Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

New Orleans.  For me, it’s not so much a city than it is a place of worship.  It’s my culinary holy land, my Mecca of American gastronomy, where all that is sacrosanct about American cooking—that constant collision of highly divergent culinary cultures—might be attended, by you, by me, as acolytes going before the oracles, for whispers of acumen and insight into the great mysteries of culinary divination.  Wander into any of its vibrant neighborhoods, down any of its magical streets, and you’ll experience a food culture of such spectroscopic vitality, and of such prodigious potency, as to be largely without peer in culinary America.  African.  Spanish.  French.  New Orleans remains at the singular confluence of these extraordinary food traditions, and by their comingling, the city has played parturition to their culinary progeny, with each variant, however unlikely, speaking in an accent unique to the parish unto which it was born.  New Orleans.  It’s a city that has collectively agreed that red beans and rice be eaten on Mondays; a city that affirms that cocktails just might best be enjoyed in the open air, with friends, while sauntering down a city street.  Be still my beating heart.

I go to New Orleans as if on pilgrimage, as if on a devotional journey and spiritual quest.  I’ve been visiting New Orleans, yearly, since I first discovered its formidable charms nearly twenty years ago as a just-back-from-Oxford-University and still-wet-behind-the-ears wonder boy of twenty-six.  After suffering the heresies and heterodoxies of British cooking, as I had for my time abroad, New Orleans was a revelation, my own veritable burning bush whereby the gods of gastronomy first delivered their commandments in gumbos and etouffees.  New Orleans.  Made even more special that my brother, Brian, and his wife, Shae, live there in the Bywater neighborhood.  Oh, crescent-shaped city, object of my strongest piety, and recipient of my most ardent zeal.

But the New Orleans of today is not, of course, the New Orleans with which I first fell in love.  That she-devil named Katrina irreparably changed the city in ways that, lo these eight years later, are just now being understood.  The toll of human life was—we all know from the scars worn across our hearts—horrific.  Equally appalling was first response from our federal government, who—sin of sins—left a great American city alone to die.  But the long-term devastation wrought by Katrina has been far greater than the cost of repairing or rebuilding its infrastructure; Katrina’s truest and most insidious legacy has been to threaten New Orleans, ex post facto, with a spiritual crisis delivered from an invading army of venture capitalists, transient labors, and skinny-jeaned hipsters, whose collective, post-hurricane arrival has demanded of New Orleans a deeply inward gaze to see what of itself will prove resistant to change, or what would be corrupted by the scourge of carpetbaggers who have harried the pace of the city, made it a little less polite, and even changed the way people now drive.

My quest, this Thanksgiving, was to revisit my beloved and most favorite city to see if the Disneyfication of New Orleans (that Devil’s handshake of a social compact that requires a city to stop being itself, while only looking like the place it once was) had metastasized as badly as was now being reported, or if New Orleans was somehow shaking the disease of outside influence and showing new signs of resiliency—even recovery—in the way it was feeding itself, its natives, and nurturing its own culinary soul.

The rules I set for this quest were simple and imposed to achieve a maximum in purity of experience.  No cars.  No "restaurants."  No exceptions.  Ever.  That I must cross the city afoot, or by bike, meant that New Orleans would reach me in tactile, auditory, and olfactory ways that sitting behind the steel and glass of an American automobile would only discourage, even perhaps disallow.  That I must deny myself the not insignificant pleasures of New Orleans’ haute cuisine scene (re:  the culinary favors and free drinks of several notable NOLA chef friends) would require that I venture out of comfort zones, real and metaphorical, and into neighborhoods and local cuisines I would likely find unfamiliar, even challenging; I would eat only street food procured from New Orleans streets I had never before gone.  I had just three full days, my brother’s bicycle, and the kind of good luck that visits only the pure of heart.


DAY ONE - THE PO’ BOY

In New Orleans, the po’ boy is hardly just a sandwich.  It’s iconic.  And it’s central to the city’s workaday food vocabulary and it’s emblematic—even at its etymological inception during the streetcar strike of 1929—of how a city like New Orleans can elevate such quotidian fare like the common sandwich into something truly sublime. Knowledge of how to properly order a po’ boy without having to be asked (re: you oh-so-politely request that your sandwich to come fully dressed) bestows instant street cred upon the prospective eater.  That’s all it takes.  Get that right, and you’re in; you’re suddenly one of us.   

My first po’ boy of the trip would necessarily have to come from my old friends at Domilise’s Po’ Boy & Bar, a place I’ve frequented for years.  Domilise’s is the gold standard in po’ boy purveyance in a city already crowded with deeply talented sandwich makers.  Located in the sleepy, working class neighborhood of Uptown, Domilise’s is a dive in the best possible sense of the word.  It’s unabashedly down-at-the-heels, unpretentious to its core, and, for me, comfortable as an old shoe.  I arrived early, just after breakfast, and found myself the first costumer of the day.  The matron behind the counter was polite enough to pretend to recognize me.  She smiled and asked what I wanted.  I told her I was putting myself in her capable hands, so she served me catfish, her favorite, and, as it happens, the one dish of culinary Americana that I, proud son of Missouri that I am, consider myself expert on.  Catfish it would be.  I took my sandwich and sat with my plate.  The matron stopped what she was doing to watch me eat.  Any good, she asked me, but question was rhetorical.  She knew it would be good.  Damn good.  And she smiled knowingly, almost triumphantly, when I pronounced it the best piece of catfish I had ever eaten.  And it was.  The best.  Catfish.  Ever.  But something bothered me.  It wasn’t the sandwich; it most certainly wasn’t the fish.  It was how much it all cost.  My one small catfish po’ boy ($11.50) and bottle of Barq’s root beer ($1.50) had just set me back a whopping thirteen fucking dollars.  For lunch.  In an out-of-the-way dive.  The pricing seemed mercenary.  It seemed set a levels designed to quickly thin the wallets of visiting food tourists—they with visions of the Food Network dancing in their heads—who were willing to pony up the exorbitant prices for local food authenticity, whatever that word means anymore.  I get it.  Every restaurant is a for-profit enterprise.  Every restaurant lives or dies by food cost, and given the volatility of seafood pricing, food margins are—even in the best of times—undoubtedly razor thin.  But to charge eleven dollars for a piece of deep fried bottom feeder—however expert and loving its preparation—sandwiched inside six inches of white bread seems hostile to the notion that the po’ boy has been—and proudly—the nourishment of blue collar New Orleans from their shared beginnings.  And this made me sad.  Very.  I left Domilise’s determined to find an equally delicious po’ boy that poor boys could actually afford.

I wasn’t long in the looking.

The Adam’s Street Grocery sits further Uptown, close to Loyola University, on the quiet and deeply unassuming street it’s named after.  Like all neighborhood groceries of the American South, it serves the needs and predilections unique to its own immediate community, as most national grocery chains simply can’t be bothered.  On the day of my visit, it was serving several tall boys of malt liquor at eleven o’clock in the morning (to wit:  it was Sunday, game day, after all, Saints versus Seahawks, so cutting the proverbial dust with a little pre-game nerve tonic was entirely understandable).  My own good morning to the crowd of drinkers was rejoined with the magical and ubiquitous-in-New-Orleans all right now.  Po’ boys, at the Adam’s Street Grocery, are produced from a deli counter at the extreme rear of the store, where all manner of I’ve-got-my-drink-on food specials—from hot wings to fried egg rolls—are produced.  I was asked by a friendly-enough young man what I’d like on my po’ boy, and as before, I deferred to my host’s own guidance.  He considered, and quickly produced a roast beef po’ boy, dressed with brown gravy, and precisely of the same size, heft, and likely caloric density as the sandwich I’d just received at Domilise’s, but for a fraction of the price:  $2.99.  I took the sandwich outside and ate next to my brother’s bicycle.  The roast beef was standard issue deli meat; the gravy was utility jus straight from the can.  But what was astonishing about my Adam’s Street Grocery, and what sent me running back into the store, was the bread.  The bread.  Holy shit.  The fucking bread.  It was nothing like anything I’ve tasted in this country, and it recalled (with perfect Proustian synesthesia) the bread I’d eaten in my time, years back, in Paris.  The smallish Asian man behind the Adam’s Street Grocery counter looked worried that I’d returned with jus on my chin and a crazed look in my eye.  The bread was all I could say before the man wrote the baker’s name on a tiny slip of paper.  Dong Phuong, or DP Bakery, a Vietnamese baker, supplies the bread on which the grocery’s sandwiches are proudly served.   Embarrassed that I’d startled the man, I coughed up the $10 for an Adam’s Street Grocery souvenir t-shirt, and left the store on the wobbly legs of a man drunk on epiphany.

Because I now knew who was producing the best baguette in America. 

Dong fucking Phuong.

That the Vietnamese would outclass local French and Italian bakers should not have surprised to me.  Here in my current hometown of Washington, D.C., our large and ever-vital Vietnamese community has long dazzled American eaters with their extraordinary bahn mi sandwiches.  So it should have seemed almost inevitable that the Vietnamese would thrive in any place—be it D.C. or New Orleans—that rewards the kind of quiet culinary genius the Vietnamese so neatly possess.  My brother took my news about DP Bakery with a shrug.  Like, duh, dude.  Brian and Shae routinely trek across the Mississippi to the West Bank community of Algiers to score Vietnamese sundries at the Hong Kong Market, a Vietnamese superstore, where a person might procure decidedly Asian delicacies like duck heads and pig faces, should the fancy ever strike.  More interesting to me, however, was that Hong Kong Market advertised “Vietnamese po’ boy” sandwiches.  An investigation was in order.  So my brother and I drove (yeah, yeah, I know, no cars) to Algiers.  For those unfamiliar with the charms of the West Bank, just imagine New Orleans after the zombie apocalypse, and you’ll get the idea.  It’s the kind a place a writer like William S. Burroughs might build a love nest for him and his heroin habit (he lived at 509 Wagner for years 1948 and 1949), or the kind of place in which a people in diaspora—like the Vietnamese—might settle and find really, really pleasant after suffering the ravages of a gruesome civil war.  The Hong Kong Market itself is situated in an Asian-centric strip mall not unlike our own Eden Center here in Washington, and it’s host to any number of business interests, where anything from back rubs to bubble tea might be had for a price.  And like our own Eden Center, to enter Hong Kong Market is to effectively leave the United States of America.  It’s a wonderland of the exotic.  Its sounds; its smells:  they’re entirely Asian.  To procure my “Vietnamese po’ boy” sandwich (every bit the bahn mi I had expected) a series of hand signals was required to guide my sandwich maker to the desired ingredients.  Pate.  Head Cheese.  Sliced pork.  Vietnamese meatball.  Cilantro.  Daikon.  It was magnificent.  An epic sandwich for the eating.  Every element a minor miracle of flavor made transcendent by that fucking bread.

And all of it for just $3.22.  

I can only hope my old friends at Domolise’s are paying attention.

Enough said.


DAY TWO - OYSTERS

It’s easy to forget—while one is beached and blissed-out on brandy in some Bourbon Street bar—that New Orleans is surrounded by water.  The gulf.  The river.  The lake.  It’s water, water everywhere.  The crustations and bivalves that come from these waters are at the heart how the people of New Orleans define themselves as eaters.  In no other American city are crawfish, shrimp, and oysters devoured with the same ferocity or relish as they are in the Crescent City.  Seafood is also where visiting food tourists most often go terribly, terribly wrong.  You’ll see them lined up outside some highly marginal oyster house in the French Quarter for the all-too-dubious pleasure of landing a table where Guy Fieri once slurped an oyster and threw a fake gang sign at a television camera.  And that’s okay with the locals.  Really.  Because they know the good stuff is to be found far and wide of the Quarter at the venerable Cooter Brown’s, an Uptown institution.  And while Cooter Brown’s bills itself as a tavern and oyster bar, my experience there was more like that of a house party.  The kind of kegger that teenagers might throw.  The kind that happen when the adults have fled, and no one’s in charge.  And that’s a good thing, because a little culinary chaos is a whole lot of fun.  Granted, my meal at Cooter Brown’s happened to coincide with the oh-so-dramatic final play of the Alabama/Auburn game (spoiler:  Auburn won), so the sight (and sound) of eight-five strangers yelling at television screens was, I guess, something of an anomaly, perhaps.  I went with Brian and Shae, who have been frequenting Cooter Brown’s for years now.  We ordered oysters.  Two dozen on the half shell.  I ordered beer, of which Cooter Brown’s offers hundreds from around the world.  Our oysters came from Area 3 of nearby Lake Bourne.  Big.  Meaty.  Beyond fresh tasting, and utterly delicious.  My beer, Hopitoulis (the name’s a play on words) came from the NOLA Brewing Company, located a half-mile down from where we sat, from their brewery on Tchoupitoulas Street.  If there’s a pairing in this world that harkens culinary divinity more than oysters and cold, local beer, I’ve yet to encounter it.  The experience of slurping bivalves while shoulder-to-shoulder, on benches, at wooden picnic tables, with a rowdy mob of high-fiving, fist-pumping, and deeply drunken strangers from the South is, on many levels, living at its best. 


DAY THREE – TAMALES & YA-KA-MEIN

Show me the hungry traveler who reconnoiters the foodstuff of the urban American South and fails to bump his nose on that hard-to-see-coming-but-unmistakable-when-it-happens sliding glass door of racial tension, and I’ll show you the culinary journeyer who’s doing it all wrong.  Any culinary quest, especially those across the American South, requires (for the white food tourist, at least) that one forsake the creature comforts of room service, that one disavow the pickled promises of the in-room mini bar, and venture out, way out, to those neighborhoods and barrios, where beats the true heart of all American cities, and where the site of white people (the kind, at least, so given to  Volkswagens, flat-fronted Banana Republic chinos, and black Labradors named Rex) bring a decidedly mixed response among the local population.  But that’s the point.  America has always been—and will always be—about collision.  It’s about cultural cross-pollination.  About finding commonality and camaraderie in the other.

When I first declared my intention of seeking out the Crescent City’s finest examples of tamales and ya-ka-mein (long-storied food staples among the city’s African-American population) to a crowd of fellow tipplers in my favorite 9th Ward bar this last Thanksgiving, I was told by the bartender (an earnest and well-intended sock-headed hipster) that I was wasting my time.  That white people simply didn’t eat those things, and that the prizes of my own culinary quest were unattainable—shining examples of New Orleans’ black-only cuisine.  I was gobsmacked.  I hardly knew what to say.  How could such a flimsy and deeply false correlative like this be accepted as doctrine amid the newly emergent zeitgeist of post-racial American gastronomy (re: post-racial insofar as the culinary traditions of the perennially impoverished have been embraced by the forces of haute cuisine) by people seemingly smart enough to know better?  How could food—this food, any food—be remanded, purely, to the confines of race or ethnicity?  How could food be black or white?  And wasn’t food, like music, always at the vanguard of all cultural diplomacy and exchange?  It was madness, this mindset, and it made me angry.  How angry?  Angry enough to rise from my barstool, walk outside, and climb onto the seat of my brother’s bicycle.  Fuck the hipsters.  It would be tamales now, I decided.  Ya-ka-mein or bust.

I wasn’t long in the looking.  Just off the sidewalk in the neighborhood of East Riverside stands the magnificent Magazine Deli, so named for the busy city street just spitting distance from its take-away window.  Shack.  Shanty.  Hut.  Hovel.  Magazine Deli is all of these things, surely.  But look a little closer, talk to its proprietor, peer behind its sliding wire fly-screen, and you discover a temple of culinary worship devoted to African American street food.  Ya-ka-mein.  Tamales.  Sno balls [sic].  The holy trinity of Crescent City gastronomy.  Magazine Deli has all three.  Except the day of my visit (falling so closely to Thanksgiving, as it did).  That day presented one and only one culinary offering:  tamales.  So tamales it would be. 

Brought to the Mississippi Delta by Mexican migrant workers in the early 1900s, the tamale (known in New Orleans and regionally as hot tamales) has played a vital nutritional role in the development of the agrarian American South (insofar as we equate dietary calories with increased labor production).  Corn meal.   Ground meat.  Paprika.  Garlic.  Cayenne.  All of it rolled in a cornhusk and packed with enough caloric density to sustain a Delta field hand though a workday of—by today’s standards—almost unimaginable toil.  Tamales.  Robert Johnson sang about them in his 1936 masterpiece, “They’re Red Hot.”  Reverend Moses Mason sang about them in his equally inspired “Molly Man” of 1928.  Dial the former up on Spotify (insert irony here) and you’ll get a pure, if auditory whiff of what how completely the tamale pervades African American foodways.  My own tamales, those made by Magazine Deli and delivered in a small, Styrofoam clamshell, were, in fact, everything I’d hoped them to be:  large caliber culinary bullets easily capable of penetrating, and quickly dispatching, the most resilient of hungers.  I expressed my delight in what I was eating, and was repaid with the name and address of what the proprietor of Magazine Deli assured me was the second best ya-ka-mein in the city, second only, of course, to his own.  Laughter.  Handshakes.  Hugs.  This from a man with whom local hipsters had forecast an interaction rife with odium and contempt.  Alas.  Hipster wisdom at hipster its best. 

While but a short, five-minute ride from Magazine Street, the Red Rooster Snowball Stand seems another world away.  Located in the neighborhood of Central City (where, by all outward appearances, the city’s poverty seems at its most abject) the Red Rooster has quietly emerged as the new paradigm for development-done-right.  It’s the for-us-by-us business model in the best possible sense, and the vibe there is more gathering place and community center than a just for-profit restaurant.  It’s beautiful.  It’s new.  The occasion of my visit found the sidewalk picnic tables just beyond the take-away windows crowded with neighborhood eaters speculating on the Saints’ upcoming chances, and trading local gossip.  I stepped up to the window and placed my order:  one beef ya-ka-mein.  What I received, moments later, was nothing short of a culinary revelation. 

The etymology of “ya-ka-mein” is curious as the dish itself.  It’s believed to derive from the Chinese phrase “yat-gaw-mien” [phonetic] for “one order of noodles” (Chinese labors were brought into mid-19th century New Orleans to build the railroads between it and Houston).  The dish of today involves a seemingly inharmonious amalgam of beef broth, spaghetti noodles, scallion, and hard-boiled egg.  The results—what locals still call “Old Sober” for its restorative properties to those afflicted with hangover—are unexpectedly delicious.  Salty.  Rich.  Possessing an umami of surprising complexity.  Ya-ka-mein.  Like soup, only better.  Like the whispered history of an entire city secreted inside a tiny Styrofoam cup.


DAY FOUR – DEPARTURE – MOLE AS CODA

I had them.  And bad.  Those last-day-in-New Orleans blues.  I woke that morning, a moody bastard, not wanting to leave my favorite city with which I felt—and deeply—a love of place, newly rekindled, and afire in my heart.  So I fled my brother’s house, knowing I had time for one (and only one) last meal in New Orleans before my flight home.  And of course, like all desperate people, I overreached.  The idea was to eat in, and photograph, a 9th Ward local grocery.  A sundry store, which, in addition to selling household staples like milk and bread, potted meats and peanut butter, also served lunch to local workers.  Fried chicken.  Red beans and rice.  Field greens.  Southern classics.  But my presence—and especially that of my ubiquitous and ever-raised iPhone camera—seemed to disturb, and set on edge local, say, entrepreneurs whose business models were founded on, well, not being photographed.  Ever.

Crestfallen, defeated, I aborted the mission, and started back to my brother’s house.  And while cutting through the lower Bywater, I chanced upon a construction crew at lunch.  White guys.  With lunch pails and sardonic smiles and dick jokes aplenty.  But what caught my attention was the throng of Latino laborers across the street and gathered around a burgundy minivan.  In the air was the whiff of chili powder.  Cumin.  I approached and everyone there visibly tensed and went silent.  Chins down.  Eyes to the ground.  Was I la migra?  La policia?  Was I some gringo health inspector with a hard on for immigrant busts?  I spoke in Spanish.  Restaurant Spanish.  I said hello.  There was laughter among the men, affirming, yes, my Spanish really did suck.  I asked if I, too, might get lunch.  The proprietrix smiled.  Si, flaco.  She opened, in turn, each of her six coolers, and urged me to look inside.  Chicken.  Beans.  Rice.  Chiles rellenos.  Mole.  Fucking mole. 

Todo, I told her.  Todo, por favor.

To say the mole was simply good would be an understatement of epic proportions.  It was beyond good.  It was transcendental.  For me, however, that was beside the point.  What made my heart sing, what made me lightheaded with ebullience, there, on the curb of that Bywater street, eating mole with a plastic fork from a Styrofoam clamshell, was the fact that I—you, anyone—could experience food this good—and as good, if not better, than say, the bread at DB Bakery, or the oysters at Cooter Brown’s, or the ya-ka-mein at Red Rooster—made in a home kitchen, and sold out of the back of a beat-up minivan. This was New Orleans.  This was at the very essence of the city I knew and so well loved.  I knew, too, that however greatly she had suffered by Katrina, and how terribly she endured under that invading army of hipsters and carpet bagging venture capitalists, she had emerged from the experience a better place.  Of greater resilience.  Of purer soul.

New Orleans.  My gastronomic holy land.  The city I most love.  Spared from philistines.  Immaculate, still, in her glory.

She’s going to be just fine.

I just know she will.







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