Dining out in the Big Easy
Don Sloan reflects on recent visits to New Orleans, including to attend ‘Pulp Facts’, a seminar celebrating citrus.
With thanks to Dr Jessica Harris, food historian and Patron of the Oxford Cultural Collective, and Amanda McFillen, Associate Director of Museum Programs, The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Setting aside one brief foray whilst touring the US in my early 20s, my first ‘proper’ visit to New Orleans was in the Spring of 2007. As a guest of local food professionals my experience was culturally immersive and, perhaps unsurprisingly, very emotional. It was around 18 months since the force of Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the city’s inadequate flood protection system, bringing untold devastation. Despite the scale of the challenge, exacerbated by the failures of federal and national authorities, I was struck by the resilience and good humour of those in the food community. The chefs, restaurateurs, food producers, market-traders and writers who I met were bound by a sense of responsibility to a city they evidently love.
I have returned on several occasions. With Jessica Harris as my guide I’ve been privileged to meet many of the characters who continue to shape New Orleans food culture, including those whose years of exemplary service have earned them iconic status. Foremost amongst them is Mrs Leah Chase, the ‘Queen of Creole Cuisine’ who, at the age of 95, is still working as Chef Patron of Dooky Chase restaurant. Back in October 2015, after lunching at ‘Dooky’s’ on gumbo, fried chicken and red beans and rice, we were joined by Mrs Chase. That conversation lives with me. Her personal story constitutes a powerful social history. Her first job as a waitress in the late 1930s, despite being in a ‘whites only’ restaurant in the French Quarter, gave her a love of hospitality. When she and her husband Edgar ‘Dooky’ Chase Jr took over his family’s restaurant they were determined it should be an elegant space in which those from the African American community could gather and celebrate together, over good food. As she recounts, it became this and so much more. It was the restaurant of choice for acclaimed jazz musicians – immortalised by Ray Charles in ‘Early in the Morning’. Most significantly, it became a meeting place for those steering the civil rights movement, from A.P. Tureaud to Martin Luther King Jr. It was from the upstairs dining room at Dooky Chase that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People coordinated its voter registration campaign and the Freedom Riders planned their programme of resistance to segregated buses.
Given her pivotal role in the city’s cultural life, and the symbolic significance of the restaurant, it’s no surprise that a new generation of cultural and political leaders pay homage to Mrs Chase during their visits to New Orleans – including Barack Obama. She told us that before tasting her gumbo for the first time, Obama reached for a bottle of hot sauce, only to be told off by Mrs Chase. As she explained to The President, the flavours in her gumbo are just right, and there’s no need to be adding hot sauce!
A short journey along grand St Charles Avenue, home to a stunning collection historic mansions, takes you to another of our regular haunts whilst in New Orleans: Upperline Restaurant – domain of JoAnn Clevenger, probably the city’s most welcoming host. This gastronomic ‘institution’ serves elevated versions of Creole dishes including turtle soup with sherry, duck and andouille gumbo, and fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade (heaven!). The dining rooms, now adorned with over 400 works of art, are an appropriately theatrical setting for JoAnn, for whom every evening is a performance – one that captures the life-affirming spirit of New Orleans.
Whilst the distinctive flavours of Creole and Cajun cuisines are proudly maintained and protected, there are several chefs who are reinterpreting traditional dishes, and in doing so are broadening their appeal. Rebecca Wilcomb, Executive Chef at Herbsaint in the Warehouse District, is increasingly recognised as a pioneer of contemporary Southern cuisine. In 2017 Rebecca won a prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South, and the restaurant has received many other well-deserved accolades. Over a particularly memorable dinner at Herbsaint in November 2016, accompanied by chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Jeremy Lee, and Dan Saladino of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme, we learned of Rebecca’s support for the local community of food producers, her respect for the South’s culinary traditions, and how she draws on her family’s Italian heritage for inspiration. On our most recent visit we enjoyed many of Rebecca’s characteristically inventive dishes including Louisiana shrimp and fish ceviche with cucumbers and pepitas, cornmeal fried oysters with cole slaw and hot sauce, spaghetti with guanciale and fried-poached egg, and our favourite, crispy goat with curried cauliflower, black beans and yogurt.
Like other cosmopolitan cities, New Orleans has restaurants representing a diverse range of cultures. Carmo, on Julia Street in the Arts District, described as a ‘tropical café’, has a menu that spans Southeast Asia, West Africa, the Caribbean and South America. At first glance this may seem overly eclectic, but be assured that owners Christina and Dana Honn have achieved a unifying style. They spend time collecting, studying and experimenting with recipes from around the world, first serving them at home to friends, before they’re made available to guests in Carmo. Their food is not only delicious; it also stimulates discussion and enquiry, with diners questioning the origins of ingredients and the inspiration for dishes. They are committed to serving food that has been sustainably sourced. As supporters of ‘Slow Fish’, aligned with the Slow Food movement, Christina and Dana regularly feature underutilised species such as scorpion fish and oyster grills (a form of snail), so as to take pressure off the popular ‘catch’.
I can testify that it’s easy to fall for New Orleans. In addition to its unique architectural and musical heritage, its culinary story is fascinating. Influenced by immigrant populations from West African nations, Haiti, Spain, France and Italy, it is the only US city with its own distinct, documented cuisine. It is encouraging to see the New Orleans food scene thriving, to witness how it continues to shape the city’s character and act as a catalyst for collective pride.
Pulp Fact: Celebrating Citrus – 9th June 2018
The Historic New Orleans Collection occupies a series of elegant buildings across two campuses in the heart of the French Quarter. As a museum, research centre and library with responsibility for preserving and celebrating the heritage of this unique city, it was an appropriate setting for a recent seminar on citrus fruits – a prominent feature of the area’s rich culinary culture. Hosted and expertly curated by Jessica Harris, the seminar brought together academics, journalists, orchard owners and chefs. Topics included the role of Sicilian lemons in the making of Italian-American culture; citrus and slavery; citrus recipes from America’s earliest cookbooks; and historic written and visual accounts of orange groves in New Orleans. I was privileged to contribute to the programme, in conversation with Jeremy Lee on ‘Marmalade, Citrus and British Culinary Traditions’ (Jeremy is from Dundee, home of marmalade production, hence our topic).
After restorative cocktails and some collective reflection on the day’s discussions, it was on to the Napoleon House on Chartres Street, where OCC Patrons Jeremy Lee and Jeremiah Tower, with local chef Chris Montero, staged a spectacular citrus-themed dinner. Like so many of the city’s landmark restaurants, The Napoleon House has a rich and colourful history. In 1821 a group of Baratanian pirates planned to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from St Helena, the South Atlantic island where he was in exile. Nicholas Girod, a former mayor of New Orleans, funded the scheme and offered to house Napoleon at his residence on Chartres Street. Whilst word of Napoleon’s death reached New Orleans before the pirates set sail, his name lives on in this legendary bar and restaurant.
It could have been a case of over-enthusiastic Southern charm, but encouraging none-the-less, to hear guests speculate that this may have been the best meal ever served in the 200-year-old Napoleon House. Praise indeed for Jeremy, Jeremiah and Chris.
The menu – Celebrating Citrus
Three Citrus-Preserved Fish
Citrus-Scented Muscovy Duck
Louisiana popcorn rice, candied kumquats, toasted pecans, summer sage
Orange Flower Water & Almond Olive Oil Cake
satsuma curd syllabub, angelica syrup
Listen to three editions of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme focused on New Orleans:
Leah Chase: The cook who changed America (30th January 2017). To listen, follow this link.
Gumbo (6th February 2017). To listen, follow this link.
New Orleans (re-opening of Crescent City Farmers Market) (8th May 2008). To listen, follow this link.
From the Southern Foodways Alliance:
A Girl Scout with Gumption. A short documentary on JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline. To watch, follow this link.