I barely spent a breath in New Orleans. About a year ago I jumped into a rental car with my friend and set out down the Appalachian spine of the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way I stopped to see family in Nashville Tennessee. I was able to see quite a lot of the Eastern United States on this journey. (For the record – driving from Pennsylvania to New Orleans is probably insane – but I would do it again, in a heartbeat.) Of all the things I saw, I did not see enough of New Orleans. I did not get to know the people of New Orleans nor did I find a way to steep myself into the local culture. I did get to experience it though. I got to see and hear and smell and eat. Most importantly I got to see my friends in this special place. Into the narrative of our friendship, this trip inserted a great new chapter: great meals, drive-thru daiquiris, drunken Popeyes, beers in the park, closet sleeping, and a violent assault by a wave off of Lake Pontchartrain at sunset on my last night in New Orleans.
Speaking of Lake Pontchartrain, I am reminded of certain images that I encountered during this trip that will forever be burned into my memory. After nearly 10 hours of interstate driving with only bare trees, roadside crosses, and rest stops through Alabama and Mississippi – there were suddenly palm trees and then no trees at all. There is an exultation in Arlo Guthrie’s voice when he sings “Good morning America, how are you?” in the City of New Orleans. This no-tree moment felt like that. What replaced the trees of the American South looked like some sort of hidden and wild freedom that great authors spend careers trying to elucidate in every next great American novel. All of a sudden it was four lanes of highway above an expanse of water that offered no available sight of shore. It was a gut punch. The air knocked out of me was of every notion I have held to regarding the way the world used to look and feel.
I will remember that view, the cast iron, the beads, the palm trees, the humidity (even in March), the look on my surprised friend’s face, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter (hated it), the Garden District, and the muddy Mississippi. I will remember visiting the Ninth Ward and standing on the hallowed ground we watched true suffering unfold upon live on CNN in 2005. I will remember the contrast between the half-empty quiet of areas recovering and rebuilding from pure disaster and the gated, massive mansions near the lake. I will remember my brief encounter with the spirit of that city.
I will not forget Three Meals.
Meal #1: Breakfast
Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar.If you ever encounter a Southerner who has been transplanted north of the Mason-Dixon Line, she is likely to lament the availability of good biscuits up here. I have had biscuits in Nashville and in North Carolina but I never had a biscuit like the one I had in New Orleans. I am rather certain they could break a plate if dropped from a sufficient altitude. They were delicious. I could understand lamenting the absence of these pillow bricks from a regular diet. Those two sausage patties on that plate surprised the hell out of me. Boudin. Well, Boudin Blanc. It’s made with pork, pig guts (heart/liver), and a variant of Dirty Rice which involves more yummy guts. This is not sausage found in Pennsylvania but it does have a distant relative here in the form of scrapple. The flavor of Boudin is porky and earthy and spicy but bright and nearly delicate. It’s the kind of thing you want to eat to wake you up or to use to shake a hangover from drive-thru daiquiris. The potatoes were soft and buttery with a little spice. This was the first thing I ate in New Orleans and it was delicious. I would love to get my hands on some of that Boudin right now.
Meal #2: Lunch
Dat Dog. This place is ludicrous and wonderful. What I particularly liked about this place was that the menu was so extensive. The native cuisine in New Orleans is an amalgamation of many cultures. Acadian Cajun and Louisiana Creole are influenced by French, Haitian, West African, Spanish, Portuguese, Southern American, and likely more. What results is a signature flavor and spice that is without compare. The hot dogs here are demonstrative of both the regional cuisines of New Orleans and the local cuisines of many different corners of this country. This is why I love food. A freaking hot dog restaurant becomes truly emblematic of America. Ha. I love it.
Meal #3 Dinner
Ignatius Eatery on Magazine Street. This was the one folks. This is the dinner that I still think about – sometimes daily. Great food is one the best things about being alive. Great food shared with people you love is the best thing about being alive. I had a New Orleans dinner with three of my best friends. I had driven over a thousand miles for this moment. Worth it.
I had to start off with a Sazerac. It’s a centuries old cocktail, invented in New Orleans, made with cognac, absinthe, and bitters. Confession: I hated it. Don’t get me wrong, it was prepared well and was likely very delicious. I however, hate the taste of licorice and well, absinthe. I quickly switched to my usual Old Fashioned. I selected the Bayou Sampler from the menu. It’s listed as: “New Orleans sampler; creole jambalaya, red beans, crawfish étouffée, and white rice”. I ordered gumbo too. The alligator in the jambalaya was soft and tender and tasted like a river. The crawfish tasted like shrimp that decided to become better at tasting. Andouille and roux thick gumbo was delightfully dark and smoky and hot and dear God just so good. I had managed to make it to New Orleans and I found a meal that changed the way I thought about food. Since this dinner, I have made these dishes numerous times and I will continue to do so. I will do it to remember both the delicious meal itself and the friendships I now have forever married to these flavors.
I should mention that I am not a traveler. This trip was the most significant journey I have ever made. It was (and still is) the farthest I have ever ventured from Allentown. I should also mention that I have a nervous disposition. This trip was made to surprise my friend who was spending time there engaged in brilliant civic employment.
Given that I am a shitty traveler and I went from 1 to 100 pretty damn quickly, this was not the easiest trip of my life. (It wasn’t easy for the folks with me either! Thanks S)
It was, however, the best.