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Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans’

How strange it was to be in a food mecca like New Orleans, choking down watery egg product and undercooked chicken sausage in a conference room with no windows. That was really the only bad meal I had, though…well, except for the undercooked steamed chicken breasts…But I managed to eat well anyway. Anyone who knows me knows I always do.

The first night I hopped off the plane and hightailed it over to nearby Cochon, about which I had heard raves from many trusted folk of fine taste buds. Although the presentation was nouvelle, the flavors were old-fashioned basic Cajun/southern and a real pleasure to the palate. See this post for more details. And my tight budget wasn’t dented much by Cochon, either, like the Antoine’s or August that I wanted to try; my total bill was $36 for appetizer, entree and two beers.

The following morning a continental breakfast of breads, yogurt and fruit was served as part of the roundtable discussions I attended, then that night there was a delightful reception offering much of Louisiana’s best, set amid lively live music and brisk breezes off the river. I got lost and got there 45 minutes late, so I may have missed some of it–the Sazeracs and Hurricanes were long gone–but standouts were Leah Chase’s sumptuous gumbo z’herbes with nine greens and a light roux, Ms. Chase told me, plus another excellent gumbo, a fine jambalaya, a divine bacon-wrapped shrimp over grits, a garlicky heads-on “barbecue” shrimp with bread for dunking (barbecue shrimp never sees a grill, is doused in generous quantities of butter and broiled–with fresh local gulf shrimp it can be exquisite–more on that later) and a couple of freshly shucked oysters (briny nirvana). A man pounded file powder from fresh sassafras leaves in a huge mortar and pestle and other local food artisans demonstrated the frying of calas, the making of brown-sugar/pecan pralines, the pouring of excellent local beer, and roux-crafting (light, medium and dark in cast-iron skillets with bread for dunking and tasting the difference).

The next morning was the above-mentioned breakfast from hell, but the consolation prize followed soon afterwards at my first panel of the day, a tasting of Southeast Asian street food with a delightfully fresh and balanced green papaya salad from Mai Pham and a spicy chicken satay from Robert Danhi. That night I went on a tour of the yet-unopened Southern Food and Beverage Museum that was supposed to end with a po-boy from Mother’s. But perhaps the 50 of us would have been too much for Mother’s, so we were led instead to Creole Delicacies at Riverwalk (a two-story mall) where we listened to an warm, funny local cook tells us New Orleans stories while we ate crispy crawfish croquettes and rich gumbo and she cooked and served us the best Bananas Foster I have ever had, or made, ever.

Friday night was the IACP awards ceremony, which was preceded by a cocktail reception where I planned to pig out on hors d’oeuvres and make a meal of it. However, other than some shrimp in sauce and a lot of crudites, most of what was on offer was sweet (I saw someone munching a lovely-looking lamb chop but couldn’t find them anywhere). So after the awards I was still hungry and went downstairs to dine at Drago’s which is part of the hotel but was originally opened in Metairie in 1969 by a Croatian immigrant. Fortunately, I ran into a couple of fellow conference attendees that I knew, so I didn’t have to eat alone. I had Drago’s charbroiled oysters, which were a tad gritty but otherwise good (butter, parmesan cheese, garlic and lots of tall flames), then a pretty good redfish with creamy crawfish sauce.

The next day was the culinary expo and cookbook signing which I preceded with a wonderful meal at Dooky Chase’s with some colleagues. The restaurant isn’t truly officially open yet, still getting up on its knees after Katrina, but will serve you lunch if you call ahead, since they’re understaffed and still struggling. But the place oozed history, was gilded with absolutely gorgeous African-American art, and the food was perfection–I had a moist fried chicken breast that put to shame any I’ve ever made, with some delectable greens and macaroni and cheese (my favorite “vegetable”) on the side.

Stuffed as I was, I didn’t stop, and kept on tasting at the Expo. I tried John Besh’s Creole Shrimp Salad with Louisiana Pickled Quail Eggs at the Zatarain’s booth, Rachel’s yogurt, Tabasco’s spicy Bloody Mary with pickled okra, an array of unctuous nut oils like pistachio and pecan from La Tourangelle and much more.

The next day was the last and thanks to my crappy cell phone I missed a chance to go to Willie Mae’s Scotch House, but I did get to go to Cafe du Monde for perky chicory cafe au lait and fluffy, crispy, oh-so-sugary beignets, twice in the same day, wearing a black shirt like the rube that I am–it got covered in powdered sugar. That afternoon I wandered all over the French Quarter, got kicked out of Acme Oyster House for not waiting in line (Line? Line? I thought it was just people outside smoking) but went on to have a perfect meal at the French Market Cafe on Decatur Street: a half dozen oysters on the half shell, at once chewy as a clam and creamy as pudding, metallic, tangy, sweet and swimming in their own tears in pearly tubs–I could have eaten three dozen. But better still was my “barbecue” shrimp, a mountain of huge heads-on shrimp bathed in butter and spice with bread for dunking, their sweet flesh succulent and delicate as a fine-textured lobster, the head-fat nearly funky as a crawfish’s and full of character, sometimes enriched with a nugget of coral or tomalley. Oh heaven, these shrimp, putting all other shrimp to shame. I tried so hard to “exercise restraint,” as my father used to advise me, but to no avail. I left only a pond of golden butter, a crust of bread and a heap of picked-clean pink shells.

No muffelettas for me this trip, no po-boys, no Sazeracs, no pompano crabmeat meuniere, but that’s okay (my last trip I got to eat at Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s). I will be back. The Big Easy has burrowed forever under my skin. I’ve eaten very well in New York, L.A., Paris, Rome, Saigon and Bangkok, but never better than the city where they really know how to eat, in spite of paralyzing storms, that great wise voodoo queen New Orleans.

Did you go? Have you been? What did you eat?

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Warning: this post contains shameless namedropping.

I’ve barely dusted the beignet sugar off my sunglasses and have had barely a minute to breathe since I flew home yesterday, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the conference before I forget it all. House filth and work projects (many more since the conference) will have to wait …

Wow! Was it good for me? It was great, surpassing my expectations on so many levels–I’m jealous of myself!–professionally rewarding, endlessly inspiring and just plain fun.

The general sessions were moving and entertaining, and the seminars I selected mostly fascinating and educational. I attended two intimate roundtables at The Experts Are In, one on Perfecting the Pitch and the other Agent as Advocate (“Avoid Alliteration,” we were Advised). Then on to Southeast Asian Street Food: Rhythmic Sounds and Flavors (yum, a tasting of green papaya salad and chicken satay), The Future of Food Media: Video Blogging and Food Web TV, Environmental Responibility in Cookbooks, Magazines and Newspaper Food Sections (much more interesting than I thought it would be thanks to the erudite Russ Parsons of the LA Times), Have Laptop, Will Travel: How to Get Your Culinary Travel Stories into Print, and Memories You Can Taste: The Art & Craft of the Food Memoir.

For a semi-isolated writer, it was invigorating and intense to come face to face with so many people as into food as I am. “These are my people!” one attendee exclaimed. Although I’m shy by nature, there was an atmosphere of friendliness and talk-to-your-neighbor; the already-wildly-successful people I talked to were just as approachable as the ones just starting out in the biz.

Although there were over a thousand people there (I can revise this when IACP gives us a headcount), I tended to run into the same ones over and over because the Food Writers, Editors & Publisher’s Section is relatively small (not sure how many of us were represented there). I regret that I didn’t get to meet John T. Edge, writer extraordinaire and founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, although a couple of his intimates told me “We call him John T.” and “That man is an angel on earth,” which I tend to agree with after a very kind handwritten letter he wrote me a couple years back. I got to see him close-up though, along with Bruce Aidells and Rick Bayless (I am a self-admitted food groupie). I wanted to meet Crescent Dragonwagon, who knows both my parents, and Tanya Steel, who runs epicurious.com and with whom I have a mutual friend. I would have liked to meet conference Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Jessica Harris as well, since I’m a big fan and have some of her wonderful cookbooks (Iron Pots & Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking, The Africa Cookbook, Tasting Brazil), and although the opportunity didn’t come up I got to listen to her deliver a stunningly moving talk about the rhythms and food of New Orleans.

I also got to glean the wisdom of Mr. Paul Prudhomme, Victoria von Biel and Kristine Kidd of Bon Appetit, Dana Bowen of Saveur, bloggers Ed Levine of seriouseats.com, Pim Techamuanvivit of Chez Pim, and Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan of thekitchn.com.

I was also blessed to meet personally authors Kathleen Flinn (author of The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry and the FWE&P section’s brand new chair), Irena Chalmers (a former IACP president, CIA prof and extremely prolific author who lives near me), Antonia Allegra (director of The Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier), Russ Parsons, Mai Pham, Nancie McDermott (full disclosure: she was already a friend), Jill O’Connor, Fred Thompson, Judy Bart Kancigor, Robin Asbell, Suvir Saran (I’m still laughing), Pableaux Johnson, Fred Plotkin, Nick Malgieri and Ken Albala, winner of the Jane Grigson Award for Beans: A History. I sat next to Cynthia Nims at the awards ceremony but didn’t realize it was her until the next day when she introduced herself at a panel. I met literary agents Lisa Ekus-Saffer and Larry Weissman, magazine editors Lisa Gosselin of Eating Well, Gretchen VanEsselstyn of Chile Pepper, Todd Coleman of Saveur, Charla Draper of Southern Living, Editor Lorna Reeves and Food Editor Betty Terry of Taste of the South, bloggers Danielle Wiley of foodmomiac.com, Judith Klinger of AromaCucina.com, fellow writers Lia Huber, Cheryl Sternman Rule and Lesley Jacobs, made new friends Cynthia L., Kat G. and Polly A. (who lives only 20 minutes from me!) and met several charming restaurateurs, food stylists and cooking school owners and teachers.

I loved New Orleans, had been there once before ten years ago and was so glad to be back. But I’m going on too long already and will have to save my experiences with her food and music for next time. Yes, New Orleans is a she. A grand lady, venerable, ample and weathered, yet exotic and charmingly irresistible. As soon as you leave her house, shutting the door gently behind you, you begin to count the minutes until you can return. A couple years ago she broke both arms in a tragic accident, but she’s on the mend, ever optimistic and indomitable.

I heartily encourage you to join IACP if you’re not already a member, or if you are a member, go to a conference if you possibly can (I had to cash in some ancient stock to do it). If you are, and went, did you find it rewarding? Was it worth the trip? Post a comment and let me know how it was for you.

Coming soon: blog posts on Katrina’s Aftermath and What I Ate

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