So it’s around 9pm and I’m sitting at a bar chatting to the friendly mixologist when a crashing clap of thunder interrupts us. As we turn to watch the downpour we just about make out the thump, thump, thump of a jazz band approaching. ‘Oh, it’s a wedding party’ explains the barman in a relaxed tone. Sure enough, a parade of two hundred or more drunken revellers dance past us, led by a well-drenched bride (pun intended) enthusiastically conducting the band with her sodden lace umbrella. This was my welcome to New Orleans.
I’m here because New York’s food fanatics can’t shut up about the place. New Orleans regularly comes top of the ‘best cities for food’ lists and its influence is impossible to avoid. There’s a new wave of Creole cooking emerging, apparently, and I don’t want to miss out.
It doesn’t take long to get a grasp on NOLA’s place in the US. It may be one of it’s oldest cities but it has never really belonged here. Locals like to say that the ‘deep south’ is well north of Louisiana and it’s easy to see why they’re described as the northern-most point of the Caribbean. They don’t even speak with that slow southern drawl we all like to imitate, probably because the place such a cauldron of cultures, having ping-ponged between the French, English and Spanish for about two hundred years.
N’awlins is in many ways an island, an enclave that has barricaded itself from the rest of the US. This is one place that can never be called a clone city. Sure, Starbuck’s, H&M and the rest of them are here, but very much in the background. At the epicentre, in the famous French Quarter, people are permanently primed for celebration. As if at any moment a street party will burst into life, tuba players and marching bands appearing from nowhere. And they do.
With buskers, beggars and banjo-ers at all hours of the day and night the streets are alive with music. But the sound that so evocatively reminds you of exactly where you are, is the slow, haunting whistle of the mile long freight train as it makes its way alongside the Mississippi. This city really is a living film set.
Too many cities pay homage to their history and heritage. Not so here; they live it. The gas lamps that light the streets are the real thing and you can visit the workshop where they’re still made. The local char-broiled oysters (grilled with cheese) are not some tourist bait, it’s what they eat, everyday. I watched as a young waitress knocked back a dozen on her break, standing at the counter whilst chatting on her cell phone. The masks and hats you see are (mostly) made locally and on a Sunday, Royal Street looks a little like Ladies Day at Ascot. Everyone smokes handmade cigars here, even the babies, and you can watch them being made, and smoked, at the Cigar Factory on Decatur Street. Even the touristy Voodoo stores are a clever distraction from the real Voodoo stuff that goes on underground. But that’s way too dark for this blog.
I’m not sure that the architecture in say, Hamburg, Rome or Madrid tells us much about the local cuisine. Maybe I’ve just not noticed, but here it’s blindingly obvious. The ‘shotgun’ symmetry of the French and Spanish style cottages all dressed up for the parade in their fancy finials and crocheted cast iron, the wooden shutters lacquered in clashing Caribbean colours. This, just like the food, is pure Creole.
In the same way, the history of the food is a crazy French, Spanish and Caribbean tale written by those that had to make very little go a very long way. Seafood is the focus but poor man’s seafood, crawfish not lobster, mixed in a giant pot with sausage and chicken. It’s fried oyster po’boys with pickles and rich French style gravy. And there’s a natural rhythm to it with dirty rice, (rice mixed with chicken liver, beans and lots of pepper) always on Monday’s menu. Everything, of course, is served with a respectful splash of hot sauce: there’s an obsession for it. Stop by The Pepper Palace to witness the thousands of tongue-numbing flavours, if you don’t believe me.
But away from the touristy areas, bright young restaurants, bars and coffee shops are popping up to make sure the city doesn’t lose its cool. This is where hip, reverse-cap wearing young chefs strip Creole food back to its roots in their stripped back warehouses and brick barns. There is no food-truck culture here to speak of, simply because the rents in the suburbs are still affordable enough for start-ups. Just. That nemesis of cool, gentrification, has spread ever faster in the aftermath of Katrina. Probably because all those Hollywood volunteers told their friends what they were missing.
It’s much clearer now why New Orleans has become the foodie’s latest crush. It not just vibrant, it’s authentic. There is nothing wannabe about New Orleans and it’s happy with its peculiar place on the planet. And that’s the urban obsession at the moment: authenticity. As the fast food chains and big brands struggle to reinvent themselves and convince us of their authenticity, here is a city steeped in food culture that never once thought about it.
Coming soon, Part 2: The Food