Fushan kids back in bus

New OrleansMay 2011:
Putting My Feet Up in New Orleans



The next day I had my first real taste of New Orleans cuisine: jambalaya at Riverfront Restaurant on Decatour. I went in about 2:30 PM when few customers were in the restaurant.

Not knowing anything much about jambalaya, I ordered it with noodles rather than rice. That may have been a mistake but it was still good. It certainly had a characteristic flavor of peppers but it was more than that. I asked the waitress about it. She punted.

"The chef is sitting right over there," she said." Why don't you ask him?"

He was a friendly guy sitting at a table in the back. He explained to me that the flavor that I was tasting had a lot to do with a reduction involving meat.

But I will have to admit that I did not completely follow his explanation. I do not always listen as well as I used to when I worked as a reporter and always tried to "get the facts straight." These days I pay more attention to the essence, which involves both facts and feelings. I'm usually content if I capture the essence, even when a few facts prove elusive. But here I was clearly in error. Some attention to details is still required. I chastised myself when I got back to the hostel and looked over my notes. I assigned myself twenty mental pushups as punishment and resolved to become a better listener.

Now let me both jump backwards and forwards in time. I said previously "my first taste of New Orleans cuisine." That wasn't quite accurate. On my second full day in New Orleans I was eating New Orleans cuisine but just didn't know it. When I was staying at Saint Vincent, the old orphanage, one day the weather was hot and I went in search of beer.

There was a place nearby called Dot's. It's on the corner of Champ Street and Felicity. It was one of these little "markets" that sells beer and almost nothing else of value unless you count candy bars and popcorn. I was hungry when I went in for beer and ordered a sandwich too. I remembered seeing a sign outside advertising sandwiches. But like everything else at Dot's, the sign was old and the letters somewhat faded. So I asked when I went in if they made sandwiches.

"You want a Poboy?" the clerk asked.

"I guess I might," I said, trying to drawl my words just a little.

"Meat or shrimp?"

"Meat," I said.

"Hot or cold?"

"Hot." Why not?

He called out an order to a guy in back.

What the hell was a PoBoy, I wondered.

I got the beer, then waited.

Ten minutes had gone by and no sandwich, cold or hot, came out of the back. I got a little irritated. Why the hell was it taking so long to make a sandwich? I assumed Zen-like patience, as I have done many times in China when things weren't going the Western way, and waited another five minutes. Finally, "the sandwich" arrived. It was wrapped in tin foil and carefully placed in a bag. I took it back to the hostel and examined it, but only after I had popped a cold beer. It had a puffy, flaky bun that was overstuffed with meat, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles.

It was not bad but I did not think much of the bun. Where did they get such a crummy bun, I thought. I was used to high-quality French baguettes used as buns, or nutritious, whole-grain breads with seeds. What was this thing they served it in? Why make a nice sandwich, then serve it on something that seemed day-old at best? Well, as I would discover later on, this was the way a PoBoy was made—good one, bad one, cheap one, expensive one. I just didn't know about PoBoys yet.

I ate about half and wrapped the rest back up for later. I was beginning to understand the name, if not the bun.

Now, jumping ahead, a few days after my first taste of Jambalaya, I dropped by the Chartre House Cafe in the Quarter and ordered their PoBoy. By then I knew about the PoBoy, as I had seen it listed on the menu of just about every restaurant in New Orleans. This one came with the same terrible bun but deep fried shrimp, as ordered, and the same shredded lettuce, thin-sliced tomatoes, and pickles. It was personally delivered to the table by the chef himself. It was quite delicious, except for the bun of course. Next time I may bring my own bun. French fries and a bottle of Abita Amber ale, Louisiana's own—something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from California—compensated a bit for the bun.

Okay, since my introduction to the PoBoy, I have done research on it. The bun is supposed to be like that. Apparently that is the way the sandwich was first made and that is the way it is still made in New Orleans. The bun retains the historical heritage of the sandwich. I am not going to argue with that, especially in these times when you are lucky if you can afford a PoBoy. So be it. But I don't know where I would find such a bun in California if I wanted to make the PoBoy there. Maybe at the day-old counter of the Wonder Bread factory, if there really is one.

While I am eating, there are two guys at the bar who are yelling at women in cars as they drive by, but they are quiet now. My waiter comes by for a chat. He lives in the Quarter, just up the street at Royal and pays only $500 per month. He asks me where I'm from. I tell him just about everywhere, then am a little more specific. I tell him Shanghai, Paris, and San Francisco, by rotation. He finds that intriguing in a way I no longer do; I'm more impressed with his cheap rent.

Now a car with some women goes by and the guys at the bar are yelling again.

"Those guys," my waiter says, "they are no gentlemen."

I am surprised to even hear the word "gentlemen" anymore but agree.

"What can you do?" I ask. "Young men are like this everywhere now. At least they are not shouting obscenities at them."

"Not yet," he says.

"And what about young woman?" I ask.

"Not as bad," he says. "At least not yet."

After lunch I took a walk up Saint Louis Street and spotted the New Orleans Cooking School. I had been curious about something for a long time. I know that coffee with chicory is marketed a lot of places as "New Orleans style coffee." But I wasn't sure whether this was just marketing or if people actually drank the stuff in New Orleans or not. I rather like it myself but a lot of people don't. It is kind of like the Sazerac cocktail—divisive.

I walked in and sprang the question on a guy working the shop out front of the school's demonstration kitchen. Yes, I was told. Moreover, he added, most of the restaurants in New Orleans serve coffee with chicory.

"What about the effect of the chicory?" I asked. "To me it still tastes like regular coffee but with a peppery smell."

"That sounds about right," he said.

It was nice to have gotten something right. The jambalaya had confused me. I liked it but didn't know exactly where the flavor came from. But I am a coffee aficionado; I was raised on the stuff and love it. Moreover, not too long ago back in California I had been doing coffee tastings. One day I included a "New Orleans Style" coffee with chicory from Trader Joe's. I had scrutinized it until I thought I had it down. The confirmation was nice. I resolved to taste more carefully the next cup of coffee I was served in New Orleans.

Another coffee that we tasted back in California was a coffee from New Mexico that added ground piņon nuts. The nuts appeared to add a sweetness to the flavor without changing the aroma. New Mexico is another area of the United States where spiciness and flavor are appreciated.

Then there are the "flavored" coffees, which are only appreciated by bored and jaded palates. My advice to the young, in their own language: stay the fuck away from 'em. They only lead to Krispy Kremes and corruption of the coffee palate.

Later on, back at the hostel, I hear a bit of odd conversation. There are a number of guests crowded around the pool table, including young woman, who have taken up the game in great numbers these days. One of the guys is about to shoot but clearly doesn't know the game.

"Hey, dude," says a young woman, "you never shoot that ball because if you make it you lose."

They are playing 8-ball of course.

The guy, tattooed like a sailor, baseball cap on backwards, looks embarrassed.


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