Tomorrow we leave New Orleans after 10 days of crawfish, boudin, po’boys and a little jazz. This is a great food culture, always interesting whether you’re spending $100 or $10 per plate. Good food is made where cultures mix and this stew of French, Italian, and Spanish settlers marrying their old world sensibility to soul food and the bounty of the bayou will charm even the most desultory palate.
I love fine dining as much as anyone, and the old standbys of creole cooking such as Commander’s Palace, where both Paul Prudomme and Emeril Lagasse got their start, are still turning out refined and creative dishes that show how food can be innovative while rooted in tradition. The chicory coffee-lacquered quail served over boudin and smoky greens was exquisite.
But the beating heart of any food culture is the bottom up, indigenous, everyday foods that are lovingly nurtured though generations of dedicated cooks adding spice to the ordinary.The muffulettas at Central Grocery, where they were invented in 1906, were a revelation. It’s just sliced meat and cheese on a mammoth loaf of bread slathered with an olive salad that soaks into the bread as it rests. Crispy thin on the outside and soft on the inside, this precise style of bread probably can’t be found outside of New Orleans (focaccia is a rough approximation). If the oil doesn’t dribble down your arm it wasn’t made right.
A visit to Cajun country, about an hour west of the city, began with a lunch stop at Bourgeois Meat Market for some boudin, a sausage made from roast pork, pork liver, and rice with onions, peppers, and seasonings. Everyone has their own version—even roadside gas stations make boudin. Most of it is eaten on the trunk of a car—fast food never tasted this good. Dense, soft, with a subtle spicy kick, Bourgeois sells them wrapped in a hot flour tortilla, a bit innovative but it works. (And while you’re at it grab a pound of their freshly smoked beef jerky. You won’t go back to that stuff in a package).
But of course the quintessential New Orleans gift to humanity is the po’ boy sandwich, once again made with that crispy but soft rendition of French bread produced by Leidenheimer’s, a local Nola bakery. The contrast between the crisp flakey crust and the soft center is essential. You’ll find po’boys stuffed with everything from tofu to fried oysters. But the original po’ boys and the one in my view that sets it apart from other sub-like sandwiches, is the beef po’boy. Invented to feed striking transit workers in 1929, the sliced beef po’boy is dressed with gravy and creole mayonnaise that meld into a glorious mess that falls out of the sandwich and runs down your arm when you bite into it.
That’s a theme. When you eat in New Orleans bring an extra shirt.
Try Domilise’s for the real deal po’ boy—that’s all they sell. But if you want a good po’boy along with a one-stop, hole-in-the-wall overview of the best creole soul food in the city, that’s Lil Dizzy’s—the fried chicken and red beans and rice are justly famous.
But the dish that sticks in my mind after this total immersion in this gem of a food culture takes us back to a pricey French Quarter institution, Brennan’s, for their breakfast.