I’m not much of a cook but I’m a real hellion when it comes to ordering up a good meal. Would the kitchens of New Orleans (“It’s pronounced ‘Nawlins’ man! You sound like a fuckin’ limey!”) be up to the challenge?
I arrived in the Big Easy on the evening of Friday 7 November 2008 after 26 hours on the Amtrak Crescent train from Washington DC. My sleeper was very cosy and the views magnificent.
Miles and miles and miles of forests in their glowing fall colours, tiny hamlets painted by Norman Rockwell, long stretches of failed dismal outer suburbs not painted by Norman Rockwell, more beautiful forests, enormous military depots in Georgia where the autumn light turned the ranks of Abrams Main Battle Tanks into squat bronze terrapins and then sunset over the plashy bayou before the final run along the Lake Pontchartrain causeway across oily black moon-rippled waters into the glowing crescent of Nawlins.
The sleeping car attendant was suavely attentive to my needs (“Smoking stop in 10 minutes Mr N.”) and the lounge car very damn elastic about bar closing hours. But the dining car offered some pretty fucking indifferent cuisine and service.
“We do steak and eggs. Or warm chicken salad. How would you like it?”
“You really don’t want to start dissing me here honey.”
So I was feeling distinctly peckish by the time we were decanted around 7.30pm at the Union Passenger Terminal in Nawlins – a chunk of 1950s moderne brave new world of mass travel – right next to the crappy concrete brut 1970s Louisiana Superdome (which is quite a lot smaller than the MCG by the way – but better lit up at night).
Five minutes later a taxi (helmed by a 300 pound bloke who appeared to live in it) dropped me at my hotel in the French Quarter – a 170 year old charmingly dilapidated, sprawling and eccentrically renovated southern mansion run by a charmingly dilapidated, sprawling and eccentrically renovated southern family.
After unpacking and frisking my whiskers, I asked the hotel’s matriarch where would be a good place for a louche gentleman on the loose to enjoy some quality local cuisine before flanuering into the night.
Thirty minutes later I headed out into the Vieux Carré armed with a hand-drawn map marked with Xs everywhere and much juicy gossip about local activities. (Corruption in Nawlins city council elections!!?! Shocked I was!)
So anyway, to cut a rumbling stomach short, I ended up in front of Oliver’s Creole Restaurant on Decatur St at about 9pm on a Friday night. The place was buzzing and looked unlikely to accommodate a lone traveler trying pot luck – but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I pushed through the swing doors and was immediately bailed up by the Restaurant Captain (An American variant of maitre d’) who looked and sounded like a wiry aging ex-hippy version of Burl Ives. Magnificent sideburns. Or as my grandmother called ‘em “bugger’s grips.” I chose not to share this observation with the man who was gonna get me a table.
Instead I did what we should all do in such situations. Clearly explain the nature of your proposed transaction while making it clear you will behave with the style and etiquette appropriate to the venue.
(While also making sure you don’t nonchalantly put your hand in your trouser pocket while it’s still holding a lit cigarette. As apparently one drunken Melbournian did at HR-57 on 4 November 2008 around 3am.)
OK, back on story. Me getting seated at Olivier’s on Decatur. On a Friday night.
“Good evening sir.”
“Hi, table for one thanks.”
“Do you have a reservation sir?”
“No, I just got off the train from DC and I’m hungry.”
“Is sir English?
“I’m Australian and still hungry”
“I’m sure you are sir. And you will paying how?…Yes MasterCard is fine.”
“Any chance the local cooking can get a bit spicy?”
“Spicy? Oh…really?…I think we can accommodate you sir. OK, I’m gonna hand you over to Andy here who will be serving you this evening.”
Enter Andy, a young black guy with a complete Buster Keaton stone face who showed me to a nice wall table well away from the kitchen and toilet doors.
A digression here. Dining alone in foreign cities can be a subtle pleasure if you handle it right. Just pretend yer Bogie in ‘Tokyo Joe’. Disclaimer: This advice may not work for the ladies. Unless you’ve got Humphrey Bogart’s attitude. Or looks.
Anyway I was seated and got the iced water right up front but just as I reached for the menu, Andy whisked it away.
“Um, I was gonna read that.”
“Nossir, you asked for spicy, we’re gonna give you spicy. Are you vegetarian or lactose intolerant?”
“OK then sir, we’re gonna let the kitchen see what they can do for you. Some lagniappe first, then the house gumbo, extra spicy. You see if you feel like some of our bread pudding afterwards. That OK?”
“Er…well…yes…OK I suppose…Hey I’d like a drink as well-“
“Sir, I’m gonna recommend this wine for you. By the glass or bottle?”
“Oh the bottle thanks…wait a minute, how much will all this all cost?”
“Sir, I guarantee you’ll get out alive for around fifty bucks…so far.”
“Make it so.”
And so began one of the most entertaining meals of my life.
The ‘lagniappe’ was a cartwheel of a plate populated with a pile of tasty little things from mushrooms stuffed with peppers stuffed with mushrooms stuffed with peppers to crab cakes the size and colour of mermaid toenails that exploded like tongue-tripped sea mines.
“This is bloody great! What do you call it?”
“I jus’ told the kitchen to make one extra of all the entrees going out and put it on the plate. You ready for the big course now sir?”
“Well perhaps another bottle of the Hartford first.”
“Y’know I thought you’d say that. Here it is. Enjoy sir.”
Meanwhile the 20+ table next to me was a family reunion getting raucous. Tropically torpid grandparents, bouncy and prosperous middle-aged mums and dads, bored and embarrassed teens and scampering toddlers.
In what I now understand is typical Nawlins style I was drawn into one of the tangential table conversations and then before I sorta realised it, my chair, plate, cutlery, glass and bottle were deftly moved to the big family table. Along with me.
“Yar Australian? Y’know we’ve always wanted to visit Australia. Uncle Henry’s got sum great stories about Sydney in the 70s.”
“I read yah doing some mighty interesting things with those stem cells down there under.”
“Shame Marie ain’t here. Wouldn’t he jus’ love Marie? Are you married?”
“Say, you heard of Tennessee Williams? He wrote a lot about Nawlins.”
“Y’know the big problem with Obama? He’s from Chicago. Those Northerners rilly think their farts don’t smell too?”
“Jus’ tellin’ it like it is darlin’”
“So you’ve heard of Huey Long? Well let me tell you about the Kingfish.”
“So I hear tell this Melbourne Cup is quite a horse race”
“Can I freshen your bottle sir?”
Then my extra extra spicy spicy gumbo gumbo arrived arrived.
“Whoo-ee! Who’s that for?”
“The Australian gentleman here who was speculatin’ about whether our local cuisine would leave an impression.”
“Ooh, you are so in for it now honey.”
An enormous bowl, orangey-brown, lumpy and fragrant. Steaming and bubbling like the death throes of a screen villain. Radioactively throbbing like a Nawlins city council election.
As I braced myself, fork in hand, the Captain loomed up and coyly asked if I liked the music. The bastards were now playing through the restaurant PA, Tom Wait’s “Waltzing Matilda”. Andy was lurking deadpan. A dozen faces at the table were turned on me with expectant smirks. I was trapped, surrounded by American hospitality. I had no choice but to dig in. Our nation’s honour was at stake.
Hot! Hot! Hot! But delicious. And hot! HOT! REALLY FUCKING HOT! NOT CURRY HOT! NOT CHILLI HOT! ANOTHER KINDA HOT! DELICIOUS! BUT REALLY HOT!…HOT!!!!!! H.O.T. h o t HHOOTT!!!!#$@@&^&&^%$#@^*!
So what’s the recipe? Well that proved easier to ask than to answer. Andy said he really couldn’t say and the Captain said he would “make enquiries”.
Eventually a cheerful chef wandered out from the kitchen and after admiring my red and perspiring face for a minute said she really couldn’t say there was any kinda exact recipe as such but rather really that it was sorta hand-me-down thang that they really kinda kept adapting according what was sorta really available and how much was really kinda needed. The words “sorta” and “kinda” were used a lot. Really.
However the table had its own strong opinions about makin’ gumbo and proceeded to raise them with the chef and anyone else who could give a shit. After lively discussion between all concerned (including some kibitzers from other tables), I was left in possession of a pile of notes scribbled on napkins, coasters, boarding passes, business cards and someone’s school report which I have attempted to distill here as a recipe for very hot Nawlins old school gumbo.,.for y’all parfait gentle readers .
Very Hot Nawlins Old School Gumbo – kinda serves sorta a bunch of folks. Really.
First find your restaurant and order. Or failing that, you will need:
- A bunch of flour. “A bunch?” “It’s a local technical term. It means bigger than her fist but smaller than his head.” This will require a pot/saucepan/smoke-blackened family heirloom.
- A bunch of white long grain rice. See above. This will also require another pot/etc.
- Several shot glasses of cooking oil.
- A smoked ham the size of a catwalk model’s buttock – diced into dice cubes.
- Shrimp. How much? ”Well how much do you like shrimp honey?”
- Enough chopped onions, green peppers, tomatoes and okra to fill a third of a big pot. An even mix between ‘em. “Um…how big is big?” “How hungry are you honey?”.
- A shot glass of heavily traumatised garlic.
- A tablespoon of cayenne pepper – or to taste.
- A tablespoon of black pepper – or to taste.
- Some secret (or at least incomprehensible) ingredients. “Sand? Did you say ‘sand’? I distinctly heard you say ‘sand’.”
- A tankard of the jus left over from the last gumbo – “the starter”.
Smodge the oil and flour together in the biggest pot on low to medium heat until the mix turns the colour of post-Mardi Gras eyeballs.
Throw in all the vegetable matter, the spices and half the tankard of former gumbo jus, an’ probably 250 grams of water as well so it doesn’t dry out, whack a heavy lid on and simmer for around the length of the 1949 film version of “All The King’s Men” or until fair and transparent electoral processes come to Louisiana. Whichever comes first. Think at least two hours minimum regardless.
By now you should have also boiled the rice in the other thingy to a consistency where it’s sticky but wherein each grain also retains its structural integrity. Chuck the rest of the gumbo jus in with the rice and simmer for the length of how long she can walk on gilded splinters.
Dollop the flavorsome rice into the largest concave plate at your disposal. Then pour the lava over it.
OK, it’s not much of a technically precise recipe. But, as far as I could work out, them Nawlins food pixie pirates basically deal with a good gumbo the way Ponce De Leon thought he could handle the fountain of youth.
By all means, google proper quantities, qualities, temporal attitudes and appropriate ingredients. But don’t forget a good gumbo is an ongoing concoction managed with local style. Like an Anglo-Saxon pea and ham soup simmering away over a long winter.
“It’s all about the vibe.”
YOUR CORRESPONDENT fanning his TONGUE while contemplating Andrew Jackson’s FORCIBLE IMPOSITION upon the NATURAL ORDER of NEW ORLEANS. One of the very few times I’ve ever felt simpatico with the belligerent bloodthirsty old fart.
The chef’s parting words as the great gumbo discussion heated up were “Go the Bread Pudding after. Lotsa starch and carbos that’ll cut the heat.” And she was right. And it was delicious too.
By now it was dessert time and everyone at the table under the age of 25 had either buggered off or fallen asleep. The liqueurs and Irish coffees were being distributed. And suddenly next to me was a tiny silver-haired foxy old grandpa, leering away. Think a very old Burgess Meredith just escaped from a ship in a bottle.
“Aussie right? Big island? You guys must sail a lot?”
“Well…yes…dabbled a bit. Mainly Hobie Cats and-“
“Whaddya think of this?”
‘This” was a rather crumpled photo of a nice 20 foot sloop.
“30 feet of sea loving there. And she could be yours for twelve grand. You could sail her back.”
“Well yes it is a very nice boat but I already have a return airline ticket. I must say is it really 30 feet?”
“Of course it is. Here, hold the picture like this.”
“Dad! Stop it! Jeff! He’s doing the boat thing again.”
“Elle! Is your pa doing the boat thing again?”
“I dunno. It doesn’t look like 30 feet to me.”
“How can you tell sonny?”
“Well, you standing next to it does provide some perspective.”
“Eight grand! It’s got some fine stowage points those government bastards will never find.”
“Well OK it’s more liking to 25 feet. But she goes like a goddamn bird.”
“You wanna get his shoes Elle?”
“Gimme back my picture!”
“Nice to meet you Mr …mumble mumble.”
“I’m so sorry. He’s not normally like this.”
“Yes he is Elle! We hafta to talk about this.”
The Captain swept the door open with deadpan aplomb as family members bustled Grandpa to a car. Judging from the look on his face, it was not the first time the Captain had had to usher out this senile pint-sized pirate.
“So sorry about that. Dad is y’know…senior moments”
“Yeah I understand…Nice boat though.”
“Probl’y why he’s sold it three times already.”
By now it was after 11pm and the naughty naughty sinful jazzrnbdiscobluestechnoswamp dins of iniquity on Decutar and Frenchmens Street were calling to me. I made the international signing the bill signal at Andy.
“Nossir. It’s all been picked up by the parties who booked this table.”
“Really? Do they have any idea how much I drank.”
“We all do. We’re impressed.”
“There must be someone here I can give money to.”
By now those left at the table were either rather crestfallen after granddad’s freak-out, shipping sleeping toddlers out to SUVs and/or double-checking cell phone details for teenage spawn loose in Faubourg Marigny.
I tried to explain why I should at least pay for something. But apparently Southern hospitality would be permanently shamed by a visitor forking out for anything so I rolled with the flow, discretely added a Benjamin and a Grant to the tips pool, shook hands and kissed cheeks all around, laid a smoldering but unrequited look on Elle, a very svelte fortysomething Louisiana soccer mum, and headed out into the night.
Then the wormwood-infused absinthe Duke Ellington mashups, nude boogie tarot card readings, techno hand of glory zydeco and Baron Samedi-spiked cocktails stuff all happened.
But that, as they say, is another story.