As a native New Orleanian, I am often frustrated in my search to find the food I grew up with when I’m not in my native city. My father was in the restaurant business in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans back in the 50s and 60s, and my mother was a terrific Italian cook, so food and cooking defined my early life.
I returned to my hometown six months ago, hoping to pick up my culinary history where I left off over 25 years ago. Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Foodwise, it means cravings for her beignets, her shrimp Creole, her soft-shell crab po-boys.
It’s not that you can’t get disappointing meals in New Orleans, but when a place far away from here says that its New Orleans food is “authentic” or “down home”, my expectations are set up for a meal that will connect me to my hometown.
Back in the mid-80s, when I lived in Washington, DC, there was a brief trend of so-called Cajun-Creole restaurants there, but they all fell short of my expectations. One of the restaurants even had the nerve to serve café au lait with a pitcher of cold milk. Yeah, that’s really authentic. Uh, waiter, can you zap this milk for me…?
I’ve never forgotten the Washington Post’s review of the Louisiana food scene then. The restaurant reviewer at the time, Phyllis Richman, said essentially that you could get Creole-Cajun food as good or better than you could in its home state. Ouch, that hurt, and it just wasn’t true. Never mind that the reviewer seemed to have no idea of the difference between Creole and Cajun food.
But I don’t have to go back that far. I ate at a restaurant near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, three years ago that was having a Creole food week. I ordered the most surprising dish on the menu: gumbo z’herbes. It’s hard enough to find that in New Orleans, and here it was in North Carolina! My expectations were high since the restaurant was a casual eatery serving very good Southern food.
What I got was a plate (not bowl) of cooked seasoned greens and a fork. It seemed pointless to send something back to a kitchen that obviously had no clue about either gumbo or z’herbes. When the waitress asked me how everything was, I did point out that gumbo is usually a kind of soup served in a bowl with some rice. She said she would tell the cook. She didn’t say what his or her response was and I was hesitant to ask.
It’s bad enough having to deal with Cajun-flavored everything from potato chips to steak. It’s enough to make a grown Cajun cry. But,I suppose it’s not worse than “Russian dressing” or “Asian salad.” We’re not alone in the bastardization of our culinary styles in pop food culture.
My partner lives in Portland, Maine, where there are a couple of restaurants that advertise themselves as serving Creole food. Mind you, Mainers are no slouches when it comes to enjoying a variety of local seafood, although their tastes are simpler. They boil lobster in salted water and serve it with melted butter, perhaps with some lemon; their seasonings for a clam or fish chowder are essentially bacon and onions. Maine cuisine is not known for complex spices.
However, one owner of a casual eatery I had lunch at a couple of times, located at a rehabbed fast food restaurant northwest of downtown, had gone to college in New Orleans and wanted to recreate the food he had eaten there when he moved back to Portland. He made decent if mild gumbo (Maine has a short season of good, small shrimp), he sold Barq’s root beer, and he tried his best to get an oyster po-boy right. Maine oysters are wonderful (though brinier than their Gulf Coast cousins), but the bread was barely an okay white roll. It’s the bread, y’all, the bread.
Indeed, the bread problem is a real stumbling block for getting po-boys right anywhere outside New Orleans. I ate at a large deli establishment with some friends in Roanoke, Virginia, two years ago and had the same problem. The shrimp on a shrimp po-boy was done nicely in a seasoned cornmeal and flour combination, but the bread was a long soft roll. That just didn’t hack it. I told the owner so, and he appreciated the suggestion, but I have no idea if a thousand-mile Leidenheimer delivery would make any sense for his bottom line.
There are times I’m pleasantly surprised that a place far away from New Orleans gets it right. Last year at this time I ate at a new restaurant/pub in Martinsburg, West Virginia, (where I was living) that advertised itself as cooking New Orleans–style food. Unlike Portland, which views itself as a hip food town, Martinsburg is the antithesis of a food town: there are virtually no restaurants that aren’t corporate chains.
So I went in with very low—negative, actually—expectations, but I’m always hopeful. I ordered a bowl of shrimp-okra gumbo; mercy me, it was spot on—roux-less, spicy, and perfectly cooked. It brought a tear to my eye and I told the cook so. He said he had an old recipe book and he was working on getting it right. Boy, did he ever.
Still, having a good bowl of gumbo in a place where no one understands or particularly cares why it’s good, is like going to a Mardi Gras–themed party in North Dakota. There’s just no context for the revelry and the beads.
Now that I’m back home, I don’t have to look in vain for restaurants that serve “authentic” Creole or Cajun food. More important to me as a cook is that I can find authentic ingredients: real boudin and andouille (you might imagine the wretched sausage that passes for andouille outside of New Orleans), crawfish, sweet kumquats, Community coffee and chicory, crab boil, real po-boy bread.
When for the first time in many years I sat again at the Café du Monde to have real New Orleans café au lait and those ridiculously over-sugared beignets, it was like having my momma welcome the lost sheep back home. I laughed from coughing white powdered sugar all over my black jeans, smiled at the sax player on the sidewalk next to me—thinking how much I missed this simple place with its coffee and doughnuts as theater—and fell in love with my city and her food all over again.