Arguably more than any other American city, New Orleans has a long and distinguished tradition of its own regional cuisine. Bringing together the flavors of Creole and Cajun cooking, layered with French, Spanish and Southern influences, sprinkled with Italian expat cooks from both the mother country and New York, and blessed with an abundance of fresh seafood, the city provides a gourmet paradise. An additional bonus for students on a budget, unlike at top eateries elsewhere in the US, most people could afford a good meal without having to mortgage the house.
I confess that prior to moving there, I was not a terribly adventurous eater. Living at home, I had little reason to stray beyond the excellent fare provided in my mother and grandmother’s kitchen. Through a combination of peer pressure and curiosity, I found myself eating a variety of seafood from raw oysters to steamed crawfish, from shrimp jambalaya to catfish gumbo. I learned to enjoy fresh oysters with traditional red hot sauce, or baked with spinach (oysters Rockefeller) or with spicy cheese (oysters Bienville). There are a lot of oyster bars in the city, but one of the oldest, and at the time one of my favorites, was the Acme Oyster Bar in the French Quarter on a small side street between Bourbon and Royal Streets. Aside from oysters, they also served good Italian pasta dishes.
Beignets are small, pillow shaped delights of fried dough sprinkled with powder sugar. They are only good when eaten fresh, accompanied by a cup of New Orleans chicory coffee. (During World War II, coffee was severely rationed, so locals would mix the coffee beans with chicory beans, resulting in a slightly bitter flavor. After the War ended, people developed a liking for the new brew, and continue to serve it to this day.) Beignets were served three to a plate, which was just enough for a healthy appetite. They were no more expensive than doughnuts, and were a staple for tourists as well as the local fishermen and market workers. The two places offering these delicacies were a block apart near the River in the French Quarter. “Morning Call” was my favorite for the heavy silver bowls of sugar on each small coffee table (it sadly closed a number of years ago) and the other is “Café du Monde” that is still in existence. We would go there for an early morning treat, or for something to settle our stomachs after the occasional evening of partying on Bourbon Street.
A Louisiana po’boy sandwich consists of either roast beef or fried seafood, often shrimp, crab or oysters, served on New Orleans French bread known for its crisp crust and fluffy center. It is usually topped with Cajun mayo, tomatoes, and a spicy sweet bell pepper slaw. This is distinct from the classic Muffuletta sandwich that combines a homemade olive salad with layers of thin-sliced Italian cold cuts. It originated among the Italian immigrants of the city, and is almost always made with crusty round bread. Both are delicious and relatively inexpensive, making them my go-to orders when I was hungry and out about town.
Shrimp Etouffee (etouffee basically means “smothered”) is a classic Louisiana stew made with shrimp, the Holy Trinity of onion, celery, and green pepper, and a simple roux to thicken it up. (Some purists skip the roux, but I like it.) Cajun seasoning, garlic, Tabasco sauce and jalapenos add the desired heat to the dish. Served over rice, it’s a signature Cajun meal. If it’s still there, Bon-Ton restaurant just off Canal Street was my favorite etouffee fix.
During my last two years of medical school I lived in a medical fraternity house (the benefits of a fraternity without the mindless hazing rituals) that employed Thelma, a lovely black lady as its cook. From her, I learned to appreciate what good Southern fried chicken should taste like, along with the proper way to cook red beans and rice. She treated us as her own kids, and shared with us wisdom she gained through a difficult life. She also invited us to join her Southern Baptist church for Sunday service. I must say, I have never seen so much joy and energy in any church I’ve been in, before or since. She appreciated that we tried to help manage her diabetes and high blood pressure by bringing her medications from our clinics, and offering her dietary advice. Like most of our non-compliant patients in clinic, she took our medicines, but rarely followed our advice. I spent some time trying to understand our failure to communicate. The best I could do is understand that her goals and priorities were not the same as ours, and that while she appreciated our concern, the facts we offered about her disease would not induce her to change the lifestyle she enjoyed. She was a fatalist, and believed that when the Lord called her, she would be ready to go. Until then, she would live her life on her own terms. Sadly, this communication gap exists even today with many of my own patients.