Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Weekend in the Crescent City: A Trip to New Orleans

This past weekend I had the good fortune to go to New Orleans for an academic conference. I did not go down for vacation purposes, though I did get some good food while I was there. Of course. New Orleans is one of the great food cities of America. You don't need me to tell you that.

After checking into the Parc Saint Charles (the hallways are a bit musty but the room was fine and the staff very friendly - and hey, no bedbugs), I headed over to the anthropology conference, where my grad school adviser and his wife recommended to me the sweet and kicky Sazerac. This is the "official" cocktail of New Orleans. I rarely drink cocktails (I prefer beer), but I could've had another one of these. A little tingly and dare I say spicy on my tongue, the Sazerac is a combination of rye whiskey, Peychaud bitters, simple syrup, absinthe and a twist of lemon. The one I had was absinthe-free, but it was still warming and sweet.


I met up with a few more friends from grad school, and we headed into the French Quarter for dinner. They suggested Felix's, the legendary cafeteria-style Iberville Street institution that serves a nice variety of po-boys, among many other things. After we shared a plate of raw oysters, we had our po-boys. Mine was the crawfish po-boy ($9): crunchy fried crawfish overflowing from a crosswise-cut thick loaf of French bread layered with lettuce and tomato and slathered with mayonnaise. You don't often find dinners in the French Quarter that are cheap and tasty and satisfying all at once, unless you know where to look. Look at Felix's.

A few more Abitas on tap later, and I was off to bed, blissfully unaware of the city-wide water problem that rendered the city's hotel and motel water supply (possibly) unsafe for the duration of my stay. Free bottled water for everyone!

I was up the next morning in search of a beignet from Café du Monde. That is, until I got there and saw a line almost as big as the Mississippi Delta. Since I didn't feel like standing there all day - I had papers to listen to and posters to read - I headed back to the conference for an overpriced bagel ($3). One of the better overpriced hotel bagels I have had, but still nothing to write (or blog-post) home about.

Mr. B's Bistro

I met my grad adviser again, this time for lunch (cheaper than dinner) at Mr. B's Bistro. A friend of a friend forced me to give my word that I would go here, and he also made me give my word that I would order the barbequed shrimp ($18 lunch, $25 dinner). It is not what you might think, which would still be tasty. To quote Mr. B's:

Here in New Orleans, barbecued shrimp means sautéed shrimp in Worcestershire-spiked butter sauce. We serve these shrimp with heads and tails on, so you need to dig in to enjoy. I highly recommend a bib.

The waitress insisted that I take off my jacket, and once she took it she tied that paper bib around my neck. I could have gotten the sauce all over my jacket, but here's the thing: I didn't get a drop of sauce on me! Not on the bib, not on my clothes, not even on my face. Yes, my hands were literally coated with the stuff, since I had to peel the shrimp. Not a problem; who from Baltimore doesn't know how to peel shrimp? But at least I can boast that the bib was unnecessary. Still useful just in case.

I begrudgingly must give props to their crab cake ($7 for one), which we ordered as an appetizer. I was surprised: the crab cake was not covered in bread crumbs, as so many crab cakes outside the Chesapeake - South, North and West - tend to be (blasphemous). But Mr. B's resembled the type of crab cake I am used to seeing in Baltimore, just with a few more bits of vegetable. It was about as good a crab cake as I've ever had outside of Baltimore - though I still prefer my own hometown variety.

I headed back to the conference, where I saw quite a few presentations (including some excellent ones about Mesoamerican archaeology given by friends). And of course, I bought some discount books in their book room. I was surprised at the number of food ethnographies out there, expensive though they were. I don't mean books about hunting and gathering. I mean books about modern day "foodies" and food culture.

I will look them up in the library later.

The Gumbo

Like Mr. B's, the Gumbo Shop has its own cookbook. Should you flip through that cookbook, you will likely find more than just gumbo recipes. You will find all the Creole classics: gumbo, jambalaya, étoufée, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and so on - and you can get most of them in large combo ($24). I chose that one: a choice of four items - a gumbo, an entrée, a side dish and a dessert.

My chicken andouille gumbo was deceptively small, but just filling enough.

I was not prepared for the voluminous plate of food that followed: a long oval plate of rich and thick shrimp étoufée and hearty red beans and rice, blanketing either side of a savory mound of jambalaya. It looked like a lot less food than it was. It was filling - very much so. My waiter came by assuring me that I shouldn't stuff myself (he almost sounded condescending about it, though I'm sure he didn't mean it that way). Along with this came an order of roasted garlic mashed potatoes. They were serious about the garlic: the dish really should be called "roasted garlic with mashed potatoes". This isn't a problem for me, since I thrive on garlic.

The dessert came out right quick, a soft and slippery mound of bread pudding with sharp and sugary whiskey butter sauce. I admit that I'm not used to New Orleans-style bread pudding. It was mushier than I had expected, though I could not get enough of it when covered with that hard sauce.

Good Friends Bar

I was quite stuffed, and had to get up early in the morning. But I had to make one very meaningful stop for me before I went back to the hotel: the Good Friends Bar. Almost ten years ago, during yet another academic conference, the Good Friends Bar was the first gay bar I ever set foot in, early in my coming-out process. I've been to more than a few gay bars in Baltimore, DC, New York, LA, Palm Springs, the Inland Empire, etcetera, but the Good Friends Bar started it all. Apparently, my college adviser remembered me leaving it, too, as he and his (then future) wife were passing in front and saw me stumbling out way back in 2001. This time there were the typical flat-screen TV's that just about every gay bar in America seems to have, playing the same few music videos. Both floors of this French Quarter gem serve alcohol, and on both floors you can get the local favorite Abita (Dixie Beer? Well the locals seem not to care much for it. And if you say you like it, or worse that it's better than Abita they will look at you as if you sprouted crawfish out of your ears).

I downed two bottles of the stuff and asked one man I found attractive - he was sitting there playing a game on his iPhone for some reason - for some directions. Had I not had to get up early, and had I not been stuffed, I would've stayed to talk longer.

The Praline Connection

The ride to the airport the next morning led me to seek out something for breakfast. I found it at the Praline Connection, which (to my surprise) serves things other than pralines. I got myself some grits and a piece of smoked sausage for about $6. I dumped some butter into those grits, and they were pretty filling.

Okay, not a lot of butter...

Not quite as good as other grits I have had, but it did the job. The smoked sausage was standard. This is airport food here, people. Gift shop food was also from the Praline Connection, this time from a praline-and-cookie-only stand. I bought a half dozen box to take back to the family for - *gasp* - $16. At least they were some high-quality pralines. The banana and bottle of water I got in my layover in Birmingham cost me $5. That's a $2 banana right there.

All said, I was so glad, and so lucky, to have gotten a chance to go back to New Orleans, and to have a legitimate, job-related reason to do so at that. It was also good to see the city thriving again after Katrina. Let's hope it continues to do so! And all the while I caught up with old friends, found a new (to me) cocktail, and visited some important spots for me. Let's just hope it doesn't take me another nine years to get back.

Other photos

Anthropologists in the mist (I've been waiting for years to say that).
What can I say? They like to drink

That's a lotta hats

True dat!

A shrine to blues, jazz and R&B legends. Find Billie Holiday!

So... I guess this isn't Creole food?

In the book room. These folks sell academic-quality reproductions of human and primate fossil skeletons. They had a full scale model of a Neanderthal skeleton for almost $14,000. For various reasons, I didn't buy it.

Best way around that: keep nothing in your back pockets, and be a gay man or a straight woman.

I got a chill passing by the Superdome, for obvious reasons.

And flying over the Mississippi Delta, en route to my connection in Birmingham, and my overpriced banana.