My last few days in New Orleans, which were interrupted by a short sojourn in Cajun country (which I will describe at a later date), reinforced my feeling that the sensitivity to how food is prepared, perceived and presented here matters regardless of where you are eating.
During the haze that was Mardi Gras I became so swept up in the mayhem that a proper meal consisted of whatever you could hold in one hand while drinking with the other. I landed at the Hi-Ho Lounge after a long day of parades and partying but alas they did not serve food. The Mardi Gras Indians were performing with clarinetist Evan Christopher (whom I had seen so many times during this trip that I am sure I have been classified as a stalker) and during a set break I went searching for sustenance.
The Hi-Ho is in a pretty rough section of town called the Treme and had few nearby options for a snack. I wandered across the street to a shady looking place with a sign that simply read “Po-Boys”. There was a police car outside, which gave me confidence that not only would I be safe but that I would get a pretty good sandwich. I put on my sunglasses and my best tough guy face and walked in to get a Po-boy. The place was as sparse as a sandwich shop could be. There was a counter (no chairs), a menu of four sandwiches, two tables, a scratch-off lottery ticket machine and a collection of locals who looked as tough as the neighborhood we were in. I had a Ham and Swiss Po-boy smothered in mayo, lettuce and tomato served on a paper plate for about five bucks. The sandwich was excellent compensation for the lack of atmosphere (or my sense of personal safety). I am positive that eating more than one of these in your lifetime would require a side order of Plavix to be survivable but it sure was good while it lasted. I escaped, belly full, cardio-vascular system only slightly compromised and without any gun play.
During another Evan Christopher stalking episode we were at Donna’s, a Jazz Club directly across the street from Armstrong Park on North Rampart St. Charlie, the cook at Donna’s, makes one dish per night. This night he was making hamburgers and fries. Charlie, nightly buys enough food for about as many people expected on any given evening, so you need to order early. Donna’s is a real Jazz dive and I did not have high expectations of Charlie’s hamburger styling. I could not have been more off the mark. Like everything else I have eaten here, the hamburger was great. It was thick, perfectly cooked and seasoned. The lettuce and tomato were fresh and crisp. The bun was light and perfectly toasted. The fries were hot, just salty enough and snapped when you broke one in half. It was nothing fancy but it was obvious that Charlie cares about what he is serving his guests, regardless of how simple it is.
When we had had enough Mardi Gras for one year we dragged ourselves to a local chain restaurant called Superior Grill on Charles Street that was serving late night meals. Superior Grill serves Tex-Mex style food. Again, I expected little else but something to fill my stomach before I gratefully flopped onto my hotel bed. And again, I was pleasantly surprised that even at a chain restaurant, where the majority of the clientele were 20-somethings stumbling in from their Mardi Gras revelling, they really cared about what they put in front of their customers. I had a chicken fajita that was obviously made with the idea that someone was going to eat it. In most of my chain restaurant experiences this concept is lost in translation between the server who resents you, the cook who actually hates you and the food runner who has lost his will to live. In New Orleans, everyone seemed honored to be participating in food and was invested in your dining experience.
My general thesis on this topic is this; In New Orleans everyone realizes that one of the reasons their city matters, why people love it and keep coming back is good food. Everywhere you go people try to make food with as much skill as they have, lots of love, personal pride and care. They got to my heart through my stomach…and both feel a little bigger thanks to my eager willingness to make their efforts appreciated.