Mardi Gras. Almost all of us think immediately of New Orleans, parades, and women baring their breasts for beads – not to mention men bearing their beads for breasts. Few of us even think of Rio de Janeiro, which is reportedly even more outlandish than the New Orleans’ carnival, much less the celebrations in Galveston and Mobile. No, it’s the city on the Mississippi delta we associate with that event, because the event is part of the gestalt that comprises NOLA in our mental landscape.
Although never there for Mardi Gras, I’ve been to New Orleans half a dozen times for business and pleasure – it’s one of my favorite cities. I was there for Halloween one year and that was quite a blow-out. But I’m not a party animal and although a couple of female friends persuaded me to dance for the first time in 25 years, I was more content with listening to the music and eating.
Music and food. These are the other two foundations of the city’s heritage and claim to a special cultural allure. Perhaps it’s not surprising that music and food are also key elements in a successful party.
Jazz is America’s native musical expression. It began by combining elements of west African, Caribbean, Spanish, and French music to create a fusion of sounds and then grew from that bastard mixture into a mature and elegant form of musical expression. The one musical form that is as likely to be heard on a public radio station as classical.
By the same token the food of New Orleans is an admixture of these cuisines as well as that of the indigenous people’s (such as the Opelousas and Chitimachas) and even Italy.
Originally there were two cuisines associated with New Orleans – Cajun and Creole. Cajun was the peasant food, what the poor folks back on the bayou ate, while Creole was the upper class fare, derived from French haute cuisine. Although some ingredients were shared, there was a distinct difference in techniques. And yet, both the Cajuns (originally French Canadians from Acadia) and the Creoles (émigrés from French and Spanish Caribbean plantations) had parts of a common cooking heritage. To some degree that explains why during all the years all those original cuisines have mixed, the French influence has dominated. But the dominance has been that of an older brother, not a father.
It’s not surprising that in this country, where we’re all relative newcomers, that the American cuisine with the deepest roots, the most sophisticated style, the clearest identity is an amalgamation of cultures. And yet, it is also a cuisine that is uniquely American with all New Orleans food cultures having been subsumed into a particularly mature and elegant approach to food and cooking.
I’ve had incredible meals in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and other American cities. But few of those great meals could be identified as offering a truly American sensibility. American cuisine is more often found in hamburgers, meat loaf, and mac-n-cheese. These are delicious foods when prepared well with quality ingredients (I take pride in both my mac-n-cheese and meatloaf), but these are not Great meals, they’re good meals, comforting meals, at best. Shrimp Creole can be a Great meal as can jambalaya; an oyster po’boy or mufaletta a great sandwich; pralines or Bananas Foster a great dessert.
A great meal excites more than your sense of taste, take gumbo for instance. It’s a bowl filled with red tomatoes, green peppers and okra, white rice and onions, brown Andouille, and maybe pink shrimp or crawfish. Then the indescribable scent hits you like a 2×4 between the eyes. You take a bite and taste sweet, bitter, savory, salty – perhaps even a hint of sour – but certainly four out of our five tastes combining to produce hundreds of flavors obvious and subtle. The pepper burns your mouth, the rice is silky, the meat chewy, the stock smooth, and the vegetables slightly crisp. A bowl of soup transformed into an extraordinary multi-sensual experience. That is Great food. (If you’re feeling a bit hungry, here are my takes on some New Orleans classics: Crawfish Jambalaya, Mufaletta, Chicken/Andouille Gumbo.)
And New Orleans cuisine is still very much alive with new chefs offering new ideas and techniques while holding on to the traditions.
New Orleans is more than a city, it’s an all-too-rare example of genuine American culture. NOLA is a polyglot of histories, cultures, religions, music, and cuisines that have become so inextricably linked together that they have become something other than the sum of the parts. And nothing is more genuinely American than that.