“[Writers] Trollope and Twain both wrote about New Orleans’ culinary mastery more than 100 years ago. You can’t find our food elsewhere because we have always been separate and distinct,” says New Orleans native Lolis Elie. Few people are as well-versed in the Crescent City’s heritage than the former Times Picayune columnist, culinary historian, and story editor on HBO’s Treme.
“The rest of the American frontier was conquered by Americans,” says Elie. “But Southern Louisiana had already been conquered by the French; there was already a ‘modern’ culture in place. When you take the best cooks from Europe, and the best cooks from Africa, you get the best food.”
The cuisine—reaping the benefits from its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico—is decidedly a melting pot, a reflection of the variety of cultures that occupy this city: Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, Southern, French, African, and Spanish.
Despite its myriad of influences, New Orleans’ cuisine is also one steeped in ritual, thanks partially to its Catholic heritage, says Elie. Seafood is consumed largely on Fridays. It’s also the city that invented Sunday brunch for mass-goers leaving church—featuring boiled crawfish, omelets, radishes, and tripe in yellow sauce.
That continuity remains strong, even after the devastation of Katrina. Tom Fitzmorris, a radio food show host, says the number of restaurants now has dwarfed the pre-flood number.
“Where we differ from the rest of the country is that we have a long tradition that even young contemporary chefs respect,” says Elie. “I can’t imagine there will ever come a time when you can’t get red beans on Monday in New Orleans.”
To fully understand all the forces at play, we tapped Elie for a history lesson, and asked for his opinions about ten iconic dishes that are essential to New Orleans food culture—including where to get gumbo, oyster sandwiches, blackened redfish, and Sazeracs.
Red beans and rice
The basckstory: This staple of New Orleans’ kitchens is indebted to the Caribbean. “Red beans are the emblematic bean of Haiti and Eastern Cuba,” Elie says. “In New Orleans, they eventually became associated with Wash Day, or laundry day, which was on Monday. This was before washing machines, of course. On Monday, you would wash your clothes for the week and make rice and beans because they were easy to put together.” These days, restaurants still abide by that custom, and serve the beans over long-grained rice to kick-off the week.
Where to get it: Willie Mae’s Scotch House
Address and phone: 2401 St Ann St (504-822-9503)
“They’ve been around since 1957. They make good beans and rice, and the great grandmother got a James Beard American Classic Award based mostly on her fried chicken.”
The backstory: Gumbo z’herbes is a big pot of green gumbo, made with a variety of vegetables like mustard greens, collards, watercress, and spinach, and a bit of meat. Story has it that it came from a green leaf stew you find in a lot of places in West Africa. “It’s a Creole dish that is usually eaten on the Holy Thursday, which is right before Good Friday,” Elie says. “New Orleans was founded by the French and Catholic, so that tradition is still strong.”
Where to get it: Dooky Chase’s
Address and phone: 301 Orleans Ave (504-821-0600)
“Leah Chase, the owner, started the public tradition of eating gumbo z’herbes on Thursday,” he says. “She cooks it with sausage and veal.”
Shrimp Po’ Boy
The backstory: In New Orleans culture, po’ boys are the seminal sandwiches. The origins of this local favorite goes back to streetcar conductor strike in 1929. The owners of Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market—former streetcar drivers themselves—sympathized with the workers, and decided to feed them free of charge until the strike ended. “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say ‘here comes another poor boy,’” Bennie Martin, one of the owners, famously remarked. There’s now even a po’ boy preservation society based on a letter that Martin wrote to the workers.
Where to get it: Zimmer’s Seafood, a neighborhood seafood market
Address and phone: 4915 St Anthony Ave (504-282-7150)
Oyster sandwich on pan bread
The backstory: “Fried oysters have always been put on sandwiches, and Louisiana accounted for 60 percent of the nation’s oyster harvest,” Elie says. “The pan bread is interesting though. It’s thick slices of white bread.” The pan bread, also known as the oyster loaf, was invented ten years later after the po’ boy. It’s buttered and toasted—the perfect vehicle to sandwich together plump oysters from the nearby Gulf.
Where to get it: Casamento’s
Address and phone: 4330 Magazine St (504-895-9761)
“It’s an old-time New Orleans restaurant. It’s a relatively small place that’s been around since 1919,” Elie says.
The backstory: In the 1970s, chef Paul Prudhomme popularized this now iconic dish, which would help give Cajun cuisine a national audience. After being doused with seasoning, the fish is sautéed in a generous amount of butter. “You don’t want to overcook the filet—there’s a big difference between blackened and burned,” Prudhomme notes in his recipe. Due to the dish’s success, Prudhomme eventually launched a seasoning called Blackened Redfish Magic that you’ll find in supermarkets nationwide.
Where to get it: K-Paul’s, opened by Chef Paul Prudhomme and his late wife in 1979
Address and phone: 416 Chartres St (504-596-2530)
Shrimp remoulade on a fried green tomato
The backstory: Remoulade is a traditional French sauce, but one of those sauces that New Orleanians have created their own variation of. “The French version is white, whereas New Orleans’ version is generally a kind of pinkish-orange,” Elie notes, due to the chili, mustard, and mayo combination. “The big innovation was to put it on shrimp and on top of a fried green tomato.” The tomato is served hot, and the shrimp and remoulade are cold. The temperature contrast is key.
Where to get it: Upperline
Address and phone: 1413 Upperline St (504-891-9822)
“They created it there,” he says. “It’s been a classic for 25 years.”
The backstory: Turtles have always been associated with New Orleans. “They were overfished to the point that they were almost extinct,” Elie admits. “It tastes like chicken and the broth is flavored with tomatoes and celery. It’s garnished with sherry and chopped hardboiled egg.”
Where to get it: Commander’s Palace
Address and phone: 1403 Washington Ave (504-899-8221)
“Their soup is made with 100% turtle meat from farmed turtles in Texas,” Elie says.
The backstory: “It’s rice in tomato sauce cooked with sausage, chicken, or shrimp,” Elie says. “It originated here, and if you’re going to have a party in New Orleans, there’s a fair chance you’ll serve jambalaya.” Onions, celery, and bell peppers form the Holy Trinity in Cajun cooking—similar to the French idea of mirepoix. “There are Creole and Cajun versions of jambalaya,” says Elie. “Creole tends to have tomato sauce in it and use smoked sausage. The Cajuns use andouille. (There are other meat variations as well. But suffice it to say that Cajuns use andouille, tasso, duck, chicken, and the Creoles use smoked sausage, shrimp, ham, and hot sausage).” Cajun has a rural connotation. Creole is more white tablecloth.
Where to get it: Coop’s Place
Address and phone: 1109 Decatur St (504-525-9053)
“They have a basic rabbit-and-sausage jambalaya simmered with tomatoes, onion, and bell pepper. The upgraded “supreme” version comes with jumbo shrimp, crawfish tails, and their own tasso, which is fatty chunks of ham smoked in their courtyard.”
The backstory: “There’s no set taste for yaka mein except brown,” a New Orleans bookstore owner once told the Southern Foodways Alliance. “It’s got to taste brown and salty, and it’s got to have a handful of green onions.” Yaka mein is the New Orleans take on an Asian beef noodle soup. “The theory is that black veterans from the Korean War came back from New Orleans and were trying to recreate the food they had,” Elie says. “Ironically these days, fine dining chefs are trying to take this colloquial black dish and re-Asianize it.” It’s a beef noodle soup with meat and egg, showered with green onions. It’s nickname is ‘Old Sober.’
Where to get it: Miss Linda, known as the yaka mein lady. You can find her stall at jazz and food festivals. She updates frequently on Facebook
The backstory: The Sazerac was declared the official New Orleans cocktail of Louisiana in 2008. The drink is named for the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand of Cognac brandy that was its original main ingredient. The drink is thought to be the world’s first mixed drink, though the term ‘cocktail’ appeared in New York years before the Sazerac came into existence. Regardless, it has become an integral part of the state drinking culture. In 1873, a dash of absinthe was added, and whiskey was substituted for cognac. When absinthe was banned in 1912, bitters were substituted in its place.
Where to get it: Sazerac bar in Roosevelt Hotel
Address and phone: 130 Roosevelt Way (504-648-1200)