Sunday, May 18, 2008

New Orleans Redux

As I digest the experiences of my recent week in New Orleans at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, many great moments come to mind. Here are a few:

Just being back on the streets of that lovely, exotic and historic city for the first time in 11 years. New Orleans is a place like no other, with its unique blend of cultures--European, Caribbean and African--and its history, customs, architecture, music and food.

Enjoying beignets and chicory coffee in CafĂ© du Monde. The place was packed like there was no tomorrow--or as if everyone thought beignets would be outlawed by midnight. So what if it looked like we’d been dusted for fingerprints? What’s a little powdered sugar when you get to enjoy freshly-made beignets, along with an attitudinous dark-as-sin coffee that’s stout enough to power a jet engine?!

Surely they must serve beignets in Heaven!

Hearing, “’scuse me, darlin’!” and “Sorry, Sweetheart!” countless times as I navigated crowded sidewalks and slipped past local men going about their business of setting up for the day’s activities. In most cities, there would have been (1) no apology for having bumped into me and (2) no term of endearment go to with it. There was nothing weird or predatory behind it--just good manners.

The kick of having Chef Paul Prudhomme himself serve me a bowl of amazingly tasty gumbo and give me the cheffly knuckle tap. Chef Paul is one-in-a-million, the real deal, an ultra-fine cook who never sought out fame and who wears his celebrity lightly and modestly. (And out of respect for this, I refrained from shoving a camera in his face.)

Most importantly—and Chef Paul is a part of this—the warmth and gratitude of those I bought from during my stay. New Orleans is one of the great welcoming cities in this country. Its citizens know how to have a roarin’ good time, and they love showing visitors a good time, too. No one’s a stranger there for long. And the food, as always, is top notch and memorable.

The Creole rabbit at Olivier's is succulent and flavorful.

Central Grocery on Decatur Street, birthplace of the muffuletta, still serves up its famous party-sized sandwich. This giant round of Italian bread filled with cured meats and cheese and zazzed up with garlic-and-olive relish is great to pick up on your way out of town—you can eat some now, and still have plenty to enjoy on the trip home.

New Orleans is a long, long way from being completely repaired and restored. There are people still living without electricity and phone service. There are people still living in tents. And many who have yet to return. The city is bloodied, by both the storm and by the federal government’s indifference to its plight, but New Orleanians are fighting to regain some sense of normalcy, to rebuild their homes and their lives.

You never know what--or who--you'll find in your wanderings about the city. Looks like double good fortune to me!

Some people seem to think the city is still under water. The water receded within a couple of days of Hurricane Katrina 2½ years ago, but the damage—both physical and psychological—left in its wake is taking a long time to erase. And perhaps it never completely will be.

This is where the water lives--
in the Mississippi River, not on top of the city!

It's impossible to stand still when the music cranks up. It's as vital a part of life in New Orleans as eating, drinking or even breathing . . .

But New Orleans is open for business, with its warmth and hospitality intact. To those who crave to travel abroad but who don’t have the money, I’ve always said, “Go to New Orleans—it’s the most foreign and exotic place you'll find on the North American continent.” With the dollar taking a clobbering against the euro and the English pound, why not visit—or revisit—this amazing city? Beauty, history, great food and a warm welcome await you. As the locals say, Y'all come, and

Laisse le bon temp rouler!

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