It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

2005 Archives

Let the good times roll ... again

[Lucky Dog cart on Decatur St., December 2003]Anyone who enjoys food should visit New Orleans at least once. From low cuisine to haute, the crescent city has it all.

The first year I visited New Orleans I also visited Las Vegas. Vegas was OK, but New Orleans was fantastic. People live in New Orleans. Sure, people live in Vegas too, but Vegas is for tourists. In New Orleans, all the cool stuff -- the great food, the parties, the shops, the music -- is for the locals, who are more than happy to share with tourists. There might be areas so touristy a local wouldn't be caught dead, but even in the French Quarter there are fantastic restaurants glossed over by the guidebooks.

[People lining up at Mother's for the fantastic Cajun food, December 2003]Mother's isn't in the French Quarter; it's on the other side of Canal St., and is just fantastic. It serves cafeteria style, a sort of "home cooking." In this case, "home cooking" means Cajun.

A German once said to me, "America has no Esskultur," no eating culture, no cuisine. She was thinking of McDonald's, which I'll admit is pretty culturally null. Even if she had thought of all the fantastic cuisines to be found in American cities, she could have rightly pointed out that these are cuisines from outside the country, from Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. But that misses the great strength of American culture: the blending we do. Today this food fact of life is called "fusion," but it's really food evolution: making what you know with what you have, even if it's not "authentic," and creating something new and better.

[A waitress counts her change at Cafe du Monde, December 2003]New Orleans is the first example of American fusion that comes to my mind. Settled by the French from France and Canada, captured by the Spanish, re-captured by the French, then sold to the young American government, it is and has been for centuries a hodgepodge of cultures from Europe, Africa and America. Whatever else may result from the mingling of cultures, the food is always the better for it.

Two years after my first visit, I went back with my husband and our exchange student to show off another side of American culture and life. We stayed in a bed and breakfast in the Garden District, rode the trolley into town, toured the Audobon Zoo, a swamp in Slidell, and a plantation outside Baton Rouge. Best of all, we ate. We ate po boys, crawfish, beignets, oysters, catfish, and I forget what all. We had breakfast in diners and on Jackson Square. We had coffee in cafes down little alleys. We had dinner one night at Lilette, whose chef/owner was deservedly named one of the best new chefs by Food and Wine magazine; a small wedding party was celebrating in the back of the restaurant. I have wanted to return to New Orleans because it seems such a shame to eat at Lillette only once.

[Alleyway to the Royal Blend Cafe, December 2003]Food is an export business for New Orleans. My own cubpoards house hot sauces, Zatarains rices, Cafe du Monde Beignet mix and two cookbooks of Louisiana cuisine. I'll make the last of the beignets and coffee with chicory for a German visitor in September; I'll show her our photos and talk about how America assimilates cultures. How it can be better than Europe, in that you need drive only a few blocks in many cities to experience a bit of foreign cultures (and yet you can fly thousands of miles and still eat the same fries as home). I'll wonder when I'll be able to get more mix, or better yet, set in the Cafe due Monde again.

[My husband and I eat po-boys for lunch at the Market Cafe, December 2003]I want to see New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuilt. I want to return for the food, the music, the people, the shopping, the culture that is so American yet so unlike Philadelphia. If New Orleans rebuilds I'll be down there as soon as I can to spend my tourist dollars and do my part to help rebuild.

My opinion is not built on careful weighing of the costs of rebuilding vs the cost of relocating nearly half a million people. (And that is just New Orleans alone. That doesn't include the surrounding parrishes and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.) Economically, the country will spend billions either rebuilding New Orleans and Mississippi, or relocating and finding employment for everyone.

[Shopping at the French Market, part flea market, part farmer's market, part gourmet store, December 2003]Culturally, I don't think we can afford not to rebuild New Orleans. New York City and Los Angeles epitomize America for many. New Orleans exemplifies that very American mix of cultures. Its food shows us what America should strive for: a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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