Oh Well. Guess You Can Take the Girl Out of Noo Awlins, but You Can’t Take Noo Awlins Out of the Girl
Arrival in the U.S. is always a bit of a culture shock. This time around, going through customs in the Atlanta airport was at first a breeze with the new check-in machines, and then it became a bit laughable when I realized I had left a banana in my bag carried all the way from Paris.
This dumb move delayed the exit by at least 30 minutes going through all the customs hoops untill they would let me out of the door, less one banana. BUT, everyone was so friendly and nice that it immediately threw me for a loop. The French would have been polite, but certainly not as friendly, although a banana left in my bag would have possibly remained unnoticed at customs in Paris.
The Atlanta airport was a shock, too, with one fast-food restaurant after another, none of which had the kind of food one should want to actually eat. The atmosphere is so different from Roissy Charles de Gaulle, which early in the morning was solemn, quiet and orderly, with one kiosk selling healthy packaged food, good coffee and seriously buttery flakey croissants. The Atlanta airport was a beehive and noisy, with TVs blaring (CNN), the constant beeping of the mini-carts transporting less mobile travelers and just the buzz of the people on their cell phones or speaking loudly to one another. It was Americana at its finest.
Passengers headed for New Orleans in anticipation of a party weekend may be a particularly rowdy bunch, as there was a lot of cajoling from seat to seat in conversation about a Saints game coming up. A few were discussing going to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets with piles of powdered sugar and making a stop at the Central Grocery for a “muffuletto” sandwich (that they couldn’t pronounce correctly).
I chuckled under my breath realizing that these were tourists headed for The Big Easy and for me it was just ‘My Home Town,’ but already my mouth was watering and I was dreaming of all the places I wanted to go eat while there. That IS what we do in New Orleans — eat.
Upon landing, I didn’t waste any time in dropping my bags and heading for Kenner Seafood past the airport known for fresh boiled seafood…and of course, fried everything. My mother taught us all how to eat a raw oyster at the age of two and if you couldn’t crack open and eat a crab by yourself, you just weren’t eating — as no one was doing it for you. My all-time favorite is spicy boiled crawfish of which my sister has been recently sending photos just to torture me with their dark red color and large sizes, in anticipation of watching me “suck da heads and pinch da tails.”
It was just my 97 year-old mother and I at Kenner Seafood and she announced that I should just order what I wanted to eat because she doesn’t eat so much any more…then she kept up with me quite well and together we put away six oysters on the half-shell, a half-pound of boiled shrimp, three pounds of crawfish and a crab (that was all that was left in their coffers!). The bill was only $32 for all that and that was another culture shock!…food was cheap, unlike Paris where 25 euros (equivalent to $32) would have only gotten me lunch and coffee at Café Charlot.
Since arrival Saturday, it’s been a non-stop food fest. The whole family met for breakfast on Sunday morning at The Peppermill. It was impossible to decide between the offerings, so my sister and I shared them both: 1) Crabcake Benedict: two poached eggs atop our famous jumbo lump crab cakes, laced with our homemade Hollandaise; served with grits, $15.95 and 2) Eggs Sardou: another take on the Benedict. Poached eggs set atop creamed spinach and artichoke hearts on an English muffin topped with Hollandaise; served with potatoes, $12.95. The waitress split them on our behalf in typical American service style and we “ummed” our way through every bite.
I swear, it is impossible to eat better anywhere else in the world…but, please don’t tell the French! Meanwhile I’m counting the calories and thinking that if I stay in New Orleans any longer, I’ll turn into a “two ton Tessie.” It’s no wonder New Orleanians are a bit robust…for the obvious reason. You would be too — while we’re at breakfast, we’re talking about dinner.
Dinner was home-made barbecued shrimp à la my sister, with steamed artichokes stuffed with garlic and parmesan and fresh-made seafood gumbo à la my mother. It’s the best ever and when I asked her what she does to make it so much tastier than any other gumbo, she quickly replied, “I’m not telling!”
Great! Our still kicking ancient mother is not willing to pass down her recipe! What a laugh! Guess she will be taking it with her to her grave and I’ll be mourning her and her gumbo recipe the rest of my life! BTW, we did not leave the table before serving up Spumoni from Angelo Brocato’s Gelateria and Pasticceria.
A week in New Orleans without lunch at Martin’s Wine Cellar would not have been complete. So Monday we met there after my daughter arrived from New York on her morning flight. Cedric Martin and I were mates in high school, so it’s a good chance to stop in, say hello, and partake of his delicious gourmet deli fare. The quality of the food ranks way up there, in spite of what one might expect in such a spot.
Cedric did it right — turned just a shop for wine (although an extensive and well-respected one) into a one-stop spot for great food, great spirits and a whole lot of fun. It’s a kind of meeting place for the locals and it’s almost impossible to be there and not see someone you know from your past…or your present. I’m a kind of regular, at least twice a year, if that’s what you want to call ‘regular.’ Cedric always stops over, sits for a few minutes to say hello and catch up, which he does with many of his ‘regulars’ — personally showing his loyal clientele he really cares. It’s authentic and quite charming.
For dinner one night we picked up fresh boiled crabs at Kjean’s in Mid City (236 N. Carrollton Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70119, phone 504-488-7503) next door to Angelo Brocato’s and stopped for oyster poor boys (aka po’ boys or oyster loafs) from the Parkway Bakery to take home for everyone. We didn’t get out of Parkway Bakery without eating at least one of the large po’ boys while it was hot and crispy before heading home to deliver the rest to the waiting hungry crew. These are both New Orleans institutions that the locals try to keep to themselves, located in very off-the-beaten tracks. New Orleanians don’t care — hey will go anywhere for good eats.
While umming at every bite and cracking open the spicy juicy crabs, one of my sisters became rather passionate about whether if you said “po’ boy” instead of “poor boy,” you were low class. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard there was much of a class difference between the two idioms. As it turns out, according to the publicity put out by Parkway Bakery, baker Henry Timothy Sr., “became known for making delicious fresh breads, donuts, and his famous Seven Sisters sweet rolls. In 1929 he added the recently invented ‘Poor Boy’ sandwich to feed the workers at the American Can Company. They operated twenty-four hours a day, so with the addition of the poor boy, so did Parkway.”
Wikipedia.org says concurs about the origin of the poor boy: “There are countless stories as to the origin of the term ‘po’ boy.’ A popular local theory claims that ‘po’ boy,’ as specifically referring to a type of sandwich, was coined in a New Orleans restaurant owned by Benny and Clovis Martin (originally from Raceland, Louisiana), former streetcar conductors. In 1929, during a four-month strike against the streetcar company, the Martin brothers served their former colleagues free sandwiches. The Martins’ restaurant workers jokingly referred to the strikers as “poor boys,” and soon the sandwiches themselves took on the name. In Louisiana dialect, this is naturally shortened to “po’ boy.”
My New Orleans lawyer, who I have known since high school or earlier, and I dined yesterday in a hotel restaurant (Loew’s loewshotels.com/new-orleans/) near his office in the business district named after one of the Brennan sisters, Café Adelaide. Adelaide Brennan was aka “Auntie Mame and then some” — “a striking redhead who marched to her own drummer. To the younger girls, no other older people acted like her. They were all much more sensible, while Aunt Adelaide was the definition of glamorousand naughty.”
The Brennans devoted this restaurant to their Auntie Mame with large Warhol-like paintings of the Grand Dame looming over the tables and I must admit, the “Skillet Roasted Gulf Fish served with South Louisiana succotash of sweet corn, Creole tomato, Israeli couscous and soybeans with red chile-shellfish butter” was another major ummer and their gumbo rivaled my mother’s. (Please don’t tell her!)
Tomorrow Thanksgiving Dinner will be at Tujague’s, in tradition for my family. My mother’s first cousin’s son, Steven Latter, took over the restaurant in 1982, it being the second oldest in the city, and still serves up several traditional Tujagues specialties - shrimp remoulade, beef brisket with horseradish, “cap” bread (a Tujagues original) and dark coffee in shot glasses. By sheer coincidence, I am acquaintanced with a member of the founding Tujague family living in Paris.
When Steven Latter died in his sleep in February 2013 at the age of 64, there was quite a to-do over what would happen to the restaurant making national news. The city calmed down a few weeks later when his son, Mark, took his place and who has been doing a bang-up job putting it on the map as a city tradition one must not miss, like Café du Monde or Central Grocery.
By the time I return to Paris this weekend, I will no doubt be a few pounds heavier, but knowing how worth it was to take this week of gluttony in ‘my home town.’ Oh well. Guess you can take the girl out of Noo Awlins, but you can’t take Noo Awlins out of the girl.
A la prochaine,
(in the royal chair at Tujague’s)
P.S. With the holidays coming up, and many festivities taking place here and around the world, one of my favorite accessories that I take out with me is my ITWPA Press Pass. I’m a card-carrying member of the International Travel Writers and Photographers alliance (ITWPA) which gets me free access to anywhere the press can go. New exhibitions in Paris are a breeze — with the pass, in most cases, I can walk straight up to the front of the line and be given VIP treatment, while saving me the cost of admission. Then soon after, you might be reading all about my experience! Its really great! And you can have a press pass, too — just by clicking here and learning how to become a member like me!