup doesn’t melt, are perfectly at home with crumb dusting and refined foods served by serious waiters. More delicate sauces perhaps, but it will still feature bold flavors and local foods. Eating lobster is possible, but why bother? We have much better flavored seafood that is really local.
New Orleans style—it has to be the water and the air, the scent of magnolia blossoms and seafood boils with the wind carrying the aroma of roasting coffee and baking bread from factories across the river. We find New Orleans style any time we eat a beignet, sample a hot dog from a cart, or sip a daiquiri. We find it in the fish markets, the groceries, the kitchens, and the backyards all across town. Pizza, New Orkeans style, isn’t the same as having a Chicago or New York pizza.
Describing New Orleans style is as elusive as accurately predicting the hurricane season. You can guess, you can have data, you can use facts, but nothing is definite until those storms form in the Atlantic and start their way west. New Orleans style is found with the laughing cook at the corner lunch counter, the famous chef on the television, and the hurried housewife who is putting dinner together for her family. It’s what we are, who we are, and what we do. That’s all.