April 15-19, 2008 – New Orleans
I arrived in New Orleans on a pleasant sunny day, perfect for a stroll along Magazine Street where I stopped for what might have been the best sandwich I’ve eaten in ages – toasted whole grain bread with a heap of thinly sliced turkey breast, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and avocado with a half sour pickle.
Some things remain constant in New Orleans, despite the horrific tragedies of Katrina – stores all over town still sell Mardi Gras beads and as I walked down St. Charles in the Garden District, the remains of the Mardi Gras celebrations still hung from most trees and littered the sidewalks.
Throughout the French Quarter the quintessential wrought iron balconies still decorate the buildings. It’s only the numerous for sale or lease signs that signal the lingering financial devastation from the hurricane.
Music remains a constant in this city, and the bars and clubs of the French Quarter, along with the pubs lining Magazine Street, continue to ring with the sounds of zydeco, rock, jazz and the blues. But when I peeked inside, the crowds were smaller and a bit more subdued than my last visit pre-K.
Spring has been here for awhile and coming from Denver where it snowed last week, it feels like summer is in bloom with caterpillars crawling along most every sidewalk. I noticed them because the crumbling condition of the walks forced me to watch my feet to avoid stumbling.
Although residents can be seen everywhere working to rebuild their homes, the sidewalks, curbs, gutters and streets are full of heaving cracks and crumbling stone. It’s as if a property is a patient they are working to revive – focusing on heart transplant surgery now, the pedicure can wait until the patient is stabilized.
But what I’m really here for is the food. The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference brought me to New Orleans, arguably one of the top foodie destinations in the country (or world). Crawfish is in season, along with soft shell crabs, and guests dug in eagerly, unable to satisfy their cravings with just one or two.
Every culture has it’s form of sausage – in New Orleans it’s andouille and tasso ham – so what better way to get acquainted than to begin with an unadulterated and undecorated piece, letting my mouth explore the intricate flavors and spices, whetting my appetite for more.
Everywhere you go, it’s a pork thing…I’m thinking of writing a book called Pork Heaven to explore the nearly religious experience of the humble pig in our diet. Here in New Orleans, it was bacon wrapped shrimp offered up by one of the city’s famous restaurants.
The chefs of this warm city showed up in force to take care of us – from speaking at the conference about the role they are playing in helping to rebuild both their communities and the tourism of the city, to treating us to the delicacies of Creole and Cajun food: oysters, soft shell crab, and gumbo.
Emeril Lagasse led a celebrity cooking demonstration for a fundraiser this week for the Culinary Trust, whipping up shrimp etouffe, one of those classic dishes that relies on a nice darkly browned roux for color and flavoring. These guys are the chefs from his restaurant empire in New Orleans, waiting for the silent auction to end to serve the crowd.
Chef Paul Prudhomme is perhaps the most famous New Orleans chef, although his shyness seems to hold him back just slightly from the spotlight. He was full of charm serving his famous gumbo from K Paul’s restaurant, which he likes to eat served over potato salad instead of rice. Other gumbos served that night included the incredibly savory gumbo z’herbes, which is made with stewed greens like spinach, mustard greens, and kale mixed with spices. It’s my new favorite gumbo.
I observed a lot while I was in New Orleans:
A city still struggling to put the devastation behind while welcoming visitors with an open heart and obvious gratitude.
Buildings in all states of repair – some completed and sparkling with freshly planted gardens; others swarming with family and contractors working to saw, nail, and paint a new future; and some abandoned in mid-stride, an indicator that the financial or emotional burden to rebuild may just be too much for some.
A group of people with a relaxed attitude toward life in general, but a fierce sense of pride and self-reliance, making sure visitors know they will overcome their challenges, despite the lack of federal support they wished they had received.
A city in transition – in some ways just like any other as they work to revitalize the warehouse district, but in other ways unlike any other as they rebuild from perhaps the most difficult natural disaster in our country.
Perhaps most obvious is a culture that just refuses to die – the soul of this region lives on and the heart beats strong. Everywhere you go you can still hear the mantra, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
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