Feast on NOLA’s History
A bit of sweet, a touch of spice and a lot of soul
In its tricentennial year, New Orleans can look back at a food history that set the standard for culinary excellence long before James Beard gave awards and Michelin bestowed stars. We dig into some of the most intriguing back stories, confident that these dishes will endure at least another 300 years in America’s most food-centric city.
Legend has it the po’boy was born during a 1929 streetcar strike, created by a restaurant owner who vowed to serve the striking workers for free with a hearty sandwich of fried potatoes, gravy and spare bits of roast beef. When a striking union member walked into the restaurant, they said: “Here comes another poor boy!” Today’s po’boys are as likely to be stuffed with fried shrimp, oysters, catfish or soft-shell crab as roast beef, and “dressed” with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise. Find the “Best Po’Boy in Louisiana,” according to USA Today, at Parkway Restaurant, and quaff it down with an ice-cold Barq’s root beer.
Everyone has a version of this French-West African dish made with celery, peppers, okra, onions, chicken, sausage and/or seafood, and roux, a butter-flour mix. As veteran NOLA restaurateur Celestine Dunbar says: “The secret is the roux, makes it real rich and creamy and full of flavor.” Try hers at Dunbar’s Creole Cooking, and don’t miss the Gumbo Ya-Ya, with super-dark roux, spicy chicken and andouille at Mr. B’s Bistro.
This reconstruction of the Colonial Spanish settlers’ paella contains a mix of chicken, seafood or sausage, or all three, and spices, rice, peppers, onions and other vegetables. Get a heaping bowl at Mother’s Restaurant.
Red Beans and Rice
Dig into this beloved tradition of simmering beans, meat and an assortment of spices in a pot for hours on laundry day Monday. Found on many local menus, at new eatery Gris-Gris, owner Eric Cook offers diners a complimentary cup every Monday “because that’s what New Orleans is all about.”
As Homer Simpson says: “The beignet eliminates the only flaw of the doughnut: There is no hole.” Enjoy this treat of fried dough covered with powdered sugar, introduced by French-Creole colonists in the 18th century, with a cup of café au lait at Cafe Du Monde Coffee Stand 24/7.
Many stories surround the creation of this quintessential New Orleans dessert, so we asked Brennan’s General Manager Christian Pendleton to set the record straight. “In the 1950s, Owen Brennan asked sister Ella to fashion a special dessert to honor friend Richard Foster at a dinner to be held at their eponymous restaurant. Noting that Foster’s favorite fruit was bananas, Ella tells Chef Paul Blange about her mom’s caramelized bananas, and brother Dick Brennan suggests lighting them on fire like a Baked Alaska using rum or liqueur. Ella famously says, ‘This is New Orleans, why don’t we use both?’” Each year, 35,000 pounds of bananas are flamed and 10 tons of ice cream served. Eventually, the restaurant plans to make its own banana liqueur and rum, but the recipe for Brennan’s most popular dish will remain perfectly unchanged, assures Pendleton.
Turtle Soup and Bread Pudding
The honors here go to Commander’s Palace, for an extraordinary bowl of soup made with authentic snapping turtle meat, veal stock and Creole mirepoix, finished with sherry, and a lighter-than-air bread pudding soufflé, covered with whiskey sauce.
Legend has it this elegant baked oyster dish, topped with a roux full of herbs and vegetables, was created at Antoine's Restaurant in 1899 as a substitute for baked snails. Named for the era’s richest man, John D. Rockefeller, it’s still served at Antoine’s for a reasonable $15.