Before I visit a new place I usually have a misty, half-formed idea of what it’s going to be like; what it looks like, what the people are like, the general vibe of the place. Sometimes my preconceived notions are pretty accurate and the place is what I envisioned. But sometimes I get a surprise, and those are my favourite times.
New Orleans surprised me. I was looking forward to it, but I also had this idea that it would have a seedy underworld vibe, not unlike Rio de Janeiro. I liked Rio but when I was there it always felt like it might bite (which it did, I ended up having my ATM card skimmed and about $1,000 robbed out of my account. But that’s another country and another story).
New Orleans turned out to be nothing like Rio. It of course has its dodgy areas, but the general vibe overall is one of incredible friendliness and fun. Southern hospitality isn’t just a myth. And everyone is so damned happy and relaxed, it’s infectious.
This high baseline level of happiness probably has something to do with the near-tropical weather, abundance of generously-poured and mobile alcoholic beverages and some of the best seafood in the world. I’m talking crawfish, lobster, oysters, prawnshrimp (decided to just combine the words), crab – and for the more adventurous, alligator and turtle.
The really interesting thing about the food in New Orleans is discovering what is traditionally Creole or Cajun, and where the two cultures have converged along the way to influence each other or create something entirely unique. I guess the food is reflective of how New Orleans itself has developed over hundreds of years; shape-shifting with every new cultural absorption to become the one-of-a-kind place it is today.
But back to the food – or at least some of what we managed to fit in, both in terms of time and our stomachs:
Fresh, crusty French baguettes stuffed with deep-fried oysters, deep-fried fish or deep-fried shrimp/prawns. Let’s face it, deep-fried anything wrapped in a crusty bread blanket can’t be bad.
A delicious type of pork sausage. The Cajun take on it is to roll the sausage into balls, batter and deep-fry them – kind of like arancini. In New Orleans the food pyramid resembles a deep fryer.
Louisiana Hot Sauce
Eaten with or incorporated into nearly everything, and the variations are endless (including one called Sudden Death).
Not your Arnotts variety pack. The kind served fresh out of the oven with breakfast, often with SAUSAGE GRAVY. Yes, SAUSAGE GRAVY. I really feel like SAUSAGE GRAVY deserves all caps, all the time, don’t you? Anyhow, the biscuits are kind of like scones, except lighter, fluffier and tastier. And amazing with real butter (and SAUSAGE GRAVY).
Kind of like what you’d get if mashed potato and microwave oatmeal had a baby, except it’s actually corn-based. It feels like you’re eating cereal but it tastes like a savoury side. Regardless, it came with lots of butter and cheese and thus kept within the confines of our high-fat diet plan.
Battered, deep fried and bite-sized chunks of gator that resembled KFC popcorn chicken, but chewier and with a gamey flavour. The Cajun guy who took us on a swamp tour and introduced us to some live alligators insisted they don’t remotely taste like chicken. However he lives with 6 alligators in his house (one, his ‘baby girl’, is called Allie), so I think he may be slightly biased.
Oh man, gumbo. Gumbo is a traditional Creole soup, usually made with prawnshrimp, chicken, sausage and spices, served over rice. But that’s a logical description.
The emotional one is that Gumbo changed my soup world, and I don’t know if there’s any going back. Especially not to the 5-month old bags of unidentified frozen orange (I think it’s pumpkin) gunk-weirdness sitting in my freezer back in Sydney.
Eating gumbo was bittersweet; sweet because the flavour is incredible: rich, dark, earthy, meaty, spicy, exotic and completely delicious. Bitter because I know I’m going to go back home, try and recreate it, and fail. But try I must.
These were the delicious highlights of what is such a cool place. I loved New Orleans. In fact my heart broke a little when we left, especially when the taxi driver who dropped us at the airport said ‘y’all come back and visit us again soon, ya hear!’.
Well, allrighty then.