Big, Not Easy
All cities have their sedimentary layers: those born by rivers many more so. The Mississippi has left its mark on New Orleans; dig beneath the topsoil and you’ll find evidence, from clapperboard shacks still bearing Katrina high water marks, to gorgeous vast plantation houses holding secret the nature of the labour that bought and built them.
Cool opening, right? A little portentous, sure, but you’re talking about some serious stuff here. Unfortunately, the truth is that New Orleans is nothing like that: it’s an impossibly lively city that resists your attempts to put it in a box. Yes, you can still see those watermarks; yes, the true American Horror Story is still being told. But to reduce the city to those reference-points – or to trot out another set of specious clichés about letting the good times roll and getting Canal Street trollied in the French Quarter – is to do the city a disservice.
A similar myopia constellates around the mission of coming to New Orleans in search of its iconic dishes: to use specific foodstuffs as avatars for everything real, authentic, right. This is a limiting way to see a city. So many travel guides create an imaginary version of a city and then send you on a course that allows you to experience it. In the past, this is how I got to know places like Rome or San Sebastian: a checklist of iconic restaurants and iconic dishes and iconic neighbourhoods – pintxos in the Parte Vieja, pajata in Testaccio.
It’s by no means bad (these places and these dishes are iconic for a reason) but it is undeniably odd. It is a mode of eating that is utterly unlike your habitual consumption: think of all the incredible food you’d miss out on in London if you confined yourself to Modern British; join me in wondering why it is, therefore, that when we get to another country we are so insistent in our focus on one tiny square in a vast patchwork. A ranked list or detailed pintxo-crawl itinerary drives an exclusionist, inherently limited way of thinking, makes food a competition or a box to tick rather than something to experience, and maybe to chew over in more ways than one. An alternative model starts with food, and tells a story from there, rather than wedging it into a preordained narrative.
Here are some interesting things I ate in New Orleans.
Fried chicken – Popeye’s
This was the first thing to pass my lips in the Big Easy. I had no prior intention of visiting an outlet of a nationwide chain, but as I walked past the hoarding something tugged in my subconscious – hadn’t I just read a Top 50 list of the Best Fast Food Items in America, and wasn’t Popeye’s fried chicken number one? (I had, but it wasn’t – that honour belonged to the Chick-Fil-A Waffle Fries – oops). It was 3.30 in the afternoon so I was expecting to be in and out in seconds, but there was a serious queue. In the end, it was more than worth it: the perfect thing to be putting in my mouth as I rounded the corner and gazed upon Bourbon Street for the first time. The pleasures of the two are the same: direct, trashy, excessive; both produce a similar mix of giddiness during and nausea after. There is plenty of subtlety to be had elsewhere, but you can’t not immerse yourself in this sort of fast food tourism – to ignore it is to ignore something vitally New Orleans, just as much a part of the city as the trendier neighbourhoods and chic art galleries. Food is a constant, universal – you’re missing out if you turn your nose up at its most democratic form of self-expression.
Salted peanut pie with salted peanut ice cream – Pêche
An instant entry into my ‘best desserts of all time’ list. I love the gilding-the-lily insanity of salted peanut on salted peanut; the obscene, crack-pie sweetness of the thing. It came at the end of an otherwise wholly uninspiring dinner at Donald Link’s Pêche, one of the places I was most excited to visit. This would become a recurring theme in New Orleans: its ability to disappoint, then delight even more intensely just seconds later.
Crawfish boil – Tracey’s
I coveted the crawfish at Tracey’s as soon as I saw it, piled high outside the decades-old neighbourhood dive bar and dotted with hunks of potato and corn, its spice mix perfuming the heavy air. I then proceeded to throw a four-year-old-worthy strop when it came to lunchtime, refusing to go anywhere else. And it worked! Unfortunately I became a victim of my own excess, ordering a few pounds for the table and then watching as everyone else turned their nose up at the effortful work of separating flesh from carapace. I ploughed through manfully but ultimately abandoned them in favour of a platter of fried pickles. Months later, I still can’t conceive of eating crayfish ever again.
Muffaletta – Central Grocery
I don’t really understand the fetishisation of extreme American sandwiches, quadruple-stuffed with all manner of cheese and cured meats. This doughty beast was, ultimately, too much, but in its totality it did hint at what gets people so excited. The bread was oily, the meats forming a mini-sandwich of their own around two different types of cheese. And then on top, the true revelation: olives packing enough briny punch to cut through the whole assemblage. I only had half, and felt sick for hours afterwards. Kind of worth it, though.
Shrimp, Grits, Corn and Andouille Maque Choux – Café Amelie
I had a list for this trip. Obviously. But after a while, the list starts to write you, shoeboxing your holiday and depriving it of all spontaneity. Café Amelie was the happiest accident of the trip: a tourist magnet that miraculously happened to serve a dish so comforting that it was all I could do not to weep in surprise, and gratitude.
Roasted Cabbage with Romesco Sauce and Toasted Hazelnuts – Shaya
The much-heralded Israeli fare at critics’ darling Shaya let us down: not bad, but no better than any number of Ottolenghi-inflected places back home. In the US, it feels like the food of the Middle East has only recently started to gain traction as something it’s exciting to serve at the middle and top tier of restaurants; in the UK, we’ve known that for years. The only thing at Shaya that really worked was this incredibly simple, profoundly delicious dish; months on, it has become a staple of our home cooking, too.
Fried shrimp po’boy – Domilise’s
The story you can tell about your visit to Domilise’s is just a doozy: it’s on a random neighbourhood corner, with only a shoddy handpainted sign to tell you it’s the po’boy shack you’re looking for and not, I don’t know, a laundry. Inside it’s all bare bulbs and crappy knackered tables; the menu is a chalkboard scrawl on the wall by the door – how resolutely anticapitalist! And the sandwiches are… not good, actually. And yet this place is right at the top of almost everyone’s list. I have no issue with being able to spin a good yarn, but when does the narrative fallacy tip over into telling tales?
Pig Mac – Cochon Restaurant
Instagram – specifically Helen Rosner’s Instagram – was the only reason I went to Cochon Butcher. She had posted a picture of this burger, and it short-circuited everything in my brain apart from the verb crave. This is perhaps the most delicious bit of haute fast food I’ve ever eaten – a riff on the McDonalds classic but spicier, more insistent – and with pork taking the place of the traditional beef. There is nothing interesting to say beyond this, which is (I’d argue) in itself interesting: it fascinates me how our attempts to intellectualise can sometimes be overwhelmed by a force purer and more powerful, the irresistible imperative of unadulterated pleasure.
Duck confit, dirty rice – Herbsaint
Can I be indelicate for a moment? I threw up after eating this, from sheer gluttonous overconsumption of obscenely rich food: this, preceded by creamy pasta topped with a crispy fried egg and guanciale, washed down with an indecent amount of hefty Californian cab sauv. Individually, it was all-delicious, yet when I look back on it it’s through the alarmed eyes of the boaky I’m-about-to-spew emoji, not the adoring hearts-for-corneas one. It was a reminder that richness is a weapon to be wielded carefully by chefs, and tempered by acidity and delicacy of touch.
Beignets and coffee – Café du Monde
I ate my first Café du Monde beignet about ten minutes after chomping down the Central Grocery Muffaletta, which is another way of saying I was not in an ideal place, constitution-wise. Days later, I would return with an empty stomach, and order an iced, rather than hot, coffee alongside. As with so much in New Orleans, it was so deliriously delicious that you couldn’t help pushing from one fried dough ball the size of a baby’s fist, to a second, and then – wholly in the knowledge that you don’t need this, now – a third. Like New Orleans, too, it seems incredibly unsubtle but is in fact home to all manner of nuances: change just a couple of variables and the effect would be overwhelming. As it is, it’s just right.