Travel is a wonderful opportunity to eat, as long as you can get along with foreign food. A lot of people always ask about rock fever but I only get hagridden once I leave the state. Luckily for me, in my trip last week to New Orleans I found solace in Southern Food, particularly the Creole cuisine, amazing seafood and the city’s favorite sandwiches.
Comfort food’s popularity has been on the rise–it’s the year of the gastropub, after all–but to be fair the Deep South has more to offer than just croquettes and hush puppies. It’s true that Emeril Lagasse is the most celebrated chef in the region, but there are rising chef stars everywhere (see Season 11 of Bravo’s Top Chef, which is currently filming in New Orleans with Lagasse at the judges table).
French and Spanish immigrants started New Orleans in the 1700’s when they settled along the high ground of the Mississippi River. The historic buildings around the city are incredible, and there are touches of French, Spanish, Greek and modern architecture everywhere. The racial designation of Creole is of some debate–it’s basically a melting pot of Native American, African American, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Creole cuisine was developed in upper class plantation-era kitchens with heavy influence from French and European preparations as well as local ingredients and flair.
New Orleans had plenty of challenges for growth. The Mississippi River Delta although rich with resources is subject to hurricanes, a weather pattern the early European settlers had not seen in their homeland, rebuilding towns destroyed by hurricanes was commonplace.
Nevertheless, the town has some of the best seafood you’ll ever come across. The heart of the tourist area of New Orleans is the French Quarter, established in 1721. Here millions of oysters are harvested along the delta and eaten on Iberville and Bourbon Streets, where you’ll find popular restaurants like Brennan’s, Acme Oyster, Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar and Bourbon House.
There are a lot of familiar Creole dishes you’ve probably come across: Oysters Rockefeller, jambalaya, gumbo, blackened salmon and banana cream pie. But there’s also turtle soup, crawfish etouffee, beignets and eggs sardou. But the spokes-food for the face of Creole is the shrimp Creole po’boy, found all over the city. Almost anywhere we stopped, from the French Quarter to the Garden District, had one on the menu.
The sandwich is basically an offshoot of shrimp Creole, made with fried shrimp and a spicy, thickened gravy kind of sauce, sometimes started as a roux, sometimes not, depending on the chef. Anyway, they pile the shrimp into an open roll, pour on the sauce and then press the bread together tightly. No need to bother with any vegetables or dressings here.
Local lore says the sandwich was born during a Flapper-era streetcar strike. The workers were fed these simple sandwiches by a restaurant owned by former streetcar conductors, and they jokingly called the workers and later the sandwiches “poor boys.” The name stuck, and a hundred years later the sandwich can be found stuffed with fried oysters, crawfish and meat, but the most popular just holds shrimp.
Second to the po’boy is the muffaletta, which is also a true New Orleans original. The Central Market–established in 1906 in the French Quarter–made them famous, using their 12-inch round bread that’s a cross between a sesame seed bun and foccacia. The bread is split in two and then they stack layers of provolone, salami, mortadella, mozzarella and ham along with their special-blend olive salad. The sandwich is then neatly wrapped in paper. At Central Market, the line goes out the door for this sandwich (in fact, it’s the only thing on their deli menu). You can only get it in whole (12-inch) or half sizes, but it’s worth tasting.
You would need weeks to explore all the French Quarter’s restaurants, and even then you’d barely skim the surface of New Orleans’ cuisine. The cuisine has proven popular even outside the South, but the true test will happen when we start seeing frog legs and gator showing up on Maui menus.