|Published Jan/Feb 2007
Louisiana’s cuisine continues to satisfy
the taste of returning tourists.
By Tom Fitzmorris
|fter returning to their homes following Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans residents wondered when they would be able to get good gumbo, oysters or a decent trout with pecans.
Some people might find this peculiar. The city was essentially out of commission. Yet the search for good food resumed almost immediately.
The quest wasn’t entirely motivated by hunger or the lack of a kitchen at home. There was a need for reassurance that the most critical part of Louisiana’s cultureCreole and Cajun cuisinewas still there.
They were ecstatic to find that the culinary aspect of New Orleans was in rapid recovery. Predictions that the famous restaurants or the great local seafood would be a long time in reviving proved absurd. Restaurants reopened as soon as owners were allowed to return, even if it meant working without electricity or running water, having to use paper plates, or cooking on charcoal grills.
Some of the city’s best chefs and restaurants did amazing things. Chef John Besh of Restaurant August had red beans and rice for anyone who made it through the downtown chaos to his door. Chef Scott Boswell of Stella! had a grill full of hamburgers and Creole sausages going in the French Quarter courtyard of his restaurant. Chef Paul Prudhomme, operating out of the plant where his spices are made, cooked up food from his K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Drago’s, the city’s pre-eminent oyster house, cooked 77,000 free lunches.
Meanwhile, the seafood resources proved to be amazingly resilient. Raw oysters from Louisiana beds were back on the bars just six weeks after the storm. In the year that followed, the excellence and quantity of crabs and shrimp exceeded what anyone could remember.
The New Orleans food scene proved itself to be the one part of the city that performed its function perfectly after the storm. People were fed well, while smiling, tearful reunions of friends made restaurant dining rooms the happiest places in town.
How could something as elementary as food be such a powerful healer for people who’d lost their homes and businesses, if not worse?
More than eating to live
You don’t have to explain that to a New Orleanian. Food is so central to the southeast Louisiana culture that a life without the local cuisine is unimaginable.
It’s been that way for a very long time. The food of New Orleans and Cajun Country comes from different roots than those of the rest of the country.
It all started with the original French colonists in the 1700s. Then Spain took over and lent its palate. The riches of Gulf seafood and the distinctive plants grown and eaten by Native Americans transformed French and Spanish dishes into something entirely new: Creole cuisine.
By the Civil War, Creole cooking was not only different from the rest of Southern cooking, but it was much more varied. Thick cookbooks of Creole recipes were being published as early as the 1880s.
A lot of influences for Creole food came from Africans who dominated most kitchens. They added their own brilliance to the European recipes. More than anyone else, they gave Creole food its life.
Then the Italians showed up in New Orleans in the early 1900s and filled the French Quarter with their cooking. Like everybody else, they adapted their dishes to the local ingredients, creating still another new cuisine in the process.
What all these people had in common was a passion for food, and food worth getting passionate about. Anyone who failed to take food and cooking seriously was thought of as a bit odd. Home cooks and restaurants knew they had to please an audience that expected deliciousness as a matter of course.
That obsession with the pleasures of the table continues. As badly as the New Orleans area was damaged by the hurricane, a year after the storm, more than 85 percent of the restaurants that existed before the storm were back in business. On top of that, more than 30 major new restaurants opened in 2006which would be a lot, even for a good year.
Great food outside
In the wake of the gourmet revolution across America, it’s possible to find good food in almost every city. But few areas have the gustatory breadth that Louisiana does.
When the Acadians from French Canada were exiled in 1755 to what is known as Louisiana’s Cajun country, this population found ways to adapt French cooking to the surroundings. Creoles and Cajuns wound up exchanging ideas and have many tastes in common, but they still have their differences. For example, you might see tomatoes in a Creole gumbo or jambalaya, but you never would in the Cajun versions of those dishes.
Around Lafayette and the rest of Acadiana, Cajun cookery shows a much more rustic style than the more citified Creole cuisine. One of the most exciting parts of the Cajun food culture is the boucheriethe astonishing array of sausages, stuffed roasts, birds, and smoked meats.
The most common of these is boudin, made by stuffing a sausage casing with a mix of rice, pork, and spicy seasonings. You can buy a link of hot boudin in almost any food store in Acadiana and even most gas stations. It’s not uncommon to see drivers barreling down the highway with one hand on the wheel and the other filled with a foil-wrapped link of boudin.
The northernmost outpost of French culinary customs in Louisiana is in its oldest city (even older than New Orleans), Natchitoches. There you find spicy meat pies, a distinctive and irresistible specialty. The famous place for them is Lasyone’s, but meat pies are all over Cane River country, as well as in much of southeast Louisiana.
It would take a thick book to cover the food of Louisiana, even if it were limited to specialties. Just know that, even after the weather depredations of 2005, it’s very much alive, available and as delicious as ever.
Tom Fitzmorris is a new contributor and long-time food writer in New Orleans.
By Deborah Reinhardt Palmer
In Louisiana, food is a compelling subject of conversation, whether it’s about a new restaurant or an amazing chef. It is a place where food isn’t about sustenance, it’s about style and creativity. What follows are some finger-licking facts about Louisiana cuisine:
The James Beard Foundation named John Besh of Restaurant August as Best Chef in the Southeast. Restaurant August photo
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