Gobbling Up Gumbo a La Nouvelle Orléans
I hadn’t visited New Orleans since my mother died in 2015. In the absence, I had almost forgotten how special the city really is. My sister and brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to Kenner Seafood. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Straight to the seafood pigout we went without dropping off bags or considering that for me it was the middle of the night.
Another sister of mine (I have three) and her husband were there waiting for us to arrive. Nothing much had changed about Kenner Seafood except that the big booths that used to be in the center had been replaced by tables and chairs. However, contrary to the norm, there was no line-up in the waiting room clamoring for tables. Within moments, three dozen freshly shucked raw oysters came out on big round trays for the five of us to down before ordering anything else. The waitresses were “dahlin'” us this and “dahlin'” us that to death. I knew I had arrived in “Nooo Awlins.”
Kenner Seafood is one of our family’s favorite “dives.” On its website, it says “Eat where the locals eat.” Ain’t that the truth? The tourists don’t come way out west to Kenner, Louisiana unless a local takes them there. I got a kick out of the menu: under the category of salads, the Italian-style salad is still called a “Wop Salad,” in print, just like I remember from restaurant menus of my past. No one seems to care that “Wop” is a derogatory term because they just don’t see it that way. “Wop” means WithOut Papers, from when many Italian immigrants had no visas to be in the country. I wonder what New Orleans would be without the Wops who came and brought their amazing culinary talents?
In New Orleans, they’re used to “just calling a spade a spade” in no uncertain terms without political correctness. It took me years of living outside of the Delta town to realize its brazenness, growing up with using words like “Wop” or “Mulatto” or other terms we dare no longer utter.
The oysters in New Orleans mostly come from the Gulf of Mexico. They have no relationship to what the French call “huitres.” In fact, as much as I love raw oysters, having learned to eat them at the age of two, I’ve never acquired a taste for French oysters that are thin, translucent and briny. The freshwaters of the Mississippi River run into the Gulf and lower the saltiness of the water contributing to making Gulf oysters large, plump, opaque, tender and meaty. The taste is mild, sweet and delicate…my idea of culinary heaven. Dipped in a spicy hot sauce laced with horse radish and downed by taking one bite then swallowing them virtually whole, they are the sexiest food on the planet. And to top it off, Gulf oysters can be steamed, roasted, grilled, sautéed or fried to perfection, unlike French oysters that are no good except for raw. Boy, had I missed the tasty morsels!
That was just the beginning. I ordered a seafood gumbo and boiled shrimp to top that off. In my family’s household, seafood was the fare of choice on Friday night, when all other Jewish homes were serving roast chicken. In New Orleans, largely Catholic, eating fish on Friday was (and I suppose still is) the tradition. The idea comes from an abstention of eating meat on Fridays in memory of Christ’s death. With an abundance of wonderful seafood in the region, the tradition was a natural winner. So Jewish or not, we were first and foremost New Orleanians. My mother always had a lot of guilt about this practice, complaining as she set down the big trays of crabs, crawfish, shrimp and oysters in front of us on tables spread with newspaper every Friday night that it was very sacrilegious to serve the “traif” (non-kosher food), and how terrible that way, to which we would reply, “Shut the f__k up!” (I swear this is true.)
In my mother’s honor, my sister and I made a special trip to Deanie’s in Bucktown for fresh-boiled crabs. They offered up a special: two dozen small(ish) crabs for the price of one dozen, a whopping $15.99. They didn’t look much smaller than the “mediums” and were loaded with females, the kind we like best because of the potential of crab roe inside. Without further ado, in unison we exclaimed “Yes! We’ll take two dozen and please give us as many females as you can spare.”
Deanie’s has quite a history, having been the first seafood market to open in what was a quaint fishing village at the time, well over 40 years ago. At least, that’s what their website says. But actually, I can attest to it having been there much longer than that, since it existed there as long as I have been alive which is much more than 40 years (I am sorry to say.)
At home we put the crabs on big platters and armed the table with paper towels, nut crackers for the claws and knives to dig out the meat. Facing each other while about to attack the pile of crabs, I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Golda and Gert!” My sister screeched in the delight of the image it conjured up. Neither one of us could help but think about my mother’s story she told regularly year-after-year-after-year about her and her cousin, Golda, having vacationed on the Gulf Coast together, where the two of them caught over 100 crabs and then spent an entire day boiling them up, and eating them until they were all gone, which took hours and hours and hours ending with the two of them sick from their gluttony.
Yep, that was us: Golda and Gert. We chuckled together as we managed to pick the meat out of more than one dozen of the crabs, leaving the rest for a “snack” the next afternoon. Our fingers became pruny from the marathon, but well worth it.
In New Orleans, there’s a festival or parade every single weekend, part of it’s “laissez les bons temps rouler” attitude. If you don’t know this expression, be sure to learn it before you make a trip to the Big Easy. When I was in the Detroit airport waiting to board my flight to New Orleans, a woman sitting near me asked if anyone there spoke French.
“I do. What do you need?”
She showed me the text on her phone where someone had written “laissez les bons temps rouler” and she wanted to understand it. I explained, it’s not really French…it’s Cajun French for “let the good times roll.” This is the only place on the planet one will find the expression — certainly not in France. The French haven’t figured out how to let the good times roll…at least not yet and not like New Orleanians.
So, it wasn’t surprising that Saturday the annual Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival opened, serving up the spicy okra-based stew along with a few other local dishes, such as Red Beans and Rice. The festival, produced and presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the 11th one since inception, took place at Louis Armstrong Park on North Rampart Street on Saturday and Sunday where food booths sold gumbo, artisan stands sold their wares and bands played on the stage. Entry to the festival was free. Gumbo was cheap ($8) and delicious (I ate two bowls of seafood gumbo myself).
If you aren’t familiar with gumbo, then now’s a good time to put having it on your bucket list. Gumbo is a stew that is Louisiana’s official state cuisine. Primarily consisting of a heavily spiced stock starting with a “roux,” meat such as sausage or chicken or shellfish, a base of okra to thicken it, and what Louisianians call the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables (celery, bell peppers, and onions), gumbo is also thickened with what is called “filé” powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves). When it’s good, it’s really good.
Louis Armstrong Park is worth a special trip at it has its fair share of big, beautiful old live oak trees that so epitomize the city for me. The live oak trees with their dark broad branches that shade the streets, avenues and parks, many dripping in Spanish moss, is just one of the things that makes New Orleans such a special city. I can remember climbing up the branches while my family picnicked nearby. Nola.com even lists the 10 best spots to see New Orleans most majestic live oaks. I can’t get enough of them.
When the second line band played (The James Andrews Band) at the Gumbo Festival, it was tough not to get up and dance to the authentic sound of New Orleans and Tremé, an area of the city well-known to be the center of the city’s African-American and Créole culture, and is especially known for its musicians, mostly of brass band tradition. As I stood facing the stage, rocking to the easy, bluesy style, I reflected back on music I might hear in France and it certainly wouldn’t have been anything like that. Even in the rest of the U.S., it would be unlikely to hear music like that unless the band had come from New Orleans. What made it even more special was the audience…”laissez les bons temps rouler” type of people, hanging out on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, eating gumbo, drinking beers and listening to rhythm and blues.
I know that France promotes the Champs Elysées as the most beautiful avenue in the world, but I have always thought Saint Charles Avenue should actually take the prize. Lined by old live oak trees and elegant, large Victorian and Anti-Bellum homes, divided by a neutral ground on which the old streetcars run, makes the Garden District roadway total eye candy. The casual way in which the traffic snakes down the shady street makes the ride from Downtown to Riverbend (where the Mississippi River makes a sharp curve heading southbound) stress free and lazy. We took this scenic route home after the festival, heading down Old River Road, through Old Metairie, to New Metairie where my family lives.
“A ‘metairie’ was a French term for a farm where a tenant paid for the use of land by giving over half of what he produced; the word echoed ‘la moitie’ — French for half — and was used on 18th-century maps to describe large land deeds, including one along a bayou that ran alongside what would become Metairie Road.” (Source: nola.com/neighborhoods/) It’s also the name of several wines in France!
Saturday night I hosted a party at a Metairie seafood restaurant, Acme Oyster House, a chain specializing in typically fried New Orleans seafood. A couple dozen friends and family gathered together as a way for me to get to see everyone at once. It’s a time-proven success to have parties like this, where everyone pays for their own meal, but I set up the venue and the fixed-price deal. If we have a private room, it’s great. In this case we had one back corner, four long tables, making it easy to mingle and schmooze in between courses.
Again I ordered gumbo. (It was becoming a routine.) Most of the guests ordered fried seafood platters — plates of which were so mountainous as to be near to impossible to eat. They took home styrofoam containers of leftovers to eat the next day. All the different gumbos I had were really good, but each one a little different. My mother made it for me all the time and we all loved her recipe. When I asked her to give it to us before she left the planet, she refused and said, “I’m taking this one with me. You’ll have to figure out your own recipe.”
Not nice. But the truth is she didn’t have a “recipe” and had just been making it the same way for so many years, that she instinctively had a consistent hit. My niece, a chef in the Big Easy, confessed that Gert had taught her how to make it, but didn’t have a recipe to actually hand down. Gumbo became the thing of choice to eat, besides the two dozen crabs. In fact, I ordered it again at lunch on Sunday at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter. By the time I left for Los Angeles early this morning, I’d had my fill of gumbo.
Most of my time was spent in Metairie, but Sunday afternoon, while the rest of the city was either at the Superdome watching the New Orleans Saints/Philadelphia Eagles game or in their homes in front of the TV, my sister and I were wandering the French Quarter and meeting up with friends. We had the good fortune of visiting one who lives in one of the oldest homes in the “Vieux Carré” that dates back to the 1780s. It was once the home of Francisco Domingo Joseph Bouligny Paret, a high-ranking Spanish military and civilian officer in Spanish Louisiana who served as lieutenant governor under Bernardo de Gálvez and as acting military governor in 1799. He founded the city of New Iberia in 1779. (Source: Wikipedia.org) My friend living there said that he was an awful man and that she has had several voodoo ceremonies to rid the house of his spirit!
Why am I not surprised? Stuff like that happens only in New Orleans!
Next up: La La Land…Los Angeles here I come for Thanksgiving Dinner. Au revoir, a la prochaine fois…La Nouvelle Orléans!
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(with Her Three Sisters, Illustration by Adrian Leeds, Circa 1970)
P.S. A new House Hunters International is airing tomorrow!!! See the details in the ad below for “Amour Than They Bargained for in Bordeaux.”