Sunday, 26 June 2011

SFA Cajun Country Field Trip: Savoy, Crawfish and Smothered Lunch

The third day of the Southern Foodways Alliance field trip was just as spectacular as the previous two days. We started off our morning with Royal Cup Coffee (a sponsor of the SFA), fried boudin balls on homemade biscuits with cane syrup drizzled on top, and various other breakfast foods...then we settled down for some good conversation, and waited to head to the Savoy Music Center for a Saturday morning jam session--a must in Cajun Country. Just a short trip down I-90, you see the big sign of Savoy's a callin' your name! Some omnipresence seemed to say, Come celebrate! Listen to some classic Cajun hits! At Savoy's anyone and everyone is welcome to join the band (as long as you don't try to upstage the veterans!)

We spent and hour listening to the raucous accordions, the deft and nimble fiddles, and the harmonious guitars. Every so often, a Cajun singer would belt out a love ballad in Cajun French. Spectacular!

Music in the morning was followed by a trip out to a Crawfish farm to hear about the art of raisin' crawfish in the bayou! The farmer was a charmer, and his family is known for streamlining the crawfish industry in Louisiana.

Soon enough our tummies started rumbling and we headed to La Village for a Cajun plate lunch meal. The SFA brought in smothered dishes from some of the most famous Cajun plate lunch joints in Acadiana: smothered rabbit, smothered cabbage, smothered okra, and short rice with dark gravy.

Chef Pablo spoke about smothering in New Iberia, and Rien Fertel spoke about his oral history project on plate lunch eateries in Cajun Country. It was a great afternoon, and a spectacular lunch. The smothered rabbit was to die for, honestly!

SFA Cajun Country Field Trip: Hawk's

Ever been to a crawfish boil? If you have not, you need to get to one, and fast! It is the ultimate community event where personal space disappears and merriment fills the void! You eat from a communal plate, you break apart boiled potatoes with your hands to share, and you pass around corn on the cob. "That's just the way it is. It's communal."

The Southern Foodways Alliance crawfish boil at Hawk's was my first. Granted, it was not a community, side-of-the-road crawfish boil that you see in New Orleans, but it was pretty darn close.

Hawk's specializes in crawfish, and prides itself on the "purging" technique it employs to cleanse the crawfish of their "muddy" taste. This purging process involves soaking the live critters in a series salt water vats for at least 24 hours: this ensures that "the fat is golden yellow." You might be thinking at this point, What does she mean by "the fat." Well, once you pull the tail of the crawfish from the head, and you have a look inside the cavernous tete, you'll more than likely see a glob of bright yellow fat. Louisianans treat this as a delicacy: digging their finger into the head to scoop out the fat...or in some cases, putting their lips right on the head and sucking out the fat. Yup. That happens...

While we waited for Hawk's to start the boil, we all grabbed beers or cocktails at the open bar and settled down for some good conversation. I sat with Mr. Patout (the man I ran into in front of Quarter Grocery), Fern, Jim and Carol--my gang for the evening. We were a team on a mission: to eat crawfish, a lot of crawfish. Anticipation mounted as we saw servers bringing out plastic buckets of crawfish to the tables near the front of the restaurant. In preparation, Fern urged me to tape my thumbs with duck tape so that they would not get sore from peeling off dozens upon dozens of exoskeletons.

These are the steppes I learned:
1) Pick out your boiled crawfish
2) Pull the tail from the head
3) Suck the head for the fat or use your pinkie finger to extract the fat, and then suck on your finger
4) pinch the tail of the crawfish so it cracks the exoskeleton, pull off the tail piece, and fish out the meaty crawfish to pop in your mouth...enjoy!

Together, our table ate 6 buckets of crawfish. Fern was the champion, finishing 2.5 on her own. At the end of our supper, our hands were stained with crawfish juice the color of saffron. There was juice everywhere. To put it simply, washing one's hands after a crawfish boil is not sufficient, you truly need to take a shower.

SFA Cajun Country Field Trip: Rice Farm

After dining at Mowata's we headed out to visit a nearby rice farm. Mr. Uncle, the farmer who was kind enough to host us at his farm, was a pleasure to meet. He had a very friendly disposition that won over everyone in the crowd. He spoke to us about his philosophy on farming and how every part of the natural environment is key for growing nutrient rich crops; he does not weed his fields, arguing that weeds have important roles to play in enriching soil nutrients etc.

He also showed us to the mill where his grain is processed and then packaged. His rice is sold under the name: Cajun Grain. He has a wonderful mix of grain: my favorite was aromatic jasmine and red rice.

Mr. Uncle has found a niche market throughout Louisiana at restaurants like Cochon, who serve his rice in a particular shrimp dish.

SFA Cajun Country Field Trip: Mowata

The story goes that Mowata, Louisiana was supposed to be named "More Water." The original settlers apparently needed more water, and wanted to name the settlement that as a sort of ironic testament to their current condition. But, the accent was misunderstood, and the town went down in the books as Mowata instead. You can judge whether or not this is a likely story...

Anyway, our culinary tour in Cajun Country started with Bubba Frey at the Mowata Store. Bubba spoke about his livelihood making boudin: a German-inspired sausage traditionally encased in intestine and filled with pork, Louisiana rice, and a lot of spice. There are typically two kinds of boudin: white boudin or red boudin (or blood sausage). Last Friday we tried white Boudin--it was delicious! Bubba Frey said that we could eat the casings if we wanted to, but I opted to just eat the filling this time. In addition to boudin there were sweet pickles and fig jam (from "the biggest fig tree in the world.")

After we ate lunch, Marcelle Bienvenu gave a talk on Cajun and Creole Gumbo and the general distinctions between various gumbos. She was wonderfully entertaining. I could listen to her speak all day. A few years ago, I met her at a book signing and I got my mother a copy of her book on pecans...pecans can be temperamental if you do not watch them very carefully, but if you baby them a bit, they turn out wonderful!

SFA Cajun Country Field Trip: Calcasieu

For the past few days, I joined the Southern Foodways Alliance crew for the Cajun Country Ramble...a culinary field trip to Eunice, Louisiana. We started the 3-day event in New Orleans at Donald Link's restaurant, Calcasiue. After sipping on a few Pontchartrain cocktails and biting into a wonderful array of charcuterie, we sat down for a Cajun-inspired dinner. After feasting on yeast rolls, a waiter came over to our table to inform us that they were going to add another place setting. I scooted over to the left a bit, and they fixed the table. Soon enough, Chef Paul Pruhdomme sat down across the table from me. What a treat to have THE celebrity chef of Cajun cooking sharing a dining table with you. The meal was delicious: smothered greens, smothered pork, crawfish pie, fried boudin balls, catfish courtbouillon, shrimp and eggplant casserole, chicken andouille gumbo and pecan pie a la mode for dessert. After dinner, we headed back to hotel for some shut-eye before waking up at 6:45 the next morning!

Andouille Sausage:

Chicken Andouille Gumbo:

Shrimp and Eggplant Casserole:

Catfish Courtbouillon:

Pecan Pie a la Mode:

Quarter Grocery

Walking by Quarter Grocery on Bourbon Street and Ursulines Street, you might think this place was only a liquor store. But it is so much more. Once you look beyond the liquor lined shelves, past the rows of snacks and other junk food, you find yourself staring at a lunch counter.

As I was walking through the quarter one morning, I ran into Mr. Patout, a friend of Liz and Rick's. He was walking out of Quarter Grocery and told me that I should try the breakfast sandwiches there. Why not? I stepped inside, peered around a few shelves, walked past a few cases of beer and saw the corner of a menu board. Phew! I ordered the egg and bacon breakfast sandwich. I was a bit surprised how expensive it was $4.25, but shrugged off the price because I was in the French Quarter--prices are always inflated here. I was expecting your typical breakfast sandwich: egg, cheese and bacon on a croissant. In stead I got an 8-inch long French bread breakfast sandwich that could have fed half of my family (no wonder it was pricey!)

The best part? The bread! The French bread was still so soft this morning, even the crust was soft because it had come out of the oven only a few ours before.

Preservation Hall and Camellia Grill

Last Tuesday, a few friends and I planned to head to Preservation Hall--a music venue in New Orleans built for the sole purpose of preserving traditional New Orleans Jazz (Arguably, one of the greatest contributions America has made to the world stage of culture). Like any great music or culinary venue in New Orleans, you have to get in line to get in. So, an hour and 15 minutes before show time, I arrived in front of the weathered wooden exterior of Preservation Hall. My friend Angela was there waiting for me (we were second in line!)

More and more friends joined us in the que as we waited to be admitted inside. By 7:25 about 35 people were lined up along St. Peter's, and by 7:55 there were about 50 would-be jazz enthusiasts eagerly peering over heads to see if the line was moving.

At 8:00 on the dot, the ticket master stepped out onto the sidewalk and bellowed: "Cash only! Exact change is greatly appreciated! 12 dollars! Cash ONLY!" Upon hearing his announcement, a tangible ripple of excitement ran down the que. We quickly started to file into Preservation Hall. The venue is quite small. Probably 20 by 30 feet. The band is set up on one side of the room, and an array of floor cushions, wooden benches and standing room make up the rest of the space. We snagged a great seat in the first row of benches. People filed in front of us, around us, beside us...the place was packed!

Soon enough, the emcee came in and gave a grand announcement. He threw out jokes like beads on Mardi Gras after the other. He was charming. After a few seconds of silence, the band came to the "stage." I was sitting about 6 feet away from the lead trumpet. AWESOME!

The music was s-p-e-c-t-a-c-u-l-a-r! I would even describe it as magical. The improvinization had the ability to sweep you back to the 1920s--a musical time machine. The set is short and sweet and leaves you craving more: only 45 minutes! All of the musicians took turns singing in addition to playing their instruments...such talent! One audience member placed a large tip in the hat-shaped tip jar to hear "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." Everyone clapped along, and wooped with glee.

After the concert, a few of us decided to grab a late night snack at Camellia Grill. When we arrived, the place was virtually empty, but the staff was markedly more friendly at this location than at the Carrolton location. One of the waiters taught us a song he made up about Camellia Grill that had lyrics such as, "Come one, come all. To the downtown Camellia Grill!" We were his chorus, and we made up harmonies and what not. It was really fun. In the meantime we ordered burgers and split some pecan pie. The burgers were tremendously delicious, as usual, and the pecan pie a la mode was stellar.

What a perfect night in the Quarter! Go see Charlie Gabriel's Preservation Hall-stars!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Mother's (est. 1938)

Mother's is one of those institutions in New Orleans that always has a line no matter what time of day....I remember the first time I passed by Mother's nearly two years ago. I was with my friend Connie, and she said that I had to go to Mother's!

It took me a while to get there, but the other morning I stopped by for a late breakfast. I opted for the Jerry's omelet, which came with a biscuit and grits. I didn't mind standing in line: people watching combined with the ephemera on the walls was entertainment enough. One of my favorite kitchy artifacts with the Budweiser clock: shaped like an old fashion carriage with eight horses pulling it along an invisible track. This clock might have seemed out of place in another restaurant, but it fit right in to the Mother's scene.

The menu at Mother's is quite special. The back of the menu tells the history of Mother's and also shares the restaurant's Katrina story. After one month, many of the Mother's restaurant staff moved back to New Orleans in September. Many of the them lost their homes in the storm, "so nine FEMA trailers were secured and set up in our parking lot. Our mother's family, Pat, Shirley, Lydia, Sandra, Roland, James, Betty, Duke and Philip, along with their families, constituted a new little neighborhood next door to the restaurant for the next nine months." On October 15, 2005, Mother's reopened to the public. The menu states, "Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the head of the disaster relief effort in New Orleans, was our first customer."

My favorite quote: "The power of food, especially New Orleans cuisine, to comfort the soul and nourish the spirit as well as the body, is amazing but a fact witnessed here in the ensuing months as returning locals and the wonderful disaster personnel who flocked to our city frequented Mother's in droves."


Well, I have to have a post about Community Coffee (fondly called CC's here in New Orleans). You can identify CC's by the cranberry red and cream signs swinging all throughout New Orleans proper. I like their lattes, and tried their chocolate coffee latte the other morning. The staff is always friendly, and they provide free wi-fi!

Wayne's World

On Sunday I met up with some of the Robertson Scholars from the Duke-UNC Chapel Hill program. We went tubing on the Bogue Chitto River (pronounced bow-ga-chih-dah). After driving over lake Pontchartrain via the Causeway, through some countryside, we finally made it to Wayne's World Canoeing and Tubing. We rented our water vessels for $15 a person, and picked out a special inter tube for our cooler and set off for a lazy afternoon on a lazy river. It was a wonderful treat to stay cool on such a hot summer day (97 degrees!) We floated for about 5.5 hours. It was nice to catch up with old friends and meet new people.

City of New Orleans with Rich Campanella

Last Saturday, I joined the Bulldogs in the Big Easy Yalies for a day-long tour of New Orleans conducted by Rich Campanella--professor of Geography at Tulane University. The tour was fantastic! Rich knew the city like the back of his hand. We went from Audubon Park to the River front down through the warehouse district, the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, the 9th ward, Versailles, back through Treme and then finally made our way back up to Tulane. He has a wonderful understanding of the architecture of New Orleans, the demography of the city, its natural landscape and a wealth of statistics. I felt instantly smarter having spent a few hours with him.

The whole group stopped for lunch in Versailles. We tried to go to a Vietnamese restaurant called Ba Mien, but it was closed because of a wedding. We tried another Veitnamese restaurant, and they were also closed because of the wedding (it must have been a large community event). Finally, we settled on a Vietnamese owned and operated po'boy shop. I would never have found this place on my own because it was sandwiched in a strip mall next to a laundromat. The po'boy shop was called Easy Seafood & Po-boys. Delicious oyster po'boy! There was something really fresh about the bread. YUM!

After the tour, I walked downtown with Rich (all 5.5 miles). Then I went to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum for their sno-ball event. I even got to operate a sno-ball machine and douse cups of shaved ice with watermelon and pineapple syrups!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Lemon Pie

I've been thinking a lot about my first Hubig's pie experience a few weeks ago. I had an apple flavored Hubig's pie, and was so hungry that I really didn't get to eat it properly...there's a whole process to eating Hubig's pies, and in order to do Hubig's justice, I thought I should follow all of the steps...

This time I opted for a lemon flavored Hubig's in honor of my friend Ms. Ruth.

Step 1:
Buy a Hubig's pie at your local liquer store, art gallery, Rousse's etc. Have $1.09 and some change available.

Step 2:
Unwrap the Hubig's

Step 3: Microwave the Hubig's for 30 seconds

Step 4: Plate the Hubig's and scoop vanilla ice cream on top (if availalbe)

Step 5: ENJOY!

Leah Chase and Carol Allen

I met Carol Allen, the author of Leah Chase's biography at the Ladies in Red Gala last week. She was so kind to me and agreed to take me to lunch at Dooky Chase's to meet Leah Chase, "the Queen of Creole Cooks." Quel Bonheur! She picked me up in the Quarter today and we drove to the restaurant. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by Mr. Dooky Chase himself. Carol introduced me to him, and he was so excited to hear that I was researching Lena Richard. What a precious older gentleman...he had such a twinkle in his eye, and he proudly wore his white apron and white baseball cap! Then, Leah and Dooky's daughter, Stella, said hello to us and asked us to take a seat while they prepared our table.

Within the first minute of being at Dooky Chase's, I felt like I was with a celebrity guest...but in this case, a good friend of the family. In the eyes of the Chase family, friends and family are the most special guests of all. As I sat in the little parlor making pleasant small talk with Carol, I peered around me. The bar area to my left was painted emerald green and had these beautiful foggy blown glass light fixtures with little flecks of emerald green and ruby red in them. I really liked the color combination in the room. The parlor was filled with a few larger photos: President Obama hugging Leah Chase; President Obama tucking a red napkin into the neck of his shirt, with a huge boyish grin on his face; George W. Bush sitting down for a meal at the restaurant; and a sketching of Leah Chase and Tiana from Disney Pixar's Princess and the Frog (2009) signed by none other than John Lasseter (head of Walt Disney Animation Studios), Ron Clements and a few other animators...did you know that Tiana was modeled after Leah Chase? During the 1940s, Leah had worked as a waitress in New Orleans' restaurants, and all the while dreamt of opening up her own restaurant, and eventually did (sound familiar?)

After a few minutes, we were seated in one of the three dining rooms: this one was painted cranberry red and featured folk art from black artists. The colors in the paintings were spectacular. There are two other dining rooms at Dooky Chase's. One is painted the color of whipped hollandaise sauce, the other of cool honeydew. Carol recommended that I have the buffet, and our lovely waitress suggested that I try the lemonade. She said, "This is your first time here? Then you have to have the lemonade!" It was really good lemonade. Then our cup of okra gumbo came out: you could see the little okra seeds floating around in the stew. It was a really dark gumbo, quite thick too. There was shrimp, rice and nothing but gumbo goodness...simple and delicious.

Within 10 minutes, Mrs. Chase made her way over to our table. She was wearing a pumpkin colored chef's smock with a striped white and purple shirt underneath. She said hello to Carol and me and sat down at our table for a chat...which lasted 2 hours! What a treat! She spoke about her childhood, Lena Richard, operating a restaurant during World War II, early television and famous black cooks: including Mandy Lee and Freda DeKnight. I was so busy chatting with Mrs. Chase, that Carol offered to fill my plate up from the buffet. Delicious egg salad, potato salad, beets, tuna salad, and fresh watermelon. It reminded me of summer picnics in Pittsburgh, but had a distinctive taste...quite different from what I was used to (aka my Grandma Rose's salads)

We continued to chat, and Mrs. Chase said, "I don't want to prevent you from eating. Eat up!" and then she had another plate fixed for me with fried chicken and eggplant casserole. The fried chicken was the best fried chicken I ever had in MY LIFE. It came right out of the oven, was hot hot hot and full of flavor. The dark meet was so tender, and the breading so light and crispy. YUUUUM! The eggplant casserole was full of shrimp and other delicious flavors that I could not quite put my finger on...

At the end of the meal we had peach cobbler. It was a nice sweet treat to top of a once in a lifetime meal.

Thanks for sharing your memories, Mrs. Chase!

Ahoy! Port of Call!

Ages ago, Scott Sullivan, the head of the Yale Club of New Orleans told me about the burgers at Port of Call. He exclaimed: "Why, they are the simply the BEST burgers in New Orleans! You must go there!"

Naturally, I placed Port of Call on my growing list of "must eat" places in New Orleans (this list now exceeded the length of a typical loaf of French Bread, and is approaching baguette length). Two days ago, I tried to go for a late lunch at Cafe Amelie to find that they were only serving cocktails and olives. Now, I have nothing against cocktails and olives, but I was in search of something a little more substantive. I then decided to grab a simple meal at the local Rousse's. I did my grocery shopping, got in line, and was told that "the bank" was malfunctioning and the store could not accept any debit or credit card purchases...what?!? At this point, I was blinded not by rage, but by hunger. How could this be?

Without really knowing where I was going, I headed back home, and decided to walk the extra blocks to Port of Call. The bar doesn't look like much: brown siding, shuttered brown windows...a brown sign with big white letters spelling out "Port of Call." I had a bit of trouble finding the door (it was around the corner), but I eventually made my way in to the nautical underworld that is Port of Call. I honestly could not see a thing when I walked in because it was so dark. A hostess sat me at one of the tables next to the bar. The whole dining area was lit with red light bulbs. There was something quite disorienting about the rose colored room and fish net draped ceilings. After about 10 seconds, a waitress came to my table asking me what I wanted. I ordered a cheeseburger and a a bottle of Abita Amber (I was still on edge about my culinary misadventures with Cafe Amelie and Rousse's and thought a nice cold beer would ease my mind).

After about 15 minutes the burger, in all of its glory, was ready. Cheddar cheese had been melted over top the all-beef patty. A 2 inch high stack of tomatoes, onions, and pickles was ready to be placed on top of the burger. When I crowned the patty with the top bun, the burger measured about 4 inches high. Dig in! The burger was great: nice and smokey, and cooked medium well. Did I mention that the side dish was sour cream with some baked potato? They literally put 3/4 cup of sour cream on my baked potato...

I only made it through half of my burger and 1/4 of the baked potato before the food coma started setting in. I called it quits and headed home. When I walked out of Port of Call, a huge waft of greasy air followed me, and I could smell the chargrilled scent of the back kitchen...yup, Port of Call has the best burgers in town...


In New Orleans, there are two major bread companies that source nearly all po'boy vendors. One of them is Leidenheimer Baking Company. You wouldn't think that a German company would make French bread, but there you go! Interestingly enough, although New Orleanians call the po'boy loaf, "French Bread" it is actually a Creolized version of French bread. In New Orleans, French bread has a crispy crust and a large soft interior (great for soaking up the justices from roast beef po'boys). In fact, German immigrants just upriver of New Orleans had a major influence on the city's "French" Bread back in the 18th and 19th centuries...

In any case, I love seeing the Leidenheimer trucks zipping around the French Quarter in the morning, stopping off at various eateries and shops. The best part: the trucks are very colorful with cartoonish depictions of people enjoying po'boys...I always love a sense of humor.