I’m back. Not from anywhere in particular, but here I am. I have missed you all as I have missed these pages on which I scribble my thoughts and my recipes. But for reasons that I’ll just call “life”, I have stayed away. I was too busy doing not much of anything–too bored and apathetic to get on the keyboard and tap out some thoughts. No pithy commentary. No snark or sarcasm. No educational bit on the origin of the rutabaga. Nothing.
I can’t say I had writer’s block. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling the love I usually have for writing, for creating recipes, for enjoying food. I needed an emotional reset. I needed to fall in love again with those things. A recent trip to New Orleans did that for me. Reset my heart and mind, reinvigorated me, made me fall in love.
We all have places that we go to that for reasons– known or unknown to us– we are drawn to. Places that we fall in love with, and don’t ever want to leave.
For me, New Orleans is such a place.
I am really not sure I can really articulate why. There are so many things about NOLA that I should find unappealing–things that many people are often unable to look past—that should make my reasons for loving it such compelling reasons that I could go on and on about it in clear and certain terms. But I can’t.
Men and women often fall in love with someone who they never expected to. People with different religious convictions, political beliefs, socioeconomic status, or even people they might not have found attractive under other circumstances. Chemistry is sometimes undeniable, even when the logic doesn’t add up. That’s love.
New Orleans is a beautiful woman with a dark side. A sweet Southern Belle, with a Jezebel’s soul. A hooker with a heart of gold. You get the picture, right?
Yes, there is a crime problem there. Even outside of the police department. Pickpockets are rampant, shootings are common, and vagrancy seems to be pandemic.
The job market and economy are still lagging from the whole Hurricane Katrina mess, so the socioeconomic climate is a tad heavy on the low side.
And let’s not forget the city was built below sea level. If you live in NOLA, and your house gets destroyed in a hurricane, you WILL be chastised, perhaps even have your sanity and IQ called into question, by people who will keep reminding you of that fact.
The city has a blood alcohol content of .38… NOLA has the most lax alcohol laws in the country. You can walk out of a bar with your adult beverage, and walk right into another bar with it. At literally ANY time of day, there are drunk locals stumbling into you on the street. In The Quarter, there are inebriated students and football fans passed out on the cobblestone or piss drunk in doorways. Every morning, the streets are hosed down to remove the booze, barf and urine from the night before. AHHHHHH, the smell of THAT in the morning.
Then there’s Bourbon Street and The French Quarter. You’ll either love The Quarter, or you’ll be horrified by it. This area could be described as a red and black corset with G-string and thigh high stockings. In fact, don’t be surprised when you see people walking around wearing exactly that. Some of them might even be women. It’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. It’s where our Southern Belle expresses her naughty side.
Like the saying goes —Laissez les bon temps rouler!! It means “get ready for some seriously weird shit on Bourbon street”. It MAY also mean “let the good times roll”.
But once you get past all of that, you’ll be mesmerized. The architecture is breathtaking, from the tiny little shotgun houses, to grand Antebellum and Victorian mansions. I’ve never been elsewhere where the architecture has stayed so true to the history and heritage of the place. It literally feels like a step back in time. A beautiful, nostalgic trip in a time machine.
Akin to the architecture, are the cemeteries. YES, THE CEMETERIES. Because NOLA is under sea level, you don’t see in-ground swimming pools, or in-ground burials. Because they would float up out of the ground, the dearly departed are laid to rest in above-ground crypts. These cemeteries are known locally as cities of the dead, as they do look like rows and rows of tiny old buildings. Famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried in one such graveyard, Saint Louis Cemetery #1. Crypts are creepy. But in a beautiful way. That’s right. Beautifully creepy repositories for the dead. It’s a thing.
Nextly, the food is off the chain. OFF. THE. CHAIN. Unless you are some sort of pod person, or not, in fact, human, you’ll be intoxicated in the morning by the smell of beignets frying and coffee and chicory brewing. Whether you prefer raw oysters and gumbo at a run-down shack across the tracks (aren’t those always the best??), or Redfish Pontchartrain prepared by a 5-star Michelin chef at a world-renowned restaurant, you can easily have it. And you’ll love it.
There you have it. Pretty buildings, awesome food, and beautifully creepy repositories for the dead.
Not enough reason?
I told you.. I can’t properly articulate it. Beyond the pretty houses and the best shrimp po-boy I’ve ever eaten, it’s chemistry. It has a vibe to it that sings to my soul…A palpable energy that feels a lot like being in love. For some people it’s chocolate, for me it’s old southern architecture, creepy and beautiful old cemeteries, and chicory with my beignets.
On my recent trip, I had the pleasure of meeting someone who had worked in a capacity that made him the most prefect tour guide one could ask for. Nope, I’m not telling you who he is, because when I go back I need him available to show me more. Here are some of the interesting things I learned from him, and places I got to see:
The several semesters of formal French I took in high school and college? Cela ne signifie rien. (It means nothing). Or at least very little. The words may look familiar, but the pronunciation is something else altogether. Burgundy Street, for example? Pronounced Bur-GUN-dy. Chayote squash, also known as Mirlitons: in traditional French, pronunciation SHOULD be MER-letons. But in Cajun French, it’s Mill-itons. No, I don’t know what happened to the “R”. But far be it from me to question this phenomenon. I’m one of the people who properly pronounce the Austin St, Menchaca, as MAN-shack.
There are many best po-boys in NOLA, but the truly best one is at Parkway Bakery and Tavern. What about that bread, y’all? I can’t even describe in words what that bread was like. As I sat by myself, enjoying the most amazing sandwich ever, everyone sitting around me was heard murmuring “it’s that BREAD”, and “oh my God…The bread”, and “that bread, doh..”…….New Orleans is heavily Catholic, so I am pretty sure that it really was manna from Heaven…At any rate, I took an extra one with me on my way home, so my family could taste it, but I ate it on the drive. SorryNotSorry.
The little row style houses that you see all over are called shotguns. There are singles and doubles, as indicated by one or two front doors. If they have an addition built on over the back half, they are called camel backs.
We also went to this little bar that looked right out of a movie. Sitting outside the door was the most adorable, quintessentially NOLA bouncer I could have imagined. An older man on a chair sitting by the steps. His name was Eddie, and he had on a Dallas cowboys ski cap, so I immediately fell in love with him. Inside, a single long room, with one row of tiny tables along the windows, and one long bar with bar stools running the length. Everyone seemed to know everyone. I met a local pitmaster of some renowned, and challenged hi m to a throwdown…Maybe next time?
I chatted up so many locals over the weekend, from all walks of life. I found all of them to be gracious, and warm. So many interesting stories.
I left NOLA in love. With the food, the people, the vibe, the architecture. And with writing once more….I’m glad to see you all again!
Gumbo is the most quintessentially Cajun dish around. A dark roux based broth, brimming with seafood, or chicken or really any other meat you wish. Cajuns will eat just about anything. Squirrel gumbo is a thing. Possum and alligator have made their way into more than one pot too.
But for Pierre’s sake, don’t put any tomatoes in your gumbo. We are making Cajun (Acadian) gumbo. The French didn’t eat tomatoes, because tomatoes are members of the nightshade family and were thus thought to be poisonous. If you put tomatoes in your gumbo, you are making a Creole dish. Feel free to do so, but please don’t call it Cajun—it’s a personal affront to the Cajun people.
Gumbo isn’t difficult to prepare, as long as you observe a few key preparation points.
Mis en place—it means “putting in place” . This is what you see chefs doing on TV—having all of their ingredients measured, cut, fully prepared and ready to go in at the appropriate time. They aren’t doing that on TV because of filming issues, they are doing it because it insures you don’t forget ingredients, and are ready to add the ingredients at precisely the right moment. This is particularly important in making gumbo.
Start a large pot of water boiling at the same time you start your roux. Boil at least twice what your recipe calls for. Always better to have more ready than necessary, just I case. It is very important that you add boiling water to the roux when it is time. If you add water that is too cool, your roux (flour and water) will separate, leaving an oil slick on top of your gumbo. Gross.
Do not burn the roux. The roux must be treated like a baby. Attend to it continuously, and do not take your off of it. It can take 45 minutes to get your roux to the right color. It can go from the right color (between the color of peanut butter and chocolate), to burnt, very quickly. Once you burn your roux, there is no saving it. You must throw it out and start all over. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
- ¾ cups butter
- ¾ cups vegetable oil
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 5 quarts water
- 6 stalks celery, sliced
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 large green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
- 2/3 cup chicken base, or chicken bouillon
- 3 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2-3 pounds meat of your choice**(see below)
- 1 bunch chopped green onion
- 1 pound cut okra
- Salt to taste
- For serving: steamed basmati or other loose white rice, Louisiana hot sauce or Tabasco
Place the water in a large pot and turn it on medium high heat. Once it starts to boil, leave it be. Keep it boiling until you need it.
In a 6-quart cast iron or other heavy bottomed pot, add the butter and oil, and heat over medium heat until the butter has melted. Use a whisk to mix in the flour, whisking until there are no lumps. Using a wooden spoon or wooden spatula, stir your roux continuously. It will start a creamy color, and will slowly turn golden. When it becomes the color of peanut butter, be ready. As it continues to darken, it will turn the color of a brown gravy—this is perfect. If you let it get to the color of chocolate, you’ve gone to far…See pictures below for assistance.
When the right color is achieved (see above), add your chopped onions, celery and peppers, and stir. Cook and stir for a few minutes, until the mixture is hot and mixed well.
Using a large (1 quart) measuring cup, add 1 quart of boiling water to the pot..The mixture will bubble and pop vigorously, as if you’ve just dropped water into hot grease—because you have. Stir briskly to incorporate. Then add another quart of water and stir. Add in one more (the third) quart of water and stir well. At this point, the gumbo base should be thick, almost like a gravy. Using your measuring cup, add up to another quart of water, a little at a time, to achieve a nice heavy broth.
Add the chicken base and black pepper, stirring to incorporate.
Place a lid on the pot, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Now add in your choice of meat, and simmer until proper doneness..For seafood, 5 minutes will suffice. When the meat is cooked, add the okra and the green onions. Allow to cook for another 5 or so minutes.
Taste the broth, and add salt if desired.
Serve over rice, with nice crusty French bread for sopping up the sauce and a cold Abita Amber to wash it down.
Now, turn on some Grayson Capps and make believe you are sitting under a cyprus tree somewhere in NOLA…..
**I made a seafood gumbo today, using a pound of catfish, a pound of peeled shrimp, and a pound of scallops. Other popular variations include:
- Chicken and sausage (Andouille sausage in traditional, but any sliced smoked link sausage will do); cook chicken pieces in the broth, then remove the meat from the bone and shred before returning to the pot
- Any combination of seafood (crawfish, shrimp, fish, crabs, scallops, oysters)
- Shrimp and sausage