Oysters and Crawfish Juice: Eating and Drinking New Orleans

Oysters and Crawfish Juice: Eating and Drinking New Orleans

It was my mistake to forget that I had arrived in New Orleans on a Saturday night. To me, it was a normal day, in which I had spent the morning in New York City before hopping on a plane with my Roommate Natasha for spring break travels to the land of the south. New Orleans has been on the top of my list for as long as I can remember. I have always been curious about the architecture, voodoo culture, haunted histories, and the vibrant music scene I had heard so much about. Let’s not forget the French and African influenced Cajun and Creole cuisine as well as the mountains of affordable seafood that I was anxious to consume in mass quantities.

Yes, Natasha and I had prepared, we spent a few months planning the trip, a few days packing, and a few hours dieting in anticipation of the fragrant fish boils and spicy stews awaiting our bellies. We arrived in New Orleans on what seemed to be any normal day of the week, and prepared for a calm first evening out with the idea of dinner and drinks in mind.

We stayed in the neighborhood of Treme, known as a rather rough part of town, but it was also close to many of our desired destinations. Besides, New Orleans in its entirety is not known for being the safest of cities. Natasha and I arrived and were immediately greeted on the balcony by two of my closest friends from my time spent in Florence, Grant and Rian. I could not be more excited to take the city by storm with my best allies by my side. We wasted no time and hopped in a cab with a goal in mind but no destination. We simply asked our driver to leave us at his favorite spot for crawfish. That is how we ended up at the French Market.

While it was clear that the cab driver had pegged us as tourists and dropped us off in a destination targeted towards that crowd, we didn’t mind at all because the moment we opened our cab door our nostrils were assaulted by the spicy aroma of boiled crawfish and sausages hanging in the humid air. Our first meal consisted of a three-pound crawfish boil with corn, potatoes and sausage. Natasha and I also ordered a platter of grilled frogs legs, alligator stew, and shrimp etouffee over rice. The frog’s legs were phenomenal but I could do with or without the gristly alligator. We washed it all down with an Abita Amber Ale, the local beer of NOLA.

After dinner, we decided to take a stroll through the French Quarter. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the neighborhood is fairly small. We came to this realization because it only took us about ten minutes to stumble upon the infamous Bourbon street. It was a Saturday night in New Orleans and the streets were alive, and not just because of the people.

I instantly fell in love with the French Quarter. The neighborhood is filled with brightly colored, narrow buildings, all with their own wrought iron balconies overlooking the cobblestone roads. On this particular evening, the sidewalks hummed with life. Music rang out from every bar and outdoor performers played everything from violins to brass instruments. People hung out from the balconies, dangling beads with the promise of a reward for some promiscuous behavior. I was instantly reminded of the prohibition and vaudeville era. We decided to start with a “hand grenade to go”, which I found out is essentially a green cup of sugar and some alcohol, but mostly sugar. I decided not to purchase said drink but I did partake in the “fishbowl hurricane” because I was told that you cannot leave New Orleans without walking down the streets drinking a hurricane. Been there done that, I gave mine away after a few sips of the drink, which was clearly overly sweetened to cover up the alcohol.

During the next five days, I made it my mission to consume as many traditional Louisiana specialties as possible. One day, we spent the entire afternoon oyster bar hopping. I was most excited about this moment! I had heard so much about the mountains of cheap and delicious oysters that one could consume in New Orleans. Imagine my disappointment when I asked the server what type of oysters they had, to which he enthusiastically responded that they carried two types, raw and charbroiled. When I rephrased my question and explained that I was wondering where the oysters were from, he replied by saying he didn’t understand the question. As it turns out, all oysters in New Orleans are from the gulf area and are pretty bland in flavor, unlike the subtle variances in depth and flavor for east and west coast oysters. I decided to skip the raw oysters and opted instead for charbroiled. They were fantastic! The shucked oyster was covered in butter, breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese then baked until golden. They were served with bread and when I bit into the oyster it melted into my mouth, the creamy texture of the oyster contrasting with the sharp taste of the cheese and crunch of the bread crumbs.

Other noteworthy moments included the hearty red beans and rice, rich jambalayas filled with shrimp and sausage, loaded gumbos, and fried green tomatoes over shrimp and grits. One night, I had tacos from a little stand in the back of a bar while I listened to a lively brass band. I had also always wanted to try turtle soup because my family has told me old stories about my grandfather’s recipe. I got the chance at a restaurant called the Palace Café. The turtle meat was fine, it could have been turkey; soup reminded me of a very aromatic minestrone due to the herbs and sherry.

One meal that was disappointing for me was the po’boy. Everyone said to try one and followed it with the comment “it’s all about the bread”. I must not have had a po’boy with good bread or something because the sandwich just didn’t do it for me. I ordered a half and half po’boy, oyster and soft-shell crab. I do not understand what is so enticing about fried seafood on white bread with mayonnaise; a lot of carbs with only a little flavor. In fact, I was very surprised to see what a high percentage of the seafood was served fried. Why rid something as refreshing as seafood and shellfish of all of its natural flavor in lieu of breadcrumbs and grease?!

One day, I got my tarot cards read and ended up getting into a two-hour conversation with the woman who owned the shop. She was an expert on voodoo and occult religion but her passion is cooking and I left with a host of recipe suggestions along with the insistence that I buy Paul Prudhomme’s spice mixes. She told me that if I ever need anything, just call her down in New Orleans and say “Mimi, mail me some remoulade!”.

The people of New Orleans continued to amaze me. Everybody had the southern charm I had always heard about, but they were also a little eccentric and edgy. Every morning, our natural alarm clock was the sound of a man driving down the street in a hand-painted pick-up truck, shouting his daily goods over a loud-speaker. “I have pineapple!! I have spinach!!” The first morning, I actually thought it was someone’s alarm clock, but when I realized it was the sound of fresh fruit coming my way I jumped out of bed and chased the man down the street without even taking the time to button my pants. That morning we dined on fresh oranges and an egg scramble.

On our last night, we dined on a feast of boiled crab legs and shrimp and finished the evening at the country’s oldest bar, Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop.

The entire week was filled every minute with new experiences and adventures to share, so many that I must save some of the moments to organize in a “Best of New Orleans” post. This gives only a taste of what I saw, smelled and devoured while exploring the rough and rich city of New Orleans. The Slap Yo Mama Cajun seasonings and complex rice dishes doused in savory seafood sauces have been haunting my dreams since I left and I am excited to add one more cultural influence to my own cooking at home.

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