In Breaking Bread we discuss transformative food experiences, or in essence, the meals that matter for your personal food story. While generally most of these stories are written from the perspective of reflecting back in time, this is one that I knew would need an article from the first bite, and has me excited for a whole new future of food.
Previously I’ve touched upon themes of missing travel, wanting to return home, and the synesthetic sensory experience that comes with tasting something truly special. Fortunately, this past month I was able to take part in all of the above when I set upon a month-long journey through America (and the culinary worlds teeming within). Through a total of seven flights, hundreds of miles of open road, and entirely too many regrettable airplane meals that I’d rather forget (and in the interest of the healing process will not be detailed further), I cultivated a newfound sense of pride in my home country and its culinary offerings.
When it comes to extensive travel I’m reminded of the old expression, “Man plans, God laughs.” Before departing for the U.S., I had a very well defined plan for what my time there would look like. Naturally, all plans were excellent on paper, but failed to take into account multiple family members catching COVID within the same week. Now, thankfully as I write this everyone’s fully on the mend, but at the moment it introduced worries about family while also having to figure out where to go - with one “home” on a different continent and the other “home” inaccessible due to self-imposed quarantine I had to decide fast. As I batted around options with my brother Tony, eventually we settled on what should have been in the plans from the start, “How about we head to New Orleans?”
New Orleans, like Venice or New York is one of those unique cities that inspires simply by its existence. It has its own unique magic to it - and unlike the fantasy worlds of Narnia or Hogwarts there’s no fiction at play here - the magic is tangible and in abundance in the form of art, music, food, architecture, and other evidence of cultural primogeniture expanding from its deep historic roots.
Founded by the French, later owned by the Spanish, until New Orleans’ ultimate acquisition in the Louisiana Purchase to the United States, New Orleans has benefited greatly from its diverse lineage, not to mention its own distinctly Creole culture. As recently as the last episode of Late Night Snacks, I revealed that if I see more than two country’s cuisines on a menu I generally avoid that establishment. It’s always fun to publicly reveal a position to the masses only to immediately be proven wrong after; and New Orleans provides plenty of ammo for a counterargument. While in other places such diversity on a menu might hint at a lack of focus, in a place like NOLA (New Orleans, LA) it almost seems like a challenge. In one of the greatest (if not the greatest) food cities in the world, they might have fun with their food, but they do not play games when it comes to it, and each meal that treated national borders like imaginary lines was a delicious reminder of how wrong my preconceptions were.
Our first full meal in New Orleans shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s read the title of this article or that has even a passing interest in Creole cuisine - the Louisiana staple - the Po-boy. Like many brilliant innovations of years gone past, the Po-boy continues to inspire much debate. What constitutes a Po-boy? What type of bread defines it? Is it Po-boy, po’boy, or poor boy? Where did the name come from? Ultimately, there are many takes on the Po-boy from a historical perspective, and even more from a culinary perspective. For ease of communication I simply use the spelling from the first time I saw Po-boys on a menu in New Orleans, and happily leave the nuanced or definitive definitions to those more qualified voices to discuss and explain the particulars. All that said, a Po-boy is a baguette sandwich, typically dressed with mayo, lettuce, and tomato, with a wide variety of potential fillings. During my time in NOLA I’ve seen andouille, roast beef, shrimp, fried catfish, turkey, french fries, chicken tenders, alligator sausage, and even fried lobster as Po-boy fillings to name a few.
The first (and certainly not last) Po-boy to grace our table came by way of a place called Melba’s, and in addition to being my first time trying a Po-boy was also my first time trying andouille sausage. In judging cuisine, part of my rubric for masterful cookery is whether the dish packed sufficient depth, or effectively whether the dish had enough presence to showcase multiple notes and layers of flavor. From the perspective of this standard, NOLA’s cuisine is incomparable. It’s no surprise that jazz was birthed here, from the first bite of the po-boy I was hit with an onslaught of diverse flavors tightly packed in an almost stream of consciousness presentation of deliciousness. I was riding the wave, I was taking the journey, I was participating in a thesis on American culture and diversity in sandwich form. Each new unexplored taste working in harmony with the previous one and building upon it, In short? Wow.
At this stage in the game, I take this as a welcome reminder that I still have so much to learn and explore, there’s no hyperbole here, I’m a former line-cook/current-foodie that works in F&B, binges food media, and attacks new food like I have a vendetta against it. But well - I had no freaking clue you could concoct flavors like that. It’s like learning the existence of a new color, a seemingly innocuous discovery that shakes up your foundational understanding of art, so too was I surprised at the meal in front of me.
The sides were more than just supporting instruments as well - collard greens soaking in umami rich potlikker, red beans and rice seasoned so richly I had to turn to my brother in confusion to ask, “...what…is that!?” between puzzled bites. As a Latino, I assure you that rice and beans is not what I’d consider some novel or foreign fare - after a few thousand meals of it, I know the flavor profile…or at least I thought I did; yet here I was having lifelong preconceptions deconstructed in front of me. As a complete aside from being fantastic in taste, this is one of the few meals in my life that I can truly describe as humbling. These are the meals I search for when in unfamiliar territory and in this case my pursuit was richly rewarded.
New Orleans certainly deserves recognition for other notable eats encountered during my time there — Cafe Du Monde’s beignets were divine (and served up in plates of towering powdered sugar the likes of which would intimidate Tony Montana). Mother’s gumbo filé inspired me go on a Tony Chacere shopping spree (I abandon any hopes at a recreation, but I need to have an attempt at that flavor in my life). Loretta’s fried chicken beignets ensured I’ll be booking a return trip to Louisanna for another round with the best fried chicken ‘sandwich’ I’ve ever had. The King’s Cake Gooey at Haydel’s Bakery showed me how masterfully texture could be used in pastry. Mason Hereford’s Turkey and the Wolf revealed that pot pies belong deep fried and in empanada form.
As my brother and I prepared to exit on our last day we made our own po-boys for the road, using Reisling’s bread (sorry, no Leidenheimer on hand!), Savoie andouille, and “secret sauce” leftover from Turkey and the Wolf the night before in place of the traditional mayo to craft our own impromptu take on the po-boy. The focus wasn’t on authenticity, or recreating a specific meal we’d eaten earlier in the trip, or really anything at all aside from making some tasty food to savor and make the trip last just a little longer than it normally would. The po-boy was (predictably) incredible, but that almost doesn’t matter.
In the act of making food with family I was simply focused on the experience, not the result, and that serves as a greater metaphor for New Orleans’ take on food and art in general. Play with your food, cross the lines, get messy, borrow ideas and ingredients from everyone and everything you know, put some soul in it and jazz it up until it’s uniquely your own. In the most unassuming restaurants I enjoyed some of the best food I’ve ever eaten on this planet, there has to be some wisdom in their ethos. While it may take a lifetime (and many more future visits) to fully understand NOLA and its brilliant pastiche of cultural and artistic interplay, I can assure you that I’ll be eagerly visiting New Orleans again for a continued education.