Eating in New Orleans is not something you do in order to be able to pursue other activities, but the reverse. Neither religion, sex, nor even politics can compete with food as a topic of conversation. And not just before dinner as the juices flow, either. Pull back the chairs after a four-course groaner at K-Paul’s or Dooky Chase’s and what will the company discuss? Food.
Small wonder, then, that New Orleanians consume more bread, coffee, and alcohol per capita than residents of any other American city. To find another population so addicted to ingestion one has to turn back to Victorian times—perhaps to Dickens’ Pickwick Club, which, incidentally, gave its name to one of the first men’s clubs founded in New Orleans. And that was no accident.
As to the cuisine, fried seafood far outranks everything else, including fast food and Chinese delicacies. Health food is at the very bottom of the list, with a paltry four-tenths of a percent of New Orleanians’ restaurant meals. No wonder the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray called New Orleans “the city of the world where you can eat and drink the most and suffer the least.” This, at least, is what seems to happen.
The only topic that can come close to rivaling food as a subject of conversation is dieting. There is no pill or powder for the reduction of blubber that has not been tested by tens of thousands of New Orleanians. But the addiction to eating is not so easily thwarted. And not just among the affluent. Eddie’s, a modest-looking but distinguished black Creole restaurant in the city’s Seventh Ward, serves portions that demand long periods of the strictest training to handle. And Rocky and Carlo’s, a restaurant-bar across from the sprawling Kaiser Aluminum plant in Chalmette, has created a new race of working men and women who are easily recognized by their absence of necks and waistlines and by their multiple chins. More’s the pity that Mario Gioe, a part owner of Rocky and Carlo’s, was recently put away in an execution-style gangland slaying out on East Judge Perez Drive.
This is not the place to consider the fine points of New Orleans cuisine. The last word on that subject was said in 1903 anyway, by the Times-Picayune in its now reprinted classic cookbook. Let it be noted simply that the city has no indigenous haute cuisine. The finest Creole dishes were—and are—served up in private homes by black Creole chefs, who prepare the same fare for their own families. Grillades in the Garden District taste the same as grillades in Faubourg Marigny. And so does the diet drink the next day.
These comments serve as the introduction to a new series on dining to be featured in OffBeat in the months ahead. S. Frederick Starr is a former New Orleanian currently living in Ohio, where he is president of Oberlin College. A more complete version of his insights into this city’s manners and mores appears in his New Orleans Unmasked, a collection of essays that should be required reading for anyone attempting to comprehend the Crescent City. New Orleans Unmasked is available at local bookstores. Recommended.