The International Writers Magazine: New Orleans
John M Edwards
John discovers New Orleans unique cuisine to be out of this world, not just Creole and Cajun clichés (“Gumbo” and “Jambalaya”), but also, well, nothing beats an Oyster Poboy!
At the legendary Napoleon House in New Orleans, Lousiana, United States, I found myself expectantly dreaming of a dressed “Oyster Poboy,” especially since they had not even one of them on their menus. (Hurricane Katrina had literally wiped out many of the oyster beds way back when).
This way historic Vieux Carré inn is “in,” decorated with hanging pots of plants weeping with wisterias and whathaveyous. Here was also the site of a famous nefarious plot. Once upon a time, the “Yats” (New Orleans elite) hatched a plan in the inner courtyard sanctum to return their Emporer Napoleon Bonaparte to the so-called Louisiana Purchase (brokered between the Little Colonel and Thomas Jefferson for only several mil). Even though the plan failed, this French Quarter maison was still a standout dining adventure for anyone looking for the New Orleans of the movie Cat People, if not The Big Easy.
And so I sat munching on a muffalleta (ham, salami, provolone, and olives on a pressed roll), drinking copious cups of café du lait spiked with anisette spirits. But what I was really here for was the recently decriminalized old absinthe (a liquor made from brain-damaging “wormwood” which is lit up by fire and sweetened with sugar cubes).
As a descendant of Mad Anthony Wayne, who saved the big white fat asses of both the Revolutionary Patriots and the Red Coats during a severe winter at Valley Forge by stealing cattle from the British, I had every right to claim familial heritage (albeit tenuous at that) also to the Corsican Emporer (buried in Les Invalides in Paris). Both were enigmatic tricorn-capped figures wrapped in the cloak of the fake wars of enlightenment principles. (I think the Revolutionary War was a cover for colonization, with show battles similar to today’s reenactments.) Indeed, at first, many thought they were both one and the same.
(Why is it that everyone who thinks they are descended from Napoleon is deemed insane?)
Magnetic loci like The Napoleon House selling fine dining and drink are a dime a dozen here in the Crescent City, birthplace of “Dixieland Jazz” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”; home of the “Superdome” (with its New Orleans Saints football team) and “Café du Monde” (with its beignets and chicory coffee); and venue of “Tipitinas” (starring Professor Longhair, The Neville Brothers, and The Radiators) and the “Riverboat President” (starring Men at Work, The Talking Heads, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood).
While enrolled at Tulane University in The Garden District (right on the St. Charles Streetcar line and across the street from a reasonably good zoo containing a genuine white tiger), as an English and History major, I was also in a pretty good band called The Dingleberries—a grotesque name if you know what they really are—which we later changed to High Entropy. The band consisted of Jim on vocals, George on rhythm guitar, Dave on lead guitar, Larry on drums, and yours truly on bass guitar. (Most college kids go only by their first names, no surnames supplied.) We practiced more than we played out, but we did manage some live shows at Der Ratskeller, Tupelos, The Quad, and The F & M Lounge.
What I liked best about the band was that they bent over backwards in allowing me to play whatever I wanted, ranging from “The Whipping Post,” by the Allman Brothers to “She’s Not There,” by the Zombies. But my favorite tunes were my own original songs, such as “Arthritis,” within which I could wail on long bass solos, including a purloined riff from Albert Collins and the Ice Breakers: the theme to “Popeye.”
One of my favorite friends back then on campus was the much-older-than-me “pretend student” Bruce Chatwin, who crashed one of my graduate level Archaeological classes presided over by a prof with an amusingly antique mustache reminiscent of Charlie Chaplain’s “Little Tramp.”
Anyway, Bruce got an A-plus and I got a C-minus, since in the long flowery essay on “Dominance” in my blue book, the prof had crossed out everything and circled only one line on how “In the primate world, dominance is achieved when the alpha males blank the most females.” The prof amusingly addended: “This, and only this, is relevant to the topic!”
I remembered after the course became a denouement going to a Vieux Carré carnage splurge at a series of French Quarter favorites with Bruce, where he tried such original dishes as “Oysters Rockefeller,” “Blackened Redfish,” and “Bananas Foster” for the nth time. While I tried “Turtle Gumbo,” “Crawfish Etouffé,” and “Boudin Blanc” for the nth time. Alas, all on my nickel.
I also revisited my favorite shop for cheap eats, “The Camelia Grill,” where Jimmy Buffet supposedly wrote “A Cheeseburger in Paradise.” But I was there for the aptly named “Cannibal Special”—a cheesey omelette covered in lumpenproletariat chili con carne.
||New Orleans has the largest number of bars per square mile of any place in United States. Almost everybody, except some college students cramming for final exams (these hipcats, of course, prefer poudre), can be found almost every night at places like The Boot, Tin Lizzie’s, Miss May’s, and Fat Harry’s guzzling fifty-cent highballs and one-dollar drafts, trying to pick up anything that moves in what is surely America’s largest party pileup.
The only thing that beats it is Mardi Gras itself, Rio's Canavale, and perhaps also Spring Break in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale.
However, probably the best event in this Deep South den of iniquity, purported land of Les Bons Temps Roulés, is eating alligator and drinking Dixie beers at the annual Jazz Fest staged at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, where I one year saw Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Texas Flood, before the guitar maestro sadly perished in an airplane crash—they say so, at least.
Also a number of good bands played right on our campus: The Eurythmics, Mick Fleetwood, Joe Jackson, and Frank Zappa, whose dressing room I guarded. (After his show, Mr. Zappa invited me inside his dressing room for some cake). Also here, I saw gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who refused to talk about drugs, only politics, booed and razzed off the stage by an angry student body.
Now back to the unique food of New Orleans--influenced by Creole and Cajun cooking from the colonizing Spanish “Criolles” and refugee French and Basque “Acadians” expelled from Nova Scotia, Canada--such as “Crawfish Etoufé” and “Oysters Rockefeller.” Popeye’s Fried Chicken originated here, as did master chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. But still, the two most famous restaurants are still Commander’s Palace (sometimes confused with Brennan’s) and Antoine’s (often confused with Arnaud’s). One of my personal favorites, however, was the now long-gone Christians, staged like overt blasphemy in a renovated converted church, with a little spicy voodoo thrown in for good measure.
Everyone’s favorite haunt for Oyster Po Boys, washed down with local draft Dixie Beer, is Casimentos on Magazine Street, near a long line of nifty antique shops. Inside, with the turn-of-the-century tiles and pressed molded tin roof, you feel that you have walked into The Kingfisher’s private bathroom, but indecent décor aside, this is still the place to shuck oysters and let them slide down your throat—with, of course, a little hotsauce and lemon squirt to kill all the icky bacteria, if not the poisonous horseradish.
Unfortunately, I have only been back this once to my alma mater since Hurricane Katrina ruined New Orleans for everybody, but I hear it is coming back. I’ve confirmed rumors that the French Quarter is completely intact: the tourists once again wander around Bourbon Street with “Go Cups” from Pat O’Brien’s, asking for directions to The Dungeon, where the Grateful Dead got busted for drugs in the 1960s: “Busted down on Bourbon Street . . .”
Anyway, after having lived in this mostly Catholic centrum in a mostly Protestant state for five years, I’ll never forget what this sin city used to be like. Now almost all of my fellow classmates are successful at something, whatever their chosen métier, be it BA or BS.
Now let Les Bons Temps Roulés!
RECIPE FOR “DRESSED” ASTRO POBOYS (™)
1. 5-10 freshly shucked raw oysters
2. 1 cup bread crumbs
2. 1 French-style baguette
3. ½ tablespoon of Miracle Whip mayonnaise
4. ½ tablespoon of Grey Poupon mustard
5. 1 large tomato
6. 1 cup lettuce
7. 3 dashes of Tobasco hot sauce
* First lightly fry a handful of freshly shucked raw oysters covered in bread crumbs, while carefully slicing a New Orleans baked baguette. Make the bread “dressed” with a light coating of mayonnaise, mustard, tomato, and salad, with a dash of native Tobasco. Then carefully place the still-hot oysters in the envelope of the baguette and press down with some force majeure, and voila! You have yourself an “Astro Poboy” (™)!
TOP 10 BEST DINING OUT OPTIONS IN NEW ORLEANS:
New Orleans, like a set out of “Streetcar,” “Pretty Baby,” or “Cat People,” is one of the top red-hot spots for business conventions, which means all of the Big Easy’s eateries are guaranteed around-the-clock customers. But sophisticated (read: picky) business execs and surprised celebrities can use the following handydandy list to explore the spectrum of the Crescent City’s unique contributions to world cuisine, especially during Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival.
NEW ORLEANS RESTAURANTS:
1. NAPOLEON HOUSE: 500 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70130, 504.524.9752.
BEST: OLD ABSINTHE
This is where was once hatched a nefarious plot to smuggle the exiled Napoleon into the “Louisiana Purchase” (itself negotiated between the Little Colonel and Thomas Jefferson for only several mil.) Try, a “muffalleta” sandwich (ham, salami, provolone, and olives in a pressed bun), and don’t forget the recently decriminalized “Old Absinthe” (a dangerous spirit made of wormwood).
2. CAMELLIA GRILL: 6266 S. Carrollton Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70118, 504.309.2679.
This is where Jimmy Buffet (often confused with Warren Buffet) wrote “A Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Try, an aptly named “Cannibal’s Special,” a large cheesy omelet covered in chili con carne.
3. CASIMENTOS: 4330 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 70115, 504.895.9761.
This is everybody’s favorite place to go for oyster poboys and local Dixie beer, especially with its turn-of-the-last-century tiled floors and molded tin ceilings, suitable for the luxury bathroom of, say, “The Kingfisher” (Huey Long). Try, their freshly shucked oysters with a squirt of lemon and Tobasco red sauce to kill all the icky bacteria.
4. CAFÉ DU MONDE: 813 Decatur St., New Orleans, LA 70116, 504.581.2914.
BEST: CAFÉ SCENE
This is perhaps the most famous café for people watching not only in the French Quarter, or “Vieux Carrée” (Old Quarter), but perhaps in the world. Try, powdered-sugary “beignettes” and their signature chicory coffee
5. MR. B’S BISTRO: 201 Royal St., New Orleans, LA 70130, 504.523.2078.
This is the place to order authentic cliché dishes from the traditions of Creole (from the Spanish settlers called “Criolles”) and Cajun (from French Acadian and Basque immigrants expelled from Canada). Try, the gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish étouffe, red beans and rice, and boudin blanc.
6. COMMANDER’S PALACE: 1403 Washington Ave., New Orleans, LA 70116, 504.899.8221.
This is perhaps New Orleans’s most famous and expensive restaurant, specializing in the popular Sunday Jazz Brunch, with the royal décor to prove it. Try, “Bananas Foster” and “Pain Perdu” (lost bread: elegant French toast) for dessert, which was supposedly invented here, and discover who the new upcoming chefs are (both master chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme once worked here).
7. K PAUL’S: 416 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70130, 504.596.2530.
This Cajun/Creole legend is one the best restaurants anywhere, featuring the unique gastronomy of chef Paul Prudhomme, who is often to be seen in situ wearing a Chef Boyardee hat. Try the “blackened redfish.” Et tu, Etouffé? No, the turtle soup!
8. ANTOINE’S: 713 St. Louis St., New Orleans, LA, 70130, 504.581.4422.
This N’Awlins classic restaurant, established 1840, always filled with local “Yats,” is so famous that it once was featured in a Bug’s Bunny cartoon, the one where a Francophone chef tries to turn Bugs into “hossenpfeffer” å la Antoine’s. Try, the “Oysters Rockefeller,” which was supposedly invented here, as well as “Eggs Sardou.”
9. WINDSOR COURT GRILL ROOM: 300 Gravier St., New Orleans, LA 70130, 504.523.6000.
BEST: HOTEL RESTAURANT
This luxurious 4-diamond restaurant is a throwback to the days of the “Sazerac Room.” Try, the desert menu, which does not yet feature a donated idea from yours truly called “The Windor Court Linzer Torte.” Hey, isn’t that Quentin Tarantino?
10. POPEYE’S: Various Locations.
BEST: FRIED ANYTHING
This fast-food chain, invented in the Big Easy, is too good to eat slowly and blows away rival KFC. Try an extra spicy “Three-Piece” with biscuit or the “Cajun Popcorn” (fried shrimp balls), washed down with a local Barq’s root beer.
© John M. Edwards January 2014
P.S. I just won 10 NATJA Awards. I also won 2 Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest Awards (2009 and 2012), as well as 3 Notable Essays nods in The Best American Essays (2011/2012/2013).
Postcard from Cahuita
John M. Edwards
I stood in a state of stupefaction, eavesdropping on a few random undocumented locals who looked like they were engaging in a slapping fight—except with warm smiles of nonrecognition on their faces, maybe ganja buzzes.
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