Seasons by the Sea: In Old New Orleans

Take me to New Orleans and I will voluntarily consume every oyster, etouffee, gumbo, Sazerac, beignet, muffaletta, remoulade, Abita beer, po’ boy, mudbug tail, and praline I can get my hands on
In order to navigate the world of New Orleans cuisine, sometimes it helps to have a guide. Laura Donnelly

    If ever a tribe of cannibals wanted to fatten up some homo sapiens like the poor geese of Perigord, New Orleans would be the place to do it. The geese of Perigord are force-fed through a contraption called a gavotte, which engorges their livers to create, in some people’s opinions, delicious foie gras fattiness.  Take me to New Orleans and I will voluntarily consume every oyster, etouffee, gumbo, Sazerac, beignet, muffaletta, remoulade, Abita beer, po’ boy, mudbug tail, and praline I can get my hands on — making me one tasty and large human liver.

    We arrived in N’Awlins early on a Monday morning and only had three days to sample as much deliciousness (and Tums) as we could. Our guide was a local author, Mimi Read, who writes like an angel and looks like a ballerina but can pack away as many oysters as, oh, I dunno, Peyton and Eli Manning combined. Lunch was at Felix’s, where gumbo, oysters Rockefeller, raw oysters, crawfish tails, and etouffee were heartily consumed. As well as onion rings, why not?

    Dinner was more about music than food. A local wine shop, Bacchanal, serves food on its patio, casually ordered from a fast-food-like window and brought to your table. More important, up-and-coming jazz musicians perform almost every night, weather permitting.

    Breakfast the next morning was in the Roosevelt Hotel, beignets, and shrimp and grits with tasso cream. Other choices on the breakfast menu are such native delights as blue crabmeat on an English muffin, fried crawfish tails and boudin cakes with creole hollandaise, and sweet potato pancakes. Oatmeal was on the menu but it is clearly so alien to them, it was misspelled.

    There was mention of having lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in the Garden District but that was not to be until the next day. Visions of light and crunchy summer rolls, fresh, raw vegetables, and fragrant jasmine rice swam in and back out of my head. Ah, well, off we went to Casamento’s, surely one of the best and more casual establishments in the city. Opened in 1919 by Joe Casamento, this shrine to oysters and all manner of fish fried in lard is still run by the family.  More raw oysters, char-grilled oysters (these are doused in garlic butter), a fried catfish sandwich for yours truly, fried oysters, French fries, and some iceberg lettuce.

    Like quite a few other restaurants, you must go through the kitchen to reach the restrooms. The seasoned cornmeal for battering is on a low shelf, a three-gallon bucket of lard sits nearby, and three pots of bubbling this and that sit on the tiniest stove I’ve ever seen in a restaurant that handles such volume. Like pretty much everyone in the Crescent City (so called because the Mississippi River curves through like a half-moon), the staff and chef and dishwasher and owner are happy to chat with you about history, recipes, and the beautiful tiles that line every surface of Casamento’s.

    That evening’s festivity was a book party for my friends Tommy and Mimi.  Little glasses of crabmeat and avocado soup were passed around along with little tartlets with shrimp remoulade. I nibbled on Tums and cursed my inability to consume everything like I used to. A late dinner at a charming restaurant called Lilette was a roasted beet salad for me.

    In between meals our time was spent walking, walking, and walking for miles, admiring architecture, poking around antiques stores, listening to buskers on the streets, and marveling at how reasonable New Orleans is. Our hotel, a branch of the Waldorf Astoria, was cheaper than a Holiday Inn Express by JFK airport. Our meals at some of the best restaurants in the city never exceeded $200 for four people.

    The sidewalks are full of cracks and holes, and the streets severely potholed. There is plenty of poverty, but more so, pride. Public drinking is encouraged and crime is a problem. But the resilience and friendliness of the people is inspiring and the music uplifting.

    Lunch the last day was outdoors at the aforementioned Vietnamese restaurant.  I practically needed sunglasses, the food on my plate was so bright. What is that?  Ah, crisp lettuce leaves with shredded carrots and radishes, sprigs of cilantro and mint, lemongrass-scented bits of chicken, pho, healthy food! Enough to fortify us for our last supper at one of the shrines, Galatoire’s, where gentlemen must wear jackets. One of the things that most amazed me were the prices. Salads are $6.50 to $14, fish and shellfish dishes are $19 to $28, sides are $6, and desserts a mere $5 to $8. That’s cheaper than Espresso or John Pappas! The food is glorious — souffled potatoes, oysters en brochette, grilled pompano topped with crabmeat, hearts of palm with asparagus, crabmeat sardou, ravigote, Clemenceau, Marguery.  The most expensive item on the menu is the souvenir cookbook at $35.

    Whenever I return from a food exploration trip, I search for ways to incorporate what I have learned and eaten into my everyday cooking.  You won’t find me seeking out lard to deep-fry oysters but I have discovered that a pinch of homemade creole seasoning does wonders for egg salad, mashed potatoes, and creamed spinach. My evening cocktail is now a Sazerac, carefully, slowly, meticulously, lovingly prepared and served in small doses.

    I don’t think I’ll be making fried eggplant sticks and serving them with Crystal hot sauce and a pile of powdered sugar. Seriously, this is considered a delicacy in New Orleans, who thought of that? I did stop by Citarella upon my return to find out if I could order pompano and head-on shrimp. As far as oysters go, honestly, I prefer ours, more briny than bayou. But I may soon try subjecting some Montauk Pearls to a few drops of jazzy Crystal hot sauce with WWOZ 90.7 on in the background and an ice cold Abita. Just to bring me back to old New Orleans.

    I’m embarrassed to admit how much research I have done on the Sazerac since my return from New Orleans. You can make these with either bourbon or rye whiskey. I find that a mid-range priced rye whiskey is best, and lower alcohol, too. They range from 100 proof to 84 proof. This recipe is from the Sazerac Bar of the Roosevelt Hotel, a beautifully restored bar with original W.P.A. murals.

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