I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to get to know a place is through its food, a convenient philosophy under which snacking becomes legitimate research and gluttony is elevated to the highest form of academic rigour. In keeping with this, in New Orleans I exhibit a scholastic zeal which would put a Harvard Professor to shame. Some days I study almost continually, burning the candle at both ends, because I am nothing if not thorough in my methods. It’s quite draining, if I’m honest. But when the getting of wisdom is at stake, you can’t afford to cut corners.
And so I eat. I eat remoulade and crawfish etouffe and fresh corn on the cob. I eat okra and red beans with rice. I eat gumbo and jumbalaya, despite the fact that I am a vegetarian and both dishes feature liberal quantities of smoked sausage. But when in Rome (or New Orleans)… I eat blackened catfish and fried green tomatoes. I eat bananas foster and bread pudding with whiskey. It ain’t healthy, that’s for sure – in fact, most of what I eat should probably be packaged up with a skull and crossbones symbol. My stomach is permanently bloated and my skin feels thick and oily. But it’s all novel and flavoursome, and of course, infinitely edifying. And so I keep eating.
I eat biscuits, as understood by Americans rather than Australians. In Australia, a biscuit is what Americans would call a cookie, but in New Orleans, biscuits are like hot, crumbly scones. Instead of having them for afternoon tea with jam and cream as we would be inclined to do, in New Orleans they simply plonk them on the plate with whatever they happen to be serving, whether it be sweet or savoury, whatever the time of day. I eat biscuits with scrambled eggs, soup, sauted vegies, even pancakes. This blanket approach is genius. I don’t know why we don’t adopt it.
Po-boys are another local specialty, the name a contraction of “poor boy”, because they were originally eaten by labourers and the down-at-heel. They are basically sandwiches on crunchy French bread dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pickles. Oysters, shrimp, catfish and sausage are traditional fillings. I approach the first with great cynicism: there seems something not only wasteful, but heretical, about frying up oysters with their delicate briny piquancy, smothering them with condiments and cramming them into a roll. I’m almost relieved when it doesn’t win me over. The oysters seem small, grey and slimy, with a faint aluminium taste, and when my teeth cleave through the batter and the liquid centres explode hot onto my palate, I can’t help thinking unpleasant thoughts about tiny ruptured spleens and people sneezing inside my mouth.
The sides are also somewhat unconventional. The menu informs me it comes with chips. “Would you like fries with that?” the waitress asks when I place my order. Somewhat taken aback, I decline, wondering why on earth I would need fries when there’s chips already. I understand when it arrives some ten minutes later, sidled up on the plate beside a neat pile of crenelated crisps.
The shrimp po-boy is more successful. I buy it from a grimy-looking diner imaginatively named “Gene’s Po-Boy” where the waitresses wear pink uniforms and take orders over the noisy sputter of a deep fat fryer. I get it take away, or “to go”, and eat it at my kitchen table to a backdrop of knobbly candle stubs and battered paintwork which seems oddly appropriate. It’s pretty industrial-looking – over a foot long, pasty and crumpled, wrapped in opalescent greaseproof paper and disgorging fragile ringlets of fried shrimp. Nonetheless, it seems one of the most delectable things I have ever eaten. Perversely, it’s almost exactly like a McDonald’s chicken burger, something I hadn’t realised I’d been craving until that moment – the combination of thick mayonnaise, dense lily pads of shredded lettuce and prawns which taste like tiny tender morsels of chicken. The bread is perhaps a touch stale but still I devour the whole delicious yard-stick of it, assiduously collecting every last entrail of lettuce and crisp crumb of salty batter. This is not the last po-boy I have, needless to say.
I eat beignets. The place to go for them is Café Du Monde near the French Markets. Beignets are in fact the only food they serve, which makes ordering a simple affair. For $2.80, you get three of them – heavy, fried doughnuty chunks laden down with oil. They come served with about half a pack of icing sugar tipped unceremoniously over the top, so that you have to trawl about for them in the messes of powdery whiteness – a bit like unearthing bodies after an avalanche. When I finally disinter them, my first instinct is to look at them censoriously while internally deploring the American diet, and tell myself that no civilised person could possibly get through all that compressed cholesterol single-handedly – or single-mouthedly. I take a bite. They are warm and dense and soft and chewy and smell like cinnamon and grease. I take another bite, then keep on going, then before I know it have dispatched the whole plate and am contemplating ordering another.
Pralines are another popular treat, as well as a hotly divisive topic of debate. Their pronunciation in particular tends to polarise discussion: while locals opt for the more genteel-sounding ‘prah-leen’, other Americans and ignorant plebs like myself tend to go for ‘PRAY-leens’. (Don’t even go down the ‘PE-can’/’pe-CAHN’ praline road. That way barn-burnings lie.) Pralines taste like condensed milk, like soft caramel, and can be either chewy and elastic or delicate and bone-brittle, breaking into sickly-sweet powdery shards. If you find yourself craving a sugar fix in the afternoon, simply walk down any main street of the tourist district – Royal or Chartres or Decatur for instance – and sample a fragment in every shop that sells them. By the time you’ve reached the end of the street, you’ll have consumed a good three or four pralines in total and will find yourself well and truly sated.
One thing to note, however, is that while delicious, they don’t tend to look that great, and unless you’ve encountered one freshly baked, lured in by the rich, sugary aroma, it’s unlikely you’ll be tempted to give them a go. I bring a good dozen or so individually wrapped pralines home in my suitcase, thinking they’ll make perfect little souvenirs. When I hand them over to uniformly reluctant-looking friends, I realise they resemble nothing so much as smushed manhole covers or glossy toffee-coloured cowpats and will so remain largely uneaten – a shame given how good they are.
But then everything’s good really, especially the stuff that’s the worst for you, and I don’t even come near to sampling the full spectrum of it. “Did you have a mimosa with brunch?” a friend asks when I return. I confess that I didn’t, a shocking oversight. “What about a Sazerac while you were in a jazz bar?” Once again, I have to admit that I didn’t. In fact, I realise that I had forgotten about drinks altogether, sticking to my usual flat whites in the morning and red wines at night, and entirely neglecting hurricanes and mint juleps and the infinitely classy daiquiri slushies
Clearly I have no other option but to go back then – all for the pursuit of knowledge of course. Socrates would have it no other way.