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Chew on this

Thursday, August 23, 2012

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New Orleans: Gustatory adventures

Everyone who eats should experience the food of New Orleans. I lived there just under a year, but that was long enough to discover the in's and out's of the fried shrimp po' boy, oysters on the half shell with horseradish and lemon juice, and of course the muffuletta, a sesame loaf the diameter of a Frisbee, split horizontally and stacked with layers of marinated olive salad, capicola, salami, pepperoni, ham, Swiss cheese and provolone.

I worked at a deli through that summer, frying chicken and making po' boys till 2 a.m. before heading home each night on my bicycle down in the Bywater where the canal runs into the Mississippi. Later I washed dishes at a classy place down there called Elizabeth's; their signature dishes include grits & grillades, a traditional New Orleans food generally served at breakfast or brunch -- as with Mud Street Café here, Elizabeth's is famous for their breakfasts -- consisting of roast beef slow cooked with vegetables and served over grits. They also put brown sugar on their bacon, also known as "Pig Candy." Don't say no till you've tried it; it's pretty addictive stuff.

When I was working as a carpenter's assistant for a few weeks, my boss took me to a shrimp boil, another famous first for me, at a pool party just around the corner from the wine bar down by the Navy station. I didn't realize the boudin grilling on the barbecue was just a warm-up act and enjoyed myself too immensely before the hostess came out, spread sheets of newspaper on the picnic table, and piled it high with a mountain of boiled shrimp mixed with corn on the cob and boiled new potatoes. (Boudin, as you probably know, is a mix of rice and meat packed into sausage casings and is best grilled, with saltines, hot sauce and ice-cold beer.) I ate too much and suffered gloriously afterward.

Speaking of alcoholic beverages, the only thing wrong with Eureka Springs is there ain't a daiquiri shack in sight. When I was working (briefly) at one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants up in the Quarter, I made friends with a cook named John Sinku who showed me around town. One day I told him I wanted to see a genuine alligator, and he said he'd grant my wish if I would then run him to a daiquiri shack.

So we drove out to the Barataria Preserve and walked along the boardwalk above the swamp and sure enough, after about five minutes, John pointed. "There's your alligator, dude," he said, gesturing to an adolescent reptile floating serenely in the murky waters. "Now let's go get a daiquiri."

Daiquiri shacks are like Baskin-Robbins for grown-ups and are located through the region around New Orleans. You go in and there are these rows of those big swirly things like a slushie machine at 7-11 churning around, and you get the big-gulp-size cup with a lid and a straw, and then you balance it on the handlebars of your bicycle and ride the eight blocks to your house, and when you get there you've drunk most of it through the big straw on the ride, and when you stop you fall right over the handlebars, and the pretty Cajun girl next door laughs and laughs and laughs.

I have no space here to cover everything edible in NoLa nor even very much of what's available -- Hubig's Pie factory, for example, which was destroyed by fire only last month (no more little fried lemon pies wrapped in wax paper!), or the items you do find on any good menu down there, dirty rice or gumbo or Jambalaya or étouffée. Or all the places like Vaughan's Lounge at 4229 Dauphine Street, where on Thursday nights you can go listen to Kermit Ruffins jazz and eat free red beans and rice.

Or the girl I dated who ate boiled turkey necks and crawdads right out of the brown paper bag and sucked the heads and threw the shells on the ground. She was a country girl.

Don Lee
Chew on this