Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is New Orleans Cuisine a Myth?

"Hey, we are coming in town and need a totally authentic New Orleans restaurant recommendation." I often ask the people what they want to eat and inevitably get one of two responses, "Cajun/Creole/something spicy and alligatory" or "a place that screams New Orleans."

Well, the former response is frustrating because a) Cajun food is not New Orleans food b)the term Creole comes from the Ancient Greek word meaning "no one quite knows what this word means" c) Dear Lord. The latter is infuriating because to me screaming New Orleans seems like something that requires effort. And if there is anything that screams New Orleans it is blissful laziness.

The word Creole is likely the word that is used most to describe New Orleans cuisine. A survey of three to four people revealed a similar consensus over the term Creole which roughly translates to a "blending." Well, if America is the great melting pot, wouldn't all American food be Creole? So it has to be something more than that.

Is it flavors of home with local ingredients? Would the muffaletta be Creole? Likely not, its almost all imported meats and cheeses. The muff was invented to give Italians a taste of Italy, not to develop a fondness for New Orleans. How about red beans and rice? Well, loads of cuisines have a rice and beans dish, so it can't be that unique.

Is Creole food timeless or classic cuisine? It can't be. There is a philosophical statement that says you can never cross the same stream twice. That either you or the stream will have changed the second time you cross. Over the last thirty to forty years the Spanish, Italian, and French immigrants have been replaced by Vietnamese, Indian, and Hispanic immigrants. Therefore it would seem that our Creole cuisine is constantly evolving to include the contributions from emerging ethnic groups. As it should. Perhaps Galatoire's is the embodiment of Creole cuisine to an Uptowner, but ask someone from Metairie and it could be Fury's.

I think we have a fear. Like all fears it is based on an irrational response to the unknown. New Orleans is frightened of becoming like everywhere else. A senseless amalgamation of strip malls, concept restaurants, and mediocrity. So even though we may love a little Vietnamese place on the Westbank, when out of town guests come in we still trudge on down to Mr. B's for an average, but "authentic" New Orleans restaurant experience.This behavior is the equivalent of New Yorkers taking out-of-towners to dine solely at hot dog carts.

So everyone say it with me: "We are a world class restaurant city. Some of these restaurants arent necessarily reflective of New Orleans cuisine. We can take our visitors to Lilette, Korea House, or Lebanon's Cafe and that will be ok."

Besides some of the best restaurants in the city are re-branding Creole cooking to their specifics. Take a recent dinner at Patois, here was a duck breast seared and served with sweet corn and duck debris. No one element screamed New Orleans, but the entirety of the dish felt like it belonged no where else than New Orleans. And to me that about sums up New Orleans cuisine.

Editor's Note:
This article is a rambling mess and my point is lost somewhere between the title and the ending. I realize that and blame the heat. The heat makes writing difficult. As such the blog will take a two week vacation beginning the week of July 27th. Please place Post-it-notes on your screen begging us to return a la Camellia Grill. We will catch you on the flip side.

Also, only a few more weeks to get your guest blogs in for consideration. Free lunch, right now TFS is in the lead. Get em in here!


Kevin O'Mara said...

Every time someone asks me, "So where should I go for a real New Orleans restaurant?" I want to go into everything you just touched on here (as rambling as it may be). Instead I usually just say Jacques-Imo's and change the subject.

Next time I'll point them at this entry.

Celeste said...

1)How about thinking of cajun & creole as inter-related traditions? It's been more than 30 years since Paul Prudhomme brought traditional cajun things like tasso into fine dining kitchens in NOLA, long enough for the two traditions to co-evolve into novel forms of food. The two trends are closer together than, say, Thai and Laotian food.
2)What about the flavor? Cajun or creole, city or county, locals tend to flavor their incredible variety of foods in specific ways: garlic, onion, bell pepper, thyme, bay leaf, cayenne, with a healthy dose of pork fat, smoked meats, and seafood. We do have distinct flavoring/seasoning traditions that make even the simplest foods (shrimp & white beans, smothered cabbage) taste distinctively local.

nolachigrl said...

I loved the article, I've fought this battle many times with out-of-towners. The heat may make your ramble, but at least we have creole tomatoes and snowballs to bring us back to relative sanity.

Rémy said...

I totally agree that "NOLA" cuisine is changing, which is why I say Herbsaint is a great compromise - Link has Cajun roots, which you can clearly see on the menu, but the restaurant is first top-notch cuisine and only second an homage to traditional (historical) Creole flavors. What could be better?

Also, I've started directing out-of-towners to Ignatius whenever they ask me that question. I've been there a couple times and enjoyed what I had; it's not really remarkable or memorable, and the menu is a lot more limited than I'd like, but it's easy, affordable, NOT smack-dab in the middle of the French Quarter, and has a good crawfish etouffee. Maybe not the best representation of all the cuisine our city is proud of, but it's an easy answer to the question.

jeffrey said...

Eh just make them read something before they come down and make asses of themselves.

Ellewoodsc said...

The odd thing is since the 19th century, New Orleans has always promoted food along with history and music as part of its "holy trinity" of culture and tourism. If, we who are from New Orleans, cannot define what in fact is "authentic", then how are we supposed to explain it to our out of town friends and visitors?? Renee's heat induced manifesto is both a challenge and reality of our constant shift in terms of culture and local tradition. Great article....

Frolic said...

Just a quick comment, because I'm on deadline today.

I think you're making the same mistake Alan Richman made when called Creoles a fairy people. Just because something is complicated and contradictory, that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

I would say go back to the original question from the tourist that prompted your musings. It's not "Cajun/Creole" that's such a confounding idea (and Celeste makes a good point that the two are today not so far apart), it's "authentic" that causes all the conceptual problems.

To answer another question, I would never take a guest to Korea House or Lebanon's Cafe because they're not that special. Many America cities have far better examples of both those cuisines. (Although I think Lebanon's Cafe is quite good.)

Rene said...

I know Creoles exist as people, but I think the concept of creole cuisine is difficult to nail down. For one, it should be always evolving to include new techniques, ingredients, and flavors. Also, it gets confusing when I hear things described as Creole-Italian as that seems redundant.

Frolic said...

"I know Creoles exist as people, but I think the concept of creole cuisine is difficult to nail down."

Don't think I implied that you thought Creole people didn't exist. I just said the logic was similar.

"For one, it should be always evolving to include new techniques, ingredients, and flavors."

I think Creole is used in New Orleans pretty much as it's used in Latin America and Brazil. It's an adaptation of something from the Old World using the products and techniques of the New Orleans. It's an entirely American creation, but one with roots in a European tradition.

A blending, yes, but a specific kind of blending. Why wouldn't such blends in other parts of the U.S. be considered Creole? Primarily, I think, because the colonies never thought in this manner. They approached the New World with a different mindset.

"Also, it gets confusing when I hear things described as Creole-Italian as that seems redundant."

In that view, Creole Italian makes perfect sense. It's Italian cuisine adapted to the ingredients and tastes of this area. Fundamentally Italian American cuisine is no different, but the rest of the country doesn't have the concept of Creolization.

Frolic said...

Should have written:

"It's an adaptation of something from the Old World using the products and techniques of the New WORLD."

Rene said...

Here is what I wish my main point in the article would have said:

You dont have to eat New Orleans cuisine to have a New Orleans dining experience.

Frolic, sorry if my response to your comment seemed snarky. That was not my intention. I think Richman's article was one of the worst hit jobs since Marcello killed Kennedy.

That vacation gets nearer and nearer.