Food, travel, learnin' - NOLA style
From Wednesday to Sunday I was in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the PCA/ACA conference. While "work" was the primary objective, food trumps just about anything for me especially when traveling.
Among the many wonderful things about food, like so much (popular) culture, is its ability to draw connections. Like music, the intellectual is cemented with the visceral. Even when we aren't eating food, we can imagine it and probably think back not too long to when we last ate something. Unappealing descriptions of food can turn stomachs when the offending dish is no where in sight. Tantalizing photos can make the mouth water and the stomach long (well probably the brain really, but I'll leave the physiology this for another time or author).
The Crescent City, the Big Easy, New Orleans. I had heard a lot about it...and even more about its eating. Not particularly excited about hot humid climates (thank goodness this trip was for early April), excessive drinking, or beads, the food was what piqued my interest most (history a close second). So with a bit of planning and my eyes, ears, and nose open the adventure began.
My friend Matt arrived a day before me and with guide book and camera in hand had already scoped out some territory. We hit up Coop's Place for dinner. He selected an starter: the Crab claws appetizer, inspired by a Stephen Fry food show recommendation and the crab survivor story (turns out that the harvesting of the claws does not kill the crab). We have a mutual appreciate for Stephen Fry (who coincidentally enough appeared in an episode of Bones last night which I only discovered because I flipped on the television a little early for Hell's Kitchen), so this seemed more than appropriate. Tempted by gumbo and okra and jambalaya and seafood galore, I opted for the green beans in Chicken Tchoupitoulas. Yummy (though I think it was instant rice, thumbs down). This dish I learned the next afternoon shares its name with a major street. Aha, a learning moment! What is the signification? (If I'm going to make it through all the NOLA eating I'll have to learn that later). Finally, the local brew: Abita. While the seasonal Strawberry ale came highly recommended (several times over by then end of the 4 days), I opted for the amber.
Though we were full, a stop for beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde was in order. What an interesting demographic span of staff! What fun people watching/sociological research! How did French donuts get to the American South and what is chicory and who thought to put it in my coffee?!
Thursday's lunch was a Cuban sandwich and tostones at Liborio's and taste of yerba mate soda. What makes a Cuban sandwich Cuban? What is that Mate stuff anyway? Are green plantains and sweet plantains the same plant only the latter riper? Why don't they taste like bananas? So many learning opportunities!
Fancy cafes have had a place in many big cities especially in the 1900s (I think, no time to fact check if I am gonna finish this off before 9am work start!). The Palace Cafe felt very continental Europe and was a lovely place for coffee and conversation. The interior was in very fine form for looking rather art nouveau - had this been restored? What was the history? How did it fair in Hurricane Katrina?
Coats and heels: "no bagging pants" need apply. More than once was I instructed to partake of classic Southern fine dining and Galatoires more than fit the bill. Our party of four enjoyed Kevin's polite and attentive but noninvasive service. I thought I must try a cup of the turtle soup (which came in a little bowl not a tiny turtle shell), the house special garlic salad, and eggs benedict, and forced the others to share banana bread pudding for dessert. Bread pudding was very common on menus. The regionalism and histories of foods is a fantastic vehicle for looking at the stories of people throughout time and across geography.
I'd signed up for a 10K race for Saturday morning and after Thursday's fancy lunch, a little bowl of Gumbo hit the spot. While transferring from the bar (where more Arbita was had) to the restaurant our group was passed by none other than Ellis Marsalis! He was playing in stage area at Snug Harbor. Though it was a sold out show, the sound was piped into the dining area and we could catch glimpses of the icon while on the way to the rest room. What is the connection between bars and restaurants and show venues? When does music move from the background ambiance of a dining experience to the forefront making food a mere snack?
Gotta go to the grocery store for a Po' Boy, that is what Judi had been told and I didn't doubt this kind of advice for a moment. We hopped off the crowded streetcar and she boldly asked a stander-by. He more than kindly led our foursome to Zara's . We ordered Shrimp, Shrimp and Oyster, Catfish 11 inch French Bread Po'Boys, all dressed (mayo lettuce and delicious pickles). The market was small, a cross of grocery store and convenience store by many standards. We found limited edition Voodoo Gumbo Chips by local company Zapp's and the Mardi Gras Maibock from, you guessed it, Abita. Oh yes, and a couple of large pralines to share for a sweet finish. Here we were presented with questions of why is it called a po boy? What is the traditional version and when did variants develop? The purpose, history, and variations of pickles alone could cross curricula of science, cooking, history, botony, and social studies. What about variations of social norms? I can't imagine too many Minnesotans (bless our hearts) walking 4 blocks out of their way to take strangers to a market for sandwiches. For the age appropriate audience, beer brewing and its variations is another learning extravaganza.
The final four thoughts below present many more of the same ideas and learning opportunities. What dishes? Where? Why? How much? Growing conditions? Import issues? Labor concerns? and so on.
Garden dining at Orleans Grapevine - salads soups appetizers wine and dessert. perfect! How come many NOLA buildings/houses have center gardens rather than front and backyards?
Night caps: Pirate Bar and the absinthe debate continues.
Laura's Candies founded in 1913 - the history of sweets, their creation, availability and connection to wealth and consumption.
Easter morning, New Orleans style and brunch at Stanley's - seemingly "classic" NOLA elements meet "the American diner" - what is fusion food and is it new?
Cuisine and dining provide for some really interesting ways to explore any number of curricular topics from economics to history to biology. Critical, creative thinking and research/exploration iis necessary to learn this way though, and thus is a viable means to achieve the greater goals of education suggested in this class and our text.
(An aside, I'm pleading the fifth and avoiding the important topic of media and eating disorders. My history with this is too long, too varied, and too personal. I'd like to make one caveat, that though media and contemporary living clearly create disordered relationships with food for so so many people - actual eating disorders are serious medical conditions. For the health and safety of others, please do not underestimate the power of biochemistry and possibly even genetics, nor the importance of medical attention as well as social and cultural evaluation.
On a happier topic - please consider going to the PCA/ACA meeting some day! It is a great conference to cut one's teeth on...very supportive and extremely eclectic. I presented in the Libraries, Museums, Archives, and Popular Research area but attended fantastic panels in the Education area, the Food and Travel area, the Comics and Comic art area, and the Music area as well as the Hip Hop Culture area. WWW.PCAACA.ORG Do it!)