by Judy Schultz
We’re in New Orleans, the Big Easy, and I’m loving it. The beat, the heat, the fried artichokes, the buttery voices and honeyed accents that come with southern hospitality.
On a steamy night in Preservation Hall, everybody knows the anthem. “C’mon Baby, let the good times roll!”
Shades of BB King and Quincy Jones. Laissez les bon temps rouler…
But where to start? Antoine’s or Le Bayou? Kingfish or Deanie’s? Grits or gumbo?
At a street festival they’re ladling bright red crawdads (crayfish, or mud bugs, if you wish) into big white bowls with sweet corn and baby potatoes, all boiled with hot peppers. “Gives them some kick,” says a customer who tears into the crays with his fingers. Shells crunch under his feet.
Time to check out the rich and famous. At the Commander’s Palace, an army of servers line up at the door. “Welcome! Welcome in…” and the waiter, who oozes southern charm, knows the menu backwards, forwards and in between.
He discusses macque choux and jambalaya, gumbo ya-ya and crawfish etouffée, “juicy crawfish tails smothered in a buttery blend of onions, peppers, celery…”
And oh, the oysters! They’re available many ways, he says, each more delicious than the last. I tell him I’ll turn blue and die if I eat just one oyster, no matter how it’s done. He expresses genuine sympathy and promises a bourbon-laced soufflé for later.
Around midnight, back in the French Quarter, we find the only bar in town with NHL playoffs on a big screen. They offer ‘gator burgers and fried catfish,
but we’re into overtime, the Ducks have pulled their goalie, and the suspense is just too much. Fool that I am, I order a Sazerac.
Sazerac, the quintessential Big Easy libation, starts with a glass full of ice.
In a second glass, a sugar cube is dribbled with three generous dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and a single drop of Angostura, then crushed with the back of a spoon.
Now add two ounces of Buffalo Trace Bourbon.
Toss the ice out of the first glass. Swirl the glass with the mysterious green liqueur called Absinthe, which tastes of licorice and was once outlawed for having driven several notable Frenchmen barking mad.
The bartender rolls a bit of lemon peel around the rim, pours in the bourbon mixture, and says in his buttery voice, “Please enjoy.”
The goalie’s back! In celebration, I suck up a big swig of my first Sazerac. Bad idea, the swig. “Enjoy sipping it,” says the bartender. “Slow-ly!”
My souvenirs of the Big Easy include a CD of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and a recipe for beignets, the fluffy, sugar- dusted, lighter- than-feathers fried bread this city made famous. The recipe is kindly shared by Robert, “That’s pronounced Roe-BER,” a seventh- generation Creole food-lover and one heck of a cemetery guide.
“Your basic beignet ain’t nuthin’ but a hunka dough fried in bubblin’ hot oil,” says Roe-BER. “Beignet is easy!”
Yes? Note to self: simple isn’t easy. My beignets, which I made the very hour we got back, were neither light nor fluffy. The first six burned by the time I fished them out of the bubbling oil. They were still doughy-gooey in the middle.
More notes to self:
Let the hot oil bubble.
Let the good times roll.
Let a pro cook the beignets.
Judy Schultz is a food and travel writer currently living in Alberta. She loves a good beignet.