Monday, January 24, 2011


The live oak, Audubon Park, New Orleans, 64 degrees, January 2011

"I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they'll have to be quick or else I'll be telling them about mine."
-Dylan Thomas, "Reminiscences of Childhood", 'Quite Early One Morning' (New Directions 1960)

It is reasonable among people who talk passionately about food to want to speak out and create their own versions of the classical--whether it's a Sunday red sauce, a favorite pizza shop in South Philly, or more broadly and ambitiously, a signature narrative of Provence. Travel writers and wayfaring chefs jump from one hot lily pad to the next getting stuffed with local eats, glad handing with with the demigods of the town. Blogs teem with similar--if humbler, versions of these stories. We have rapidly achieved that diminutive state long associated with poets: there are more of these rambling traveloguers than there are folks to read their exploits.

And yet...

I could waste a handsome bit of time digging out my own phantasmal history of New Orleans: Dreams of woozy predawn mornings sweating through white linen suits trying to pick up aging Faulknerian moderns; fantasies of being led by jacketed waiters to dimly lit antebellum dining rooms where the menus are the size of tombstones, and the diners are glistening mobsters who have nothing better to do than leisurely plan revenge killings over etouffee and crab gumbo, and where the oil portrait on the wall of the milk-skinned debutante in velvet and pearls hangs solely to give patrons a visual image of the ghost overturning coffee cups and ruffling the skin on their necks with goosebumps.

Of course some of my preconceptions weren't so grandiose. I always wanted a real fried po' boy, oysters and beer, to hear rambunctious dixieland in the French Quarter, and get in a knife fight with a mustachioed pimp over the prostitute with whom I was hopelessly in love--a contest that could only end in the absurdity of friendship or death. I'm pleased to say the world I expected was as much as I expected as it was not.

Jacques-Imo's was one of the most ardently recommended stops in the city--for reasons both theatrical and thematic it was our first stop. The house struck an acrobat's balance of flavorful hometown grub and bombastic tourist-salving hospitality. If you place Jacques-Imo's in the once-in-a-great-while column it works best. The appetizers were Gibraltar-scale entities of dense creamy carbohydrates and steamy, running milkfat.

To cheat any one dish of its spectacular flavors would be a crime, all the same the sinful appeal of overindulgence quickly ran to the profane. The widely lauded shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake was an impressive savory reboot of the sweet classic. And full disclosure, coming as the first hot bites to so expediently hit our table, it was an enticing and colorful overture. Paired with the comparably substantial fried grits with tasso shrimp sauce the enigma of cheesecake quickly dimmed in caloric malaise; we had ordered additional courses and were already growing dizzy seeing our reflections in the stolid pools of the paprika-hued cream sauce still before us. All the fabled elements of the region's singular pantry were on hand: smoky tasso, creamy fried grits, alligator, blackened redfish, glorious catfish. Somehow in execution the decadence overtook the subtlety and spirituality of these things.

I wonder, too, if it wasn't the flashy disarray at Jacques-Imo's, the noisy intimacy, that didn't in some way encumber the experience. The walls were bunched with crooked-framed paintings of tilting French Quarter jazz clubs, and the canting horns-men on their stages. Feral purples and cultural cliches. No right angles. Behind the artworks and upon the tablecloths laid even more disorienting patterns and themes all suggesting an air of joyful chaos. Tables were scalloped, one upon the other, and the spiderweb of cross-cutting conversations was a hefty meal unto itself. If we had only closed our eyes, plugged our ears, and asked the kitchen to please hold the cream that sends so many hungry shutterbugs and daytripping gluttons into elated food comas it might have sustained a feast of that magnitude. We left dizzy, fat and inexplicably happy, though perhaps for reasons yet to come.

There is great purpose in the dizziness of New Orleans. It is an aesthetic tenet of the landscape, and a living exposition of how the city has evolved, devolved and survived. I quickly came to the realization that as much as I romanticized the ten-ton plate of New Orleans the reality would have to be something much more mundane.

You can find particle board-shuttered shacks alongside magnificent cotton candy colored city mansions. Umber cadavers of dormant banana trees ("those trees aren't dead", one woman corrected me while raking leaves, "they just want you to think they're dead") shed leviathan scales onto mint lawns. A pile of bmx bikes rises in the front yard of a blighted habitation--a crack house, a squat? But how to explain the burgeoning well-loved rose bushes at rich intervals across the property? It's as if there was a prehistoric consensus to abide in irregularity and counter-intuition--thereby assuring singular beauty and camouflaging the ages of distress and hardship.

St. James Cheese Company is not something you necessarily have to go to New Orleans to find. We're a spoiled global market--at this point you can buy Manchego at Wal-Mart. Yet it's a destination all the same. Their cases are piled with imaginative showings from Spain, France, Britain and Italy. Their American cheeses dote on the eccentric little guys, the craft producers with seldom heard-of varieties. As spreads go it's impressive but by no means unheard of. No, what made St. James such an essential stop was the curatorial finesse they showed us: Chalkboards hawked ploughman's lunches, salumi boards and other delirious offerings from their cases--a slab of Membrillo quince paste roughly the size and aspect of a '65 Lincoln Continental adressed my adoring senses with such proprietary force that I nearly ordered a Zamorano grilled cheese just to spread the amber confection on the crust in spite of the king's ransom of dairy I'd already binged.

Pain perdu with Zamorano custard, Iberico ham and radish sprouts with Turkish apricot chutney.

Initially we went for an old favorite of mine, the slender remains of a plump heel of La Delice du Bourgogne with crushed Marcona almonds and clover honey. To detract nothing from the cheesecake previously mentioned this a la carte concoction could easily be my favorite after dinner sweet. Sharing a slim pine plank with diaphanous feathers of Iberico ham, Paprika-colored Ibores and a magnificently silken duck pate there was a Wagnerian bombast of sensation that fostered the brimming delicacies without ever blurring their ethereal distinctions. We tried aged Gruyere, a pewter Cabrales so gloriously rancid it could strip the Christianity from a nun's clasping hands. In their cool alcove--a January that to my senses felt so much more like May, we caught an alerting nudge of the spring thaw in each of the senses.

I would go back for more of the ham and some Zamorano for our breakfast on my final day. I think I felt as miserably indulgent visiting them on that last stop as I did doing the dishes after we ate our gainly breakfast. There is a chromatic intelligence to the traces of rusty pork on a plate that tell you the magnitude of all that passed. History occurs in hiccups and glares.