New Orleans: Craving Creole and Joie de Vivre
New Orleans, LA

New Orleans: Craving Creole and Joie de Vivre

When I asked friends about their impressions of New Orleans before embarking upon my first visit there with my husband last year, I got primarily speechless answers. I just got looks. Wide-eyed, nostalgic, intensely excited looks, as if these people were reliving a fond childhood memory and yearning for home. This struck me as odd, although I vaguely understood it. I imagined this must be what I looked like when people asked me about Austria. The looks my friends gave me were followed many times by, “it’s my favorite city on earth,” or “I’ll live there one day.” This had equally many times been my response to questions about my beloved Austria. But Austria was a world away—a ten hour flight over an ocean to a place utterly foreign and magical. I was certain I would never find another place like that, especially not in the states. Then I spent a week eating, drinking, dancing, and singing my way through New Orleans, and changed my mind.

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New Orleans is like no other place I’ve ever been to. It is one of the oldest, most diverse and unique cities in America, and is unimaginably rich in heterogeneous culture, cuisine, and music. Its obvious European, African and Caribbean roots, Haitian and Irish influences (to name a few), and distinctive spirit make it feel like a country all on its own, and indeed both a foreign and magical place. The city teems with French opulence and jazz, of which it was the birthplace. The scent of beignets, the ‘holy trinity’ (onion, bell pepper, and celery), and liquor lay heavily in the air, and you find yourself hungry all the time. There is a palpable energy that literally bursts from its streets and a spirit in its people that radiates passion, acceptance, and joy. It’s as if the city itself is alive and breathing with you as you walk through it. It is a remarkable thing to experience.

The city is a wealth of so many things—fascinating and vibrant culture, world-class musicians filling the streets and clubs with inspired Dixieland, a plethora of architectural treasures, and then…there’s the food. And as one of the premiere culinary hot spots in the world, nothing that I or anyone can say on the subject will do the real thing justice. But here it goes.

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My first experience of food in the Big Easy was at a pizza shop of all places. It was our first night there, in the lower Garden District. We were tired, it was late, and we were simply looking for something that was still open. A pizza place on the corner sounded familiar and seemed the obvious option. But when we got to this small, slightly grimy parlor full of character and great bartenders we ended up, upon suggestion, ordering the “best thing on the menu”—the barbeque shrimp po’ boy. And they weren’t kidding, it was shockingly good. Each bite of this epic sandwich was an amalgam of intensely well-melded flavors—the kind that you almost can’t describe but never forget, and go on to crave for months down the road. This was my first taste of the uniquely Cajun version of barbeque spices that would end up on our plates so often on this trip. Upon finishing this enormous meal, I quickly realized what an amazingly indulgent vacation this would be. We ended up back at this place for that sandwich two more times before we left a week later!

We went on to have a lot more Cajun food during our stay. Jambalaya and gumbo, both at tourist traps and tiny holes in the wall, alligator omelets, boudin and turtle soup, to name just a few, and fell so deeply in love with it that we bought an old, recipe-stained Cajun anthology in hopes of recreating it at home. I expected this kind of eating in New Orleans – meals at almost questionable diners with paper serving products and stellar food. What I didn’t expect however, somewhat ignorantly I must admit, was the wealth of fine French-Creole food the city was home to. Juxtaposed, the ambiance and culinary offerings of the two were notably different. And let me be clear – it is really hard to beat a bowl of proper Cajun jambalaya from a hole in the wall, that will leave you satiated and salivating, and probably cost you less than ten dollars. The dining experience, however, at some of the most iconic French pillars of New Orleans food culture, will be like none other you’ve ever had.

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Take Antoine’s for instance—a legendary French Quarter establishment with a sprawling collection of elegant dining rooms and an equally elegant classic French-Creole menu. It’s been in business since 1840 and is still generationally owned. The restaurant, which takes up nearly an entire city block, has a private President’s dining room, several men-only Mardi-Gras club rooms, a stern dinner dress code, tuxedoed waiters, and in whose kitchen Oysters Rockefeller was created. Similarly, Commander’s Palace, another fine Haute Creole restaurant in the Garden District, has been around since 1880 and boasts some of the same elegant formality with some modern culinary flair. My husband and I enjoyed the best meal of our trip here—pecan crusted gulf fish, wild rabbit saltimbocca with spinach spätzle and sun dried tomatoes, seared foie gras with drunken cherry beignets, and Creole bread pudding soufflé. My mouth still waters when I recall it.

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These are black-tie-affair kinds of restaurants with service staffs that treat you like you like royalty and chefs who offer you meticulously prepared dishes and graceful flavor profiles that stay etched in your tastebuds long after the meal is over. These restaurants whisk you away to an old France, whereby you not only eat for satiety but you experience food as you would a theater show, savoring its multi-sensory facets of beauty, design, and pleasure, and allowing yourself to be fully transported to a heightened state of consciousness by the experience.

This is what makes the food in this city a culture all on its own. It is this understanding that when you are in New Orleans, whether you are in a dingy dive, someone’s backyard, or one of the most famous restaurants in the world, you are sitting down not just to a meal but to an experience. It is the fact that eating is both ceremonious and spirited, and food is a source of joy and human connection. New Orleans is a place of inspiration on many levels, and while I can almost guarantee that you’ll find countless things to fall in love with like I did, you will find magic in its food.

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