Lately, when my turn rolls around to do the “What We’re Reading” feature, I’ve been at a loss. With two (soon to be three, four and five) novels due in under nine months, I am, quite frankly, writing and doing the day-job thing and little else.
But then I realized, I AM reading something–it’s just not a novel. I recently stumbled on a book I couldn’t resist: EAT DAT: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City, by Michael Murphy, with photos by Rick Olivier. I bought it shortly after it was released on February 3, planning to read it later this spring. I made the mistake of opening it up…and couldn’t put it down.
It isn’t a restaurant guide, per se, nor does it have any recipes. But it does use the restaurants of my former hometown to tell the story of the food culture in what the author asserts (and I wholeheartedly agree) is the greatest food city in the United States. Yeah, we’re prejudiced. But lots of top chefs agree, so we can’t be totally wrong!
Anyway, it has been fun to revisit some of my favorite spots: the Napoleon House for what I think is the city’s best muffaletta and drink, a Pimm’s Cup; Jacques-Imo’s, for the eclectic alligator-sausage cheesecake that’ll make you want to slap your mama (don’t worry, it’s not elder abuse, just a Southernism); Felix’s for oysters (or, locally, “ersters”); Port of Call for burgers; and, of course, Commander’s Palace for a bread pudding souffle with whiskey sauce that will make you weep with joy.
The surprise with Eat Dat came with tears. It made my cry twice in the first twenty-five pages; it was a personal thing, so don’t think this is anything but a celebration. But it was about two long-time city foodies with stories that brought up a lot of rocky memories.
Joe Casamento was born above the family restaurant on Magazine Street in 1925 and literally ran it his whole life. It was the first place I remember eating in New Orleans–the infamous oyster loaf sandwich, still a favorite. A couple of months before Hurricane Katrina hit, Mr. Casamento turned 82. His family convinced him to evacuate for the storm. The night Katrina came ashore and the levees failed, Joe Casamento died. His restaurant, however lives on. You should stop by for an oyster loaf next time you’re in the Big Easy.
My favorite-of-all New Orleans restaurants is Jacques-Imo’s, and it got started in the late ’90s when chef Jacques Leonardi, who’d earned his food chops in Paul Prudhomme’s kitchen, teamed up with legendary chef Austin Leslie. Leslie was widely regarded as the man who made the world’s best fried chicken, and he combined his skills with Leonardi to create a wonderful, eclectic menu in what I think is the funkiest, most eclectic setting in New Orleans. During Katrina, Chef Leslie, then 71 years old, was trapped in his attic for two days in hundred-degree heat before being rescued and taken to the horrors of the New Orleans Convention Center. When the people at the Convention Center were finally rescued, he was taken to Atlanta and died the next day. But Jacques-Imo’s lives on, too.
Because the food in New Orleans is key to the city. It takes more than a flood to wash it way. And if you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, or just want to do a little armchair traveling, Eat Dat is a great read.
[Want a copy of Eat Dat? I’m giving one away on my blog today, where I’m explaining the difference between Cajun and Creole food! Leave a comment here or there. Do you have a favorite NOLA restaurant? Or have you tried any Cajun or Creole dishes?]