gastronomy, New Orleans

Report from the Big Stressy Part 1: New Orleans is a liar y’all

This is the first part of several self-serving reports from my trip to New Orleans earlier this month. How many parts you ask? As many as it takes. 

This isn't food, but it is "authentic" New Orleans.

New Orleans is a big fat liar. It sucks you in with its whole “Big Easy” routine — Mardi gras beads in the trees, non-existent open bottle laws and funerals that are 10 times more fun than we are legally allowed to have in Cambridge, MA while alive. But the secret about New Orleans is that despite all those lazy “y’alls” and frozen daiquiris (more about that later) it is a very, very stressful place.

At least when it comes to food. At least when it comes to making decisions about food for a visitor who is also a budding food scholar. For someone who is studying food, a visit to New Orleans is overwhelming, cramp-inducing and fraught with decisions and missed opportunities.

New Orleans is food obsessed. So when a food person goes to New Orleans, it’s kind of like when under-stimulated fat people from the middle of the country go to Las Vegas and suddenly have to choose between slot machines, seeing Celine Dion, Siegfried & Roy, Donnie & Marie, or attending a topless jousting match.  As in Las Vegas, there are simply too many good choices, too little time and the very real potential of rupturing an internal organ (either from eating too much in New Orleans or hitting a high note if you’re Celine Dion in Las Vegas.).

While I was in New Orleans this month, not only did I have to think about where and what I was going to eat (stressful enough). But I also had to read 200 pages of academic articles about food for my Food & Senses Class. One of my readings was about whether or not there is such a thing as “authentic” cuisine (extra stressful in New Orleans). The reading asks what it means to be authentic, who decides what is authentic, and if that is even possible.

And that’s where New Orleans gets you. Every visitor to New Orleans wants an “authentic” experience. And in New Orleans, that means food. But New Orleans food obsessions are “traditional” — Commander’s Palace, po boys, oysters, Sazeracs, and Cafe du Monde beignets. And they are “new” — outlaw cheese bars, modern French bistros, and fantastic food served in a former gas station. So what is an “authentic” New Orleans experience. Is it turtle soup or a fantastic burger? The Bywater or the French Quarter? A Pims cup in a fancy hotel or a drive through daiquiri on the levee?

Five days and lots of meals later, I discovered that the only answer is all of the above — topped off with a visit to Nicholas Cage’s tomb outside the French Quarter.

More on all of this in the next post, including actual descriptions of actual food. And pictures of beignets.