EATING THE SOUTH – THOUGHTS ON FOOD AND DRINK FROM CHICAGO TO NEW ORLEANS – PART II

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As if char-broiled oysters weren’t enough, we walked the 10 blocks or so over to Cochon Butcher for alligator bites and an oyster bacon sandwich.

I could go on and on about the oyster bacon sandwich. It’s one of the few exquisite food experiences I’ve had in my life. Like basil and and tomato or ginger and bourbon, bacon and oysters are perfect lovers.

It was so sunny we opted to sit outside, and it was warm enough to entice us to order a big glass of something cold and California, of the Chardonnay variety.

The alligator bites were much more tender than I thought, though I cannot get the image of chicken or pork out of my mind when I eat that exotic animal.

Still, they tasted so good with a spicy pepper sauce, that you would not have thought we just ate a dozen raw and char-broiled oysters.

It’s New Orleans, and you cannot eat enough fast enough to truly experience it.

By the time the oyster bacon sandwich arrived, I was starting to feel full. But the first bite made me well up with tears, as good food tends to do.

I could have stayed at Cochon Butcher all day, but we had a long walk back across the Quarter to our bed and breakfast, and it was quickly turning to nap time, a particular part of vacation I have come to love lately.

We had a lot of food to walk off too.

Bourbon Street still wasn’t hopping, but it was busier than it was that morning. It took us nearly an hour to cross the Quarter, but we crashed hard on Burgundy Street and woke up around 10 p.m. hungry.

Hungry as you can only be after you’ve eaten your fill and then slept on it for  awhile. Hungry like when you eat too much at night and then wake up starving first thing in the morning.

We walked over to Frenchman Street, to the first place with a great Yelp review and ordered a fried shrimp po’boy and an alligator sausage jambalaya.

I must admit I wasn’t expecting much, so when the ridiculously rich jambalaya with perfect, spicy sausages came rolling out, I was completely surprised.

Cheryl ate as much of the po’boy as she could and declared it to be amazing, the best po’boy she’d had so far, but she couldn’t finish it.

I, meanwhile, wolfed down the delightful jambalaya as if I wouldn’t get it again, and I didn’t at least the rest of our time in New Orleans.

After the meals that day, the sinful day of overeating, I thought I’d suffer strange dreams, as I’m sometimes prone to after eating, especially late at night.

But I slept like a particularly happy infant that night, rested and replenished by morning, when we downed a couple of hard-boiled eggs and some pineapple chunks before deciding on a drive out to the bayou.

This is something I do.

I’m learning to vacation more serenely, but my early days would find me studying the map of a new place for every possible thing to do and see.

It’s only through age that I’ve been able to actually relax, to not worry about seeing every monument or having a drink at every hotel frequented by a famous author.

But the Quarter is a bit claustrophobic, and after two days, I needed some sunshine and coastline. Both of which we found traveling north along Chef Menteur Highway.

We turned around at an old fort called Fort Pike State Historic Site.

But it depressed me, because the fort was crumbling into nothingness. It was exacerbated, of course, by Hurricane Katrina, but American craftsmanship sometimes seems to lack foresight and longevity.

Adding to the depressing nature of the drive, we drove back through some seriously hurricane damaged landscape, including the lower Ninth Ward.

All of which worked up an appetite, so we cruised through New Orleans trying to find Mothers on the recommendation of others.

The line looked to be about 45 minutes long, wrapped, as it was, around the side of the building.

We parked for a bit, and I looked up reviews. Locals tended toward the negative, while tourists were full of praise. We opted to trust the locals and went in search of somewhere to eat near the Garden District, so we could walk around the old mansions for a while.

It was in this way we stumbled across Ignatius, a creole comfort food join on Magazine Street designed after the famous protagonist in that great American book “Confederacy of Dunces.”

I wanted one more po’-boy of the fried oyster variety, because one can never have enough oysters when in New Orleans. And Cheryl had a catfish po’-boy, because fish sounded really good to her.

We split our sandwiches in half and shared them, washing them down with a rather unremarkable Bloody Mary with ridiculously good pickled beans.

Then we walked over to the graveyard, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, to be exact. I quickly found the gravesite of H.B. Ferguson, of Plessy v Ferguson, and we shot some photos of the above ground graves while eavesdropping on the tour guides for little nuggets, like the fact that in the summer, bodies are exposed to brick-oven temperatures in those graves.

We hunted for and found Anne Rice’s old house and took a picture of the place where the Manning brothers grew up when their father, Archie, was quarterback of the New Orleans Saints.

All that was left in New Orleans was to try a heaping pile of crawfish.

Unfortunately, this did not work out. Cold weather contributed to a poor harvest of the little crustaceans, and my friend Crystal was unable to find an establishment with a decent amount for a birthday party.

So we ventured out to Metarie to eat at a suburban joint called Mondo, established by Susan Spicer.

It was busy, but I caught up with my old journalist colleague, Crystal Forte and her husband Gino over cocktails in the bar as we waited for a table.

We quickly demolished gulf ceviche, which was particularly cold and fresh, followed by warm gorgonzola with toasted nuts.

I had gnocchi for the first time in many, many years, and they were delightful.

We followed with a rendition of beignets we hadn’t tried yet, drizzled in honey and nuts, ala baklava.

And so we ate New Orleans. And the next morning we passed through, perhaps wishing for some soft-shell crab or crawfish but knowing full-well we’d be back again.

The way home was its own remarkable journey, seeing it as we did in daylight.

So too the ribs and spicy sauce at Dreamland Barbecue in Tuscaloosa, where I inadvertently tried to order a beer on a Sunday.

But the leftovers from Dreamland made a particularly wonderful dinner, washed down with a little bourbon, being as we were in bourbon country for the night.

And finally the pork belly on a stick at Against the Grain Brewing Co. in Louisville, Kentucky, dipped in a thick sorghum sauce crackling and hot with a fine wood-aged pilsner to cleanse the palette.

The in betweens were Starbucks breakfast sandwiches, something that is easily eaten on the road and not half bad with a giant cup of China green tips while driving.

And sunflower seeds, of course, because a road trip would not be a trip without spits.

I long to go back to New Orleans. I’ve fallen in love, as I do, with another city, and though I do not wish to cheat on Chicago, I find myself looking forward to the next possible trip through the beautiful heart of the country to its unique quarters and restaurants and haunts.

– Tim

 

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